Top athletes may swear by it, but do running shoes make average people faster?
Sportswear brand Nike is a leader when it comes to “super shoes” and has specially designed a pair to help Eliud Kipchoge break the sub-2 hour marathon record. But at a staggering price tag of £240/$300 and up, is it really worth buying a pair of shoes thinking they’ll make you run faster? Is it better to focus on a quality training program and spend your money on one of the best running watches? (opens in new tab) instead of this?
To answer that, it’s important to understand the technology behind the new line of super shoes and whether it stands up to scientific scrutiny.
We spoke to three running experts – Hannah Rice (opens in new tab)Associate Professor of Biomechanics at the Norwegian School of Sport Science, Dr. Sam Allen (opens in new tab)Lecturer in Biomechanics at Loughborough University and Kate Carter (opens in new tab)Running journalist and trainer – to learn more about the impact of shoes on running performance.
Do running shoes make you faster?
In a word, yes. “The evidence is pretty compelling, especially for long-distance running,” says Rice. The technology in certain shoes allows athletes to run at faster speeds while working at the same physiological intensity and using the same amount of oxygen.
“The theory is that these shoes work by improving running economy. Your running energy costs improve by an average of 4%. This leads to an improvement in performance,” adds Allen.
In a peer-reviewed article published in Sports Medicine (opens in new tab) In 2017, researchers concluded that the Nike Supershoe prototype reduced the energy costs of running by an average of 4%. They predicted that elite athletes could run significantly faster in these shoes and achieve the first sub-two-hour marathon.
Just two years later, Kenyan Eluid Kipchoge (pictured below at the Tokyo Olympics) became the first man to break two hours for the marathon in Vienna wearing a prototype Nike AlphaFly. He also wore a version of the shoes when he set the official world record of 2:01.39, the biggest improvement in over 50 years.
Ever since the Zoom Vaporfly launched in 2016, athletes have been breaking records around the world. An analysis of the world rankings found that in 2019 compared to 2016, twice as many men ran a marathon under 2:10 and twice as many women ran a marathon under 2:27.
Shoe mass, cushioning and flexural stiffness all affect the energy costs of running, and by designing a shoe that increases running economy, the Vaporfly has been able to improve runner performance.
An analysis of nearly half a million marathon and half-marathon times recorded between 2014 and 2018 found that runners wearing Vaporflys ran between 3% and 4% faster than similar runners wearing other shoes.
“Technically, they make you able to maintain your speed longer because they make you more efficient. Everyone’s shape breaks down over time and these shoes keep that in check for longer,” explains Carter.
Which shoes are best?
Not all super shoes are the same. There have been a limited number of comparative studies to date, but one peer-reviewed paper in Footwear Science (opens in new tab) The study, published earlier this year, concluded that only the Asics Metaspeed Sky showed similar running economy improvements as the Nike Vaporfly Next%2 (see above) and Nike AlphaFly.
The other high-cushioned carbon-coated shoes in the study showed “inferior” improvements in running economy. These were the Hoka Rocket X, Saucony Endorphin Pro, New Balance RC Elite, Brooks Hyperion Elite 2 and a traditional racing shoe, the Asics Hyperspeed. The research team concluded that athletes competing in any of the other shoes are likely to have a “competitive disadvantage.”
While there’s little doubt that the Nike Vaporfly and AlphaFly are the fastest shoes out there, there are some more affordable alternatives worth considering.
A study on the Nike Vaporfly 4% and Saucony Endorphin Racer 2 published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science (opens in new tab) found that both shoes improved running economy in male recreational runners compared to their usual running shoes. Most runners – 61% – ran their fastest 3K time trial in Nike shoes. The sample size was only 18 male runners, but this suggests Saucony is a viable and more affordable option.
“I really like the Saucony Endorphin Pro [pictured above]. They’re better value for money, and while they might not give you quite the oomph and kick of the Nike, they’re so comfortable and last forever,” says Carter. Compare this to the Nike Vaporfly, which is reported to only last 200 race miles.
But be warned that these shoes are not allowed in all types of races. As per World Athletics rules, road racing stack height is limited to 40mm – the exact size of Nike Vaporfly. Stack is measured as the amount of material between your foot and the ground, and it’s pretty meaty on the super shoes because that’s where the springy speed comes from.
But track racing is a whole different story. None of these super shoes are allowed on the track as regulation requires a 20-25mm stack. Track runners tend to run in either spikes or traditional running flats.
What contributes to the performance of a shoe?
The first and most important factor is the foam in the midsole. The technical name is Pebax, but Nike calls it ZoomX. This foam is highly resilient and compliant, meaning it will compress under stress but also return a significant portion of the energy. This makes it soft and springy at the same time. In fact, it’s like walking on a trampoline.
The other important element is that the foam is incredibly light. Keeping weight down is critical, because for every 100g of added mass per shoe, the energetic cost of running increases by 1%. But even with a 40mm thick midsole, the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%2 still weighs under 200g.
When the Vaporfly was first introduced, a lot of fuss was made about the carbon plate, and many experts speculated that the plate also acted like a spring. But a subsequent study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science (opens in new tab) found that the spring function of the plate was negligible. Instead, researchers speculated that energy savings were “a combination and interaction of foam, geometry, and panel.” Researchers now believe that foam is far more important than plate when it comes to running economy.
Do running shoes slow you down?
All of our experts agreed on that. Walking in shoes won’t slow you down. “There is no evidence that running barefoot makes you faster. There is also little evidence that running barefoot reduces the risk of injury,” says Rice.
A comparison of the running economy of seven high-cushioned racing shoes with carbon fiber plates (opens in new tab)
Longitudinal flexural rigidity does not compromise running economy in Nike Vaporfly shoes (opens in new tab)
Metabolic and performance responses of male runners wearing 3 types of shoes: Nike Vaporfly 4%, Saucony endorphin racing shoes, and their own shoes (opens in new tab)
A comparison of the energy costs of running in marathon racing shoes (opens in new tab)
https://www.livescience.com/do-running-shoes-make-you-faster Do running shoes make you faster?