We all know the story behind these shoes at this point. Nike set out to break the impossible limit, and get a man to finish a marathon in under two hours. While the project failed, if you could call Kipchoge being 25 seconds away from the magic two-hour mark failure, the marketing buzz around the shoes that were launched after the project was dizzying. Everybody wanted to get their hands on the Vaporfly 4%, the mainstream version of the shoes the Breaking 2-runners wore.
Nike’s own claims were that these shoes would, on average, make a runner 4% more efficient. A year after the shoe was released, The New York Times gathered the data and crunched the numbers, and what they discovered pretty much lined up with Nike’s own claims: People seemed to run the marathon faster if they ran it in the Vaporfly 4%.
What Makes These Shoes Faster?
In short, these shoes are lightweight, but not the lightest shoes on the market by a long stretch. Instead, Nike went in the direction of improving “energy return” or, put another way, reduce how much energy is lost with each step you take. How did they go about that? Well, they started out by creating a brand new foam for the midsole, called ZoomX, which is lightweight and has a very high percentage of energy return.
And then, for good measure, they threw a carbon plate into the midsole of the shoe, which essentially acts as a spring that bounces back after each step where you compress it. All of this to say, the science is sound, and the data, from the lab and from the real world, seems to back up the claim that these shoes really do make you faster.
My Experiences With the Vaporfly 4%
I first got a hold of these shoes back in February, and I have since run about 150 kilometres in them. The first impression of the shoes is that they are surprisingly lightweight for the size of the midsole On first sight the shoes appear as a pair of maximalist in the vein of Hoka shoes, as opposed to a fast and lightweight racing shoe. But once you get going in them, it quickly becomes apparent that these shoes are, indeed, made for running fast.
The best way I can describe the sensation of running in the Vaporflys is that they seem to propel you forward and that naturally lends itself to running fast. This is not the shoe for easy and recovery days. In fact, once you slow down you notice the significant stack height and the relative lack of support in comparison to the extent that the shoes can feel a bit shaky. Some have even reported that the shoes felt shaky when running fast and that it took some getting used to. That was not a problem for me as long as I held a reasonable pace.
When walking around, however, the shoes feel strange, even cheap, on account of the thin upper and the aforementioned lack of support. My particular pair even makes strange, squeaky noises when I’m walking, the left shoe in particular. This adds to the feeling that the shoes are poorly built, and not very durable. Unfortunately, the second half of that statement is probably true. While they are not poorly built, the sacrifices made in the name of making the shoes lighter and faster means that they have very limited durability.
Reports seem to indicate that the shoes lose their “magic” after as little as 100 miles. This certainly meshes with my impression that they are flimsy and not very sturdy. But, I know of several people who are still running in them after 500 – 600 kilometres (300 – 400 miles) and find that they are still performing well. It does, indeed, seem like mileage may vary.
Another drawback I experienced is that they are the first pair of shoes I have worn over the past couple of years that give me blisters. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is about the shoes that does it, but every time I run a half marathon or longer the inside of my big toe on my left foot blisters. Annoying, sure, but in the end a small price to pay for racing in a pair of shoes that, at the very least, make me feel faster than I have a right to be!
To sum it up, these are a great pair of shoes to wear on race day. The science and the data both seem to back up the claim that they can make you run faster, and that’s a good thing. For me, however, I find that the limited durability and the other drawbacks mentioned make them best suited for race day. That, and the fact that the shoe is nigh on impossible to get a hold of these days unless you want to fork over extortionate amounts in the secondary market. As soon as Nike sort out their production issues / stop artificially constraining the demand (pick whichever theory you feel sounds most likely) I will certainly be picking up another pair. Because in my opinion, there are no other shoes on the market today that even come close to matching the speed and comfort that the 4% does at the longer distances.