From the moment the Nike Vaporfly 4% came out, I’ve been critical and skeptical of them. These are the shoes worn by Eliud Kipchoge and the other top marathoners during their attempt to break the 2 hour marathon. These are the shoes that are supposedly, backed by science, to give you a 4% return on your running pace. From a marketing standpoint, this was genius by Nike! Put the shoes on some world class runners, then tout that it’s the shoes that made them faster. As of now, the shoes are “limited edition” and cost upwards of $300 to get them, $225 if you have a hefty discount.
And the weekend warrior marathoner will PR like there is no tomorrow, right? Well let’s look at the evidence so far.
Here are the shoes in question
These shoes are reported to give a runner a 4% return on their pace. So if you were a marathoner gunning for a 6:00 mile pace, then that would be 14.4 second improvement on every mile ran. So in a marathon of 26 miles, you’re looking at a 6 minute and 14 second PR. So a 2:37 marathoner would drop down to around a 2:31. The slower your marathon PR, the bigger the drop would be. A 3 hour marathoner could drop up to 7 minutes off their time.
So how have these magic shoes fared so far with the top runners? Looking at recent marathon times from the winners or top 5 at world marathons over the past several months, here is what you get.
Eliud Kipchoge – Recent Berlin winner – Previous Best (2:03:05). With 4% (2:03:32)
Shalane Flannagan – Recent NYC winner – Previous Best (2:21:14). With 4% (2:26:53)
Galen Rupp – Recent Chicago Winner – Previous Best (2:09:58). With 4% (2:09:20)
Geoffrey Kamworer – Recent NYC Winner – Previous Best (2:06:12). With 4% (2:10:53)
Wilson Kipsang – 2nd NYC 2018 – Previous Best (2:03:13). With 4% (2:10:56)
Lelisa Desisa – 3rd NYC 2018 – Previous Best (2:04:45). With 4% (2:11:32)
Mamitu Daska – 3rd NYC 2018 – Previous Best (2:21:59). With 4% (2:28:08)
Edna Kiplagat – Boston Winner – Previous Best (2:19:52). With 4% (2:21:52)
Geoffrey Kirui – Boston Winner – Previous Best (2:06:27). With 4% (2:09:37)
As you can see above from these 9 elite runners, you can note that only Galen Rupp improved his previous best, and it was by less than 1 minute. Granted, this is a small sample size and very early in the shoes field testing, but wouldn’t you expect much better improvement across the board for a shoe that nearly promises a 4% return? Nine elite runners on 4 different world marathon courses, and yet, only one runner with a very marginal improvement.
No doubt that all these runners received the shoes for free, so they are out zero investment. If the shoes helped them PR, great, but if not, I doubt they’d have really expected them to help in the first place, but why not rock a pair of free shoes and provide some serious advertising for Nike in the process (likely with a hefty sponsorship deal attached).
But for the amateur marathoner? Here are two solid reviews on the shoe
As can be observed in the reviews, the jury is still out. The sample sizes aren’t large enough yet, and there simply isn’t enough data present. For every one review that say they work, there is supporting evidence that say they don’t. However, what I have found interesting is what the average weekend warrior runner is saying about how comfortable they are, how they seem to keep their mechanics tighter and cleaner for longer periods in their training and racing. As more evidence comes out, it will be interesting to see whether or not these shoes can hold up to the hype.
So what is my issue with them? Well, mainly, I hate gimmicks and particularly hate when runners or athletes look for a quick fix to something that is bigger than just buying a new pair of shoes. A couple years ago, it was the Hoka, now it’s these Vaporfly 4%
For me, as a lifelong runner and a longtime running coach, who has coached hundreds of runners over the years, I know that there is far more to fixing a runner’s form or mechanics than simply changing their shoes. Also, if a runner goes from more of a minimal and low drop shoe, to these big cushioned and clunky 11mm drop 4% shoes, how is that going to effect the mechanics over the long haul?
Also, I know for a fact that a runner can see much more than even a 4% improvement by addressing and fixing faulty running mechanics, as well as by improving their power to ground. I have a bit of anecdotal data myself to support that up too. Below, I am going to give you the top marathon improvement times of runners who have run under the Endurance Project. These runners are ones that I have selected that had run at least two previous marathons prior to joining the Endurance Project. What you will see is their previous marathon time prior to joining the group, and their first marathon with the group after at least 6 months of training under the new program.
Runner Name – Previous Best – DWEP Best
R1 3:45:23 3:30:12
R2 3:20:24 3:03:09
R3 3:55:03 3:28:42
R4 3:45:03 3:22:14
R5 4:05:09 3:26:34
R6 2:50:16 2:39:39
R7 3:40:27 3:32:06
R8 3:04:54 2:52:13
R9 3:28:17 3:14:20
So as you can see above from the nine runners listed, you can note an average of 16 minutes improvement from their previous best marathon times, to their DWEP best marathon time. Many of them have improved further since these “best at the time” PRs.
Note, these runners trained and raced in all types of brands and models of shoes, none that I know of that provided any significant improvement in performance.
If I can essentially guarantee you an improvement like that, why would you want to rely on a pair of shoes? The truth is, humans are all about instant success and gratification. Anywhere we think we can cut corners and take shortcuts, we do, rarely ever addressing the areas where we could see the most long term gain and improvement. This is why diet pills and “8 Minute Abs” type products fly off the shelf.
Why fix your mechanics? Why get a tire and pull it around to improve running economy and power to ground? Why get stronger and fix your running gait and improve stride length, cadence, vertical oscillation? The answer, for most runners is that, they don’t really want to work on the areas that actually will truly work, and will work for the long haul. Instead, they’d rather try to find something that will hopefully work now, whether it be to help performance, or just nurse them down the road until the next injury occurs.
If these shoes truly do give you a 4% increase in performance, is it a form of cheating? The same people who have raised concerns about Galen Rupp injecting l-carnitine as a potential performance enhancer, have yet to say a word about him wearing shoes that are reported to give even a better improvement than the injections. The hypocrisy. Where do we draw the line with our morals and integrity? Why is it acceptable to allow wearable performance enhancers, but not the pharmaceutical kind? Remember back at the 2008 Olympics when 23 out of 25 world records were broken and 98% of the medals won in swimming were by athletes wearing the LZR speedsuit? Which has since been banned, by the way. These suites were said to give a 5.2% advantage against the surface resistance of the water, but once all those records were broken, they decided to ban them from competition because the advantage was just too large.
So, where do we draw the line on what is fair? If a shoe can provide such a drastic improvement on performance, is that right, and is it ethical?
I almost wish I were still able to run and train, because I would like to give these Vaporfly 4% a proper field test and review. So far, I only know of three people personally who have worn them and used them for training and racing, none of which have improved their performances, yet. Maybe if I could get Nike to send me a few pair, I could test them on my high school cross country team, or with some of my top runners in the Endurance Project. Until I can trial them and test them myself, I’m not going to be impressed.
Time will tell!