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Running shoe tech: issues for the integrity of running (2020) (sportsscientists.com)
47 points by rstarast 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 66 comments

The patent angle in one of the OPs argument struck me as very important - I wouldn't automatically disqualify a need to purchase some a legal monopoly of a particular sports-relevant aspect, where some competitors are prohibited to have it at the whim of a third party (e.g. the author suggested, perhaps hypothetical, example of a shoe 'sold to public' by putting 50 pairs in a Tokyo store once and never again) does not seem fair play.

Can we make a simple blanket policy that patent-protected gear of any kind are automatically prohibited in races? I mean, if there's no performance impact, then it shouldn't be a problem for athletes to use some other, patent-free gear, and if there is a performance impact, it shouldn't get used. Perhaps this could also negate the core issue of this article, as the impact on sports is arguably caused by the desire to sell such tech to mass market; but if the high-tech shoes can be sold to mass market only without an impact on competitions, then Nike can put in their shoes whatever shiny gadgets they want.

The sport (at the elite, televised level) is not just impacted by the desire to sell shoes, its only reason for existence is as a vehicle to sell shoes. Every professional runner has a salary paid by a shoe company.

I think this is a good idea. It reminds me of the "sharkskin" suits used in swimming that were expensive, single use, very effective and allowed enormous improvements in performance. Then had to be banned.


They didn't have to be banned. They were banned unnecessarily, hindering the development of fabric tech.

They were banned fairly because they were so expensive that many competitors couldn't afford to use them, putting them at a huge, probably insurmountable, disadvantage.

The cost was mentioned in that wikipedia page, but I believe they didn't mention that they need to be individually fitted and are single-use only.

> so expensive that many competitors couldn't afford to use them

Olympic athletes don't buy their own equipment, do they?

> Olympic athletes don’t buy their own equipment, do they?

That doesn’t mean that there are no cost constraints on their equipment.

Also, AIUI, the governing bodies of individual sports which happen to be included in the olympics also govern lower-level competitions, under generally the same rules – because the Olympic competition is supposed to be the pinnacle of the sport, not a different sport with a confusingly-similar name.

People competing below Olympic levels probably do.

Is it that much of a hindrance? Or rather, if you're only market is helping people win at the Olympics then there isn't really a market for your product...

Mentioned in the article, FWIW:

> Swimming? Who can forget what happened between 2008 and 2009...

Semi-seriously, I quite like the idea of going back to the original ancient Greek way of doing competitive sport naked. That would take care of quite a lot of the issues surrounding running shoes, swmming suits, and so on.

The comic strip Tank McNamara long ago had a Sunday strip that showed the eponymous ex-jock sportscaster stopping into a running-goods store. The weedy sales guy starts piling him up with road shoes, off-roads shoes, racing shoes, warmups, etc., etc. As Tank stands baffled at the cash register, his girl friend says "And to think the ancient Greeks did it naked."

I think it was Running magazine that did not find his amusing.

Ha! I'm a keen runner, and one of the things I love about it is that, as long as you invest in a decent pair of shoes (I'm a fan of Altra), it's pretty much cost-free. I really don't get all the super-expensive stuff unless people are getting towards Olympic level.

Haha ouch. My sport is climbing. I have a home wall and I've tried this. It does not work well for modern climbing on lots of textured volumes ;)

Would definitely make world cups more interesting to watch!!

Yeah, I'm not sure there would be too many good camera angles for climbing or the pole vault!

A series of barefoot running events sounds viable.

Big Sneaker would oppose it. Just try going into a running store and ask for a minimal shoe (single digit-mm thickness sole). They will recoil in horror and show to a big clunky 40mm job.

Which sport would say no to all that sponsorship?

source: barefoot runner

good point

This is partially what I was thinking, given that running tracks are pretty soft surfaces. Not sure how that would work for marathons though. Agree with the other commenter though that the big trainer companies would shut any talk of that down very quickly.

some sports still need equipement that need to be regulated : javelot, tennis, etc..

Sure, it wouldn't work for all aspects of all sports, but it certainly would for a lot of athletics and field sports (i.e. most of the kinds of sports that the ancient Greeks would do). And with other sports you'd level the playing field even if there were aspects you couldn't control for.

Not to disagree with the broader point about the integrity of world records, but I thought this perspective was interesting:

> I don’t want a five-set final at the Australian Open thinking “Shit, I wonder if this result would be different if Thiem and Djokovic could swap tennis rackets? If only my guy had a different sponsor”.

