Disclaimer for running nerds: the following article contains very little valid science, relying on hunches. So please don’t read on if you think you are likely to be offended.
There has been a lot of debate and even outrage at the arrival and global uptake of the legally available Nike Vaporfly running shoes. They are said to provide an unfair advantage, or not to be in the spirit of our sport, and some have even called unsuccessfully for them to be banned. Well, I am one of the converts and love my Vaporflys. They are my new legal running remedy of choice.
So in my case (an anecdotal study of one), I believe that rather than giving me a net advantage relative to others, they have helped return me to a relatively level footing with my fellow competitors, helping narrow the gap between my current and former running self.
Up until early 2015 I was a nationally competitive runner, having recently won the New Zealand Masters 10K Road title in 33:37 and being capable of 16:30 for 5K. Early in the Club’s Centenary year of 2015, I was continuing to run well and looking forward to another big year. However, I fell badly in the opening club race, which prematurely ended my season. On the plus side it allowed me to produce the club’s Centenary history book.
It took over 12 months to receive the correct diagnosis (a complete hamstring avulsion tear), so I spent a year trying to run, jog, or limp along with my mates to no avail. For a year, I just couldn’t improve from about a 39- 40-minute 10K.
After finally getting the correct diagnosis and rehabilitating during 2016 and 2017 with mixed results, I gradually got back to 35-36 minutes for 10K. While this was a good improvement it was some way off what I thought was the expected performance trajectory from my forties (anticipating a gradual, graceful decline in seconds rather than minutes per year). So, I became reluctantly resigned to a significant and permanent drop-off in performance and questioned whether I should keep competing at all after many disappointing races.
So, we arrive at 2020. Well, five months in and I have achieved times I have not run since 2014 and earlier (33:44 for 10K, 16:30 for 5K and 9:30 for 3K) and didn’t think I would see again. Frustratingly of course there are no official races! The 10K, while unofficial, appears to be one of the fastest by a male over 50 in New Zealand in the past decade (the last time an M50 ran under 34 minutes at the National Championships was in 2012). Now, this unexpected return to form is likely due to much more than a pair of running shoes. It probably can be partly attributed to the remarkable ability of the body to simply adapt to injuries (to find workarounds, so to speak), adopting a more relaxed organic approach to training, and suddenly having the time and flexibility to run during the lockdown (including a lot of off-road running).
I do however, also attribute some of my return to form to my beloved Vaporflys. One of the impacts of my recent injuries – and let’s be honest, over twenty years of trashing my body on the roads (‘Makara anyone?’) through 40 marathons and 100 halfs – is poor biomechanics and resulting running economy. My leg and hip muscles and tendons have stiffened and fused together like an old leather boot, severely restricting my full range of movement, stride length and knee lift (“Come on Grant, did you ever have knee lift?” some would ask!).
Well along comes the Vaporfly and they have been a godsend. I believe they have helped in a few ways. I think that the carbon fibre plate and their bounciness and energy return from the cushioned foam midsole have directly improve my biomechanics and running economy, by lengthening my stride. More indirectly – but just as importantly – the bouncing motion has made me much more conscious of my technique, and particularly by reminding me to concentrate on my knee lift and propulsion. The energy saving properties of the shoe possibly mean it takes longer to feel fatigued from exaggerating the knee lift motion. This is particularly the case running uphill. They also seem to help me lean further forward, which again aids my form. And lastly, there is probably undoubtedly something of a placebo effect, with the shoes giving me a general sense that I perform better in them, so it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ultimately though, I believe that rather than giving me any kind of unfair advantage above my baseline natural ability level or compared to other runners, they have helped mitigate the negative effects of my injuries and poor biomechanics. That is, they help bridge the gap, and get me back on a level footing, helping me return to something closer to the performance trajectory I was on prior to 2015.
I liken it to the use of an asthma inhaler by an asthmatic (which I am). Taken appropriately, medically prescribed inhalers like Ventolin for asthmatic runners don’t enhance performance over and above our natural ability, rather they allow us to run at close to the level we are capable of when we aren’t suffering from asthmatic symptoms (when the airways become inflamed and narrowed, restricting our breathing). So my beloved Vaporflys are like my new synthetic topical remedy, and I intend to keep on taking them, while there is a legal supply. Mind you, they are jolly hard to get hold of, and I need a new supplier.