In the 1960s, when traditional athletics tracks were replaced by spongy, synthetic surfaces, endurance sports experienced a revolution. Remote The runners started going much faster on the synthetic tracks, breaking several world records in the process.
Today another revolution is underway: the development of the so-called “super shoe”, which causes a further record increase in endurance sports. The new shoe technology was introduced in 2016 for road racing and in 2019 for distance running. Since these key dates, practically all world records in long-distance running from 5,000 m to the marathon have been broken.
This has divided opinion in the athletics world, with some arguing the shoes are unfair while others arguing that they are like synthetic running tracks: an inevitable leap in technology for endurance athletes to benefit from.
Research in sports biomechanics helps explain exactly what happens in these shoes. While super shoes are clearly disrupting old records, some of which have been in existence for decades, this technology should simply be seen as just another entry in the sport’s long list of performance-enhancing innovations.
The new shoes from Nike
At the 2016 Olympic Marathon, all three male medalists climbed onto the podium in the same shoes. It was a Nike prototype that was later published as “Nike Vaporfly 4%” and is now almost ubiquitous on the feet of elite roadrunners.
Then, in 2019, similar super shoe technology hit the track and field. A number of Nike sponsored athletes wearing the Nike prototype spikes ran amazingly fast.
The performance enhancement that both types of super shoes offer – the trainer and the spike – is achieved by improving the athletes’ running economy, which means lowering the energetic cost of running at a given speed.
The original Vaporfly improved the running economy of highly skilled runners by around 4% compared to a control marathon shoe – hence the nickname 4%. In practice, this corresponds to a rough improvement in mileage of between 2% and 3%.
The new super shoes are a dramatic improvement over all previous treadmills. ChiccoDodiFC / Shutterstock
The shoes met this requirement. In the years since Vaporfly came up in 2016, the times of the top 50 marathon runners have improved by an average of 2%. For the 50 best female marathon runners, that number was closer to 2.6%. It is believed that Nike’s track spikes will also give athletes a significant boost in running.
There are several shoe features behind this increase in performance. This includes the weight of the shoe, its material composition, the thickness of the heel and the so-called “bending stiffness in the longitudinal direction”, which simply means how flexible the shoe is from heel to toe.
The inclusion of a carbon fiber board, which runs from the heel to the toe, into the foam sole of the Vaporfly was that Make the headlines Innovation. These plates are actually not a new concept, but their specific blade shape will count towards the latest performance upgrade. It creates a “wobble” effect that effectively helps the runner return energy every time their foot hits the ground.
The Vaporfly also uses PEBA foam, which stores much more energy from foot hits and returns more energy to the runner than the TPU and EVA materials traditionally used in coaches. PEBA foam is also lighter: the Vaporfly weighs around 50 g less than previous competitors.
After all, the heel thickness of the shoe of up to 40mm is about 10mm thicker than that of other racing shoes. This is partly to accommodate the other technology in the shoe and partly to increase the leg length of the wearer, which helps save energy. The above features likely formed the basis for Nike’s new track spikes as well.
Nike’s new shoes aren’t the only technological, science-based measures that are bringing “marginal gains” to the world of endurance running.
When Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour marathon barrier in an unofficial race in 2019 and beat his own world record time of 2:01:39, he was wearing super shoes. But everything else – his racing equipment, the track design, his timing and training strategies – has been thoroughly researched and scientifically optimized.
In the video below
Similarly, advanced footwear helps athletes run faster. But other innovative tools – like the wave light stimulation technology used during the world records at 5,000 m and 10,000 m in 2020 – can also contribute to their higher speed.
World Athletics, the governing body responsible for endurance running, issued updated guidelines for shoes in August 2020 that allow heel thicknesses of up to 40 mm for road running shoes and 25 mm for distance running spikes. Many have called for further restrictions.
There are parallels to other sports. The introduction of full-body swimsuits designed by NASA for competitive swimming in 2008 was blamed for the world records that fell that year. The full-body swimsuit was quickly banned, although the technology lives on in a reduced form in today’s swimsuits.
The super shoe arms race will inevitably spread to sprint distances in the near future. New technologies will usher in a new cohort of world record holders. During this process of recalibrating the leaderboard, there should be more emphasis on the results as opposed to the times. After all, regardless of technology, it’s titles that cross generations and medals that last longer than time.
This article by Jonathan Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Sports and Exercise at Teesside University, was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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