A similar dynamic already exists in many team sports, where the elites can sign all the stars and smaller teams have to try and win with better drafting, coaching, player development, etc. And in these cases, fans often seem to love watching a less-privileged team overcome those challenges to win (see Leicester City or small college basketball teams like Oral Roberts as examples.)

Your example is better than the article's, as Thiem's earnings put his net worth at $30M, and Djokovic's at $220M.

That said, against the cost of racquets, each can buy -- or get from sponsors -- whatever racquets they want.

It is also worth noting that elite athletes aren't necessarily beholden to using their sponsor's equipment. It is easy enough to doll up e.g. a Head racket to look like a Wilson.

Flashback to Gal Gadot tweeting with an iPhone while having an Android sponsorship.

Agassi did exactly that, playing with an obviously painted Prince racket when he was sponsored by Donnay.

I think this still happens a lot in tennis, but this was a memorable one.

Why don't they just give all players the same official rackets before the match? Problem solved :)

For basically the same reason every programmer worth 6 figures doesn't use the same keyboard. Money clearly isn't the limiting factor, neither is not wanting the best tool for the job. "Best tool for the job" though, is subjective; and by the time someone has put in the thousands of hours of practice to excel at their craft, they will undoubtedly have preferences regarding the minutiae.

Tennis players can't choose their brand of tennis balls either. So it's only a small step to enforce the type of racket or any equipment which can cast doubt on fairness.

That's why some team sports have imposed salary cap limits.

Pretty sure it's to make sure that the profits of those that own the teams are preserved.

While it is sad to see that equipment is becoming a concern in high level running, I found it most disastrous when thinking about the effect of "equipment" in swimming.

Some of the suits that Phelps and folks wore were just so stupidly cutting edge in terms of their effects on stroke efficiency. I think the world swimming organizations have done a better job of regulating here, but again it sounds like ALL sports are required to have their governing bodies playing a bit of cat and mouse to keep the playing field as even as possible.

Why is this a disaster? genuinely asking.

This has always been the case in sports. I personally don't agree with setting some arbitrary limit on technology creating systems like Formula 1, which then becomes a race against regulations and who can most creatively push the rules & find workarounds.

The sport I know best is climbing, and the progression of gear over the past 50 years has enabled as you say STUPID HUGE gains in allowing the strongest athletes to push the envelope of what's possible. I can't imagine having to climb with old gear and shoes. Went from climbing in Converses with DIY pro to specialized rubber on shoes with similar ideas to Vaporfly in how they shape the foot and have flex or not based on the route need. We now wear different shoes for different styles of routes.

Now knee pads are becoming standard which has downgraded some famous routes and upped the highest end grades. Some climbers just log 'without' 'with' grades I guess you could do that with running, but no one is saying Adam Ondra didn't climb the hardest route in the world because he used a knee pad and similarly I don't think it's fair to take away Phelp's achievements.

Even going beyond 'solo' nature of climbing, the technology is the same in competitions. Gear pushes the sport and I think that's a good thing.

Because taken to the extreme it's eventually not "you" competing, it's your equipment.

Imagine some kind of glove that grips for you, or shoes with glue on the bottom. Or... there's no real limit here. Might as well just wear a hover belt and float to the top :)

At some point you have to say "this is enough tech". So the question is, what is that point?

To me that argument is a 'slippery slope' fallacy. We're not even close to that extreme. It's like saying let's get rid of mail in voting because there might be vast (non existent) fraud in the future.

And even if we go that far somehow I think the differentiation will come naturally. In climbing there is a totally separate thing called Aid Climbing where it's kind of like you say floating to the top haha. Pulling on ladders or whatever to completely eliminate strength and effort. It's not treated as remotely the same sport as free climbing.

I don't understand why more sports don't just have regulation equipment that all athletes must wear and use.

You aren't allowed to bring your own soccer ball, basketball, football, etc. Why do we allow some items that have a huge impact, to be up to the player/team?

Have it both ways, like motorsport. There are championships like Formula 1, where the 'equipment' is a huge factor, and the teams are competing on their tech. This has lead to many breakthroughs in car safety that have become standard in consumer vehicles.

On the other hand, there are many championships where all drivers must drive the exact same car, or the cars are heavily regulated in terms of power output. Here it's all about the raw skill of the driver.

