But in distance running, which only has one major equipment variable — the shoe — it’s practically a necessity.
A series a innovations by Nike, and the subsequent sprint among its competitors to catch up, has turned U.S. Olympic marathon trials into an event that is part race, part technology show. As runners gathered in Atlanta, the most popular question at a media availability with some of the top qualifiers was, “Have you decided what you’re wearing?” Surprisingly, the answer for many was no.
“Still deciding,” said Jake Riley, who finished ninth as the top American at last year’s Chicago Marathon. “It’s never happened before. It’s never been a big issue. It’s interesting to have this other factor to deal with.”
The catalyst for this conundrum was a Nike innovation combining a carbon-fiber plate inside thick soles and a lightweight foam, a design that claimed to “return energy” to the runners and essentially make them several percentage points more efficient over the brutal 26.2-mile distance.
And as it turned out, the Nike Vaporfly technology and the subsequent Alphafly line that evolved from it wasn’t just a marketing trick — it helped distance runners set all kinds of records over the last few years, including Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei beating the women’s world record by 81 seconds at the Chicago Marathon last October and Eliud Kipchoge breaking the mythical two-hour barrier at an unofficial event in Vienna.
The innovations have been controversial in some circles since debuting at the 2016 Olympics. South African sports scientist Ross Tucker has argued that Nike essentially loaded a spring into its shoes and that the sport’s governing body was both too slow and too passive in its regulatory response. Even if other companies can match Nike, he argues it’s bad for the sport.
“When the difference made by technology is larger than the normal difference between athletes, then the integrity of the result is changed,” he wrote on his blog recently. “If that tech is unevenly distributed, with differences in access to it, then it becomes unfair.”
Regardless, the conversation around the shoe has turned the sport upside down with several companies trying to rush their product to market so that it’s compliant with new regulations from track and field’s governing body.
After a multi-year study, World Athletics said on Jan. 31 that the shoes would be legal as long as the sole is no thicker than 40 millimeters and they contained no more than one carbon-fiber plate, effectively putting a stamp of approval onto the Nike line. World Athletics also put a moratorium on runners using any new prototypes in a race, meaning any Nike competitor would have to make their shoes available for retail purchase by April 30.
Jared Ward, who finished third at the 2016 trials and sixth in Rio, has been helping Saucony develop a new product and said he’s got 25 prototypes in his house that led up to the Endorphin Pro model he will wear Saturday and is scheduled to be released for the public in April.
“As a data scientist and researcher I get excited about these questions of, Can shoes make a runner faster?” said Ward, who is also a adjunct faculty member at BYU in the Department of Statistics. “I am kind of embracing that opportunity too and I think World Athletics putting a standard out there for what shoes can be but letting companies innovate within that is kind of a good way to look at it.
“Nike flipped the world on its side when they dropped the Vaporfly because for years we’d been making shoes lighter and lighter and lighter and we knew what that did scientifically. We knew exactly what taking 100 grams off a pair of shoes does to running economy. But then innovators did something totally different and took a step back and made a heavier shoe, but it’s better and it’s more economical. I think that’s a fun door to have open now in terms of innovation.”
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On the other end of the spectrum, however, it’s clear that some marathoners are looking forward to a more normal time in the sport where the focus is on the athletes rather than what shoes they’re wearing.
Especially at this level, any small advantage in the shoe can have huge consequences about whom makes Olympics teams and potentially who medals later this year in Tokyo. That has naturally led some runners to question whether accepting a potentially lucrative sponsorship from another company could hurt their chances of competing.
Riley, who does not have a sponsorship, said he believes that the current race to catch up to Nike will “take the playing field back to even” since everyone is going to be wearing a similar shoe with a carbon-fiber plate.
Earlier this week, Nike announced that every qualifier for the Olympic trials — 261 men and 510 women — could pick up pair of the new AlphaFly shoes for free this week with no obligation to wear them on race day.
Both Riley and five-time Olympian Bernard Lagat said they were going to spend time Friday testing the AlphaFly shoe before making a decision about what to wear.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be the AlphaFly or the (Vaporfly) NEXT%,” Lagat said. “I’m going to go for a morning run with one of them and then do strides with one of them. I’ve only had (a decision like this) once before in a 5K a long time ago. Once you decide, you just have to forget about all other thoughts and what people say about the shoe and have fun.”
But inevitably, once the runners cross the finish line on Saturday, which shoes they chose will be part of the story.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Riley said. “I know there’s going got be bunch of people popping off on LetsRun (an Internet forum) the next day if I make this team and someone like Scott Fauble doesn’t because I’m wearing the Nikes and he’s not. So that would be aggravating and I don’t think that tells the entire story, but I’m glad to see other shoe companies are going to have something out there so maybe we can quiet down the conversation.
“The percentage difference is getting into technical details that take away from the quality everybody’s putting in here.”