This Friday, World Athletics is expected to report on the findings of an expert panel 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 such as ‘cheaterfly’ and ‘shoe doping’, will receive its verdict from the running governing body.
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A short story
In 2016, the Nike Vaporfly made its Olympic Trials debut. There, the shoe was at the feet of Shalan Flanagan (who would later make the team) among several other selected Nike athletes. From there, the shoe gained mainstream notoriety when another version was worn by Eliud Kipchoge in 2017 during the first marathon attempt in less than two, known as Project Breaking2. Since then, there have been several prototypes and retail releases of the latest Vaporfly – Nike retail release in the form of the Next%.
Road racing competition runs deeper than ever – and not just among the elite, among all racers. It’s not all because of the great Nike shoes, but most believe they are a major contributing factor. There’s no way to realistically ban a shoe that millions of people own, but in theory the Alphafly could be taken out of the game. It’s the shoe that only a handful of runners have worn, including understood 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 will happen.
Decision this Friday…here is 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
Going faster is not a bad thing
Technological innovation is constantly improving the sport. Runners used to compete on dirt tracks, in leather shoes, and women ran (when allowed to compete) in dresses. Today, Mondo tracks are recognized as the fastest in the world, women compete in uniforms conducive to high performance, and shoes help runners go faster than ever.
Nike shoes draw enormous attention to the sport of running. Casual fans know the world’s best from Alphafly and Kipchoge. Millions watched as the runner broke the marathon’s two-hour barrier, a feat that many attribute at least in part to new shoe technology. World Athletics might not be interested in losing that attention and decide to make this shoe an integral part of the evolution of the sport.
RELATED: Eliud Kipchoge Runs Fastest Marathon in History, 1:59:40
Other companies are catching up
Almost every major shoe brand has a carbon-plated racing prototype with a significant stack height. If World Athletics were to ban the Alphafly, what would happen to the other shoes that are about to be released?
Over time, it became apparent 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 integrated carbon fiber plate, contributed to a significant drop in marathon times at all levels. But Adidas runners debuted an Alphafly-esque shoe at the Houston Marathon, Hoka runners are lacing up a prototype, as are Saucony athletes. The fact that other companies are catching up hurts the argument that Nike runners have an unfair advantage. If other brands can hit the market with a comparable shoe, then the Alphafly might not look so dominant anymore.
Among runners using Strava, the fastest growing shoe in 2019 wasn’t the Nike Vaporfly or NEXT%, as you might expect. In fact, they’re not even close. That accolade belonged to Hoka’s Carbon X, the brand’s carbon racing shoe introduced last summer and worn by the two-time Western States champion. Jim Walmsley when he set the 50 mile world record in California in May 2019.
Few sports have succeeded in banishing new technologies
Cycling and swimming are two sports that have succeeded in disqualifying certain technologies in competition, but few others have been able to follow suit. In swimming, the rewrite of the Beijing Olympic record table led to the LZR swimsuit being banned. In cycling, aero bars were banned in road racing (but this was on the basis of rider safety versus their mechanical advantage).
The shoe will not be prohibited, it will be limited
Stack height is the only thing World Athletics could apparently act on and enforce. If they settled on a maximum shoe height, it could level the playing field.
In the Alphafly, not only is the foam midsole specially constructed, but it contains up to three layers of carbon fiber plates, and there are also two stacked forefoot chambers that can be filled with air, liquid or foam (or a combination thereof). This combination has been referred to as a “club sandwich” of cushioning. By limiting the height of the stack, World Athletics would limit the amount of foam underfoot – the so-called secret sauce of the unreleased Nike shoe.
Saucony Athlete Jared Neighborhood said the same when talking about the prototype he helped build. Ward said Podium runner in July that he was only focusing on the weight of a shoe, but lately he’s been more interested in a cushioned midsole. “The shoes [Saucony’s first prototype] felt so much better than the minimalist runners I used. I especially noticed it on the descents. They absorbed so much more shock. I could really let loose and go strong without worrying about breaking my legs.
If riders from other companies recognize that the advantage is in the foam, perhaps a stack height limit could be the answer. In this case, the Alphafly would probably still go on the market, but modified to meet the new criteria.