Nike’s VaporFly Sneakers… Too much of an advantage?

Eliud Kipchoge poses with the record-breaking Nike Vaporfly shoes. [Image credit: ABC News]

Eliud Kipchoge poses with the record-breaking Nike Vaporfly shoes. [Image credit: ABC News]

First, Eliud Kipchoge broke the greatest barrier in long-distance running: the two-hour marathon. A day later, Brigid Koseigi broke the women’s marathon world record with a time of 2:14:01. 

Eliud Kipchoge runs the marathon in a record-breaking time of 1:59:40 on October 12th

The common denominator in these back-to-back breakthroughs?— a pair of sneakers.

In 2016, Nike began the Breaking2 project, creating a line of shoes designed to help athletes run the marathon in under two hours. However, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly sneaker has recently come under scrutiny for posing as a potential threat to the integrity of track and field. Following a month of anticipation, World Athletics announced that the sneakers would be legal in international competition after releasing new regulations on footwear.

In response to the overwhelming amount of athletic success associated with the shoes, the World Athletics organization began an investigation at the end of 2019 with the intent of tightening the sport’s regulations on shoe technology.

The prior rulebook of World Athletics vaguely stated that “any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all,” and that “shoes must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage.”

Brigid Koseigi runs a time of 2:14:01 at the Chicago Marathon on October 13th [Image Credit: World Athletics]
 However, the ambiguity of the rule sparked controversy among athletes, coaches, and fans. In response, World Athletics clarified the rulebook on January 31st, banning any shoe with a maximum sole thickness of more than 40mm and shoes that contain more than one plate.

Being that the Nike VaporFlys have a sole that is exactly 40mm thick, the shoes have been deemed legal for professional runners at any race, including the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Despite the new regulations, the shoes continue to create controversy among runners and spectators alike. Kyle Barnes, a Movement scientist who performed a study on the sneakers, called the shoes a form of “technology doping,” explaining that an athlete wearing the shoes would run a given distance considerably faster than if the same athlete were to run the same distance in a different pair of shoes. 

Eliud Kipchoge on his way to running a sub-2 hour marathon. [Image Credit: Telegraph]
Studies have shown that the VaporFlys increase an athlete’s efficiency by about 4%; The shoes’ foam and carbon-copper plated soles allow runners to maximize forward movement per stride, and the midsoles act like springs, minimizing lost energy and facilitating an athlete’s ability to push off of the ground with each step.

Barnes argued that World Athletics should ban the VaporFlys, establishing stricter rules on gear, such as those that exist in other sports such as swimming and cycling.

Despite the controversy surrounding the sneakers, Nike defended its latest technological innovation. “We respect World Athletics and the spirit of their rules, and we do not create any running shoes that return more energy than the runner expends,” said Nike spokesman Greg Rossiter.

The initial announcement of a potential ban on the VaporFlys took both Nike and the running world by storm. But for now, the Nike VaporFly sneakers will continue to rewrite the record books in the world of long-distance running.