Nike’s New Shoe Could Propel Marathoners To An Impossible Feat

By Margaret Rhodes for WIRED.

The marathon world record stands at two hours, two minutes, and 57 seconds. Nike wants to chisel that time down to less than two hours and has designed a shoe to do it.

Today Nike unveils the Zoom Vaporfly Elite, a concept running shoe that three world-class runners will wear this spring during the Breaking2 initiative to run a sub-two-hour race. Given the trajectory of human athletic performance — in 1906, the best marathoners clocked in at just under three hours — a sub-two-hour run seems achievable, if not inevitable. But scientists, athletes, and designers agree this is a mighty goal. “It’s ones of those big barriers of human potential,” says Tony Bignell, VP of footwear innovation at Nike. The Vaporfly Elite is the sportswear giant’s vehicle for crossing that threshold and perhaps even upstaging the Adidas Adizero Sub2, the new marathon shoe from its chief rival.

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Nike began this endeavor in earnest in 2014, although its designers say they started dreaming about such a shoe more than a decade ago. A confluence of factors make now the time to go for it: Bignell says advances in 3-D knitting and cushioning technology, and athletes already close to breaking the two-hour barrier, help. “We’re at a point where we now feel that we have the science,” says Matthew Nurse, VP of the Nike Sports Research Lab.

If Nike wants to achieve the sub-two-hour goal, it must improve its athletes’ running economy by 3 to 5 percent. Bignell says three footwear variables most dictate economy: weight, to reduce the energy of lifting the foot; cushioning, to support bones and muscles; and propulsion, to push the runner forward.

The Vaporfly Elite weighs around 7 ounces, about 2 ounces less than Nike’s most recent Olympic sprinting shoe, despite a deceptively clunky look. That’s due to the inch-thick spongy sole that Bignell says is like no other foam in the company’s history. Within that sole lies the shoe’s engine: an ultrathin, lightweight, carbon-fiber plate that helps propel the runner. Plates like this have long helped sprinters dash past the finish line in record time, but those short bursts require a different gear than 26 miles of running. “Strength doesn’t remain constant over the course of a marathon,” says Benno Nigg, a biomechanics expert at the University of Calgary in Canada whose past work includes using plates to reduce sprinting time by 2 percent.

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Nike customized the plates in each Vaporfly Elite to suit the three runners attempting the sub-two-hour marathon — Zersenay Tadese, the half-marathon world-record holder; Lelisa Desisa, a two-time Boston Marathon winner; and Eliud Kipchoge, gold medalist at the Rio Olympics. Each pair is tailored to match its athlete’s unique strengths, stride, and dimensions. “That is the difficult thing,” says Nigg, who is unaffiliated with Nike’s Breaking2 initiative. “If they have solved that, then they have solved something really good.”

Tadese, Desisa, and Kipchoge will attempt to break the two-hour mark in a special marathon this coming spring. There’s plenty to prove. Aside from the tuning angles of the custom plates and the never-been-used-before foam, Nike must show that its technology can answer a significant question about human potential. “Is it actually within the realms of human physiology to do this?” Nurse says. “We think it is.” And when Nike releases consumer versions of the Vaporfly this June, the Zoom Vaporfly 4% ($250) and the slightly heavier Zoom Fly ($150), both of which have similar (though noncustomized) soles and plates as the Elite version, runners everywhere can try it for themselves.

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