Running shoe tech: The Emperor’s clothes, and the issues for the integrity of running

06 Feb 2020 Posted by

It’s been so long since I wrote anything here, I fear I’ve forgotten how. All I’ve written in the last few months is academic analysis of concussion data for scientific journals, so here’s hoping this doesn’t come out that way. But here goes…

The failure to regulate “super shoes” hurts running. It undermines one of the sport’s most valuable qualities, namely that the outcome, the title, the victory, goes to the athlete whose physiology is optimized through training and genetics, then enabled by tactics, to cross the finish line first.

We celebrate human victories born of VO2max, running economy, thresholds, neuromuscular efficiency and effectiveness. We hail records and PBs as breakthroughs made by the athlete, and celebrate champions as superior to their peers because of these human qualities. In the vacuum created by absent leadership and regulation, shoes have changed that. It’s why, when we recorded a podcast analysing the Nike Vaporfly shoes, we said that they “broke running“.

Last week, or indeed, over the last four years, the authorities have had the chance to ‘fix’ this. They chose not to, and instead, through a combination of passive governance, inaction and weak action (motivated by who-knows-what), they effectively codified shoe tech into a policy that will continue to distort running. It will continue to change the relationship between input and output, separate the sport into haves and have nots, and ultimately force it to be recalibrated and understood in a very different way from what it is now.

This is an article explaining why I think this.


From first principles: the fundamental premise of sport – meaning in results

First, let’s try to disassemble the whole thing into its smallest principle. And if you don’t agree with these principles, and land on a different outcome, at least we’ll know why. You can also save time reading the rest of this article!

As I see it, sport has value because the results have a meaning that we create and accept using sometimes arbitrary lines or classifications. This is why, at the very highest ‘strategic’ level, men and women compete in separate categories – it ensures that the outcome of any sport is determined by the things that society, generally, has determined are meaningful. Mixing men and women destroys the meaning of women’s results because they’d be determined by factors other than those we deem to be important.

For the same reason, age classifications exist – there is no meaning in sporting results when a 25 year old beats a 16 year old in just about all sports (with a few exceptions). We have weight classifications to ensure that combat sports retain their meaning and integrity for a 63kg fighter who does not have to go up against a 91kg fighter. The Paralympics tries their best to ensure ‘meaning’ of results for athletes with different degrees of the same disability by creating numerous classifications. This should be obvious to anyone.

In principle, then, one of the fundamental roles of any sports governing body is to defend these lines, however arbitrary they may appear to be. Why have a line at 63kg separating featherweights from lightweights in Olympic boxing? Why a cut-off of 18 years between junior and senior? Indeed, even sex boundaries between male and female are being challenged as arbitrary (wrongly, in my opinion, but there you go). But you need these lines, or the meaning of sport is undermined. Salary caps, by the way, try to achieve the same thing.

The same is true for doping vs anti-doping, by the way. Anti-doping creates lines that are meant to assure us that results are not determined by pharmacologists and doctors, or by which athlete is the best responder to EPO, or who is the athlete most willing to take risks, have the most money etc.

But, why a line at some pain-kilers, but not others? Altitude tents, but not EPO? Cortisone, allowed out of competition, but not in, despite evidence that it’s effective no matter when it’s used.

Point is, for the integrity of sport, these lines must not only be drawn, they must also exist in the right place, and then be enforced, to ensure that meaning exists in the results of the sport.

That meaning, in turn, is decided upon within each sport. So the result of a Formula 1 race, or season, has a different underlying meaning to that of a tennis tournament, or a marathon. This should, again, be accepted by all, I’d think. We celebrate a unit of driver-car (or is it car-driver?) or motorbike-rider in some sports, knowing that the equipment makes a bigger difference to the outcome than the pure ability of the driver. But because they work as a unit in an understood way, it’s accepted. Those who follow sports understand this.


The principle of equipment-determined results and the first problem for running

Now let’s apply this “sports results must have meaning” philosophy to equipment. Different sports decide on different ‘lines’ that create boundaries on what equipment is allowed and disallowed. But, and I can’t make this point strongly enough, they all regulate their equipment. I cannot think of a single sport that does not impose some regulation on the equipment used.

Boxing? Glove weights are regulated depending on fighter weight.

