Why Effort Matters, and Shoes Don’t (Much)
The question for most runners isn't whether super shoes are cheating, it is whether we're cheating ourselves by wearing them.
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The world is abuzz about a potential ban on Nike’s Vaporfly super shoes and their kin. A ruling on limiting shoes has been promised from World Athletics by the end of the month, sparking numerous speculations and giving us all a chance to take a closer look at the shoes and why they are controversial.
I’ve had the privilege of testing nearly every running shoe model since 2000 and I’ve studied how they interact with your stride, yet I still know very little about how shoes affect our running performance. (And I find the people who know the most admit as much). It seems to me, however, that banning these new models would be rather silly, for several reasons.
What Are We Limiting?
First, as remarkable as they are, Vaporfly and similar models don’t propel you. Like other “energy return” foams in many brand’s popular midsoles, super shoes, even with their carbon plates and hyper-efficient foams, don’t add any energy but only reduce the amount of energy lost. They aren’t an exoskeleton with a power source making you the bionic man. You still provide the energy; you still have to run.
As such, it’s very hard to figure out how to limit them. Their benefit is only a matter of degree. They do what other shoes do better (although everyone is quickly catching up), but not something entirely new. If they crossed the divide between reducing energy loss to putting energy in, that perhaps could be measured and banned.
Suggested limits such as regulating shoe height seem short-sighted: Smart designers can and will create better materials and designs to produce a similarly efficient shoe within the parameters. Plus, what makes a high shoe cheating? It’s one way to provide cushioning, one that has its own drawbacks in terms of stability, proprioception and ground contact—as the many people who have gotten hurt in Vaporflys can attest.
Sabotaging the Meaning
All of this discussion is beside the point when it comes to most runners, however. For us, the question is whether the shoes provide a short cut. For those who run for our own personal benefit, race times have meaning only in that they help us grow.
We set goals and work to achieve them, reaping the satisfaction of conquering obstacles and, in the process, becoming better people: more disciplined, more focused, more alive and connected. If wearing a new shoe short-cuts that process—getting us to our goal without doing the work and enjoying the runs—then it cheats us.
A small example of this: When I headed out on my morning run today, my goal was to climb the initial 1.5-mile hill on the trail I was tackling without having to walk. It was a small goal, but I haven’t done it yet this year since having the flu and spending time at lower altitude over the holidays.
If, as I got dressed, I had a shoe option that significantly reduced the effort of climbing, I may have chosen them. But had I done so, I’m sure I would have had less satisfaction when I made myself keep pumping up the hill and when, triumphantly, I reached the top and powered around the turn to fly down the backslope. The effort is the point; reducing the effort would reduce the meaning.
Were I wearing super shoes, I could say to myself that I ran the hill, but it would have an asterisk. Of course, every run, every race has multiple asterisks for the course, conditions, life situation, age and more. If the shoes got me out and up on that trail when I couldn’t face it otherwise, they would be worth it even if I had to give them credit. And come race day, you can be sure I’ll be wearing the lightest, fastest, most-efficient shoes that work for me, as I always have. I’ll still take satisfaction in the effort, but if that effort can get me a faster, legal time, I’ll take it and celebrate it.
Bottom line, any World Athletics ruling isn’t going to effect most of us. We have to decide if a shoe enables and inspires us to be better or reduces our sense of accomplishment and implants doubt in our ability and success. And remember, a shoe can make a small difference in your final time, but even these shoes can’t make up for lack of preparation—nor would we want them to, as that short-cut would rob racing of its meaning. In the end, it isn’t about the shoes, or even about the times (although we hold onto and cherish those, knowing what they represent)—it’s about the effort and growth.
—Jonathan Beverly, Editor