Filled with post-EVA foam and a carbon fiber plate, this shoe was designed to increase running efficiency by 6%.
No one has ever run a marathon in less than two hours. In fact, the four fastest marathons in history—all within an 18-second margin—are still about three minutes shy of breaking the barrier. Now, Nike hopes that a crazy-looking pair of shoes will help.
They look something like an early ’80s punk haircut, with a white color fin pointing out the razor-sharp tip of a defiant mohawk. But these kicks are anything but counterculture. The Vaporfly Elite is the result of one of the most advanced R&D projects inside the biggest athletic shoe company in the world—they’re the weapon of choice in Nike’s self-assigned goal of breaking the two-hour marathon.
The Vaporfly lineup includes two consumer products and one concept version. Consumers will be able to buy the Nike Zoom VaporFly 4% ($250) and Nike Zoom Fly ($150), each out in June in limited quantities—they come with the promise of adding 4% average efficiency to your running stride. Meanwhile, a few select pros will get access to a customized alternative that Nike likens to a concept car, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite. Each Elite is bespoke, shaped specifically to the athlete’s foot, layered with more than an inch of material padding, and carved in an aerodynamic fin shape, all with the goal of adding 6% efficiency to the athlete’s run.
The numbers might sound small, but when you’re talking about shaving just minutes off a multi-hour run, these tiny differences matter. It’s all about conserving the power lost in every footfall, and recapturing it in your next step. According to Nike, every 1% of step efficiency boosts speed measurably enough that a shoe that’s 6% more efficient should shave a marathon time down enough to break the two-hour mark.
A NEW PARADIGM
In 2009, barefoot running took the industry by storm thanks largely to one book, Born to Run, which profiled Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe, a group able to run 100 miles at a time over rough terrain. Why? Author Christopher McDougall believed it had to do with the fact that they didn’t wear shoes, and he traced a 40-year correlation between the rise of athletic shoes and sports injuries.
The Vaporfly unabashedly bucks this trend.
The project was born inside Nike’s research labs in 2015—and with several conversations with Nike-sponsored long distance runners. Originally, Nike believed that a track-spike inspired shoe would make the most sense. It was light, and featured a rigid internal plate that maintained energy.
“What we heard from [athletes] was, don’t put me closer to the ground. Concrete hurts, even if you’re an efficient lightweight runner,” says Bret Schoolmeester, senior director of Nike’s Global Running Footwear. “26 miles of pavement takes its toll. They needed more cushioning.”
Continue onto Fast Company to read more about Nike’s innovative new shoes.