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Explaining athletics’ new performance-enhancing tech

todayMarch 5, 2021 5

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In the 1960s, when traditional cinder athletics tracks were replaced by spongy, synthetic surfaces, endurance running experienced a revolution. Long-distance runners began clocking far faster times on the synthetic tracks, smashing multiple world records in the process.

Today, another revolution is afoot: the development of the so-called “super shoe,” which is driving another spike of record toppling in endurance running. The new shoe technology was introduced to road running in 2016 and track running in 2019, and since those key dates virtually all endurance running world records, from the 5,000m to the marathon, have been broken.

This has divided opinion in the athletics world, with some arguing the shoes are unfair while others argue they’re just like synthetic running tracks: an inevitable technological leap for endurance runners to capitalize upon.

Research in sports biomechanics helps explain exactly what’s happening inside these shoes. While super shoes are clearly disruptive to old records – some of which have stood for decades – this technology should simply be seen as another entry in sports’ long list of performance-enhancing innovations.

Nike’s new shoes

In the 2016 Olympic marathon, all three male medalists climbed onto the podium in the same shoes. They were a Nike prototype, later released as the “Nike Vaporfly 4%,” which are now almost ubiquitous on the feet of elite roadrunners.

Then, in 2019, similar super-shoe technology hit the athletics track. A slew of Nike-sponsored athletes, wearing Nike’s prototype track spikes, began running some astonishingly fast times.

The performance enhancement afforded by both types of super-shoe – the trainer and the track spike – is generated by enhancing athletes’ running economy, which means reducing the energetic cost of running at a given speed.

The original Vaporfly improved the running economy of highly trained runners by around 4% when compared to a control marathon shoe – hence the 4% moniker. In practice, this equates to a rough improvement in running performance of between 2% and 3%.