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CU Boulder Researchers Delve into Why Nike’s VaporFly is Propelling Runners to Top Finishes

November 22, 2018

The Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% shoe being tested at the University of Colorado.

A new study from researchers at the University of Colorado published this week explains why Nike’s VaporFly 4% shoes have had so much success in reducing the amount of energy expended during marathons, and why five out of the top six finishers at the New York Marathon happened to be wearing them.

A follow-up to a previous study that concluded the VaporFly reduces the amount of energy needed to run by an average of 4 percent and gave the shoe its curious name, the new research sheds light on what exactly gives the shoe an edge over its competitors.

“Life and science is a bit like peeling the layers of an onion, so at first I was like ‘wow, this is a great onion,‘” said Rodger Kram, director of the University of Colorado’s Locomotion Laboratory and one of the authors of the study. “And then we peel the first layer off and it’s like ‘wow, that’s how much energy it saves,’ and then ‘why does it save that energy,’ and that’s the next layer.”

Constructed of a super bouncy and lightweight foam and outfitted with a carbon-fiber plate in its sole, the VaporFly has attracted attention due to its dominance among professional runners.

And according to a press release from CU, this new study has debunked the common assumption that the plate in the shoe’s sole is its main strength.

Instead, researchers found it’s not just one factor that can account for how well it performs.

“We found that it is not one magic thing that explains the metabolic savings in this shoe, but rather a combination of a whole bunch of biomechanical factors related to the foam and the plate,” Wouter Hoogkamer, a post doctoral researcher at the Locomotion Laboratory and one of the authors of the study, stated in a news release.

Researchers also found that the shoe didn’t change hip or joint movements, a surprising result, leading them to the conclusion that the bulk of the energy saved while using it comes from the runner not having to use muscular torque at their ankles, reducing the amount of work the calves need to do.

The carbon plate wasn’t useless, either. According to the study, the stiffness it provided allowed for the muscles that stabilize toe joints to expend less energy.

Perhaps this shoe and the technology it’s built with will finally allow for a marathon to be run in under two hours, a goal top runners have been eyeing for some time.

But while it would seem that the VaporFly is a breakthrough for runners, according to Henry Guzman, a fixture of the Boulder running community and former co-owner of Flatirons Running Inc., this kind of technology has been out there for a while.

And though he feels there’s nothing wrong with it, he says Nike is “just utilizing technology and weaknesses in the market that they can capitalize on.”

Kram also mentioned that part of the reason the shoe has been crossing the finish line so quickly as of late could be that Nike sponsors so many elite athletes.

But, he said, “a lot of people are setting personal records and world records, so yeah I think it’s a great shoe, I think it helps people to run faster.”

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