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Do running shoes make you faster?

Elite athletics may swear by them, but for the average Joe, do running shoes make you faster?

Sportswear brand Nike is leading the charge when it comes to “great shoes” having specifically developed a pair to help Eliud Kipchoge break the marathon record in under two hours. But with a whopping £240/$300 price tag on the rise, is it really worth buying a pair of shoes thinking they’ll make you run faster? Is it better to spend your time focusing on a quality training program and spend your money on one of the best running watches (opens in a new tab) In place?

To answer that question, it’s important to understand the technology behind the new line of super shoes and whether they stand up to scientific scrutiny.

We spoke to three running experts – Hannah Rice (opens in a new tab)associate professor of biomechanics at the Norwegian School of Sports Science, Dr. Sam Allen (opens in a new tab)lecturer in biomechanics at Loughborough University and Kate Carter (opens in a new tab)running journalist and coach – to learn more about the impact that shoes can have on running performance.

Do running shoes make you faster?

Woman running in urban area

(Image credit: Getty)

In a word, yes. “The evidence is pretty compelling, especially for long-distance races,” Rice says. Specific shoe technology allows athletes to run at faster speeds while working at the same physiological intensity and consuming the same amount of oxygen.

“The theory is that these shoes work by improving running economy. Your running energy cost improves by an average of 4%. This translates to improved performance,” Allen adds.

In a peer-reviewed article published in Sports Medicine (opens in a new tab) in 2017, researchers concluded that the Nike Super Shoe prototype reduced the energy cost of running by an average of 4%. They predicted that with these shoes, elite athletes could run much faster and complete the first marathon under two hours.

Just two years later, Kenya’s Eluid Kipchoge (pictured below at the Tokyo Olympics) became the first man to break two hours for the Vienna Marathon, wearing a Nike AlphaFly prototype. He was also wearing a version of the shoes when he set the official world record of 2:01.39, the biggest improvement in over 50 years.

Eluid Kipchoge at the Tokyo Olympics

(Image credit: Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the Zoom Vaporfly hit the market in 2016, athletes have been breaking records all over the world. An analysis of global rankings showed that in 2019 twice as many men ran a marathon in under 2:10 and twice as many women in under 2:27 compared to 2016.

Shoe mass, cushioning and flex stiffness all affect the energy cost of running and by designing a shoe that increases running economy, the Vaporfly was able to improve runner performance.

An analysis of nearly half a million marathons and half-marathons recorded between 2014 and 2018 found that runners wearing Vaporfly ran between 3% and 4% faster than similar runners wearing other shoes.

“Technically, they allow you to maintain your speed longer because they make you more efficient. Everyone’s shape disintegrates over time and these shoes keep it at bay longer,” says Carter.

Which shoes are the best?

Nike Vaporfly Pro%2

(Image credit: Nike)

Not all great shoes are created equal. There have been a limited number of comparative studies to date, but a peer review article in shoe science (opens in a new tab) released earlier this year concluded that only the Asics Metaspeed Sky featured similar run economy improvements to the Nike Vaporfly Next %2 (shown above) and Nike AlphaFly.

The other highly cushioned carbon plated shoes in the study had “inferior” running economy improvements. These were the Hoka Rocket X, Saucony Endorphin Pro, New Balance RC Elite, Brooks Hyperion Elite 2, and a traditional running shoe, the Asics Hyperspeed. The research team concluded that athletes competing in one of the other shoes were likely to be “at a competitive disadvantage”.

While there’s no doubt that the Nike Vaporfly and AlphaFly are the fastest shoes on the market, there are more affordable alternatives worth considering.

A study of Nike Vaporfly 4% and Saucony Endorphin Racer 2 published in the Journal of Sport and Health Sciences (opens in a new tab) found that both shoes improved running economy in male recreational runners compared to their regular running shoes. Most runners – 61% – ran their fastest 3km time trial wearing Nike shoes. The sample size was only 18 male runners, but that suggests Saucony is a viable and more affordable option.

Saucony Endorphin Pro

(Image credit: Saucony)

“I really like the Saucony Endorphin Pro [pictured above]. They’re better value and while they don’t quite give you the kick and kick of the Nike, they’re so comfortable and they last a long time,” says Carter. Compare that to the Nike Vaporfly that would only last 200 miles of running.

But beware, these shoes are not allowed in all types of races. According to World Athletics rules, the stack height for road races is limited to 40mm – the precise size of Nike Vaporfly. Pile is measured as the amount of material between your foot and the ground, and is considerably meaty in super shoes because that’s where elastic velocity comes from.

But track racing is a whole different story. None of these great shoes are allowed on the track as the regulations are for a 20-25mm stack. Track runners tend to run either on spikes or traditional running flats.

What contributes to the performance of a shoe?

Person tying a running shoe on a bench

(Image credit: Getty)

It is crucial to learn how running shoes should fit (opens in a new tab). The first key factor is the foam in the midsole. The technical name is Pebax, but Nike calls it ZoomX. This foam is very strong and flexible, which means that it compresses under load, but also returns a significant amount of energy. This makes it soft while being elastic. Indeed, it is like running on a trampoline.

The other important thing is that the foam is incredibly light. Keeping weight low is crucial because for every 100g of mass added per shoe, the energy cost of running increases by 1%. But even with a 40mm thick midsole, the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%2 still weighs less than 200g.

When the Vaporfly was first unveiled, a lot of noise was made about the carbon plate, with many experts speculating that the plate also acted as a spring. But a later study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Sciences (opens in a new tab) found that the spring function of the plate was negligible. Instead, the researchers hypothesized that the energy savings were “a combination and interaction of foam, geometry, and plate.” Researchers now believe that foam is far more important than plate when it comes to running economy.

Could running shoes slow you down?

All our experts agreed on that. Running in shoes won’t slow you down. “There’s no evidence that running barefoot makes you faster. There’s also little evidence that running barefoot reduces the risk of injury,” Rice says.

Find the best running shoes on sale (opens in a new tab) to energize your next jog.


Further reading:

A comparison of running economy across seven highly cushioned running shoes with carbon fiber plates (opens in a new tab)

Longitudinal flex stiffness does not affect running economy in Nike Vaporfly shoes (opens in a new tab)

Metabolic responses and performance of male runners wearing 3 types of shoes: Nike Vaporfly 4%, Saucony Endorphin running flats and their own shoes (opens in a new tab)

A comparison of the energy cost of running in marathon running shoes (opens in a new tab)