Nike Vaporfly: The facts, arguments and future!

Larry Lopez · January 20, 2020

For the past 50 years, running shoes have only made small changes and updates in terms of functionality and improving performance. Some advancements in shoe technology have made a small ripple in the running world, but nothing like the tsunami the Nike Vaporfly created. If you look at pictures from major marathons and look at the elite field, you will now be looking at 95% of the top runners wearing a version of the Nike Vaporfly. Nike claims it reduces the energetic cost of running, which will make you run faster. This of course is a huge claim, and will leave many people skeptical. Does this shoe deserve all the hype it’s getting? If so, how much will it help improve your race times?

The Claims:

Since the introduction of the controversial shoe designed by Nike, the Vaporfly 4% has been lab tested and proven to make runners more economical by 4% on average, according to the original study out of CU Boulder in 2017. In 2019 the improved version, the Nike Vaporfly Next% was shown to improve your running economy by closer to 5% on average. This does not mean you will run a 4-5% faster time, but instead means your body uses 4-5% less oxygen to run at a given speed, making you more economical. If you think of it in terms of cars, running economy is basically looking at how fuel-efficient a car is. Would you rather drive a car that gets 30 mpg at 60mph, or drive one that can go 4% faster, but still burn the same amount of fuel?

Originally, many scientists and runners believed this to be more of a placebo effect, accrediting the performance benefits from people wearing them to be more of a psychological advantage. Anytime new technology or new supplements hit the market that claim to make you 4% faster or stronger, other studies come along and disprove their claims, but this isn’t the case with the Vaporflys. Since the original study in 2017 showing the 4% improvement in running economy from the shoe, several other lab tests were done by other companies and researchers that came to the same conclusion; the Nike Vaporfly will allow you to run faster using less effort! This in itself is enough evidence to show the legitimacy of the shoe, but to go along with the dozens of lab tests, marathon times since the birth of the shoe have improved at a dramatic rate.

The Records:

In 1968 the world record for the men’s marathon stood at 2:09:36 by Derek Clayton. By 1988 it had slowly improved to 2:06:50 by Ethiopia’s Belayneh Dinsamo. At the 2008 Berlin Marathon, Haile Gebrselassie set the mark at 2:03:59. It isn’t uncommon for the world record to fall by 3 minutes every 20 years. What is uncommon is for it to drop 2.5 minutes just 10 years. Yet, that’s exactly what happened in 2018 when Kipchoge ran 2:01:39…wearing the Vaporfly NEXT%. In 2014 Dennis Kimetto ran a world record of 2:02:57, before the Vaporfly existed. Just five years later his time is outside history’s top five. The top times now all belong to runners wearing versions of the Vaporfly. This also doesn’t include the 1:59:40 Eliud Kipchoge ran in October, 2019. Although an unofficial time, it would not have been possible without the improved Alpha Fly shoe.

Lastly, along with the men’s recent accomplishments in the Vaporfly, the women’s marathon world record was destroyed by Brigid Kosgei in the Chicago Marathon this year when she ran 2:14:04 in a pair of the Nike Vaporfly NEXT%, beating Paula Radcliffe’s WR by 81 seconds. Radcliffe’s world record was already such an outlier because only 1 other woman has run within 2.5 minutes of Paula’s world record from 2003, then Kosgei beats that by nearly 1.5 minutes. This shows us that people are clearly getting an advantage from wearing the shoe, but how much of an advantage is the real question.

The Facts:

When the shoe first came out, many thought the 4% was how much faster it would make you, but as I just mentioned, it actually increases your running economy by 4% on average. A 4% improvement in oxygen-saving abilities translates to roughly about a 2.6% improvement in time for a 2:03 marathoner. To be safe, let us assume Kipchoge only received half of the performance claim by having a 1.3% improvement in his marathon time from the shoes. You may be thinking 1.3% doesn’t sound like much, but for someone running a 2:02:57 marathon (what the world record was before the introduction of the Vaporfly) that improves their performance by roughly a minute and a half, which is right where Kipchoge’s current marathon world record is from Berlin in 2018.

So, if the shoe is taking off a minute and a half from the top marathoners in the world, we’re basically seeing the same 2:03 guys from 2014 running 2:01xx strictly because of the improvements in shoe technology. Journalist Toni Reavis analyzed men’s marathon times and documented that in 2016 there was 150 times a man broke 2:10 in the marathon throughout the whole year. When he looked at 2019, he documented an astounding 293 cases of a sub 2:10 marathon, showing that the amount of sub 2:10 marathons doubled in 2019 compared to what it was within 2016. As Sports Scientist and Professor Ross Tucker explained, “We bypassed physiology by improving the economy through the use of the shoe.” The shoe basically caused us to make a quantum leap 20 years into the future for marathoning.