Tennis? Balls and racket size and hitting area are regulated. Hockey? Length and width limits are specified.

High jump? Yep, the thickness of the sole is regulated, this after a Russian jumper used a shoe with a thickness of 40mm, so effective that it allowed him to “emerge from mediocrity like a chorus girl hopping out of a paper cake” (as quoted in Sean Ingle’s good article on the shoe wars). In response, back in a time when authorities clearly had some courage and a moral compass, a limit of 13mm was introduced, problem solved. High jump results are thus determined by something other than a shoe.

Swimming? Who can forget what happened between 2008 and 2009 when the absence of regulations led to a clearance sale on world records, a near clean sweep of Beijing medals for one company, and the subsequent absurdity of it. In response, rules were created limiting the type of material used and the length.

In all these instances, the regulation imposes limits that are meant to ensure that the results have a desired meaning. That is, they want the outcome, their champions, to be recognized for displaying attributes that they believe are meaningful. If we did not believe that biological sex should be regulated, we’d have a “human race” rather than a men’s race and a women’s race. If we did not believe that skill execution should be “constrained” by tennis rackets, we’d have no limits on head size.

Running? No regulations (until now). Despite the awareness that it was possible to change the sport using the shoe, no policy existed. A vacuum. Into which Nike stepped, with development beginning on a shoe in 2013, first producing the Vaporfly that powered Kipchoge to within sight of a 2-hour marathon, then helping to break just about every city marathon record, dozens of world records at distances ranging from 10km to marathon, and possibly hundreds of other course and national records.

I would argue that this disrupted the meaning of running. It broke the principle. The premise is that running, ‘natural’ as it is, should not be decided by who wears the best shoe, but by who has the optimal combination of physiology, psychology and tactics. We read famous scientific papers describing the physiology of elite marathon runners, the VO2max, the economy, the lactate threshold. We hold those attributes up as essential, and then celebrate the best runners as manifestations of them.

Even the mid- or back-of-the-pack runner celebrates a PB as their breakthrough – they’ve changed themselves. And even though most won’t necessarily know that they’ve improved their VO2max by say 4 ml/kg/min, or that their COT has dropped from 215 ml/kg/km to 205 ml/kg/km, it’s their breakthrough. Human.

It’s much the same for many sports. I don’t want a five-set final at the Australian Open thinking “Shit, I wonder if this result would be different if Thiem and Djokovic could swap tennis rackets? If only my guy had a different sponsor”. Nor do I wish to watch swimming wondering whether the guy in Lane 4 might actually be a better swimmer than the guy in Lane 5, but with a swimsuit that is 3% worse.

If this happens, the meaning of that sport is undermined. But this is the situation that has developed in running, now facilitated by the regulatory equivalent of the Emperor’s clothes, is that we have to watch running events not just wondering, but KNOWING, that if the runners could swap shoes, the outcome would certainly change.

The point is this, and I’ll return to this again – when the difference made by technology is larger than the normal difference between athletes, then the integrity of the result is changed. If that tech is unevenly distributed, with differences in access to it, then it becomes unfair. In the spirit of the piss-taking that shoes and running have become, I’ll call this “Ross’ rule”.

But if this rule is met, the meaning of running changes, and the outcome is no longer about the physiology but about the shoe.

That’s what began in 2016, accelerated in 2018 and 2019, and is now set to continue. And this not simply about Nike getting a jump on its competitors, it’s about the fundamental fabric of running, and even if every shoe company is able to match the Vaporfly effect, the sport will not return to a position of integrity, because the ‘shoe wars’ will change the meaning. I want to try to explain briefly why.


Responders, non-responders and the problem with “equality”

The main problem with the regulation is that it cannot possibly achieve parity between athletes while still allowing the sport to keep its meaning, as described above. Why? Because the tech, as powerful as it is, will create a gap between responders and non-responders that is larger than the normal difference between athletes. As a result, the “best case scenario” you can think of will still see shoe tech decide the outcome.

When the first batch of lab tests on the Vaporfly came out, there were some striking observations. The first was the average effect: 3% to 4% less oxygen used at the same speed, which translates into an estimated 2% to 2.5% performance benefit for the elite marathon runner. That’s the source of the titles, the records, the initial wave of controversy.

