On May 6, 2017, Nike presented the world with an astonishing human achievement. Millions of us watched, slack jawed, as Eliud Kipchoge attempted to break two hours in the marathon. The visuals were stunning. There was a Tesla beaming green lasers on the ground. A phalanx of the world’s best runners, gracefully shepherding Kipchoge and his two counterparts. And there was Kevin Hart, there to channel our own thoughts, pontificating on how truly unbelievable the whole shebang was.
Kipchoge failed. He finished, grimacing, in a dramatic 2:00:25. But that didn’t make the result any less groundbreaking.
Sure, Nike wanted to break barriers in human physical achievement, but where it failed smashing a record (Kipchoge’s time doesn’t count because it wasn’t on a sanctioned course during a real race), they did succeed in helping a great runner run faster. And after months of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%—the mass market version of the shoe originally designed for Kipchoge—could do that for other runners, a scientific study released in full this week backs the claim up with cold hard math.
Researchers at the University of Colorado endeavored to measure precisely how much Nike’s shoes improve running economy compared to other brands. In a paper published in Sports Medicine, the authors enlisted 18 high-caliber athletes, who each ran six five-minute intervals in three different types of shoes (two intervals per shoe).
As they ran, the researchers measured oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide production. The results found that, yes, on average, performance in Nike’s shoes increased four percent. (The study was conducted as the shoe was being developed, and in fact, is the reason why the name includes “4%.”)
The combination of the light, springy foam and the carbon fiber plate really do improve your speed without adding anything else. It’s a remarkable result. And it does give credence to the belief that the amazing performances by Kipchoge and others are very much due to the shoes. (American runners wearing them have won two major marathons this year: Galen Rupp in Chicago and Shalane Flanagan in New York City.)
So the more pertinent question: will these magic kicks get you your PR with no extra training?
That depends. The astonishing improvements in the lab and by elites because they’ve already improved their running economy as much as possible without the aid of their footwear. For us schmoes, the benefits of the shoes might not be as stark, because we need to work on other facets of our form. The key thing about this 4%: They don’t technically make you faster. After all, you still have to be able to run that fast. But, because you’re running that fast using less energy, you’re able to hold that fast pace longer than you otherwise would in a different pair of shoes.
There is also the fact that the shoes simply may not be as comfortable for some people as for others. They are incredibly stiff, designed for speed and have a racing fit, meaning they have less stability. Switching to this pair may not be as smooth for some people as it is for others.
But the bottom line: Nike is amazing at marketing. They have also built an amazing product—now backed by science and triumphs on the road. Only you can decide if they are worth the $250 price tag.