With Advanced ‘Vaporfly’ Shoes, Female Runners Close Gap with Males

Female and male runners in starting positions. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

A new paper found that Nike’s advanced ‘Vaporfly’ footwear reduced running times for both elite male and female competitors.

The introduction of the controversial Nike ‘Vaporfly’ shoes saw world records being broken and a marathon run in under two hours, prompting a review and subsequent ban on the high-tech shoes.

The study compared seasonal best times for elite male and female runners in three race categories—10 kilometres, half marathon and marathon races—from 2012 to 2019. Analysis showed a statistically significant decrease in race times after 2017, which coincided with the premiere of the Nike ‘Vaporfly’.

Female elite athletes appeared to gain the most benefit from the design improvement, which features a thicker, lighter foam and rigid plate along the midsole. Their seasonal best times between 2016 and 2019 fell anywhere from 1.7 to 2.3%, versus 0.6 to 1.5% for the men. In marathons, the new shoe technology improved times for females by about 2 minutes and 10 seconds, a 1.7% percent boost in performance.

“As far as chronometric performance is concerned, it is in our opinion a major advancement,” said lead author Dr Stéphane Bermon, director of the World Athletics Health and Science Department.

How the performance has been achieved is still mostly a mystery. The new shoe technology uses the latest generation of lightweight foam in the midsole, which provides the runner with a higher energy return. The embedded stiff plate in the midsole also contributes to maximising energy return in each step. The net effect is to propel the runner forward with greater ease.

The statistical gap between genders was unexpected, said Dr Bermon. One advantage could come down to weight between the sexes.

“Women are lighter and could possibly benefit more from the enhanced rebound effect achieved by the foam/stiff plate combination,” he said. “Their slightly different running pattern, compared to men, could represent a more favorable condition for this footwear technology to play its ergogenic role.”

A previous 2018 statistical analysis had already suggested a 3 to 4% decrease in half marathon and marathon race times based on hundreds of thousands of self-reported results. However, the present study was the first to compare the top seasonal best times for elite athletes.

While East African runners, like Ethiopian and Kenyan, make up the majority of the results as they have come to dominate the sport, the paper noted that non-East-African elite runners showed similar improvements in performance.

“These results confirm that advanced footwear technology has benefits to the elite male and female distance runners,” Dr Bermon said. “Whether this technology will be banned or simply controlled, as it is currently, is still to be decided by World Athletics.”

No immediate follow-up studies are planned, though Dr Bermon said additional research is needed into injury rates with the new footwear with mass adoption.

Source: Medical Xpress

Journal information: Stéphane Bermon et al, Effect of Advanced Shoe Technology on the Evolution of Road Race Times in Male and Female Elite Runners, Frontiers in Sports and Active Living (2021). DOI: 10.3389/fspor.2021.653173

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