A 4% improvement in running economy may not sound like much. Consider though, if you’re a 3:00 hour marathoner in a normal racing flats and run in a pair of Vaporflys you’ll use 4% less oxygen. This would drop your time to a 2:55:19 just from the shoes! Personally, I think a 2:55 sounds much better than a 3 hour marathon! So if you’re really close to a Boston Qualifying time or a new Personal Best, that 4% can mean a lot! Here is a table I created showing how much certain marathon times would improve if the runner were to switch to wearing a Vaporfly. Remember, this is based off of a 4% improvement in running economy, which translates to about a 2.6% improvement in time for a marathon!

The Details:

Racing flats have always been a necessity, especially for elite marathoners. Shoe companies would often struggle trying to find the perfect mixture of cushion and weight, because adding extra foam would increase the weight of the shoe, which would obviously be counterproductive for fast marathon times. So it’s proven that the shoes work, but what is so different about them? Well, there are 3 main things:

1- The foam inside the shoe

2- The carbon fiber plate

3- The stack height

The foam Nike uses in Vaporfly models (created by an aerospace company) is called “ZOOM X.” Most foam in shoes return 65% – 75% of your energy with each step. The ZOOM X foam returns 88% of your energy. The foam is lighter than traditional shoe foams, so you can pack in a larger volume without adding additional mass. All this extra foam is what increases the stack height of the shoe. This in turn allowed Nike to put a curved carbon fiber plate in the middle of the Zoom X foam. So, as your foot hits the ground, energy travels through the foam, then is stored in the carbon fiber plate. This acts as a spring mechanism so the energy can be returned to help you with your forward propulsion. This new form of mechanical doping has changed the way we have to view the recent successes in the marathon.

The Argument:

Many believe the shoe should be banned, especially from elite runners. In the middle of January, World Athletics, the governing body for track and field said they are in discussion about potentially banning this controversial shoe, and they will announce the decision by the end of the month. It’s true, record books have been rewritten since the introduction of the Vaporfly because of the huge advantage it gives. The problem is if you’re not a Nike sponsored athlete and you’re forced to run in a shoe that doesn’t give you this economy boost, it is a clear disadvantage just from wearing a specific shoe, and that could cost elite runners thousands of dollars in race winnings, along with other endorsements and Olympic dreams.

If these shoes are banned, should all the records set in the shoes disappear? Even though runners didn’t have these shoes 5+ years ago, new records should remain valid (even if shoe-aided). Tracks are no longer made from cinder, they’ve upgraded. These upgrades result in faster race times. The improvement in shoes is no different, as long as it’s available to all. Also, without these shoes, running wouldn’t be making the headlines it has. Everyone who follows sports, owns a TV/computer, or gets a newspaper saw headlines of a man breaking 2 hours in the marathon. I’m sure this inspired thousands of people to try running. At the very least it made them fans of Eliud Kipchoge, a win for the sport. The Vaporfly has brought with it global attention. No matter what, reading about the Vaporfly records is better than an article on an athlete busted for taking PEDs.

The Future:

Other shoe companies such as Brooks, Saucony, Asics, and Adidas are releasing their versions of the Vaporfly in 2020. However, with Nikes strict patent on their product, these companies have to find a different process to reach similar results. I am all for innovation as long as the playing field is legal. This means other shoes that release this year to compete with the Vaporfly need to provide the same advantage. This would allow these super shoes to become the new baseline. One shoe should not completely distort race results. We should stop where we are now in terms of shoe technology improvements and keep the Vaporfly 4% and NEXT% legal. However, we should regulate new shoes so we don’t run into this problem in the future when someone attaches rockets to their shoes.

The Conclusion:

It’s clear we’re in a new age of shoe technology because of the mechanical advantage runners are getting from these super shoes. I think this is just the next generation of racing flats, and Nike just happens to be the leading horse. Be prepared, because since the acceleration rate of marathon times since the introduction of the Vaporfly, I believe qualifying times to major marathons, like Boston and New York will make another couple minute jump, making them harder to achieve. So if you’re worried about placing in your age group or hitting those qualification times, its best to adapt to the changes and go get a pair of the Vaporflys. If you still don’t think they make much of a difference, be prepared to basically give everyone else a 3-5 minute head start at your next marathon.

Whether you’re rockin’ the Vaporflys or not, set your own personal records with the help of Charge Running! Get all the live, personalized run coaching you need to maximize your results!

Comments 1

Anonymous · February 12, 2020
thank you for thissss!!!

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