There is room for both of these in running.

I can't imagine having an ISO standard running shoe. There are regulations on running shoes (like the thickness of the sole), but making them all identical would really hurt a lot of athletes. It would select for those who fit the standard shoe.

Until recently, swimming advances didn't matter all that much. It's only in the last decade or so that the fabrics became better than the swimmer's skin, and they started covering up more of the body. That gave substantial advantages to swimmers with a ton of money.

(Substantial being relative, of course. We're talking 1% improvements, so you're not taking on Michael Phelps in one of these, even if he were wearing a ball gown. But it's the difference between gold and not qualifying for the final heat.)

For shoes, I would think there’s just too much variation in foot sizes, foot shapes, and runner’s weights to even consider that.

Cycling similarly allows picking the bicycle frame to match the rider’s body. It does have a minimum weight for bicycles, though (6.8kg, which is high for current tech. Given deep enough pockets, 2.7kg was possible in 2010. See https://www.tririg.com/articles.php?id=1035_Worlds_Lightest_...), and regulations that effectively forbid recumbent bikes.

In some cases, flexibility also is there for historical reasons. In soccer, not even field size is fixed (with exceptions for top levels) for that reason (fields inside athletics tracks tend to be longer and less wide than fields inside stadiums specifically built for soccer)

A soccer field must be rectangular, but can be anywhere from 45 to 90 meters wide and anywhere from 90 to 120 meters long (https://resources.fifa.com/image/upload/spielregeln-2019-20....)

So, minimum size is 90m × 45m, maximum size is 120m × 90m. Area-wise, that’s a factor of 2⅔.

NFL teams provide their own footballs.

Source: https://operations.nfl.com/gameday/pre-game/nfl-game-ball-pr...

I think "provide their own footballs" can be a little misleading. It isn't like they can go out and purchase whatever brand and model they want. Teams have custody of the league approved balls and can prepare them how they see fit within the league specification. So while there is room for a little customization, it fits well within jonshariat's overall point of standardized equipment.

But shoes? Gloves? Glare reducing eye makeup? Socks? Hydration drinks?

The list can basically go on forever. With no real "a priori" idea on where you have to stop to no longer find a benefit in equipment. Could even go back to "access to gym" or "access to trainer" and expect a level of influence.

This has been proposed in Nordic skiing to reduce the arms race around waxing. Standardize waxing, competitors receive skies immediately before race, etc.

I agree, although I also think once you start considering all the different factors that go into an athlete's performance and how there is an inequity between competitors for each factor, it can be hard to determine where to draw the line.

For example, athletes from wealthy countries are exposed to better training techniques and apparatus. Is that fair?

How exactly do you do that for running? You obviously cant have just 1 specific shoe that everyone has to wear, so how many do you allow, and how do you stop it from getting back to the current form?

Let's not forget Deflategate. Wherever the balls come from, sometimes they're tamperable.

the equipment is sometimes part of the fun too, you crush whole industries if you spec it

Which is sort of the point of not standardizing things. In cycling for example, if everyone rides the same bike, then bike companies have nothing to advertise, so no money for cycling teams. So the whole thing is really an advertisement. The one exception I can think of in cycling is Japanese Keirin track racing, which has heavy regulation on the equipment used, but supports and is supported not by advertising, but by sports betting.

The name sponsors for a lot of the top cycling teams actually aren't bike companies. A quick glance at the list of 2021 teams in the Tour de France shows only one that I recognize as a bike company (Trek). Bike companies do sponsor the teams, but they are not the largest sponsors by a long shot

Yes, that's true. But title sponsorship is an increasingly hard sell for "real" companies. I think it's becoming more like yacht racing, where the sponsorships are kind of vanity projects for billionaires. For example you have UAE sponsoring a team, Israel/Ron Baron, Ineos, which is privately owned...

That said, the equipment sponsorships are a major part of the equation, very expensive, and very competitive. I think it forms a larger part of the budget for less successful teams, where title sponsorship is less lucrative. And in any case, it's its own form of "title" sponsorship.. I'm not sure how much benefit Pinarello would get from being on the jerseys - everyone knows Ineos rides Pinarello.

But anyway, I think my point that this lucrative competition prevents standardization is valid.


The main argument of the article seems to be that some runners get more benefit from new shoe technology than others (which may be true, and may or may not be mitigated by other companies developing different variants). However it makes me wonder whether this hasn’t always been the case... if shoes had been banned in the sport entirely then probably other people would have been successful?

