WWhen the world’s greatest distance athletes square off in the London Marathon on Sunday, there will be a battle within a battle, a technological weapons race within the race. In the myriad fascinating storylines – a potential women’s world record, Mo Farah’s last dance over 26.2 miles and four of the five fastest men in history slugging it out – there is an intriguing multimillion-dollar subplot that pits brand against brand, and super shoe against super shoe.
Since the creation of these shoes in 2016, Nike athletes have dominated the marathon – and the company has reaped the financial rewards. Having world record-holder Eliud Kipchoge in the famous swoosh helped, of course. But it wasn’t just him. In 2019, Nike athletes took 31 of the 36 podium places in the six marathon majors. It sent a subliminal message to ordinary runners. Want to smash your personal bests? Buy Nike’s Vaporfly or AlphaFly shoes. Now, though, the winds of change are building.
That was starkly illustrated in last Monday’s Boston marathon, where athletes wearing the Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 3 took the top four places in the men’s race. The Kenyan Helen Obiri used a prototype from the Swiss brand, On, to win the women’s event. While Nike athletes still performed well, the sight of Kipchoge struggling home in sixth appeared emblematic of a change in the guard.
Geoff Burns, a biomechanics expert and sport physiologist, who works for the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, says: “Nike is no longer the definitive outright leader. I’ve tested a lot of shoe brands and foams and the running economy benefits are now pretty similar.”
Similar, yes, but not identical. While most brands have super shoes containing Pebax foam, which delivers significantly more energy return than traditional foams, and a carbon plate, there is still plenty of scope for innovation. Materials can be made lighter. Foams softened or hardened. The position of the plate tweaked. adidas’ Pro 3s, for instance, uses energy rods inside the midsole that can move independently.
Watching the technological foot race closely is the British athlete Chris Thompson, who will be wearing On’s shoes when he competes in London. “It’s like Formula One,” he says. And every brand seems to be having their moment. After Boston there was a huge celebration at On because we were able to help Hellen. There’s no shying away from it: super shoes have a huge impact on performance.”
The 42-year-old Thompson, who first ran the marathon in 2014, wins over the memories of the pre-supershoe era. “I ran 2 hours 11 minutes and it is still, to this day, the most emotional, painful, horrible, excruciating thing,” he says. “I went to a place I’ve never been to before in those last two or three miles. Everything was very emotional, very tough.”
Nearly a decade later, Thompson is hopeful he might surpass that time. “The marathon now is a completely different event and it’s down to the shoes,” he says. “On average I reckon they are worth four minutes for a top male in a marathon.
A lot of people will say that’s ridiculous. But it is an average. Your height, where your center of gravity is, and how you hit the ground all make a difference. They also allow you to recover faster in training. I used to run 120 miles a week. I’ve heard of some who are doing 160-170 miles now.”
The science does not wildly disagree. Burns says it shows that elite male athletes close to two hours are likely to receive up to three minutes of improvement, while for those in the 2:10-2:15 hour range it may be more like three to four minutes. The news for amateur runners in the 3:30 to four-hour range is even better. A pair of £220 super shoes could cut their time by more than five minutes.
“The slower we run, the more and more benefit of running economy translates to us,” says Burns, who explains that it is partly down to air resistance. At the very elite level there is actually a significant cost there. But for people running four or five-hour marathons, air resistance is not such a big deal, so they get a pretty substantial boost.”
No wonder that London Marathon organizers expect around half of the 45,000 participants to be wearing super shoes. Burns cautions, though, that the benefits can vary. He recalls one experiment he did with two different Asics supershoes, the Metaspeed Sky and Metaspeed Edge.
“Some athletes tested dead even in the shoes, but others responded really well to one and not the other,” he says. “That shouldn’t surprise us: our foot’s interaction with the ground is very like a fingerprint, so different shoes will work far better than others for some.”
Shortly before lunchtime, what organizers have hailed as potentially the best women’s distance race could be reached an epic finale. With the world record-holder, Brigid Kosgei, rising star Yalemzerf Yehualaw – both sponsored by Nike – against Adidas’ Olympic champion Peres Jepchirchir, first place, a world record and brand bragging rights will be on the line.
Not everyone is a fan of this new era, which has led to multiple world records being decapitated and the benchmark for a good time radically altered. But leading coach Matt Yates says most in the sport have accepted the new reality.
“What we are seeing now is one of the sexiest things that has happened to run in a long time,” he says. And make no mistake: It’s a big deal for brands to win the London Marathon, because these days it not only means front page pictures, but people talk about their shoes too.
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