Nick Horspool and the Nike Vaporfly 4%

“You want to pay how much for a pair of running shoes??”.

That was the response of my partner, Natalie, when I put the business case forward for buying a pair of the yet-to-be-released Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% back in August.

“But they have been scientifically proven to improve running economy by 4%! That’s huge – plus it’s far less than I would spend if I was still cycling.” I replied.

“Well, I guess that since your PB is 2:24 that means you can run 2:17 in these shoes in the Melbourne Marathon which would be a Commonwealth Games Qualifier for Australia…OK you can get them”, Natalie replied. (I am dual citizen for New Zealand and Australia. Australia sets 2:18:59 as the nomination qualification for Commonwealth Games.)

“Well, I think the range was more like 1% to 6% improvement…” I said, while thinking she had pinned me into a corner of trying to sell the benefits of the new shoes, while also setting expectations for a time that far exceeded what I am capable of.

The Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%’s are Nike’s latest distance racing shoe, and were the shoe used by Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya when he ran 2:00:25 in the Nike Breaking 2 project in the attempt to run a sub 2-hour marathon. This whole project was probably the biggest marketing campaign by a running shoe company ever. The fact that Kipchoge knocked two and a half minutes off the legitimate world record (analysis shows that most of the gains were from drafting behind pacers for the entire race) meant that everyone from five hour marathoners to Nike’s elite athletes were climbing over themselves to get a pair, and I was no exception!

The shoes have two new pieces of technology in the midsole that work together to provide the improved running economy. First there is a carbon plate that runs the length of the shoe and acts like a lever to help ‘roll’ you forward. To complement this Nike have used a new super foam called Zoom X which is apparently some of the lightest but most cushioned foam available, and is based on foam used in modern aircraft for insulation. This foam provides superior cushioning and is superlight, and it is said to reduce the impact forces on the legs and to reduce fatigue late in the race.

Together that means the shoes reduce the dead legs late in the race and help propel you forward, which is just what you need in the last 5 km of a marathon. (Nike’s claims are supported by a study explained here – but note that the study was funded by Nike.)

I ordered my shoes through from an online shop in the USA, as Nike NZ didn’t have them in stock. They arrived six weeks out from the Melbourne Marathon, which was my target race. I used them in two races prior to the marathon, in a half marathon, which acted as a marathon simulation effort, and in lap 7 at NZ Road Relays.

When I unboxed them upon delivery the first thing I noticed was how stiff they were. You could not bend them at all due to the carbon foot plate. Next was how thick the midsole was. I put them on and walked around and felt awful. They were not designed for walking – that’s for sure. I went for a quick jog around the house and they felt exceptionally springy. That was enough wearing them in: I don’t want to reduce the life of these shoes! Although saying that, I did take them to NZ Road Relays, where they were tried on by what felt like the entire senior and masters men’s teams, who all took them for a stride across the motel carpark.

In my first real hit-out at a half marathon the shoes made a ‘slurp, slurp, slurp’ sound, which lasted for about 15 km, and I had to make a few excuses to assure my fellow competitors that it was my shoes making the funny sounds, not me. I think it was the Zoom X sole breaking in.

The shoes felt really great and I definitely noticed the carbon plate, which helped to keep me leaning forward. Often late in races when I get tired I ‘sit’ down in my hips, but I felt these shoes helped reduce that. One downside to them was that this race was on back country roads with a moderate camber. The shoes have zero rear support so I did feel that my heel was sliding out a bit and I ended up running further towards the centre of the road to minimise the sliding. This same feeling occurs when cornering, and the shoes feel very unstable in any type of sharp corners. Other than that, I was delighted.

At the start of the Melbourne Marathon I was eagerly looking around the elite field seeing how many other athletes had the Vaporflys, but was surprised that probably only 20% of the elite field were wearing them. I had seen video from the Berlin Marathon where it looked like everyone was wearing them, but not so here.

During the race the shoes felt great and I didn’t notice the pounding as much as I used to in my old Nike Lunar Racers. Late in the race I really felt the shoes came into their own. It was very noticeable how they continued to help drive me forward even when I was really tired. It was also very easy to get rolling along on the flats and slight downhills. I managed to knock 4 minutes off my PB, which is not quite 4% – well actually about 2.5%, but hey, I will take that any day. Whether that is due to being fitter and faster or due to the shoes I don’t really care. Even if they give a placebo effect I would take it!

The big question. Would I recommend paying $380 for these shoes? Absolutely yes. They feel fantastic and whether all the hype is real or not, they make you feel faster, which gives you more confidence to run better. In fact, I am considering buying another pair so I can use them in shorter 10k and half marathon races!