But second, and now more important than the first, nobody found “negative responders” among the semi-elite runners tested. The four studies I saw all showed the change in running economy for every participant tested. I recall one athlete who had zero response, everyone else saw a benefit (a reduction in O2). A study has since come out showing negative responders, which makes the points below even stronger.

The range of these responders was striking. The first paper had a spread between 2% and 6%, with an average of 4%. The second was similar, though they found a 0%, and then up to 6% (see the figure below, from Hunter et al). The outcome you see here is not perfectly understood. The consistent theme of thee studies is that rear-foot strikers get larger benefits than forefoot strikers, and this study also showed that those with shorter ground contact times get a larger positive benefit (not surprising).

But, that finding has not been replicated in other studies, and some studies even disagree on the global kinematic changes that occur when wearing the shoe, even though they all agree on the size of the benefit. So the jury is out as to who responds and who does not, but it’s clear that the spread is large, and it’ll get larger as the average benefit increases.

This creates a major problem for result integrity. In this study, for instance, there are runners, five in total, who get more than 4% benefit, and there are 7 who got less than 2%. A similar spread was subsequently confirmed in a third study, and if responses are normally distributed, it means that you’re going to see a pretty large gap between the best and worst responders.

The same shoe, then, spreads runners out by about 6%. And that was the first version of the shoe. It should be relatively obvious to you that if the later iterations are better, then the upper limit will increase, possibly to 8%, maybe some even get 10%. Even if the bottom remains at 0%, the range of benefit is thus stretching out, with performance implications that shouldn’t be ignored.

What this means, on this the 6th February 2020, given the flaccid shoe regulations announced last week, is that in a group of 100 runners who are similar in every measurable physiological sense, and for the sake of example, have performances that differ by 2% when wearing the “old shoes”, the result when they all wear the very same shoe is that you’ll see a spreading out based on who is lucky enough to respond well to the tech and who is not. The worst of them, 2% behind the best, could suddenly be 4% ahead of that best runner, if they happen to get the right combination of responses.

Therefore, even if you want to be eternally optimistic, and assume that the likes of Saucony, Brooks, New Balance, asics and adidas are able to bridge the gap to the Vaporflys, you still won’t be able to say that running rewards the best runner, because you now have to factor in another factor that makes one runner “better” than another, namely their response to the external factor of a shoe.

This is not unlike the situation that developed in cycling, peaking during the time when EPO use was rampant and unregulated. In that sport, one of the key determinants of success became the cyclist’s response to the drug. Some got more, some less. It changes talent ID, because the addition of this external factor overrides the normal difference made by the things that cycling deemed meaningful to its result.

Now we’ll see the same with shoes. Eventually, if you follow this to its logical conclusion, it means that the runners who emerge from the pack at a young age will be those who are responsive to the shoe. Those who do not simply won’t win. The benefit of being a “6 percenter” is so large compared to being a “2 percenter” that the poor 2 percenter would need to be 3 to 4 minutes faster just to be level.

Now think about what this means for the pathway that produces runners. Trace it back to high schools, into colleges, via scholarships and contracts, and financial viability. The most accessible sport in the world changes.

It means, ultimately, that the primary determinant of success, the key predictor, is whether a runner responds or not to an object they can lace onto their feet within seconds of starting the race. That, to me, is not the meaning of running, and so I return to the above principle and conclude that shoes will determine the result even if parity is achieved in terms of average benefit between Company A and B.

The bottom line is that the range of responses to the equipment are larger than the difference between athletes, and hence, the integrity of the result is diminished (as per Ross’ rule). And, I can’t stress this enough, so I’m typing it again, this is true EVEN IF every shoe company gets to the same point of average overall benefit.

Your response to this may well be “so what”? The result is determined by who responds anyway. Who responds to training, mostly? A genetic lottery of sorts, that means that to be elite you need the right genes that optimize your hardware, combined with the genes that optimize that hardware in response to the stress of training. Yes, sure, I appreciate that, but now you can add an object, purchased at the store for $250, laced on the feet, that skews the things that have always given running its meaning.

