It is almost a given these days that the launch of a new running shoe is greeted with hyperbolic PR fanfare and promises to make you run faster, longer or more comfortably – or all three at the same time.
Sometimes, however, shoes live up to the hype. Few dispute that Adidas’s Boost trainer helped Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto break the official marathon world record in 2014, while last May his compatriot Eliud Kipchoge ran an astonishing 2hr 25sec over the same distance using Nike’s new Vaporfly Elite shoe – generating a huge amount of publicity for, and sales of, the £200 trainer.
Debate continues over Nike’s claim that the shoe increase a runner’s economy by 4%, although an academic study last year seemed to give it credence. However, while shoe companies will continue undoubtedly to stress speed and comfort, another trend is starting to emerge: durability. This will be music to the ears of recreational runners who have noted the rise in prices at the top end of the running shoe market: more money, it seems sometimes, for less and less shoe.
So, while the US giant is surely working on the latest iteration of a superspeed shoe, its latest launch – React, unveiled today – goes back to basics – or, at least, back to mass-market appeal and a more wallet-friendly price point. “The Zoom series [of which the Vaporfly Elite is part] is about making runners feel and be faster,” says Bret Schoolmeester, the brand’s senior director for global running footwear. “This is more accommodating, a bit more democratic, in that it’s just a great, simple shoe. It’s targeted at anybody who wants to go for a run. It’s a Swiss army shoe.”
The USP of the React shoe is the foam on which it rests. Most running shoes are constructed using a midsole made from EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate). This material can be compressed into a form similar to rubber. However, the material has limitations: for an EVA shoe to be cushioned (which most runners want, to some degree) it must be soft, but if it is too soft it is energy-sapping. (Adidas takes a different approach to maximising energy return: its proprietary – and very popular – Boost technology uses TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane).)
EVA also tends to have a shorter lifespan than most runners would consider desirable. After all, running shoes are not cheap: at RRP, a pair costs easily above £70. If you want something fancy – a running shoe with the latest knit upper and midsole tech, say – £95 to £130 is the norm. When you spend that kind of cash, you expect a shoe to last, but there is no telling how long it will. Even thorough reviews can offer only a guideline, since each runner generates a distinct wear pattern: some burn through pairs in a few hundred miles, another light-footed gazelle might eke out more than a thousand.
Nike’s new shoe uses a synthetic rubber as the main ingredient, which Schoolmeester says combines the bounciness of standard rubber with a softer, more lightweight feel.
And it’s not just the two biggest names in Europe that are talking about energy. Brooks – whhich has a 23% share in the US running shoe market – launched its new Levitate shoe late last year promising a 72% energy return, the company’s best result in testing so far, and, according to its figures, higher than other leading performance shoes in the same category. Adidas (9% market share worldwide) also claimed their latest Ultra BOOST has the “greatest energy return yet” of their own models.
What is energy return, anyway? When a runner’s shoe hits the ground, it compresses the foam cushioning and transfers energy into the shoe. When the foot rises again, the foam expands, returning some of that energy back to the runner. The more than comes back, the more “zippy” or springy the shoe will feel. As foam degrades over the lifespan of a shoe, the runner is effectively working harder to recreate the same energy return.
Schoolmeester suggests, though, that actual percentages are fairly meaningless. As gas and air are compressed out of a foam, you could still technically get, say, 90% “return” – but that’s 90% of less and less foam. A better, albeit more elusive, measure is simply how long people can wear the shoe for before they start to feel the midsole is “dead” – and most runners will know this feeling well. Of the new Nike model, Schoolmeester says testers have been getting 20% more miles than with previous shoes.
“People who were getting 500 miles are getting 600 or more,” he says. “We wanted to put that to the test with some of our elite athletes, though, as they tend to be very ‘in tune’ with their shoes. So we did a blind test with [US distance runner] Galen Rupp. We gave him a pair of fresh shoes, and a pair that had 300 miles in them, and he couldn’t tell the difference.”
The shoe costs £130/$150 – a later, slightly cheaper version, using the same foam, will cost £100/$120. Meanwhile, the Adidas UltraBoost costs £149.50, the Asics DynaFlyte £135 and the Saucony Kinvara £110, to pick but a few popular models. Nike’s Vaporfly Elite remains very much at the top end, at £199.95 – though this doesn’t stop it selling out in a matter of hours.
So, as for the much-debated Vaporfly, is it a finished product, or are there more tweaks and more models to come? Schoolmeester gives a firm yes to future tweaks. “People are always going to want to be faster, or want softer or more lightweight shoes. We have certain problems to solve, just the ways we solve them might just change or evolve more. But there will absolutely be developments.”