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Do better shoes help you run faster?

Running shoes are incorporating cutting edge technology to help athletes run faster. But is it really all down to the shoes?

Legendary Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge.
Legendary Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge. (REUTERS)

It’s not just about the shoes. Or is it?

When Eliud Kipchoge ran the first ever sub-2 hour marathon in a controlled environment in Vienna in 2019, it was definitely not just about the shoes. It was about proving that a sub-hour marathon was possible, about pushing human limits. Yes, it was also about innovation in cutting edge shoe design and technology, but it was also about Kipchoge, the supreme athlete, who was the most likely person to be able to achieve the feat. I don’t like the acronym, but you could definitely call him the GOAT. After all, Kipchoge also holds the world record for the fastest marathon with a time of 2hour 01minutes 39seconds that he set in Berlin in 2018.

In the past year alone, the men’s and women’s 5,000m and 10,000m track records have fallen, along with the men’s and women’s 5km, 10km and half-marathon distances on the road. And the month of June turned out to be in a league of its own. Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands set a world record for 10,000m on 6 June, improving on the earlier 2016 record by about 10 seconds in the eastern Dutch city of Hengelo. Hassan’s new record was obliterated just two days later on the same track by Ethiopian runner Letesenbet Gidey who ran into history full 5 seconds faster, at 29minutes 01.03seconds.

Also Read: Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge is a man in constant motion

While all leading shoe brands invest plenty of resources into research and development and design of shoes, Nike has been literally setting the pace for the rest with its clever use of the carbon plate in the soles. Kipchoge, Hassan and Gidey are all Nike athletes. While Kipchoge wore an iteration of the Nike ZoomX Alphafly Next% in Vienna in 2019, Hassan and Gidey wore versions of the Nike ZoomX Dragonfly spikes.

Ethiopia's Letesenbet Gidey broke the women's 10,000 metres world record on June 8, 2021.
Ethiopia's Letesenbet Gidey broke the women's 10,000 metres world record on June 8, 2021. (AFP)

The rate at which world records have tumbled in athletics ever since Nike’s path-breaking carbon plate technology was refined and transferred from the running shoe to the track and field running spikes, it makes one wonder if it really isn’t just about the shoes? And can shoes make you faster?

The simple answer, according to seasoned runner and StoveKraft CEO Rajiv Mehta, is yes. “Yes, I think it can help you run faster,” he says. It’s more than just an educated guess as Mehta was the managing director of Puma India for nine years.

Also Read: For 44-year-old Australian marathon star, age is just a number

Ever since the first Breaking2 effort (a Nike project to break the 2-hour barrier for marathons) at the Monza Formula One race track in Italy in 2017, the interest in Nike’s “fast” shoes has been constant and immense. Seasoned runner and multiple podium finisher Shailja Singh Sridhar has closely followed every development, and shortly after Kipchoge ran the full marathon in 1 hour 59 minutes 40.2 seconds in 2019, she bought herself a pair of the Nike ZoomX Alphafly Next%.

“The carbon plate in the shoes is said to give an unfair advantage, many argue. But the shoes meet all the guidelines and are legit. I was always going to buy a pair to find out for myself if they actually help me get faster and improve my personal record,” says the Bengaluru resident. The Nike ZoomX Alphafly Next% is probably the most expensive running shoes in the market today. In India, it retails for 22,795.

The Nike ZoomX Alphafly Next%.
The Nike ZoomX Alphafly Next%. (Courtesy Nike)

However, just strapping on the shoes won’t flick some switch and make you faster. The shoes don’t work in isolation, says Singh. “You need to be a good runner, put in the hard work and then the shoes can add their bit. As long as you put in the effort, the shoes can help you shave off a few seconds or minutes and could be the difference between a medal and no medal,” she says. “No shoes can suddenly make an average athlete a world class one,” she adds.

One thing that such “fast” shoes most certainly do is give the person wearing them a psychological boost, says Mehta. “I think it’s more mental than physical. If it tells you mentally that you are wearing a pair of shoes that would make you run faster, the body would follow the mind,” Mehta explains.

Meanwhile, if you ever start feeling that it’s all shoes and no athletic ability, you would do well to remember that Usain Bolt remains the fastest man in the world, and he did it all without the current carbon plate technology in his spikes.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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