The Nike Vaporfly sneakers have been helping elite athletes run faster and break records since 2017.
This is how sports science journalist Alex Hutchinson found himself in Italy in May 2017 watching Olympic runner Eliud Kipchoge attempt to become the first person to run 26.2 miles, the length of a marathon, in under two hours.
“The time on the clock was faster by a huge chunk than anyone had ever done before. And that was just baffling to see. It changed my perceptions — and I think a lot of other people’s perceptions — of how fast a person can move his or her legs over that distance,” Hutchinson tells host Arielle Duhaime-Ross on this episode of Reset.
Kipchoge didn’t quite make it that time. But he did beat the under-two-hour record on October 12, 2019, in Vienna. Both times, he was wearing Nike’s high-tech Vaporfly shoes.
In fact, Nike estimates that runners who wear their Vaporfly shoes are 4 percent more efficient. Even the New York Times confirmed that amateur marathoners who use the shoes really do run a few percentage points faster.
“People wearing those shoes have absolutely dominated major marathon races around the world. The five fastest men’s marathons in history have all been run in the last 13 months, all by runners wearing Vaporflys. Not just all-time greats who are running fast, the top runners are running faster than anyone ever has before,” Hutchinson explained.
But if these shoes are helping athletes like Kipchoge push the limits of what we think is humanly possible, should athletic regulators be concerned that they’re also giving runners an unfair advantage? And should the shoes be banned from the sport?
“If they’re improving performance because they’re lighter and because there’s really good foam, that strikes me as quite fair. If they’re improving performance because of the carbon fiber plate, which is you increasing your rebound when you run on the road, that’s more complicated,” Nick Thompson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, says later in the episode.
Thompson finished the 2019 Chicago Marathon in 2 hours, 34 minutes and estimates he’s run five marathons while wearing a pair of Vaporfly sneakers.
Hutchinson had a different idea:
“If [regulators] don’t act soon, it’s gonna be too late because the world records are going to keep dropping. And then they’re gonna be in a situation where if they try and restrict it then all the [record] times in the last five years have been run on “illegal shoes.” So the clock is ticking if they’re going to restrict this in any way.”
Listen to their entire discussion here. We’ve also shared a lightly edited transcript of Hutchinson’s conversation with Duhaime-Ross below.
You don’t often get to watch someone try to do something that’s never been done before. But a few weeks ago, millions of people across the world did just that. Eliud Kipchoge, a 34-year-old runner from Kenya, attempted to become the first person to run the length of a marathon — 26.2 miles — in under two hours.
Kipchoge’s run didn’t meet the standards of a conventional race. He wasn’t competing against anyone. And he had a rotating pack of runners with him to block the wind and set the pace. But what you have missed is what was on Kipchoge’s feet.
Eliud Kipchoge ran in Nike’s Vaporflys, a high-tech line of shoes that are helping elite athletes like him run faster and push the limits of what we think is humanly possible. Just a few years ago, running a marathon in two hours was unthinkable. Alex looked into it for an article he wrote for the magazine Runners World in 2014.
My conclusion in that piece was that it was possible and it would happen sometime around 2075.
Alex came up with that date based on how slowly the marathon record had fallen over the last few decades. But Nike didn’t see things that way because in 2016 it announced an ambitious project.
Called Breaking 2 [as in, breaking the two-hour marathon time]. They were trying to engineer the circumstances to allow someone to run a sub two-hour marathon, which at the time seemed like a pipe dream. But they revealed that they’d been working on a shoe that they thought would help get them at least part of the way there.
Initially people in the running community saw it as an expensive publicity stunt.
They brought dozens of the best runners to their labs, tested them to see who would be a prime candidate for doing this, [and] picked the best three.
They booked a Formula One track in northern Italy at a place called Monza, which had a loop that they felt would be optimal in terms of the flatness, the altitude, oxygen levels, temperature, humidity. And they hired dozens of the world’s best runners to act as pacemakers. They didn’t schedule a date for this race. They scheduled a launch window.
