This Friday, World Athletics is expected to report the findings from a panel of experts on the Nike Alphafly. This report will determine the fate of arguably the fastest shoe on the market. The shoe, which has given rise to terms like ‘cheaterfly’ and ‘shoe doping,’ will receive its verdict from running’s governing body.
A brief history
In 2016, the Nike Vaporfly made its debut at the Olympic Trials. There, the shoe was on the feet of Shalane Flanagan (who would go on to make the team) among several other select Nike athletes. From there, the shoe gained public notoriety when another version was worn by Eliud Kipchoge in 2017 during the first sub-two marathon attempt, known as the Breaking2 project. Since, there have been several prototype and commercial versions of the Vaporfly–Nike’s newest commercial version coming in the form of the Next%.
Road racing competitions are deeper than ever–and not just among elites, among all runners. This isn’t all because of the Nike super shoes, but most believe they’re a major contributing factor. There isn’t a way to realistically ban a shoe that millions of people own, but in theory, the Alphafly could be taken out of the game. This is the shoe that only a handful of runners have worn, including Kipchoge when he ran 1:59:41 in the fall of 2019 at the INEOS 1:59.
But, here’s a look at why we don’t think that’s going to happen.
Decision this Friday…here’s my prediction for what happens. I hope to be surprised, but if I had to guess, this is how it goes… (1/) https://t.co/CxVXZcIx2C
— Ross Tucker (@Scienceofsport) January 27, 2020
Getting faster isn’t a bad thing
Technological innovation is constantly improving sport. Runners used to compete on dirt tracks, in leather shoes, and women ran (when they were permitted to compete) in dresses. Now, Mondo tracks are recognized as the fastest in the world, women compete in uniforms conducive to high performance, and shoes are helping runners go faster than ever.
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The Nike shoes are bringing huge amounts of attention to the sport of running. Casual fans know about the Alphafly and Kipchoge’s world best. Millions of people tuned in to watch the runner break the two-hour barrier in the marathon, a feat that many at least partially attribute to the new shoe technology. World Athletics might not be interested in losing this attention and decide to dub this shoe part of the sport’s evolution.
Almost every major shoe brand has a carbon-plated racing prototype with a significant stack height. If World Athletics were to ban the Alphafly, then what happens to the other shoes that are nearing release?
Over time, it has become obvious that the Nike Vaporfly 4% and Vaporfly NEXT%, which have a thick layer of highly responsive Nike-patented foam in the midsole as well as an embedded carbon-fibre plate, have contributed to a significant drop in marathon times across the board. But Adidas runners debuted a Alphafly-esque shoe at the Houston Marathon, Hoka runners are lacing up a prototype, and so are Saucony athletes. The fact that other companies are catching up detracts from the argument that Nike runners have an unfair advantage. If other brands can go to market with a comparable shoe, then the Alphafly may not look so dominant anymore.
Among runners who use Strava, the fastest-growing shoe in 2019 was not the Nike Vaporfly or NEXT%, as you might expect. In fact, they’re not even close. That distinction belonged to the Hoka’s Carbon X, the brand’s carbon-plated racing shoe introduced last summer and worn by two-time Western States champion Jim Walmsley when he set the 50-mile world record in California in May 2019.
Few sports have successfully banned new technology
Cycling and swimming are two sports that have been successful in disqualifying certain technologies in competition, but few others have been able to follow suit. In swimming, the Beijing Olympic record board rewrite led to the banning of the LZR swimsuit. In cycling, aero bars were banned in road racing (but this was on the basis of rider safety over their mechanical advantage).
The shoe won’t be banned, it’ll be limited
Stack height is the one thing that World Athletics could seemingly act upon and enforce. If they settled on a maximum shoe height, that could level the playing field.
In the Alphafly, not only is the foam midsole especially built-up, but it contains as many as three layers of carbon-fibre plates, and there are also two stacked chambers in the forefoot that may be filled with air, fluid or foam (or some combination thereof). This combination has been referred to as the “club sandwich” of cushioning. By limiting stack height, World Athletics would be limiting the amount of foam underfoot–the alleged secret sauce of the unreleased Nike shoe.
Saucony athlete Jared Ward said a similar thing about when speaking about the prototype that he’s had a hand is building. Ward told Podium Runner in July that he used to be solely focused on the weight of a shoe, but lately he’s more interested in a cushioned midsole. “The shoes [Saucony’s first prototype] felt so much better than the minimalist racers I had been using. I particularly noticed it on the downhills. They absorbed so much more shock. I could really let loose and go hard without worrying about beating up my legs.”
If runners from other companies are acknowledging that the advantage is in the foam, perhaps a stack height limit could be the solution. In this case the Alphafly would still probably go to market, but modified to meet the new criteria.