Controversial Nike Vaporfly Running Shoes Cut Female Athletes’ Personal Best Times More Than Men’s

MONACO — New, state-of-the-art running shoes have allowed elite female long-distance athletes to improve their personal best times more than male athletes, research reveals. Top runners, especially women, have cut their best times by up to three percent since introducing Nike’s controversial “advanced shoe technology” five years ago, according to the results.

When Nike introduced the shoes in 2017, the question arose whether the new design would significantly affect performance in professional sports. The study finds that the shoes actually reduced race times for elite competitors.

Researchers analyzed the seasonal best times of elite male and female runners over three running distances – ten kilometer, half marathon and marathon – between 2012 and 2019. They found a statistically significant decrease in running times after 2017, which coincided with the premiere of the Nike Vaporfly 4% shoe.

Female athletes seem to get the most out of the new design, which features thicker, lighter foam and a stiff plate along the midsole. Their best seasonal times between 2016 and 2019 fell by 1.7-2.3%, compared to 0.6-1.5% for men. For example, new shoe technology has improved women’s marathon times by about two minutes and ten seconds, a 1.7% increase in performance.

“As far as timing performance is concerned, in our opinion this is a major step forward,” says the study’s lead author, Dr Stéphane Bermon, director of the Health and Science Department of World Athletics in Monaco, in a press release. He says the mechanics behind the performance improvements remain a mystery.

Why are Nike Vaporfly running shoes controversial?

Dr. Bermon explains that one of the benefits of the new shoe technology is that it uses the latest generation of lightweight foam in the midsole, which provides the runner with higher energy return. The stiff plate built into the midsole also helps maximize energy return with every step: the shoe works to propel the runner forward with a little less effort.

The statistical gender gap was unexpected, admits Bermon. One advantage could come down to gender differences in weight. “Women are lighter and could possibly benefit more from the improved rebound effect achieved by the foam/stiff plate combination. Their slightly different running pattern than men could represent a more favorable condition for this shoe technology to play. its ergogenic role,” he says.

A statistical analysis conducted in 2018 had previously suggested a 3-4% decrease in running times for half-marathons and marathons based on hundreds of thousands of self-reported results. However, the present study was the first to examine the seasonal best times of elite athletes.

While the research included a majority of results from East African runners, including Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes, who came to dominate the sport, the study notes that non-East African elite runners experienced similar performance improvements. “These results confirm that advanced shoe technology has benefits for elite male and female distance runners,” says Dr. Bermon.

“Whether this technology will be banned or simply controlled, as it is now, remains to be decided by World Athletics,” he added. He says more research is needed to understand whether the mass adoption of new shoes by recreational and elite runners is causing more or less injury.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in sport and working life.

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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