When Nike embarked on a daring plan to smash two hours into the marathon, the company devoted its vast resources to training three super cleats runners, identifying a perfect course with ideal conditions and, of course, developing finely tuned shoes with innovative new technologies. . The fully custom shoes (called the Zoom Vaporfly Elite) unveiled for the undertwo attempt this spring have reignited the debate about whether a shoe can give a runner an unfair advantage.
Is that okay? The jury hasn’t been decided yet, but the company is applying some of the R&D from its elite “concept car” shoes to two mainstream models, so you can chase faster performance yourself. Utilizing lightweight, durable foam and a stiff carbon fiber plate, the Zoom Vaporfly 4% ($250) is designed to get you there from start to finish using less energy. (A second consumer model, the Zoom Fly, with a different foam and carbon-infused nylon plate, will retail for $150.) The runner’s world Shoe Lab, we tested the Zoom Vaporfly 4% on a former NCAA Division 1 runner who did national championships in the 10,000 meters, at speeds up to 2:17 at marathon pace. Here’s what we found.
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A thin layer of engineered mesh helps keep weight down (a men’s size 10 weighs just 6.9 ounces). It lacks typical reinforcements like overlays and a heel counter, instead relying on thinly padded patches and suede materials inside to secure the foot to the soft platform.
Sandwiched in the midsole foam is an extremely stiff carbon fiber plate that runs from heel to toe. Critics argue that it can provide a spring effect and should be illegal for competition use. But carbon fiber plates have been used in running shoes for decades to provide stiffness. Our lab tests show that this plate extends thrust all the way to the tips of the toes, limiting toe flexion, a common cause of energy loss. The plate is curved to compensate for this stiffness and provide a smooth ride.
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To run fast, you have to stay cool. The mesh upper is dotted with large holes on the toes and along the side of the shoe to efficiently release heat.
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Unexpectedly, there is plenty of foam underfoot for a running shoe. Stack heights (a measurement of all materials between your foot and the road) are 35.7 millimeters in the heel and 24.8 mm in the forefoot, on par with heavier daily training shoes . Forefoot cushioning is great, but the heel cushions impact better than any shoe we tested in the lab. This exceptional combination of thick cushioning and high energy return allows the runner to sink deep into the foam without penalty. The 11mm heel-to-toe drop minimizes stress on the Achilles tendon and provides a feeling of falling forward at a rapid pace.
The tapered heel that comes to a sharp point screams “quick,” and Nike claims it makes the shoe more aerodynamic by reducing drag, the turbulent wake behind an object as air passes it. However, the maximum drag when running occurs when the toes are pointing down and air is flowing over the upper surface of the upper. Although it looks sporty, we found the heel has minimal performance benefit.
The key to the shoe’s speed is a new lightweight foam called ZoomX. In our lab tests, the shoe provided 80% energy return in the heel and 77% in the forefoot, the highest values ever recorded in our lab. Our runner experienced an average of 4% less muscle activity in the quadriceps, gastrocnemius (calf), and tibialis anterior (shin) muscles, consistent with Nike’s energy-saving claims. His heart rate (172 bpm) was also lower than when he wore two control models (180 bpm), indicating less effort needed to maintain a steady pace.
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