Some may get that. Some may not. Some will be lucky enough to land up in the shoe that gives them 6%, meaning they finish a marathon 3 min faster than the poor sucker who gets the shoe that gives them 1% to 2%, but is actually a better runner (as we understand it in the time BVF (before Vaporfly). A new element in the mix exists, but it’s not innate, or earned, but rather bought, and through luck and access, will sort the running populations.


Problem 2: Can the other companies respond?

More briefly, a few other issues with the Emperor’s clothes shoe regulation. First, the notion that other companies will respond remains to be proven. If you’re optimistic, I reckon you’d say that within a year, maybe two, shoe companies will achieve a degree of parity.

I certainly hope so. At least it sorts out the issue of “haves” vs “have nots” that have tarnished running for the last three years. I’d still argue that the issue persists, but it will be smaller in scale.

The question is whether they will? Patents, cost and access to materials that will allow this stand in the way. I know that some companies have been innovating in ways that would allow them to steer clear of Nike patents on the curve of the plate. They have developed other ways to engineer more ‘spring’ and propulsion. Those ways are now illegal, because the policy dictates that it is so. I’d argue this is ultimately a good thing, but it does formalize an existing advantage behind patent barriers.

Effectively, this squeezes the range of innovation in a way that means that a plate must do the job, but now you’ll hit up against patents. I know that one company is using two plates, but they’re on the same plane rather than staggered (and so thus legal). Another brand has a plate spanning three quarters of the shoe, rather than its full length. Patent side-step.

The problem is this – will these ‘side-steps’ allow the same effect, or was there a “best way” to achieve performance enhancement, now inaccessible? For all I know, there is an even better way, and Brooks or Saucony or adidas will find it, and then this conversation can begin anew, but with a different front runner, and a marathon record of 1:56.

On the other hand, if the full length plate with that curve is the best way, combined perhaps with the air pods now present in the latest Alphafly Next%*, then the sport will continue to split into the privileged vs the unfortunate, which ultimately undermines the commercial model that sustains it.

* An outrageously ludicrous shoe, by the way, and very, very fast, from what I’ve heard from a few sources. It is a slight modification on the joke of a shoe that I suspect could have powered Kipchoge to a sub-1:58 in Vienna last year, so “easy” was that 1:59:40 performance. But, appropriately, it was released less than a week after the Regulations were announced, because it makes such a mockery of them. It has a 40mm stack height, a remarkable co-incidence given the regulation limit, and really just so lucky for Nike that they just happened to hit the mark only a few days after we knew what would be allowed. Add some air pods (see pic above) near the front to concentrate force to the plate to enhance energy return and propulsion more, and they seem to have thickened the forefoot to aid rule compliance. It makes me suspect, not that I didn’t already, that the regulations are compliant with their shoes, rather than the other way around)

In any event, one of the intriguing questions that has been created by the Regulation is whether others can match the Nike. Best case is yes, and quickly, which means the only issues that would remain are:

a) cost of the shoe – some exceptional “candidate athletes” may never even reach the shop window because they can’t afford to optimise their performance. This is something that is true of say, sailing or horse-riding, much less so in running;

b) the afore-mentioned issue of response vs non-response, even in 100 runners all wearing the same equipment. But then, if you accept this “new normal”, just include it in your mix of factors required for running success. Maybe some of those who’ve been gaslighting this conversation from the start can team up to write a paper or magazine article on the characteristics of world-class runners and establish this as Talent ID priority number 1. Here, I’ll even write your main finding for you free of charge:

“The key attribute of world class runners is that their Oxygen Cost of Transport (COT) is reduced by 6% or more when they lace up a pair of high stack height shoes with carbon plates. This response, shown by studies to exist in 10% of elite runners, negates the need for a VO2max or running economy in the 95th percentile, and is a characteristic of every Olympic medal winner tested in the last two decades”.

Worst-case is that companies never bridge the gap. Patents and cost of innovation are beyond them, since they may not have the financial clout to compete in the lab and in the courtroom. That would create for running a situation like that which exists for motorsports. The wealthy succeed, the middle class fall away, the bottom class never even starts.

I suspect the answer will be somewhere in the middle. I think companies will make inroads, perhaps not complete, but enough to make it appear like the brand of shoe is not deciding the result. That would achieve a degree of stability.

