Should you believe the hype surrounding running-shoe tech?
Full disclosure: I’m an oddity, a cross-breed. That rare specimen of geek: a borderline-obsessive runner and technophile. When people say chips and drinks, I think accelerometers and water rather than deep-fried potatoes and beer.
Back in April, I ran eight marathons in 20 days on three continents, including the Marathon des Sables, the Boston Marathon and finally the London Marathon. I tracked every one of the 208 miles using a fleet of running watches; my clothes were lined with the latest cooling systems; even my sunglasses were hi-tech, with adaptive lenses and ultra-light frames. The point is, I’m a believer in running tech. I cover a lot of miles, and I turn to technology to help me be a better runner. In theory at least.
For the past five years, I’ve had the pleasure (and sometimes pain) to test out pairs of the latest running shoes. From the Swedish-made Airia and the barefoot Vibram Fivefingers, right through to Reebok’s new Pumps and the latest offerings from Adidas and Nike.
Almost every new pair of running shoes comes with the boast that it can revolutionise the way we move across the ground. The brands, big and small, use a bewitching concoction of technology-sports-science wrapped up in marketing speak, to appeal to people like me who will try anything to go faster, further or to just stay injury-free.
The array of buzzwords is dizzying; the big brands all competing with a barrage of high-tech-sounding terminology. Asics’ trainers sport the Impact Guidance System, GEL cushioning system, Speva Midsole, DuoMax and Space Trusstic technologies. Not that Asics is the worst offender in this regard. Similarly, Brooks’ range of shoes are tagged with marketing spiel including DNA, BioMoGo, Diagonal Rollbar, HPR Green… And that’s just the half of it.
Even as an experienced runner, and someone who translates technical information for a living, it feels like you need a sports-science degree to understand how these technologies work and what the potential benefits are.
For that reason, I won’t attempt to explain what all these labels means. The truth is I don’t really know (I’m not sure anyone does). What I do know is that all of this innovation has two main objectives.
First, it wants to make you run faster and more efficiently by working with your biomechanics to enhance your running style. This basically means getting maximum energy return from each foot strike, putting more power into your stride while encouraging better form and reducing energy loss from ground impact.
“Runners are among the most injured sportspeople, with as much as 80% of runners gaining some kind of injury each year.”
Second, there’s injury prevention. According to research, runners are among the most injured sportspeople, with as much as 80% of runners gaining some kind of injury each year. Shoemakers have introduced clever cushioning systems to soften the impact and new designs that claim to provide support for the foot where it needs it most. But despite their best efforts to cut the injury rates, the numbers remain high. Technology doesn’t seem to be working.
“Running shoes can minimise injury risk factors, but you can put the theoretically best running shoe on a runner who is poorly conditioned and it will make no difference whatsoever,” said Mark Gallagher, an elite sports podiatrist from Pure Sports Medicine. “There’s a responsibility on the runner to have a level of strength and conditioning to commence a running programme in the first place.”
Some experts go still further, arguing that modern running shoes with all their fancy technology are actually the problem.
In his smash-hit book Born to Run, journalist Christopher McDougall reasserted a damning argument first proposed by Steven Robbins in the 1980s: that modern running shoes actually increase the injury rate by promoting unnatural stride and encouraging movement that places undue strain on the tissues of the lower extremities.
“How much support does the foot need? Barefoot runners will say very little.”
It’s one of the biggest debates in running tech. How much support does the foot need? Barefoot runners will say very little. This tribe of runners have turned their back on technology, going back to basics with minimalist shoes that let the foot do more of the work “naturally”. Many barefoot converts are also long-term sufferers of common running injuries such as plantar fasciitis or runner’s knee, and they claim that ditching the over-engineered shoe has put an end to their injuries.
The barefoot argument is a very persuasive one. Particularly when you consider the fact modern running shoes didn’t exist before 1972 and that we’d been running perfectly well, technology-free, for millions of years before that. When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile he did so wearing shoes that looked like someone had hammered tacks through a pair of 17th-century leather slippers. He didn’t need anything fancy to give him the edge.
A whole lot of waffle?
