February 7, 2020
Back in November, I was in New York City and happened to purchase, at no small expense, a pair of Nike Vaporfly running shoes. They were designed to make you run faster.
I ran in the Master’s Mile at the Dartmouth Relays last month, and finished in 5:48, which was faster than my time two years ago (I was injured last year and missed the race). Yes, I may have been in better shape but I was also two years older (at an age when slowing times are expected). Yes, I am convinced the shoes made a difference.
My fear in the aftermath of the race, however, was that the shoes might make TOO much of a difference. Much like the bodysuits that were outlawed in competitive swimming, I feared that track and field’s governing authorities would determine that the shoes conferred an unfair advantage on their users. A New York Times article from 2017 tells us that the shoe’s “thick but lightweight midsole” was said to “return 13 percent more energy than more conventional foam midsoles,” while a thin, stiff carbon-fiber plate embedded in the length of the midsole is “designed to reduce the amount of oxygen needed to run at a fast pace. It stores and releases energy with each stride and is meant to act as a kind of slingshot, or catapult, to propel runners forward.” Nike, the article tells us, claimed that the carbon-fiber plate saves 4 percent of the energy needed to run at a given speed when compared with another of its popular racing shoes. If true, running with the shoe would be the “equivalent of running downhill at a fairly steep gradient” of 1 to 1.5 percent.
I will do everything I can to gain a strategic advantage in my effort to decelerate less quickly than my peer group. This includes drinking coffee before a race. At one point, caffeine was a banned substance, but it is now perfectly legal, and it is a proven performance-enhancing substance. Why wouldn’t I use it?
Similarly, I will run in the Vaporfly shoes so long as they’re legal. And it appears that they will stay legal. According to this article in the New York Times, track and field’s governing body has ruled that elite runners (that’s not me, by the way) may use the shoes unless the model is a prototype that has not been available for any competitor to buy on the open market for at least four months, and so long as the footwear meets certain design specifications.