Breaking2: high-tech shoe for Nike's bid to break the two-hour marathon


Nike has revealed that Breaking2, its ambitious project to break the two-hour mark for the marathon, will use a special shoe with a carbon-fibre plate. It will take place later this year at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza complex, a racetrack outside Monza in northern Italy, where the surface is asphalt and speed is certainly king.

The world record currently stands at 2hr 2min 57sec, set by Dennis Kimetto in Berlin in 2014. At this level, nearly three minutes of improvement represents a significant margin. Nike’s elite team consists of Zersenay Tadese (marathon PB 2hr 10min 41sec) Lelisa Desisa (2hr 4min 45sec) and Eliud Kipchoge (2hr 3min 5sec, the third-fastest of all time).

For months there have been rumours about a Nike shoe being created for the event, with suggestions that its sole would contain a special spring, which would circumvent the rules of the athletics governing body, the IAAF. However, according to the company, its new Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite will instead have an internal gently curved carbon-fibre plate to minimise energy loss without causing cramping in the athlete.

When the Guardian contacted the IAAF to ask if the shoe would conform to its rules, a spokesman, Chris Taylor, said its technical committee would discuss the shoe – and others like it from different manufacturers – in Zaragoza, Spain, in two weeks’ time.

Taylor added: “We are aware of the speculation around the shoe and have received inquiries about new designs of shoes currently being worn by elite athletes – however, this is not linked to just one manufacturer. There is development in shoe tech across the board.”

In a press release, Nike claimed the Vaporfly Elite made runners 4% more efficient compared to its previous fastest marathon shoe. Bret Schoolmeester, the company’s senior director of global running footwear, said the shoes would also be specially tailored for each athlete in the sub-two-hour project. “We know stiffer shoes have a big benefit on running economy,” he added. “However, too much stiffness can shift the workload from the foot up into the calf, which causes fatigue over distance. For the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, we developed a very specific geometry to reduce that problem.”

Dr Geng Luo, a Nike biomechanics expert, said: “The goal of the plate is to reduce how much energy loss happens when the runner bends at the toe. This curved plate is stiff enough to achieve that and because it has this geometry, it does so without increasing demand on the calf.”

The new show is lightweight, but appears much more “maximalist” than the racing flats usually seen on elite runners, with a large 21mm of forefoot “stack height”, and a 9mm offset from heel to toe. The trade-off between lightness and speed, and the relentless pounding of the road, means that Nike believes a more cushioned approach will maximise energy return.

The shoe is not the only item of kit to be designed with the sub-two attempt in mind. The runner’s vest will also be personalised, tailored by body scans and preferences. Rather than the traditional relatively loose-but-short shorts, the runners will wear a “Short Tight” – something akin to cycling shorts in design. The company claims that by using what it calls “Aeroblade texture” on sleeves it can reduce drag. The same material will be used in the form of tape on the lower legs, where drag is most critical. Socks have been designed to give more arch support and ventilation for rapidly heating feet.



Monza race track in Italy: scene for the attempt later this year Photograph: Nike PR

Amateur runners seeking PBs of a slightly less lofty nature will be able to buy a “trickle-down” shoe. The Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% and the Nike Zoom Fly will be released in June, along with the all-new Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 34. Like the “elite” model, the Vaporfly shoe incorporates a carbon plate, cushioning and an aerodynamic heel. The other models offer slightly more cushioning, and more of an offset (33mm of heel stack and a 10mm drop for the Zoom Fly).

Meanwhile, each loop of the Monza course will be 2.4km, meaning the elite team – and possibly further pacemakers – will be completing 17.5 laps. This will make it easier for the athletes to grab hydration and nutrition multiple times. The average temperature in Monza is around 12C (54F) – ideal for racing – and the area is usually overcast, with low risk of wind. Any detailed race strategy will remain a closely guarded secret for now, but the Olympic marathon champion Kipchoge is likely to be the first man over the line.