Are Super Shoes Worth The Hype, Or Are They Just A Hoax?

What the research has to say on how effective super shoes really are

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If you’ve been hitting the pavement or trails lately, you’ve probably heard about the game-changing ‘super shoes‘ that promise to take your running experience to new heights.

But with all the buzz comes controversy, leaving many of us wondering: do these shoes really make a difference? 

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The introduction of carbon-fiber plates and lightweight foam in super shoes has brought about a paradigm shift in the world of elite running. These innovative technologies in super shoes promise enhanced efficiency and speed, but they have also sparked intense debates within competitive running circles.

We took a look at recent research data to break down the impact of super shoes on the running times of both elite and regular runners, steering clear of jargon and getting to the heart of what matters.

How Popular Have Super Shoes Become In Elite Running?

It’s nearly impossible these days to watch any sort of elite running race where the best of the best aren’t seen donning super shoes.

But how rapidly have super shoes taken over the elite field?

According to the research, since 2021, 92% of the top 100 runners in both men’s and women’s fields in elite races over 10k are toeing the line in carbon-plated super shoes.

The presence of super shoes among the top 100 runners in races over 10k has grown exponentially since 2017:

MenWomen
201713%11%
201845%38%
201965%59%
202088%88%
2021-202392%92%
adidas evo

How Much Faster Can The Fast Runners Get Wearing Vapourflys?

An intriguing aspect of the research is the discernible differences in the impact of super shoes, specifically Nike Vaporflys, on elite men and women running the 10,000m, 10k road race, half marathon, and full marathon.

Researchers wanted to figure out how much faster people became when they wore the coveted Nike Vaporfly shoes. 

So, let’s break down the findings about how much runners’ times might improve when they switch to Nike Vaporfly shoes.

They found that, on average, men’s times improved by about 2.1%, with some variation among individuals. For women, the improvement was around 1.4%, again with some differences between people.

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Here’s where it gets even more interesting: these numbers don’t match up with what some other studies found when looking at super shoes in general (not specifically Nike Vaporflys). Another study in 2021 suggested that women might actually benefit more from super shoes, with an improvement of 2.6%, compared to men’s 2.0%.

Now, if the advantage of super shoes is only 1.4% for women or even less, it’s easier to say that any reduction in race times is likely because of the shoes. 

On the flip side, if the advantage for men is not 2% but rather a whopping 2.6%, it becomes hard to believe that these relatively small improvements can be solely attributed to the shoes.

The original research from 2017 suggested that a 4% energy savings with super shoes should lead to a massive 3.4% improvement in running speed at the world record marathon pace

To keep things straightforward, most people use the 2% figure when talking about super shoes, and that’s what the graphs in the study are based on. The point here is that these numbers are a bit tricky, and figuring out the exact impact of super shoes on running times is still a bit of a puzzle.

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How Super Shoes Impact Race Times Over Different Distances

Top-100 Men’s Average 10,000 Meter Time:

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Findings: In the 10,000 meters, times in 2023 were similar to predictions made before super shoes. But, when they looked at men’s performances without super shoes, there was a big increase.

Conclusion: The data makes it hard to say the better performance is only because of super shoes.

Top-100 Men’s Average 10K Time:

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Findings: In the 10K road race, times in 2022 and 2023 dropped a lot, not reaching the 2% improvement predicted by super shoes. 2020 had slower times due to many race cancellations during the pandemic.

Conclusion: Even though times got better, it’s not exactly as much as predicted by super shoe models.

Top-100 Men’s Average Half Marathon Time:

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Findings: In 2023, men’s half marathon times were close to predictions from 2001 to 2016, not the faster times predicted by super shoes. Times below 60 minutes in 2022 were a big deal, but it matched the gradual improvements over the past 21 years, not just super shoes.

Conclusion: The impact of super shoes on men’s half marathon times might not be as big as expected.

Top-100 Men’s Average Marathon Time:

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Findings: In 2023, the improvement in marathon times was similar to half marathons, not hitting the 2% improvement predicted by super shoes.

Conclusion: There’s no clear big change in men’s long-distance running times since super shoes became popular.

