Nike’s Breaking2:
Will the shoes make the man?

Nike’s Breaking2: </br>Will the shoes make the man?

Regardless of where you come down on Nike's Breaking2 project, one positive effect of the announcement that Nike will attempt to have three elite distance runners (Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersenay Tedese of Eritrea) break the two-hour mark in a marathon this spring is that it has focused the minds of some of today’s best sports science writers on one single, controversial, and fascinating topic. That makes for good reading, and despite my initial skepticism about Breaking2, I have enjoyed the hot takes and in-depth analysis from Ed Caesar, Alex Hutchinson, Michael Joyner, Ross Tuckerand other sports science writers. The wider running community is likewise full of commentary, speculation, and not a little uproar about Breaking2. In that respect, Nike’s announcement has already proven a marketing success: love it or hate it, we are talking Breaking2 and Nike for the next few months.     

I will be discussing Breaking2 and related topics here at Never Stop Running. I am kicking the series off with a discussion of footwear. Why start with the shoes? Because as the saying goes, you can tell a man by his shoes, or in this case, you can tell a lot about the meaning of Breaking2 by the shoes the trio of runners will use in their sub-2 hour marathon attempt.

Will the shoes be the conventional Nike marathon flats currently on the market, or the elite versions of the same typically given to sponsored athletes? Or instead will they feature a newly-patented spring-loaded Nike design that can help the runners shave nearly three minutes off Dennis Kimetto’s marathon world record of 2:02:57? In my view, our enthusiasm for Breaking2 and the relevance of its outcome should largely turn on this question of footwear. The reason for this has to do with what we runners, and to a large extent the non-running public, value about competitive running performance, and it is rooted in a simple concept: human effort. It also raises the specter of technological innovation disrupting running in ways it never has before. 

Running and the value of human effort

To understand why shoes matter in the debate over Breaking2, we first need to look at the role human effort plays in our assessment of competitive running performance. In running, we rightly glorify the hard work required to become great, to win a marathon major, to become an Olympic champion, or to set a world record: the hours of grueling training, the monastic lifestyle, the abstemious diet, the epic workouts - these are a just a few of the sacrifices distance runners endure for years to hone their talents. Many of the most recognized names in the sport are famous in part for being hard workers and great sufferers - look at Steve Prefontaine or Emil Zatopek - or for their ascetic training regimens - see Paavo Nurmi or Meb Keflezighi. We marvel at the effort, discipline, and hard work these legendary athletes used (or in the case of Meb, still use) to prepare themselves for the ordeal of running very fast for a very long time.  In many instances, we think of how hard they worked before we think of what races they won or records they set.

We think this way because, counter-intuitively, human effort is the primary value in running, and the race result - the time, the finish position - only a secondary byproduct. Yes, to be sure, we marvel at the accomplishments of record-setters and podium finishers, and we admire their ability to execute under pressure when it counts most. But finish times and race distances are just arbitrary numbers if they do not serve as signals of underlying human effort. To prove the point that human effort is the primary value in running, think of how many times we genuinely and earnestly praise the performance of a loser - someone who finishes out of the medals entirely, but who we believe exhibited ‘grit,’ ‘determination,’ ‘persistence,’ or one of the other descriptors we employ to say, essentially, “this person worked impressively hard.”  

Now flip the scenario: would we praise someone who wins without any effort at all - and I do not mean an effortless win in competition, which is often a sign of supreme preparation, but someone who wins without ever having had to work hard or make sacrifices in training or preparation for competition? Such a scenario would rarely ever occur in a mature field of athletic competition. But should it occur, we might spend a bit of time gawking at the freakish athletic achievements of some track & field Superman, but we would not praise his win in the 100m over a bunch of slow-poke mortals. He did nothing to earn our praise, because we reserve praise for people who have to try. 