“Bowerman went out to his workshop and poured rubber into his family’s waffle iron. The famous Nike waffle sole was born.”
But in 1972 that all changed when Nike founder Bill Bowerman basically invented the modern running shoe. The story goes that, after deciding his running team needed better running shoes, Bowerman went out to his workshop and poured rubber into his family’s waffle iron. The famous Nike waffle sole was born. This would be the first in a long line of technological inventions that would turn Nike into a global giant and give the company a back story to prove it has innovation in its DNA.
At the Adidas headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany, you’ll find a similar story. The company also has a Hall of Fame, a walkthrough installation that celebrates its own huge leaps forward in running shoe and sports technology.
Peeking behind the curtain
It’s impossible to visit the Nike and Adidas HQs without feeling that technology is the way we’re going to get faster; that innovation in design and materials are where all the answers lie rather than in the human body itself. There’s a tech narrative that underlines every picture, statue and piece of memorabilia paying homage to the sports stars who achieved great feats wearing their gear.
The concept is simple: when Michael Johnson was at his unstoppable best, he was wearing the latest hi-tech Nike kit. When Haile Gebrselassie was putting the world’s best distance runners to the sword, he was flying along in the latest Adidas shoes.
It’s a powerful message. If it’s good enough for the world elites, it must be good enough for us amateurs. All the big brands need to do is sponsor the best athletes in the world, tout the revolutionary tech that played a crucial part in their success, and watch as the trainers fly off the shelves.
That’s the cynical view at least; I believe there’s more to it than that.
On the different occasions that I’ve visited Nike and Adidas, I’ve had unprecedented access to their innovation labs. It’s the sports equivalent of being invited into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Inside these state-of-the-art labs, you’ll find millions of pounds’ worth of the latest sports-science tech; from motion-capture systems to pressure plates, and even climate chambers capable of recreating any weather conditions on the planet. All this advanced equipment is being used by some of the world’s leading scientists to look for new ways to get the edge.
It’s all serious stuff, as Matthew Nurse, director of Nike Sports Research Lab, explained when I visited back in 2013.
“We can objectively quantify athletes in motion, the environments they play in and the demands of the sport,” Nurse said.
“We can quantify and understand Nike’s different product innovations, how they affect athletes in the way they perform, the way they’re protected and the perception they have of those different products. [This gives us] an understanding of how an intervention [such as a new pair of running shoes] contributes to their overall performance as they do the different movements.”
Adidas is no different. The company’s Boost foam claims to feature “thousands of visible energy capsules that store and unleash endless energy every time your foot hits the ground”. This foam was developed in their Herzo labs, based on scientific research done by Adidas’ team of experts. When you see these facilities up close, it’s hard to deny the levels of research going into developing new products. The “innovations” we see hit the shelves are the results of years of research and development, and are certainly more than just fancy labels. On some level the marketing speak is based on science. Whether you believe the science is another debate entirely.
“I believe there’s a theoretical foundation for the concepts that the companies are putting forward, but the methodologies they employ to fully assess are not at times valid,” said podiatrist Mark Gallagher, who has worked with hundreds of runners at all levels. “Sample size is also an issue. When you look at the Adidas Boost, for example, the studies were small-scale and [on] asymptomatic well-conditioned athletes – as most of the studies are. Therefore, to make a claim it is the best running shoe in the world, the question is: for who and why?”
“I think we can be confident that developments such as upper fit and [Nike’s] Flyknit technology are evidence-based, as these are measurable variables,” he added. “The Flyknit upper system has improved the fit and behaviour in the uppers, which has been overlooked for so long. Having a well-fitting trainer is a big part of having a stable foot to be functioning with.”
So should you believe the hype surrounding running-shoe tech? Without your own million-dollar testing facilities and team of experts, you have little option but to apply common sense and treat any claims about big improvements with a pinch of electrolytes.
Next time you’re out buying a pair of running shoes, I suggest you ignore the price tags and forget the fancy terminology. Go to a shop where you can try on as many different shoes as possible and don’t stop trying them on until you find one that you instantly forget you’re wearing. Then buy it in the brightest colour they have. A man in lurid green shoes has to run fast. That’s a fact.