January 31, 2020
On Friday, World Athletics announced long-awaited rules changes governing shoes eligible for competition. Among the major changes announced: from April 30, 2020, onward, athletes may no longer compete in prototype shoes — any shoe must have been available for purchase on the open market for a period of four months. In addition, World Athletics imposed an indefinite moratorium on shoes with a sole thicker than 40mm, shoes with more than one “rigid embedded plate,” and spikes with a plate other than “for the purpose of attaching the spikes to the sole.”
The new regulations very much follow the spirit of a proposal put forth by Nicholas Tam, PhD, and biomechanist and ultramarathoner Geoff Burns, MS, that was published as an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in September. Their article called for a limit to the height of soles, but one that allowed currently available shoes to still be used as a compromise.
“[It’s a] really healthy move for the sport,” Burns texted LetsRun.com this morning. “This is a great move on the whole. Unrestricted innovation is fascinating from [a] scientific perspective and would be fine theoretically, but practically, it’s absolutely not viable for the life of the sport. WA is acting with sensibility here, and is foregoing the short-term excitement of outlandish performances and acting against the corporate interests in spotlighting product in order to preserve the longevity and stability of our great sport.”
Burns didn’t think the rule was perfect, however, as he suggested “they may even be more overly restrictive than necessary (the bit about the plates), though 30mm on the spikes would be generous without the plate rule.”
But enough science talk, what does this all mean in common-sense terms?
1) The Nike Vaporfly and Next% shoes are allowed; the Alphafly shoes used by Eliud Kipchoge to break two hours in Vienna are banned immediately and indefinitely.
The shoes that Eliud Kipchoge wore in breaking the two-hour barrier — the unreleased Alphaflys — are not legal for official competitions. They are likely illegal for multiple reasons: the sole is much thicker than 40mm — it’s reported to be 50mm — and the shoe is believed to contain more than one plate. However, the popular Vaporfly 4% (31mm sole) and Next % shoes (36 mm) are allowed.
2) Up through the spring marathon season, nothing much changes.
Up through the end of April, it seems as if everything will continue as it has the last few months. Tons of athletes will race in Nike Next% or 4% shoes, while non-Nike athletes will race in prototypes as their shoe sponsors try to catch up.
3) The rule might actually solidify the Nike advantage for a second straight Olympics.
Here is where things get interesting. Ever since Nike officially released its Vaporflys in 2017, the other shoe brands have been scrambling to play catch-up. In that time period, some brands, such as HOKA ONE ONE, have released their own carbon-fiber-plated shoe. But others, such as Saucony and Brooks, have had their athletes race in prototype shoes (Des Linden won the 2018 Boston Marathon in one such model). That hasn’t been a problem in the past, as prototypes were not explicitly banned by World Athletics.
Now, however, the clock is ticking. Any shoe that is first introduced after April 30, 2020, has to have been on the market for four months before it is eligible for use by elite athletes in competition. The Olympic marathons are on August 2 (women) and August 9 (men), so that means any shoe that wants to be used in the Olympics has to be out by April 30th.
Brooks is planning on releasing its Hyperion Elite — the prototype Linden has been testing out in races — on February 27. So Linden will be fine if she makes the Olympic team. But Saucony’s Endorphin Pro — the shoe Jared Ward used in 2019 — is not slated for release until June 1, which would make it ineligible for the Olympics. Of course Ward has to make the team first. But if Saucony cares about elite athletes like Ward and Molly Huddle, they will have to find a way to push the release date up to April 30. The same goes for any other company, such as adidas or New Balance, that may be planning to drop a new shoe in 2020.
There is another potential solution. If the companies can’t get their shoes released by April 30, they could let their athletes race in the Nike shoes.
“If I was [another] brand, I’d re-sole the Vaporfly. Put my upper on its midsole (and trim down that silly pointed heel),” wrote Burns.
The problem: it’s not clear if this would be legal. The new rules state that any shoe that is available to all, but is customised for aesthetic reasons, or for medical reasons to suit the characteristics of a particular athlete’s foot, will be allowed. Would putting another company’s upper on the Vaporfly’s midsole count as an “aesthetic” change? Would that hybrid shoe be considered “available to all”? That’s not clear right now.
4) The spikes used by many Nike distance runners at the 2019 World Championships may be banned
The new rules state that, for a shoe with spikes, an additional plate (to the plate mentioned above) or other mechanism is permitted, but only for the purpose of attaching the spikes to the sole, and the sole must be no thicker than 30mm.
At last year’s World Championships in Doha, many of Nike’s middle-distance and distance runners competed in a prototype spike. From studying athletes’ feet in the mixed zone, it certainly looked as if they contained an additional plate.
At the very least, the new rules ensure that athletes won’t be able to compete in unreleased spikes moving forward — which is what Nike athletes Laura Muir and Sifan Hassan did while breaking records in 2019.
5) You could see some awkward moments in the start corrals at major marathons
Under the new rules, after April 30, 2020, a shoe must have been available for purchase for four months before it can be used by an elite athlete in competition. Which means that, after years of pros getting to race in unreleased prototypes, the best shoe technology in the field could now be on the feet of amateurs.
Imagine: Nike introduces its latest update to the Vaporfly — let’s call it the 6% — on October 1. Any non-elite runner could use those shoes at the New York City Marathon — but reigning champion Geoffrey Kamworor would have to wait another three months.
Likewise, if Nike does end up releasing its current version of the Alphafly after April 30 (we’d expect them to modify it to make it eligible under the new rules), that would be legal for weekend warriors but not for the fastest runners in the world.
Related: LRC Column: By Wearing Vaporfly Prototypes, Eliud Kipchoge, Galen Rupp, & Shalane Flanagan Are All Guilty of Mechanical Doping in 2016 – Will Anything Be Done About It?
*July: Track and Field’s Shoe Rule Makes No Sense – Might Sifan Hassan’s WR Need To Be Invalidated?
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