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Super shoes ushered in a new era of competitive running — and they're not going away

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, February 1, 2024 - 12:45pm

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Nike Alphafly 3
Nike
During development, the Alphafly 3 helped Nike athlete Kelvin Kiptum claim a new marathon world record with a time of 2:00:35.

This summer, athletes from around the globe will gather once again — this time in Paris — for the 2024 Summer Olympics. 

And, this weekend, the fastest and fittest will compete to find out who makes it to Paris at the marathon trials in Orlando. If you tune in, you might notice the thick-foamed, funky-looking shoes strapped to the feet of the world’s most elite runners. 

They’re called super shoes, and they’ve taken over the running world, launching the sport into a maximalist era.

But, some are calling the propelling shoes essentially doping via technology. To break it all down, The Show sat down with Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and associate professor of history at Arizona State University, as well as a former competitive runner and Nike sponsored athlete. 

Eliud Kipchoge 2023 Berlin Marathon win
Nike
Eliud Kipchoge in the Nike Alphafly 3 winning the 2023 Berlin Marathon for a record-setting fifth time. Nike says he became the only person ever to complete a marathon in under two hours while wearing the shoes in an unofficial event.

VICTORIA JACKSON: These shoes have a carbon-fiber plate which, helps propel an athlete forward. So it doesn’t have a propulsive element — the athlete has to propel themselves, but the fiber plate definitely helps with that. And then they have the stack height that seems very exaggerated. Big clunky shoe, but actually it’s super lightweight thanks to this new technology and the material. That stack needs to be no more than 40 millimeters high, which is a lot of millimeters when we’re talking about running shoes.

LAUREN GILGER: It looks really big if you see these. So what does a super shoe do for an athlete, a runner in particular? How does it change the way they run?

JACKSON: The way these were kind of unveiled in marketing by Nike — Nike really led the way on this, although it was in competition with Adidas originally — was that they gave athletes a 4% improved performance. That you’re running economy improves by 4%, which relatively translates to a 4% improvement in the times that you run.

GILGER: I mean, that’s something in running. It comes down to hundredths of a second, right?

JACKSON: Oh, yeah. And in these longer distances, we’re talking minutes. So just massive time improvements. But the other component is the more interesting component from a training perspective, which is that these shoes, it turns out, allow you to not beat up your legs as badly as you used to.

So if you have a marathoner in your life, if grandpa was a marathoner, you might remember funny stories about not being able to walk up stairs the next day or sitting down and getting in that squat position is like the hardest thing in the world to do. You don’t get as beat up. And so what does that mean for training?

It’s not just the marathon that these athletes are running — they’re running a lot of workouts to prepare their bodies for the toll of a marathon. And if your legs aren’t getting trashed every day you’re doing a marathon-effort workout, it means you can recover faster and train harder. So it’s not just that these shoes improve running economy. It’s that they allow athletes to train harder and get better from a higher training load, which also results in improved performance.

victoria jackson
Arizona State University
Victoria Jackson

GILGER: So are we seeing this happen? Like how long have these been around? Are you seeing runners significantly get faster times?

JACKSON: A small select group in a very controversial way of runners had access to these and the 2016 Olympic trials and Olympic Games. But by the time of the 2020-21 Olympic trials and Olympics, every runner you saw in those games had super shoes.

GILGER: And that’s because those runners in the 2016 trials were Nike sponsored, essentially?

JACKSON: Yes. So Nike broke some rules and was allowed to break some rules, kind of signed off by World Athletics, the international federation or governing body for the sport of track and field. So only Nike athletes had super shoes in the Olympic trials to qualify for the Rio Olympic Games and those Olympic Games in 2016.

The fourth-place finisher — the worst place to finish in an Olympic marathon trial — was Kara Goucher, a former Nike athlete who had left Nike and was sponsored by a different company and did not have the super shoes. And she often wonders if she had had access to those shoes in the trials, if she’d been able to run herself onto that team.

But by the time of the 2020-21 Olympic Games, Nike in a very — I’m putting air quotes here that no one can see — “selfless” act, said any athlete who wanted to run in their shoes could run on them and cover up the Nike swoosh. If you’re sponsored by a different shoe company, that shoe company doesn’t want you running in Nikes. That’s like the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing as a sponsored athlete of that company, because those other companies were trying to catch up to the technology that Nike had introduced through disruption. And some of them weren’t ready yet. By the time of these 2024 trials, every shoe company has has their own successful technology to match Nike’s technology.

GILGER: OK, so more of an even playing field now. But it’s changing the way that people run. It’s making them faster. Is this controversial in the sense that like, some people are calling this essentially doping? Like it's giving you an unfair advantage and using that technology to make you faster than you would be otherwise?

JACKSON: Yeah, there’s two forms of questioning that we need to tease out and separate here. The first is the uneven playing field, unfair advantage. We’ve solved that because the technology is available to all athletes now.

The other question is how much technology is too much technology? How much technology stays on an OK, approved clean side of a line saying, “Well, it’s the athlete performing. This isn’t equipment, it’s part of the uniform of the athlete.” You don’t hit a baseball with your hand. You hit your baseball with a bat. And we want to make sure these shoes don’t become equipment in the performance of the sport in a way that it’s not the athlete whose performance we can evaluate.

I don’t think we’re there yet. I think these shoes — for that recovery element, I think these are beneficial to athletes. You know, the only question being if there’s long term concerns about a change in running economy that puts more pressure or stress on different tendons and ligaments in the body. These shoes haven’t been around for a full life cycle of an athlete, so we don’t actually know long-term consequences.

But so far, so good. And again, that improved recovery and the lack of tearing your legs apart through a marathon effort is certainly a good outcome here. And I think the way we resolve a technological disruption when we think about the life of the sport and records and, you know, is it unfair to athletes who performed or competed before the advent of these shoes? I think we have to think of a pre-super shoe era and a post-super shoe era. And have records that are separate in that way.

There’s a great story that illustrates this, which is the number of American men who break 4 minutes in the mile is cataloged and kept a record of by Track & Field News, the so-called bible of the sport since 1948. And they take great pride in a chronological list of every American man who’s broken 4 minutes in the mile.

So I looked at this list. The first person to do it was in 1957. By 1970, running boom. Bill Bowerman, Steve Prefontaine, Oregon. There’s about 10 men per year breaking 4 minutes in the mile. That ticks up just a bit by the ’80s and ’90s and 2000s to about 15 to 20.

And in the 20-teens, we have another kind of second wave running boom. And then you see this point at which the shoes are introduced. And now we have more than 60 athletes a year, American men breaking 4 minutes in the mile every year. There were 60 American men who ran sub-4 minutes for the first time in the mile last year.

GILGER: So this is fundamentally changing the sport in a real way?

JACKSON: It is. Yes.

GILGER: OK. So you’re not completely opposed to this idea, it sounds like. Do you think this is sort of a natural progression of the sport? It reminds me of the debate over when swimmers started to wear those full body suits, right?

JACKSON: Yes. And you know, the governing body, the International Federation for Swimming, said, “OK, we’ll try this out for a little bit, and we decide we’re not going to allow those suits anymore.” That hasn’t happened here. And I do think because of the kind of wide range of positive benefits from these shoes, I think they’re here to stay.

It also helps that it was Nike. Nike holds a lot of power in the sport of track and field.

GILGER: One hundred percent. Yeah. All right. That is Victoria Jackson, associate professor of history at ASU, a sports historian and, of course, a former competitive runner, NCAA champ, etc. Victoria, thank you so much for coming in. I appreciate it very much.

JACKSON: Thank you, Lauren.

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