Despite our love of winners and our emphasis on the podium, effort is the primary value that gives meaning to performance. When praising the winner of a race, we build into that praise our admiration for all the time it took her to develop the muscle fibers, the mitochondria, the capillary bed, and the blood cells to deliver her winning result. This then gives rise to an important corollary: If effort is the chief value in competitive running performance, then shortcuts around effort should reduce our interest in running achievements because they drain them of their essential characteristic. (It is for this reason, in my view, that we should disdain most performance enhancing drugs even if everyone had equal access to them and they were safe - because they make easy that which is meant to be hard.)

shoe Technology and line-drawing

Technology is the predominant shortcut in sports today and Breaking2 appears ready to exploit it. First flagged on Twitter by running coach Steve Magness and sports scientist Ross Tucker, Nike has submitted a patent for a shoe design that includes a form of carbon fiber springs in the soles. The new design will presumably increase energy return (or decrease energy loss) and thereby decrease the physiological cost to the runner of maintaining a given pace. In fact, several sports science writers insist that such a game-changing technology is required for Breaking2 to have even a chance of success - achieving such a precipitous drop in the marathon world record time could not happen so quickly without a big efficiency gain, and the training of the runners themselves is arguably better optimized than external variables like the race course and the equipment. The leading candidate for this efficiency gain may then be the shoe technology. (More outlandish options such as a rip-roaring artificial tailwind or a downhill racecourse do not appear to be part of Nike’s plan.)  

Would the contribution of Nike shoe technology to dramatically improved running economy for the Breaking2 athletes really be a big deal? After all, one could argue that shoes are continually updated to aid runners in various ways - with more stability for pronators, cushioning for older joints, and responsive soles with lightweight uppers for serious marathoners. More specifically, Alex Hutchinson has pointed to the Adidas boost technology, which is marketed as providing unmatched levels of energy return that can potentially deliver percentage point gains in performance - in elite distance running a mere 3% performance increase would often be decisive. Shoes constantly change and improve over time and rarely do we take issue with it. More to the point, we do not require Eliud Kipchoge or anyone else to run marathons in the same shoes used by Frank Shorter or Steve Jones just to make sure that improved shoes do not lead to improved marathon times. Even the ultimate barrier-breaker of the sport, Roger Bannister, used a bit of shoe technology to his advantage: He is reported to have rubbed graphite on his track spikes before his successful sub-4 mile effort to reduce the slowing effect of wet track cinders clinging to the soles of his shoes.  So what’s different here? Why are the stakes higher with the Breaking2 footwear?  

The foregoing points in defense of innovative shoe technology are fair ones, but they only serve to highlight a problem of line-drawing. Not all footwear innovations are viewed equally in terms of their impact of the sport of running. There are shoe modifications that give us little discomfort, such as the development of a light and durable mesh upper. Most of us would put Bannister’s graphite rub on the same, innocuous side of the line demarcating ‘acceptable’ shoe tech from ‘not acceptable’ shoe tech. But there is a point where footwear technology gets taken so far that we would all agree it has changed the sport of running in a meaningful way.  Hutchinson’s tongue-in-cheek example is the use of rollerblades to break two hours in the marathon - clearly some innovations cross the line and make the effort too easy and, importantly, too unlike the achievement that had come before it, a 2:02:57 world record run in shoes without wheels or springs. Of course, Breaking2 will not use rollerblades, but will its new shoe technology have a similar effect? It is quite possible that the existing world record would become trivial as a mark of human performance if three elite runners could slip on spring-loaded shoes and shave three minutes off it. Whatever their place in running, footwear innovations should not make a mockery of the efforts of previous runners who have run at or near the edge of human performance.  

We must then agree on drawing a line that allows some technological innovation and progress, but not so much that the sport of running becomes something new and different overnight. Many sports must deal with the issue of equipment innovations and running is no exception. In fact, few sports have the luxury to be so tech-free as running, where equipment is usually limited to shoes, a watch, and minimal clothing.  

Running versus Technology?

