Nike Takes the Lead in Tech for Chicago Marathon

Nike continues its quest to build the fastest shoe.

Galen Rupp and Sir Mo Farah (along with thousands of other dedicated runners) will face off in the Chicago Marathon today. Farah is the UK’s finest distance runner. Rupp, the winner of last year's Chicago Marathon, is the third-fastest runner in American history. Both Farah and Rupp have benefited from Nike sponsorship with the latest in shoe tech. They wear the fastest, most lightweight and aerodynamic shoes Nike has to offer.

In fact, their prototype shoes are so fast that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) amended their rules in June to include a clause that states: “Any type of shoe used [in competition] must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics.”

Rupp was wearing the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, a 3D-printed, zero water retention, see-through shoe with carbon-fiber spring-loaded insoles in the Boston Marathon in April. Runner’s World describes the shoe in glowing terms.

Using a modified 3D-printer, Nike created a new upper it’s calling Flyprint, which doesn’t use fabrics or yarns like more traditional footwear. Instead, it’s created from a thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) that is first melted, then laid out with painstaking detail to create a single-piece upper that is extremely breathable yet still supportive. It’s also featherlight and as transparent as a window screen on your home.

The TPU is what has caused concern for the IAAF because,

The construction process also allows Nike’s footwear team to quickly iterate prototypes for its athletes, improving the shoe’s fit and performance. Because the TPU strands are fused, Nike can slightly alter the pattern via computer design to adjust breathability and flexibility in the forefoot, while also ensuring the midfoot is secure and the heel locked in place. If a tweak is needed in any area, those strands can be individually repositioned, without affecting any of the neighboring strands…

Studies have shown repeatedly that the advantage of wearing Vaporflys is real:

Runners who wore Vaporflys, which have a controversial carbon-fibre plate in their soles, did indeed run 3-4% quicker on average than similar runners wearing other shoes, and around 1% faster than those using the next speediest shoe.

Rupp and Farah will both most likely be wearing some iteration of the Nike Vaporfly today. The technology of shoe design for marathoners could make all the difference at the finish line.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. The sport of running has traditionally been an equalizer; how does technology change that?

Q2. Where should we draw the line at such game-changing technology?

Q3. What do you think about the ethics of paralympians wearing carbon-fiber limbs even though it enables them to run at the same speed as an able-bodied athlete while using significantly less force?

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