When this happens, I don’t know. Not in 2020. Too soon. Perhaps 2021, more likely 2022. You may as well accept that the medals in Tokyo are going to be determined more by shoes than by physiology, and that what you’re watching would indeed be different in they swapped equipment. Beyond that, who knows?


Problem 3: Implementation

The next issue is implementation. Once you draw the lines, even if you assume they’re in the correct place, you need to enforce them. I don’t know how this is done. You need more than an x-ray because carbon is radiolucent, and so it’s MRI or physical inspection.

But given what the policy will allow vs disallow, things like overlapping or stacked plate arrangments, you’d need to cut the shoe up, or run it through an MRI and is that going to happen.

Even stack height, whose limit has been set at 40mm, is not as simple to measure as you may think. One of a handful of really stupid things in those regulations is the failure to set stack height limits based on the size of the shoe. The Regulation allows minor variations in height due to size, but not clearly stated, and so shoe companies will just mislabel the shoe as larger than it is, which will then necessitate that the size of the shoe and its height be assessed either at the start or finish.

But if it’s the start, it has to be right there, because you’d need to ensure that the athlete doesn’t change after measurement, so you need “watchers”. That deals with the outside, the inside remains hidden until you get the MRI or its simpler cousin, a hacksaw and an honest pair of eyes.

Even then, given how the IAAF failed totally to enforce its regulation on prototypes, and the various conflicts and bumbling implementation we’ve seen on doping enforcement, hands up if you truly trust a shoe inspection to be trustworthy? Not for me, no.

So I have grave concerns over the integrity of the process by which the rules are enforced. Given what we know about the lengths to which companies and teams go to cheat, it’s inevitable that someone will try to bypass the rules, adding 1 to 3mm here and there, finding another 0.5% to 1%. We also allow modification of the shoes on the grounds of medical need. So basically, we need TUEs for shoes. Hilarious. And what happens when that system is manipulated because a medical modification also achieves a performance boost? (this is inevitable)

And to think, it could have been so much simpler – just set that stack height limit so low that the space in which an engineer could work is massively constrained, and you’d to worry about one variable only. Plus, it might have been actually been effective.


Problem 4: The prototype issue

Next, the issue of prototypes. First, it’s funny that so many people are complimentary about their ban on prototypes. How easily we forget that the only regulation that existed for the last few years was that the shoe had to be available to all. OK, it was incredibly vague, specified nothing, and was not fit for purpose, so when they announced that it would now have a four-month exclusion period and had to be sold online or in stores, it seems like progress.

But the funny thing is that in announcing that, all they really did was dress an old rule up in some new clothes and then sell it as new. And many fell for it. In effect, they were reminding themselves with their own non-compliance with the one rule that existed. A cynic may wonder why this time around will be different?

The issue that remains, of course, is what it means to be sold? If 100 pairs are made available between now and Tokyo, but sold out in three days, and not replaced for months, does that constitute “sold”. If they sell 50 pairs direct to consumer, and no more, is that reasonable?

Here too, an example of how they might have done it differently – just limit the stack height to say, 20mm, and then let people innovate. Who cares if they innovate with prototypes into a space that is too small to achieve meaningful performance gains? Remember, the whole point about stack height is that it provides the “scaffold” for the addition of plates and other gadgets, the subsequent curvature of the plate to create propulsion and energy advantages (briefly, curving the plate means no loss of energy at the MTP, but also no increase in energy cost at the ankle, as happens if the plate is straight), and also provides a thickness of cushion that aids propulsion.

Had they made the limit 20mm, or the equivalent of lightweight racers for the last three decades, these issues would be greatly diminished, to the point, I’d suggest, where the difference made by tech is smaller than the difference between runners. Ergo, as per Ross’ rule, there’d be no problem.


Problem 5: The process, and a better way

Next, the process. Let me offer the way I would have done it.

I’d have formed a committee of internal World Athletics people and consultants, because after all, they must be accountable for the outcome. It would consist of technical staff, legal staff, athletes (not linked in any way at all to Nike), and physiologists/biomechanists. Not World Athletics employees, per se, but people whose names they want associated with an important policy or regulation.