And until a day or so before the race, nobody knew exactly when it was going to start because they were watching the weather forecasts to get everything optimal. So they were thinking, how can we make this race as fast as possible?
Nike’s secret weapon to shave three minutes off the world record eventually got a name. The Vaporflys.
So this was in May 2017. And three runners going for it. Before the halfway mark, two of the runners had already fallen off pace. There was a real sense of emerging panic that this thing is going to fizzle out pathetically without even coming close.
But one guy, Eliud Kipchoge, who is the reigning Olympic champion, stuck with the pacemakers and got to about 20 miles into the race. And people started to nudge each other saying, “Oh, my God, I think he’s going to do it.”
And then at that point, he just subtly started to bleed a few seconds here and there. And he ended up drifting off and running two hours, zero minutes, and 25 seconds.
So he was less than a second per mile off, but two-and-a-half minutes faster than the world record at the time. But the time on the clock was faster by a huge chunk than anyone had ever done before. And that was just baffling to see. It was really, you know, it changed my perceptions and I think a lot of other people’s perceptions of how fast a person can move his or her legs over that distance.
Kipchoge didn’t make sub-two. But he still ran the length of a marathon faster than any other human had before. And the run brought a lot of attention to the Vaporflys. People started to think these things might actually work.
Nike commissioned a study that showed that runners who wear them are 4 percent more efficient. Meaning, all else being equal, they burn about four percent less energy when they wear them. The New York Times also weighed in. Using publicly available running data, it confirmed that amateur marathoners who use the shoes really do run a few percentage points faster.
I said that the Vaporfly was introduced in early 2017, but that’s not the first time people wore them in competition. In fact, once Nike had these prototypes and they were pretty sure that they worked, they started giving out these prototypes that were disguised to look like other shoes to other runners in early 2016, to some of their select sponsored athletes.
And that included at the US Olympic marathon trials, where two of the women who qualified for the Olympic Marathon team were wearing them. And then at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, the top three finishers in the men’s marathon were all wearing these disguised prototypes of a shoe that no one had ever heard of.
And the winner of the women’s marathon was also wearing a disguised prototype of these shoes. Now, the runners who were wearing them were very, very good. So at that point, no one could determine, were they winning the Olympics because they were very good or because they were wearing the shoes?
But it left a very sour taste in the mouth of a lot of people, particularly those who came fourth in those races, saying, “Hey, there are these shoes that reputedly make people a couple of minutes faster and they beat me by a minute. That’s not fair.”
And since then, people wearing those shoes have absolutely dominated major marathon races around the world.
By the time Kipchoge started prepping for his second attempt at sub-two, the Vaporflys were everywhere. The launch window was set for mid-October 2019. And instead of the isolated Italian race track that Nike had used, Kipchoge’s course would take him through the crowd-lined streets of Vienna.
But the big thing is that he has a new pair of shoes. It’s not just the Nike Vaporflys that he introduced at Breaking 2 two years ago. It’s a new prototype that nobody really knows much about other than some stuff leaked in a patent filing.
There’d been a few rumors, but nobody had seen the shoes until the day before the race. Nike finally put out a press release of him standing there with the shoes so that everyone could get a good look at them. And that was the first point when people [noticed] those are really different. They look like moon boots and they’ve got these pods. They’re even bigger and thicker and stranger and crazier than the previous ones.
[Not including Kipchoge’s sub-two run] the five fastest men’s marathons in history have all been run in the last 13 months, all by runners wearing Vaporflys, several of them by people who I’ve never even heard of and whose names I can’t remember, which is, you know, I’m a serious track geek. So it’s not just all-time greats who are running fast. The top runners are running faster than anyone ever has before. And now the women’s world record was the one record that hadn’t fallen in the Vaporfly era. And now it has.
So how do these shoes work? And is wearing them fair?