World records in marathons have toppled like track hurdles in recent weeks. Tigst Assefa, the new women’s record holder, beat the old one by more than two minutes. Kelvin Kiptum, the latest men’s record holder, took 34 seconds off his predecessor’s time. These are astonishing accomplishments. But not everybody is crediting the athletes. Instead, critics argue that Assefa and Kiptum couldn’t have run at top speeds without a new generation of high-performance “super shoes.” Some go so far as to equate the souped-up shoes to performance-enhancing drugs.
The critics are right to note that sports technology enhances human talents. Super shoes, a category that Nike introduced in 2016, utilize a lightweight, bouncy midsole and a rigid carbon fiber plate to create an energy-saving spring-like effect that makes runners speedier. But rather than critique the new shoes, athletes and sports fans should celebrate them. After all, technology has always played a role in competitive running, boosting performance, participation and business opportunities for athletes and non-athletes alike.
At the dawn of competitive running, racers participated naked and barefoot. Fortunately, in the form of shoes (and clothes), technology stepped in to improve comfort and endurance. If anything, grippy, lightweight rubber soles, developed and sold in the 19th century and widely used for running shoes in the 20th century, represent a much bigger performance-enhancing leap than we see today.
Between 1908, when the first marathon world record was documented at an Olympics, and the early 1970s, when a more scientific approach to running shoe development was adopted, the Olympic record in the men’s marathon was slimmed down by about 45 minutes.
Was it just the shoes that accounted for those gains? Probably not. Improved nutrition and training techniques undoubtedly contributed. But in the 1980s, Nike’s in-house research demonstrated that even minor reductions in shoe weight could boost athletic performance and speed. So, naturally, when marathon performance gains are examined, the shoes get outsize attention from fans, athletes and developers.
In 1973, Nike’s “waffle trainers,” with rubber spikes and elevated soles, provided runners with a new, lightweight edge. Their bright, fashionable colors and comfortable fit also sparked a mass market that grew into today’s multibillion dollar athletic shoe industry. And, perhaps most important, they inspired people to get out and run.
Just look at the New York City marathon, for example. In 1970, the race’s first year, 126 people were at the starting line. Last year, that number ballooned to 48,762. During that time, roughly 18% has been shaved off the finishing time of those in the top male and female NYC spots.
From the 1970s to the early 2010s, there were little to no complaints about running sneakers’ performance-enhancing soles. Athletic shoes had become such a ubiquitous fashion obsession that it was easy to take them for granted as technology assists.
Who wants to go back to running barefoot, anyway?
Generally, what people want is help going faster, with comfort. When Nike introduced the first super shoe, the Vaporfly, seven years ago, it was filling a need of a very profitable market. In 2019, Nike credited the sneaker for helping its running shoe market share reach a record high.
Adoption and transformation were quick. In 2019, nearly 90% of the podium spots at the six major marathons were taken by athletes wearing super shoes. And 9 of the 10 fastest marathons of all time women’s and men’s competitions) have been run since 2018.
The new records unnerve longtime members of the running community, especially former elite competitors. A retired British Olympian, Tim Hutchings recently told the Telegraph that super shoes have turned world records into a “devalued currency.” But have they? As impressive as the super shoe era of record-breaking has been, speeds appear to be plateauing around the two-hour mark for marathons. That would seem to indicate human performance and limits still play an important role—and possibly an increasing one—in finish times. In previous decades, when rubber soles and other lightweight materials were being introduced, the speeds were increasing rapidly.
Of course, a company could introduce a new generation super shoe that provides an even greater assist. Nike and Adidas, for example, are competing fiercely to build one. But that competition is constrained by rules limiting what design elements can be entered into competitions associated with World Athletics, the global governing entity overseeing marathons. Restrictions include: a shoe with a sole exceeding 40 millimeters is considered a prototype, and no athlete aspiring to win a marathon will wear one.
If and when they do, elite athletes aren’t the only ones who will benefit. Like earlier advances in running technology, super shoes have gone mainstream. Runners who covet a world record-setting shoe model can acquire one for less than $300. For everyone else, Nike and others have figured out ways to adapt the super shoe’s foam and plate architecture for slower runs and lower prices. And for those who don’t want anything remotely resembling a super shoe, the materials and technological advances that produce a faster marathon could soon contribute to more prosaic shoes, such as orthopedics.
That’s a technology win for the shoe business and for sore feet everywhere.