Running “Super” Shoes and the Ruthless Breaking of World Records

The running ‘super shoes’ term has skyrocketed over the past few years courtesy of manufacturers’ significant developments of running footwear technology, namely Nike’s Vaporfly (and later Alphafly) innovations which emerged in 2016 – and the sport has never looked back.

Elite athletes such as Eliud Kipchoge have broken records with these exquisitely high-tech shoes in tow (it was the first sub-2-hour marathon in 2019 for him) which begs the question of runner and shoe validity.

The only contact the runner has with the floor is via the shoe. Same with an F1 car – and you cannot hope to win an F1 race with a budget, less-techy-tyre… can you expect the same from a running shoe?

It begs the question, is this running ‘super shoe’ technology enhancing the sport? Or hindering it?

Ethiopia’s Tamirat Tola won the New York City marathon 2023 and smashed the record set 12 years before by 2 minutes… courtesy of an Adidas $500 super shoe.

Tigist Assefa from Ethiopia kissed her Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 shoe after crossing the line in 2 hours, 11 minutes and 53 seconds… beating the record by more than 2 minutes… in what was her second marathon event.

Assefa’s debut race was winning the 2022 Berlin race with what was then the third fastest women’s run in history… thanks to a shoe (and what is, I’m sure, a heck of a lot of training!)

But then, these Adidas super shoes are supposedly designed to last for just one race. So super shoe: friend or foe?

What is a super shoe?

Remember those ultra-light thin-soled shoes traditionally adorned by marathon runners? (or none at all if you’re Abebe Bikila). Well, they’ve been replaced with special chunky foam soles, superb colors and carbon plating.

The carbon offers lightweight support while the foam creates an easier movement onto the toes, elevating stress from the gastroc-muscle complex, saving energy and thus time too. There’s an air of bounce to the shoe-to-ground contact that helps propel you forward with ease.

It’s believed that the benefit of the shoes alone provides as much as four minutes over a marathon among elite runners and even more for recreational runners (sign me up!)

The high-tech design is said to give the average runner (no matter what level or pace you currently sit at) a 3-4% increase in energy saving, meaning it takes 3-4% less effort for you to cover the same distance, hence the four minutes plus time boost.

Examples of such shoe models are:

Who is producing the super shoes?

Although recent history says Nike got the ball rolling in 2016, it was Brooks who released the first carbon fibre-plated shoe, sandwiched in midsole foam and outer rubber in 1989!

But Nike hit the mark with the VaporFly. In fact, runners wearing the Nike super shoes have dominated the marathon distance recently. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, the top three male finishes wore the VaporFly’s. Then in 2019 specifically, Nike’s super shoes occupied 31 of the 36 podium places in the six major marathons.

Just to keep up, non-Nike athletes began wearing the super shoes while their brands worked tirelessly to catch up with the technology. But now, all the big manufacturers have designed their own versions; For the Boston marathon, athletes wearing the Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 3 claimed the top four places in the men’s race. While in the women’s race the relative newcomer to shoes, Swiss brand ON teamed with Kenyan Hellen Obiri and won the race.

It’s become a race within a race for the shoe companies to claim the best new tech – is this obsessive tech race taking anything away from the athlete?

Will super shoe regulation come into play?

Where there is innovation, rules and regulations will follow, which is also true for running shoes. Such advancement rules were updated at the beginning of 2022, six years after Nike got the super shoe rolling.

All manufacturers must conform to a 40mm maximum stack height on the road and 25mm on the track.

With World Athletics keeping a close eye on shoes under further development to not stifle technology progressions, provided they meet the guidelines.- and will permit their use for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

But World Athletics president Seb Coe believes the modern-day shoe is an “age-old challenge” with the current obliteration of records is mainly due to the athletes over the shoe-technology advancement – afterall the 1960’s shoe was better than the 40s and 50s and the 2000s shoe was better than the 80s and 90s – it’s yet another natural progression of technology and development of the sport.

What do the athletes think?

After Assefa’s emphatic victory, she kissed and lifted the Adios Pro Evo 1 shoe above her head stating they’re “nothing I’ve felt before. This is the lightest racing shoe I have ever worn and the feeling of running in them is an incredible experience.

Scottish runner Eilish McColgan already holds British records at 5,000m and 10,000m and could realistically go on to break Paula Radcliffe’s half-marathon and marathon records too in her promising career. Boosted perhaps by the fast she has recently been testing shoes in Japan with Asics.

She said: “It gives a huge benefit from previous old-school racing flats – even with regards to recovering. You don’t know the numbers of what really the percentage differences are – all we know is that everyone has that opportunity. At least we have a super shoe from every brand.
“For a long time, there was just the one … and there was no doubt those athletes were getting a huge boost over everyone else.”

While Kipchoge stated: “The super shoes actually prevent real impact from the tarmac to your muscles. The aim of running is to take care of the muscle and the company came up with those shoes to make sure that as an athlete, you are becoming fit and also taking care of your muscles,”

With all of this development, Sebastian Coe (President of World Athletics) believes we’re seeing another natural progression for the sport.

But how much is too much?

FINA, Swimming’s World Governing body, put a block on competitors wearing high-tech polyurethane and neoprene swimsuits during competition when almost 200 world records were beaten in less than 2 years. They thought the technology was taking something away from the sport and the athletes.

swimming-super-suits

(photo courtesy of Speedo and NASA)

Manufacturers figured out that the more polyurethane the suit had, the less drag was created – giving the swimmers an energetic advantage… just like the super shoe!

With that explanation, how is it any different from the super shoe? Michael Phelps wore a full-body, 50-percent polyurethane swimsuit during the Beijing Olympics, where he won eight gold medals and broke seven world records. And Assefa smashed the Marathon record by 2 minutes in her second-ever shot at the distance.

Is Coe looking to learn from the swim-suit scenario, where the ban came a little too late for some, stating that ‘the damage is done’ to the sport – those record-breaking times still stand today. “Unfortunately, it has rendered its record book worthless,” said veteran sports journalist Christine Brennan in an interview with ABC News.

But Coe reckons he has a handle on the technological advancement when it comes to the running super shoe ahead of the 2024 Olympics. He said: “As a regulatory body, we have to recognise there are balances to be set. It’s the first time we’ve ever had an evaluation process. It’s not perfect, it never will be. But I think, at the moment, it’s about right.

“World records are always being broken,” he added.

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