Track Shoes Get the Supersuit Treatment as World Athletics Imposes Regulations

In preparation for the upcoming Olympics, World Athletics — the international governing body for track and field — announced new guidelines surrounding legal footwear in the sport Friday, drawing an obvious comparison to FINA’s supersuit ban implemented a decade ago.

Supersuits, which were made out of combinations of fabric and increasingly-more-so rubber-like polyurethane, were used heavily in 2008 and 2009, when over 200 world records were broken in a two-year period at a rate faster than any other time in the sport’s history. The suits were eventually banned from competition, and while many of those records have been broken, others (like the women’s 200 fly and men’s 800 free) are expected to stand for a very long time.

While previously World Athletics’ regulations simply stated that “shoes must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage,” the new policies lay bare clear-cut rules that were informed by a technical committee established last year.

Under the new policies, shoes used in competition:

  • Must have soles no thicker than 40mm (about 1.5 inches)
  • Cannot contain more than one “rigid embedded plate or blade” (shoes with spikes are allowed one additional plate for attaching the spikes)
  • Must have been available for purchase by any athlete on the open retail market (online or in store) for a period of four months (the cutoff is April 30 for shoes planning to be used in the Olympics).

“It is not our job to regulate the entire sports shoe market but it is our duty to preserve the integrity of elite competition by ensuring that the shoes worn by elite athletes in competition do not offer any unfair assistance or advantage,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said in a statement. “As we enter the Olympic year, we don’t believe we can rule out shoes that have been generally available for a considerable period of time, but we can draw a line by prohibiting the use of shoes that go further than what is currently on the market while we investigate further.”

The restrictions were effectively set in response to the popularity of Nike‘s controversial “Vaporfly” sneaker worn by many elite marathoners. While the latest “VaporflyNext%” model will not be banned going forward, a prototype dubbed the “Alphafly,” worn by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge when he clocked the world’s first sub-2:00 marathon last year, will be.

An earlier model of the Vaporfly was shown to improve athletes’ “running economy” by about 4%, according to Runners’ World. Kipchoge wore the earlier model when he won the Olympic marathon in 2016.

Nike is not the only manufacturer to innovate shoes considered by critics to be a form of “mechanical doping,” but has a long history of setting the industry standard in performance footwear. Asics, New Balance, Saucony, and the likes, are certainly in on the arms race, similar to the history in swimwear of Speedo vs. TYR, Arena, Blueseventy, etc. — and at one point, Nike.

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FlyNDie

With swimming, it’s more clear to me the advantage given with the suits because they help reduce drag. But how can a shoe improve economy by up to 4%? Is it some kind of propulsion effect?

Xman

They had rubber (polyurethane) on them to help swimmers float. That was the problem, the full body suit was around for nearly 10 years before that came along.

XMAN – I think he’s asking the opposite – what’s the upside of the shoe.

Torrey Hart

Running economy is a measure of the amount of work a runner must do at a given speed. The Vaporflys use a new lightweight foam that is both cushiony and bouncy, meaning it has high energy return when a runner steps down on it with force and it effectively springs them back up. If a runner’s economy improves, that implies that he or she can go faster and/or longer while fatiguing less

torchbearer

And I think they have a flexible (but hard) custom made carbon plate inside that springs the foot back up….sounds very wrong to me.

Yozhik

I think that distribution of efforts between different muscles of the body gets changed. Similar if prosthetic limbs are allowed.

Svird

The vaporflys feature a super springy and light foam, and carbon fiber plates that further increase the spring effect and provide rigidity. These shoe regulations imposed are a somewhat middle of the road approach. It dosen’t ban the carbon plate spring technology, but limits the thickness of the shoe sole and limits the shoe to only one carbon plate (the latest vaporflys that kipchoge wore to break 2 hours in the marathon had many stacked carbon plates). It’s good that something is being done. A common counterargument against these sorts of regulations is that “the shoes don’t return more energy than the runner puts in” (I remember something similar being said about the super suits “they don’t swim themselves”…). My… Read more »

Woke Stasi

Well, if there’s any sport that’s in dire need of a spate of new World records to generate interest and garner some attention from the sports-viewing public, it’s track and field! Best wishes with your “Steroids-on-your-soles!”

Human Ambition

The referred to shoes were only used in road races and no stadium races. Track & Field still has the highest TV-ratings at Olympics and doesn’t seem to have the need of a higher record rate.

Woke Stasi

Since the late 1980s (remember FloJo and Ben Johnson?), track and field has been haunted by high profile drug cheats. The public has soured on the sport in the last thirty years. Every great performance is followed by questions of “was it clean” (hello Jamaica). That’s a real shame. BTW, sub-2 hour marathon attempts are exciting to watch!

Breeze

So I guess international swimming is controversy free right now?

Blackflag82

“the public has soured on the sport in the last 30 years” – I’m not sure this is entirely accurate. Track and field is still hugely popular in Europe. Also, at least from a US standpoint, T&F’s heyday was arguably the 70s and 80’s…decreased viewership after a golden era is the result of a lot more than just a souring imo

Troyy

This is still too lenient. They should have banned these springy carbon fibre plates outright.

Steve Nolan

I disagree.

Bring back the rubber suits, too.

Steve Nolan

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About Torrey Hart

Torrey Hart

Torrey is from Oakland, CA, and majored in media studies and American studies at Claremont McKenna College, where she swam distance freestyle for the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps team. Outside of SwimSwam, she has bylines at Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, SB Nation, and The Student Life newspaper.

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