Is Nike’s ‘Zoom X Vaporfly’ the fastest running shoe on the planet?
Technological leaps in running shoes are rare, but Nike’s ‘Zoom X Vaporfly’ is a genuine game-changer in the massive EUR 13 billion running shoes market.
When the first version of the Vaporfly was launched in 2016, Nike called it “a racing shoe that breaks records”, which sounded like marketing, but it wasn’t. The shoe is literally breaking records. Too many, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), creating controversy within the running community and forcing the sporting goods market to innovate or face losing market share.
What’s so special about the Zoom X Vaporfly?Before the Vaporfly, little had changed in the footwear for elite marathon runners in 50 years. Previously, running shoes only had to be light and thin, and were usually constructed from thin slabs of rubber. The Vaporfly is very different: constructed with light-weight foam that is stacked high and containing a carbon fibre plate, which is the feature mentioned most prominently in Nike’s patent application. Runners say it feels like the shoe is propelling them forward, and the evidence supports this.
- In the six world marathon majors, 31 of the 36 podium positions were won by athletes wearing Vaporfly.
- Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge wore Vaporfly in the first marathon ever completed in under two hours, which was considered a time mark that could not be broken.
- Brigid Kosgei used the Vaporfly to break the women’s world marathon record.
- The New York Times conducted a study on the Vaporfly and found that it did make runners faster, by around 4%.
Following these events, and after several professional runners voiced complaints about the technology within the Vaporfly, the IAAF was forced to update its rules.
It is now prohibited to use “soles thicker than 40mm”, and to use “more than one carbon-fibre plate, or similar item, in the sole”. It means that Nike’s controversial Vaporfly range remains compliant and is permitted for use – the ‘Zoom X Vaporfly 4%’ and ‘Zoom X Vaporfly Next%’ running shoes both have a 36mm midsole. However the prototype model worn by Eliud Kipchoge to break the two-hour marathon record is now banned, as it provides too much of a performance advantage with its even chunkier sole and three carbon-fibre plates.
The new rules make sense, given that without clear restrictions, it was only a matter of time before someone developed a runner with more powerful springs, or footwear that we don’t even recognize as shoes.
“It is clear that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport.” IAAF
Running shoes is a $13 billion market that is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7% over the next five years. Nike is the clear leader, holding 51% of the market, while Asics is its biggest rival, with a 15% market share. Meanwhile, shoes account for about 47% of Nike’s total revenues, so an increasing share within a rapidly growing market will meaningfully affect Nike’s revenue growth going forward.
The stock price of Nike’s largest competitor in the running market, Asics Corp, dropped c. 10% when Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge became the first human to run a marathon in less than two hours. (Nike is reportedly adjusting the banned prototype design used in this race to make it competition legal before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.)
This innovation race in running shoe design is only getting started, as Nike’s competitors have started launching high-tech running shoes of their own:
New Balance Athletic has launched a line of shoes with technical foams and carbon fibre plates that its runners can wear in Tokyo, and is “very concerned by the fact that these rules were adopted without meaningful consultation involving sporting goods industry”.
Saucony launched a new model in late 2019 called the Endorphin Pro, which Runner’s World magazine called the “closest approximation we’ve seen” to the Vaporfly.
Brooks has a new running shoe called the Hyperion Elite that goes on sale Feb. 27, according to the brand. Like Nike’s Vaporfly it is a light-weight shoe made for breaking records and includes a carbon-fibre plate sandwiched in the midsole foam to promote propulsion.