Will Nike Vaporfly help me run faster, and are they worth the cost?
Worn by Eliud Kipchoge to run the fastest-ever marathon, these shoes are proven to boost running times
Nike Vaporfly 4%: the shoe of choice for champion marathon runners
What are Nike Vaporfly?
Vaporfly running shoes were first developed as prototypes for the 2016 Rio Olympics – as it turned out they were worn by the top three finishers in the men’s marathon (including gold medal winner Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya). Nike then formally launched their new Vaporfly 4% at the “Breaking-2 Project” in Monza, Italy in 2017, a special event organised by the company, where Kipchoge attempted to become the first man in history to run a marathon in under two hours.
He finished in 2:00:25, coming closer than most people predicted. His time was attributed in part to his wearing of Vaporfly, which Nike claimed improved running efficiency by 4 per cent. Around the same time they went on sale to the general public, and soon become the running shoe of choice for anyone looking for that extra edge in their performance – no matter how fast their marathon aspirations. The controversy over their use was just beginning.
How much do they cost?
The Vaporfly 4% sell for €250. Last April, just before the London marathon, Nike released an updated Vaporfly Next%, which will set you back €275. They are only available through official Nike outlets, often in limited quantities and a limited set of colours, such as bright pink and neon green.
What is special about the design?
The patented design of the shoe has two standout features: a thick midsole made from a super-bouncy foam known as Pebax, with a spoon-shaped carbon fibre plate embedded into the forefoot of this midsole which helps create a spring or levering effect. They are also built to be as streamlined as possible, and almost pointed on the back of the heel to ensure maximum aerodynamics.
How big a difference do they make?
Nike’s claim of 4 per cent improvement in running efficiency appears to hold up. Last month, the New York Times ran a report under the headline: Nike’s Fastest Shoes May Give Runners an Even Bigger Advantage Than We Thought. Their data, based on race results from more than one million marathons or half marathons in dozens of countries from April 2014 to December 2019, suggested that runners wearing Vaporfly 4% or Vaporfly Next% ran 4 to 5 per cent faster than a runner wearing an average running shoe.
Aside from the extra efficiency, are they good for your feet/knees/body?
The design of the shoe does not take from stability or comfort in any way. Most running injuries, especially around the feet and knee, can be traced to poor running efficiency, so any shoe that improves efficiency can only help reduce injury. The extra cushioning also takes significant impact off the legs and lower back.
Have you used them?
Since purchasing my first pair of Vaporfly 4% in early 2018, they’ve been put through a few personal time trails, and they certainly “feel” fast. I haven’t yet put them through the 26.2 mile marathon distance where the biggest advantage would be felt, but when it comes to my faster runs on flat roads or hills, these are unquestionably the best running shoes I have ever worn.
Is there any further evidence that they work?
In the 2018 Berlin Marathon, Kipchoge took the world marathon record down to 2:01:39, the first official time below 2:02 and the biggest improvement on a men’s marathon world record in 51 years. Nike then gently tweaked the shoe again, and wearing what was dubbed the ZoomX AlphaFLY, Kipchoge ran an “unofficial” 1:59:40 in another staged marathon in Vienna last October.
Later that month, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei won the Chicago Marathon and broke Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old world record with her 2:14:04, also running in the Vaporfly Next%.
At the Valencia Marathon in December, Irish marathon runner Paul Pollock ran five minutes faster than his previous best when clocking 2:10:25, earning his qualification for next year’s Tokyo Marathon, while wearing Vaporfly Next%. Only John Treacy, with his 2:09:15 from 1988, has gone faster in the history of Irish distance running.
Are they suitable for a park runner/occasional 10k-er/half-marathon runner/regular marathon runner?
The evidence would suggest yes. Go to any local parkrun or look along the start line of any major marathon and Vaporfly shoes are appearing with increasing regularity. It seems the longer the distance, the bigger the advantage, although anyone looking to knock a few seconds off their 5km time may well look to the Vaporfly too. There may also be some placebo effect at play, as anyone wearing the Vaporfly will believe they should be running faster, improved efficiency or not.
I hear World Athletics is considering banning them. Are they strictly fair?
World Athletics, the governing body of the sport, has a rule which states “any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics”, and must also not be constructed “so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage”. There is clearly some advantage here, but if the shoes are available to all, it makes banning them tricky.
World Athletics has set up a working group, including former athletes and experts across sports science, ethics and biomechanics, to look into the Nike Vaporfly and decide if the advantage is unfair or otherwise. They are unlikely to ban the shoe in its current form, but are expected to limit the midsole to 30mm, thereby prohibiting the even thicker midsole of the ZoomX AlphaFLY, which is not yet available to the public.
How often do they have to be replaced?
The only issue with Vaporfly, it seems, is that they break down quicker than the average running shoe, in part because of their lightweight construction (my big toe has burst through the forefoot of all three pairs I’ve owned). They do appear to retain most of the “spring” in the foam, however.
If I wasn’t buying these, what other new shoes would be a good buy at the moment?
There is also the Nike Zoom Fly model, which is essentially the same shoe as the Vaporfly only without the carbon fibre plate, which cost €160. By my reckoning they are every bit as good, if not quite as fast. Brand rivals Adidas are also developing their own thick mid-soled shoe which is due for release shortly (assuming it’s not banned in the meantime). Most other leading brands have a similar model, including New Balance, Saucony, and the increasingly popular HOKA brand, already known for their cushioning.