Then, given the huge potential for conflicts, knowing how pervasive Nike’s funding of the sport has been for decades, the disclosure of who these people are and what links they have, is a prerequisite for the process to have credibility. That’s not to say that commercial links automatically kill the process, but it needs to be stated. Conflicts of interest can be insidious, indirect, distant even, but just put them out there, and accept that some will dismiss anything, but at least you’ve been transparent.

Next, and here’s the way to transparency, make the process fully accessible to everyone. Not before it happens, because otherwise you run the risk of poisoning the well before you begin. But I’ll tell you what I would have done:

I’d have identified five or six domains that would impact on the viability and validity of any rule. They would be:

  • Physiology – how much advantage do the shoes provide, and what does it mean for performance?
  • Biomechanics – mechanisms, engineering principles, future iterations, predictions etc
  • Legal – patent and commercial law aspects
  • Commercial – implications for the business model of sport, including sponsorships of athletes and events, and contract issues related to commercial agreements
  • Ethics – what are the ethics of accepting tech, including elements such as fairness, cost barriers, access etc?
  • Athletes – the roleplayer who is ultimately affected

Then, what I’d do is invite global input. Form the committee or policy group and then invite the whole world to submit their proposals and insights in those domains. Ask the experts around the globe to submit brief (500 words, maybe) proposals describing the key issues and implications within their domain. Collect and store them all.

Based on these submissions, identify three or four experts in each domain, making sure that you always have a pro vs con, a person arguing for and against the rule scenarios that you know exist. Invite these people to a two or three day meeting at which you hear them present, in detail, their arguments. Have discussions after each presentation, so that your legal experts can comment on the biomechanics, and the biomechanists can add their insights to the commercial issues or physiology considerations. Record everything. Heck, livestream the thing – what have you got to hide, right? It’s not a super sensitivity issue, and even if things come up like some company’s declining sales, you can let those presenters request a “blackout” for that session.

These people could even be industry insiders, like Nike and adidas and asics, who get to lobby briefly for their position, and athletes from both sides. Others must be outsiders, no skin in the game. Objective people who call it as it is, not as they need it to be. The key is that you get people representing both sides of the issue, three to four per domain, and then hear their full arguments.

Once completed, every single submission is made public for the whole world to see. If a physiologist has explained key concerns and principles of performance, and the ethics experts have backed that up with their ethical POV, then let the world see this, and evaluate it themselves. Make this available, either as videos of the presentations and discussions, or written submissions, so that there is maximal transparency.

Then make your decision. Transparent, open, consultative, evidence-based, and considering all factors. Earth-shattering stuff, no?

But no, this being sports governance, it’s happened in secret, with a summary given in the regulation, the usual vacuous nonsense written by a PR person and put into the mouth of the president. Plus, it reached a totally wrong position, but maybe that’s just me.


The better solution

I alluded to this above. In my opinion, the stack height limit at 40mm is way too high. Twice as high, perhaps. I would have gathered evidence on the stack heights of all the racing flats used to win marathons from about 1995 to the present day, and set the stack height limit at the median or mean of that group of shoes. This would probably land close to 20mm.

I believe this would be a significant first step in removing the advantage, because the 20mm ‘space’ afforded is not large enough to allow the ‘play’ we are seeing in shoes now. That space, as mentioned, is the scaffold in which innovation can occur, and it’s so large that clever engineers can do too much to enhance performance without the capacity to regulate. They can curve the plate, they can build up the foam cushioning, they can add the air-pods and other devices, some unknown. Cut that to 20mm, and the problem does not go away entirely, but it is constrained to the point where it becomes a lot more difficult to engineer an advantage that is greater than the difference between athletes.

Plus, it’s easier to regulate in the short term. Perhaps future innovation would overcome this limit, achieving the same gains seen in a 40mm space, because of new materials. But again, the scale of the improvement would be much more difficult to attain. And it could be addressed at the time, perhaps by assessing the components in that space somehow.

But 40mm? That’s what affords the companies the chance to go crazy like we’ll see with this new Alphafly Next%, and also creates the patent issues I mentioned above, the responder vs non-responder separation, and generally does not resolve the problem, but compounds it.


In conclusion

In conclusion, weak, vacuous leadership allowed a vacuum to develop. Nike made an amazing shoe to fill it, sneaking it into the Olympic Games in 2016 (and the US trials before that). At that point, authorities should have intervened, because for all the gaslighting going on in the media explaining away how they couldn’t act, that Nike just played by the rules, did what others had done, at that point, they could well have done something in response to a recognized issue.

