34th international Elite athletics meeting in Montgeron-Essonne (France), Sunday, May 13th, 2018. (Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash)

MONACO — New state-of-the-art running shoes have enabled female elite long-distance athletes to improve their personal best times more than male athletes, research reveals. Top runners, particularly women, have reduced their best times by up to three percent since the introduction of the controversial Nike “advanced shoe technology” five years ago, according to the findings.

When Nike introduced the shoes in 2017, the question arose whether the new design would significantly affect performances in professional sports. The study finds that the footwear did indeed reduce running times for elite competitors.

Researchers analyzed seasonal best times for elite male and female runners over three race distances — ten kilometers, half-marathon, and marathon races — between 2012 and 2019. They found a statistically significant decrease in race times after 2017, which coincided with the premiere of the Nike Vaporfly 4% shoe.

Female athletes appeared to gain the most benefit from the new design, which features a thicker, lighter foam and a rigid plate along the midsole. Their seasonal best times between 2016 and 2019 decreased anywhere from 1.7 to 2.3 percent, compared to 0.6 to 1.5 percent for the men. For example, the new shoe technology improved women’s marathon times by about two minutes and ten seconds, a 1.7 percent boost in performance.

“As far as chronometric performance is concerned, it is in our opinion a major advancement,” says study lead author Dr. Stéphane Bermon, director of the World Athletics Health and Science Department in Monaco, in a statement. He says the mechanics behind the improvements in performance remain something of a mystery.

Why are Nike Vaporfly running shoes controversial?

Dr. Bermon explains that one advantage of the new shoe technology is that it uses the latest generation of lightweight foam in the midsole, which provides the runner with a higher energy return. The embedded stiff plate in the midsole also contributes to maximizing energy return in each step: The shoe works to propel the runner forward with a little less effort.

The statistical gender gap was unexpected, Bermon admits. One advantage could come down to weight differences between the sexes. “Women are lighter and could possibly benefit more from the enhanced rebound effect achieved by the foam/stiff plate combination. Their slightly different running pattern, compared to men, could represent a more favorable condition for this footwear technology to play its ergogenic role,” he says.

A statistical analysis conducted in 2018 had already suggested a three to four percent decrease in half marathon and marathon race times based on hundreds of thousands of self-reported results. However, the present study was the first to look at the top seasonal best times for elite athletes.

While the research included a majority of results from East African runners, including Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes, who have come to dominate the sport, the study notes that non-East-African elite runners enjoyed similar improvements in performance. “These results confirm that advanced footwear technology has benefits to the elite male and female distance runners,” Dr. Bermon says.

“Whether this technology will be banned or simply controlled, as it is currently, is still to be decided by World Athletics,” he adds. He says further research is needed to understand whether mass adoption of the new footwear by both recreational and elite runners causes more or fewer injuries.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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