Overall Men’s Race Times:

Looking at all the data, there’s no significant shift in men’s running times in the seven years since super shoes became popular. Any improvements seem small and not like a game-changer.

Top-100 Women’s Average 10,000 Meter Time:

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Findings: Women’s performances in the past three years were better than predicted by the trend, reaching a 2% improvement below the established trend.

Conclusion: There’s a good chance super shoes played a significant role in these recent improvements for women.

Top-100 Women’s Average 10K Time:

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Findings: In the 10K road race, women’s times in 2022 and 2023 were even better than predicted by super shoes.

Conclusions: Super shoes might have helped women improve their times in the 10K road race.

Top-100 Women’s Average Half Marathon Time:

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Findings: Women’s half marathon times improved a lot from 2006 to 2017. The improvements continued in 2018-2019 and matched the 2% increase predicted by super shoes in 2022-2023.

Conclusion: Women’s half marathon times improved rapidly, but it’s not clear if super shoes are the main reason.

Top-100 Women’s Average Marathon Time:

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Findings: Women’s marathon times decreased by 15 seconds per year until 2016, and the last two years were in line with the 2% super shoe projection.

Conclusion: Women’s marathon times improved, and super shoes might have contributed, but the drop in times in 2022 is puzzling.

Overall Women’s Race Times:

Overall, women experienced a more significant time decrease in race times when wearing super shoes compared to men.

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Factors That Could Be Influencing Times:

  1. Placebo Effect: Researchers suspect that if people believed in super shoes, it would positively impact performance and race times.
  2. More Runners: The increasing number of elite runners might be why average times are getting better. For example, in 2020, fewer runners led to slower times.
  3. Elite-of-the-Elite: The very best runners might not benefit as much from super shoes due to their intense training and being closer to their performance ceiling.
  4. Different Responses: Some runners might get a huge boost from super shoes, while others see smaller benefits. This could also explain the differences between men and women.
  5. Real-World Improvement: The actual benefit of super shoes in real conditions might be less than 2%.
  6. Accuracy of Calculations: There could still be errors in the calculations.
  7. Race Course and Conditions: Different race conditions would also be affecting times.
  8. Training Methods: Changes in training methodology can also result in more efficient improvements in running times.
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How About Mere Mortals Who Use Super Shoes?

Now, what about the effectiveness of super shoes for us regular runners? This is a question that has mostly been studied in the context of elite athletes

The technology in these shoes, including ultra-compressible foam, a carbon-fiber plate, and a rockered geometry, has been shown to provide a 2.7–4.2 percent boost in running economy for the elite runners, requiring less energy to maintain the same pace. 

Previous studies, however, have usually focused on speeds of 7:26/mile or faster, equivalent to a marathon time of 3:15 or faster.

A recent study led by Dustin Joubert, Ph.D., a kinesiology professor, addressed whether super shoes offer advantages to slower-paced runners. 

The findings suggest that, indeed, there is a benefit, although it’s less pronounced. 

Testing the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next% 2 on 16 runners with slower paces, the study discovered a 1.4 percent improvement in running economy at an 8:00/mile pace and 0.9 percent at a 9:40/mile pace, compared to the stark 2.7–4.2 percent advantage seen at faster speeds.

The study delves into the mechanics behind these results, suggesting that the foam’s compression, a crucial aspect of the shoes’ advantage, may be less pronounced at slower speeds. 

Additionally, the stiffness of the carbon plate might contribute differently, even potentially impairing running economy at slower paces. Notably, a third of the participants in this study showed worse running economy at a slower pace in super shoes.

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When considering whether you want to drop a few hundred dollars on super shoes, the importance of personal considerations can’t be understated. Before investing, you should consider things like comfort, shoe rotation to prevent overuse injuries, and exploring various styles and brands

Furthermore, there are many performance variables that extend beyond shoes. Running economy is just a single factor influencing performance, with other aspects like nutrition, sleep, and training consistency playing crucial roles, especially for us mere mortals

So, for us regular joes, we can still expect some benefit from wearing super shoes, but there are a few more considerations to take into account before spending a small fortune on the latest carbon-plated race shoe.

Photo of author
Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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