On which side of the line will the Breaking2 shoes fall? Perhaps it is too early to tell, and many times the line gets drawn after we have crossed it and witnessed the absurd results of adopting a new technology. The controversy over buoyant, polyurethane swimsuits is perhaps the most analogous example of line-drawing. After the widespread adoption of these new “hydrophobic suits” following the Beijing Olympics, twenty new world records were set at the 2009 world championships. Complaints by swimmers and coaches, most notable among them Michael Phelps, led to the new suits being banned in international competition. In short, these swimsuits changed the effort-performance relationship too quickly and threatened to make previous record-setting performances by the greatest swimmer of all time mere speed bumps on the road to a new performance era. If a Breaking2 athlete goes under the two-hour mark in spring-loaded shoes, my guess is that Nike, by giving us a such a significant and sudden performance enhancement, would inadvertently launch the first serious conversation about the role of shoe technology in international running competition. The feat would also be met with justifiable skepticism about whether it should qualify as a barrier-smashing human achievement, like that of Roger Bannister.  

A more nuanced defense of technological innovation in running centers on the many uses of technology in modern training regimens. Almost all world class distance runners today use an arsenal of technological advancements that were unavailable to Nurmi, Zatopek, Shorter, and even more recent legends like Haile Gebrselassie.  The list of technologies is long and varied: GPS watches, heart rate monitors, Tartan tracks, treadmills, CPET equipment, gels, recovery shakes, wicking fiber, foam rollers, compression socks, and synthetic supplements, to name just a few. Additionally, the science of training has advanced to new levels of sophistication - scientific studies on training are released almost weekly and the ability to process running-related data outstrips anything that existed even thirty years ago. The most ardent supporters of a “blue collar,” no-frills approach to training would be hard pressed to argue that these advances have not improved the training regimens of today’s elite runners. We do not appear to be bothered that current world record holder Dennis Kimetto has had access to training technology that was unavailable to previous world record holders Steve Jones and Hannes Kolehmainen, so why should we be particularly irked by improved shoe technology?      

The answer goes back to the value we place on hard work and human effort. Technology that helps us train smarter does not relieve us of the requirement to train harder, and longer, to prepare the human body for peak performance. On the other hand, technology that makes running significantly easier without added effort - without some kind of work involved - is inherently suspect. There are exceptions, of course. A basic Timex watch helps us keep pace, which can dramatically enhance performance and lower perceived effort, but watches are widely available and have been used by athletes for nearly a century - Paavo Nurmi is reputed to have raced on the track with a stopwatch in hand before throwing it into the grass on the bell lap. Apart from the fact that watches have been part of running for so long, spring-loaded shoes are again different because they directly change an athlete’s physiological efficiency while running, rather than aiding the mind’s ability to plan and cope with the psychological stresses of running, which is essentially what a watch does. Springy shoes threaten to make it all too easy for both mind and body, and by doing so could distort the effort-performance relationship in ways that should make us uneasy.

Where will breaking2 leave us?

Of course, superior footwear cannot eliminate the innate talents and years of hard work that the Breaking2 athletes bring with them to their historic attempt. Through years of effort, they have made themselves into some of the greatest distance runners the world has ever seen, and it will be a suspense-laden thrill to see them perform at their physiological limits pursuing a goal that has eluded all predecessors. It will, however, diminish my thrill to know that their strides are somewhat less labored than those of their predecessors, not because they optimized their training and surpassed their own previous limits, but because someone put carbon fiber springs in the soles of their shoes.  

We already know that Breaking2 will not be an IAAF-sanctioned world record attempt (although apparently it will be run on an IAAF-certified course). I believe it still holds promise as a running spectacle: three champions participating in an all-or-nothing test of human performance at the limit. As a bonus, it could bring the excitement of big league marathoning - and the gifts of these athletes - to a wider audience. But if the limits on human performance are surreptitiously dialed back by means of a clever shoe design, the spectacle of Breaking2 will prove an empty one and, like so many of other spectacles these days, a fraud.