By the time the research started to support the obvious, they could have acted again. But no, nothing. Not even the implementation of their own policy, despite being aware of the concerns of athletes like the courageous Kara Goucher.

So we saw Next%, then phase 3, and the sub-2 hour effect, an engineering venture disguised to look like a sports science breakthrough. Now we have “action”. But, in the words of Sebastian Coe, “we don’t believe we can rule out shoes that have been generally available for a considerable period of time”. And so they didn’t.

What Coe conveniently omits is that the only reason those shoes were “available for a considerable period of time” is because you didn’t act when you could have, and should have. You allowed a problem to develop under your noses, and then, pressed into action, did nothing, but pretend that you did, by solving a future problem while leaving the existing one alone. You played a role, possibly more active than will ever be admitted, in the creation of the problem, and now want to play it as though you’ve only just arrived to courageously fix the problem in a diplomatic way, respecting the ‘complexity of the situation and the market’. You don’t get to play that card when you’re responsible for the market in the first place, through inaction borne of who-knows-what or a screwed up moral compass. It’s absurd.

Not only that, but they added a mass of uncertainty to the already non-existent integrity of the outcome, because the policy doesn’t do anything like enough to ensure that tech doesn’t have a bigger effect than physiology on the outcome. So now there can be neither confidence in the process, nor the result. It’s a step backwards, plus it was done in a way that looks more like the regs fit the market, and not the market to fit the regulations.

All in all, it’s sad for running. Among the great appeals of this sport were its simplicity, its accessibility, and the opportunity it gave to celebrate its history, records, breakthroughs. Even PBs outside the spotlight, to the slower mortals among us had meaning because they meant that “I have improved”, not “I am the same runner with a 2% faster time thanks to my purchase last week“.

And while on this subject of breakthroughs and records, please let’s not say stupid things like “We should just run barefoot”, or the common gaslighting method used by many that innovation has always been part of the sport, and the 2016 shoes were way better than Jim Peters and Roger Bannister’s shoes in the 1950s. Yes, but if you’re daft enough to actually entertain the debate about whether Kipchoge is a better runner than Jim Peters, great, but find someone equally daft who’ll have that one. I’d need ten beers for it to even seem worthwhile. Nobody cares. We get it, we expect innovation over many generations.

But what we don’t want is the sudden change of performance at a scale that renders ‘within race’ and ‘between immediate generations’ comparisons utterly invalid. I think it’s a sad loss for the sport, for example, that we cannot truly evaluate Kipchoge in the context of his own peers, many of whom did not have access to the shoes he will. That 2:01:39 of his is impossible to assess relative to the generation immediately before him, and even to some with him. We know he’s the greatest because of the wins, going undefeated since his debut. But even there, might some wins have been losses without the advantage?

Then Bekele got with 2 seconds of him, but he had the Next%, Kipchoge only the 4%. That too is a comparison we can’t make. What a pity, the loss of ability to actually interpret performance because the gains were too large, too fast, too unevenly distributed, thanks to non-existent regulation.

Running was a sport where a limit was set at physiology, not revolutionary equipment. Incremental gains in performance happened thanks to equipment, certainly, but it was spread equally and small enough that it was not decisive. It’s different now, and the the distortion of “input vs output”, the resultant loss of integrity, and the necessary recalibration hurts the sport massively, in my opinion.

The end. Until the marathon goes under 2:01 and then 2:00, which is going to happen really soon. Not to mention track records. So on we go. A bad taste with every great propelled performance.


Disclaimer/conflict of interest statement: Since 2009, adidas SA has sponsored a local road race called Two Oceans, and I wrote training programmes for the public for that event on their behalf. I also provided running training and physiology advice to clubs and at workshops sponsored by adidas SA. I had no involvement with the global parent company on shoe development or sales, and at my request, a contract clause that stipulated that I did not comment on or promote their shoes. If that leads you to dismiss the above arguments, that’s your prerogative, though I’d argue that the criticism here is not of Nike, who in fact are acknowledged for making an amazing shoe, but of the policy that allowed it. Your call on interpretation.

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