Also the comparison with tennis is a bit silly... you won’t get far in tennis without a racket that costs a whole lot more than any Nike shoe...

Not just a racket, you'll need at least 3-4 rackets to rotate around during a match to avoid losing too much string tension. Preferably all the same, all tensioned at the same time before a match, etc.

I played tennis a little bit competitively when I was a kid, apart from rackets you will also care about strings, you will eat through them. The best strings aren't very durable and on top you will be often trialing different strings with your racket until finding a sweet spot for your play style.

It adds up fast.

It would have been interesting to discuss the giant leaps of racket materials though. Wood to steel/aluminum in the 70's, and then graphite in the 80s. That would have been a more appropriate discussion. It would be interesting to see their third point, about patents, and how big of a barrier that was for tennis racket technology advancement and adoption.

I'd imagine this Vaporfly issue wouldn't be such a big deal if competitors were easily able to create similar shoes.

Once racket tech settled on graphite, there's not much advancement to speak of, regardless of what racket vendors might tell us.

String tech, on the other hand, has continued to innovate in leaps and bounds, all but killing the serve-and-volley style of tennis at the elite level.

Yes, comparison with tennis struck me as a bit weird too:

> If we did not believe that skill execution should be “constrained” by tennis rackets, we’d have no limits on head size.

There are oversized-head (tweener) rackets out there, but they are almost never used by advanced players (because you you have very limited control with an oversized head).

Most pro level tennis rackets are $200-$250. The Nike Shoes in question are $180.

Don't forget: This is amateur league play compared to designer genetics, or when actually practical crispr edit-in-place gene therapy hits mainstream.

And basically PEDs is a lost cause, all they try to do now is contain it from frankenstein levels.

I agree with many points in the article, but the idea that it’s unfair if one person’s body responds better to the shoe than another seems silly. Distance running is already a competition of who has better gene adaptations. I have a mediocre VO2 max, so I’ll never be an Olympian. Is that unfair? My body requires a longer recovery time after hard efforts than Galen Rupp. Is that unfair? That’s just life.

They mention this specifically in two ways. 1) we expect a race to be about human elements. You won't be an Olympian because of physiology, not equipment. This ties back into integrity. 2) the response from the shoe is greater than the typical difference between athletes, meaning that at top tier levels your fitness is now defined by a running shoe.

Is that unfair? Hard to say. Does it undermine what people appreciate about running and the competition? I think the author made a pretty strong case for 'yes, absolutely'.

Agree, I was in denial for years trying to "correct" my flat feet with minimal shoes (plus focusing in my running technique), arc strengthening exercises, stretches, and so on. But I never was able to run past 3k without knees pain.

Then I bought cheap insoles with arc support and the next run I was able to run 6k without any issue.

I'll never will be an elite runner. But at least I can go outside and enjoy a good sweat in the park time to time.

I think it's trying to draw a difference between how good your body actually is at the activity of running itself, versus how well it responds to a particular technology. Sort of like if they legalized one particular performance enhancing drug. The records would be set by people who happened to respond well to that drug (let's say).

to carry that to its logical conclusion, all competition should be held barefoot. Surely some humans are better suited to barefoot running than others, hence their "response" to shoe wearing is being tested.

From the article

"And while on this subject of breakthroughs and records, please let’s not say stupid things like “We should just run barefoot”, or the common gaslighting method used by many that innovation has always been part of the sport, and the 2016 shoes were way better than Jim Peters and Roger Bannister’s shoes in the 1950s. Yes, but if you’re daft enough to actually entertain the debate about whether Kipchoge is a better runner than Jim Peters, great, but find someone equally daft who’ll have that one. I’d need ten beers for it to even seem worthwhile. Nobody cares. We get it, we expect innovation over many generations."

I generally agree with that conclusion, an ideal competition would be all barefoot. (And if we could hold marathons barefoot on golf course grass ... wow!) But I'm willing to compromise, just not very far.

The idea that "shoe tech" is the issue with the integrity of running is pretty hilarious to anyone who follows the sport, weather track, road or yes even trail these days.

Talking about doping of course, legal and illegal.

“It undermines one of the sport’s most valuable qualities, namely that the outcome, the title, the victory, ...”

This seems less about the integrity of running, and more about the integrity of winning.

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