Material Matters: How Good Is Too Good?
Throughout history, people have been apprehensive about new technology – the printing press caused a buzz of techno-fear in the 15th Century and almost two thousand years earlier Socrates condemned the invention of writing. Given a little time, innovations tend to earn their place in daily life and people begin to wonder what all the fuss was about. The release of Nike’s latest distance running shoe, the Vaporfly Elite, has spurred some debate – does it give runners an advantage? Is that fair? If not, what should we do about it?
The brand’s Beaverton HQ recently revealed the shoe as the next weapon in their ‘Breaking 2’campaign – a push from the Swoosh to assist their athletes in completing a marathon in less than two hours. You only need to look at it to get the impression that there’s something fierce stowed away inside its oddly sculpted ZoomX midsole. The source of the controversy isn’t visible from the outside, but there’s a spring plate embedded in the foam – a curved carbon fibre shank designed to transfer motion. It stores up energy when the foot hits the ground and throws it forward, resulting in an experience that’s more akin to running down a hill than along a level track. It has the potential to make a huge difference in running times, but then again – the concept of energy transfer isn’t exactly a new one.
Since adidas’ BOOST foam took over the Three Stripe stable, energy return has been at the forefront of the sneaker conversation. The springy foam is said to absorb the pressure of impact, compress and then spring back in just the right way to save the runner from exerting themself too much. Nike Shoxwere designed for the same purpose (although they were released in 2000, Nike’s designers had been toying with the concept since 1984), as were adidas Springblades and Reebok ERS. All of these were more radical than the Vaporfly thanks to their additional elements and revisions. In its essence, the new Nike model is nothing more than a foam midsole with a shank inside. This arrangement of cushioning and stability is as old, if not older, than sneakers themselves. The problem with the Vaporfly isn’t what it’s claiming to do – it’s that it seems to be doing it too well.
With the release of Nike’s Vaporfly Elite, we’ve found ourselves at a crossroads in the world of competitive athletics – how do we measure and define an advantage and what makes one unfair? Every shoe provides some level of advantage, that’s the idea, so it’s necessary to have a way of comparing them – and that seems to be what’s lacking. Somehow, the testing must remove the human element from the shoe’s performance in order to isolate the technology’s impact. When it comes to athletic performance, there are just way too many other variables.
When adidas’ BOOST foam was unveiled in 2013, the brand claimed it offered ‘the highest energy return in any running product’, and four years later it forms the basis of the shoe with which they’re attempting to break the two hour marathon. There’s nothing unusual about foam midsoles, so maybe BOOST didn’t cause such a shock. But at the same time, track athletes have been running in shoes with carbon fibre spike plates for years now. So are people just afraid of the hidden spring plate because it’s been tucked out of sight?
Although the International Association for Athletic Federations (IAAF) may be in unfamiliar territory when it comes to implementing an all-out ban, they might do well to look to the NBA for a precedent. In 2010, the basketball league banned a shoe that they said could provide players with an ‘unfair advantage’ – this was the first time they’d made use of this rule in their 64 year history. The sneaker in question was the Concept 1 from Athletic Propulsion Labs, its offending tech was something called ‘Load ‘N Launch’ – a combination of two plates with a set of springs below the ball of the foot. According to a study sponsored by the brand, the shoes can increase vertical leap by up to 3.5 inches. In this case, a relatively unknown brand without complicated sponsorship ties was claiming that they could provide a measurable advantage. The behemoth that is Nike, on the other hand, remains somewhat tight lipped on the recent release. They have said that the Vaprofly Elite requires four percent less energy to run in than their previous technologies, but that leaves measurements at Nike versus Nike.
In 2006, an American brand called Spira claimed that their shoes, which contained actual curly springs, were banned by the IAAF and USA Track and Field (USATF) for their reported ability to enhance a runner’s performance. Shortly after the announcement, they offered a one million dollar prize to anyone who could win the Boston Marathon in their shoes, but the money went unclaimed. Spira launched an aggressive marketing campaign based on the ban, and that’s when things started to get complicated. The USATF went on record to say that they never banned the shoe – nobody had – despite the fact that their rules included statements that could be interpreted as ‘no springs allowed’. Around that same time, the IAAF had removed the specific mention of ‘springs’ from their rules. Once all of the confusion had hit its peak, three athletes competed in Spira shoes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The brand are still in action on the track today, but when they failed to take the athletic world by storm everybody stopped worrying about their perceived advantage.
It might seem a little strange that the IAAF would rewrite their rules to sound more ambiguous in light of the issues with Spira, but that wasn’t the biggest thing they were dealing with at the time. In 2007 double amputee Oscar Pistorius won a ruling that allowed him to run in the 2012 London Olympics against able-bodied athletes. His J-shaped carbon fibre prosthetics were thought to be able to provide greater energy return than a runner’s calves and associated tendons – giving him a huge advantage – although later studies suggested this was compensated for by the extra work his other muscles would be required to put in. By changing the rules the IAAF most likely hoped to make it easier rule out specific new technologies as they come into being. The human versus technology aspect of the case drew some pretty solid comparisons, but when it’s a case of technology against technology the lines may not be so cut and dry.
A recent study at the University of Colorado, Boulder found that it is possible for a current runner to break the two-hour marathon. Using all manner of calculations, they defined the necessary variables – including the requirement that the shoe should weigh in at less than 100g. Nike’s Vaporfly Elite weighs about 185g, while adidas’ adizero Sub 2 is around 150g. Another significant factor is the course. Nike plan to run their Breaking 2 effort at the Monza Formula 1 circuit – the boundary-pushing shoe will take to a track that was built for perhaps the world’s most technologically regulated sport around, though it doesn’t seem likely that Nike chose the location just for the irony.
In their essence, athletic shoes aren’t the most complicated products – but with advancements in material engineering, computer modelling and production, things are changing. There’s likely to be a need for specific regulation and better testing of technology. In the end, more rules are just going to create more gaps for brands to exploit and technology will continue to evolve. The upside of all this being the fact that you can’t stop innovation.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Friends with Proprietary Benefits, Saucony GRID Technology and adidas Tubular.