Amateur running times are tumbling and super shoes are to thank

Details of the Adidas Running Shoes Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 Lightstrike Pro ahead of the 2023 BMW Berlin-Marathon
Adidas's running shoes have reached the mainstream - Getty Images/Luciano Lima

At the end of a recent six-week block of altitude training in Kenya, the British marathon runner Emile Cairess paused for a brief trackside interview.

Cairess said that he was aiming for a “big PB” at this weekend’s London Marathon before his chat with the Sweat Elite website was ‘video-bombed’ by a training partner pointing to a pair of the now almost mythical Adidas Adios Adizero Pro Evo 1 carbon running shoes.

“I’m going to be wearing these,” said Cairess, grinning. “Nice upgrade. That’s going to give me a minute I hope.”

It is the same 4.9oz shoe, you may remember, that was worn by Tigst Assefa last September when she demolished the women’s world marathon record and which, despite being recommended for one single use, continues to fetch upwards of £800 per pair on eBay. Assefa is being tipped for another world record on Sunday – and Cairess could threaten Mo Farah’s British record – but the bigger ‘super shoe’ story will actually play out in London among the tens of thousands who follow.

Sheila Chepkirui from Kenya and Tigist Assefa from Ethiopia holding the Adidas Running Shoes Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 Lightstrike Pro ahead of the 2023 BMW Berlin-Marathon on September 21, 2023 in Berlin, Germany
Tigist Assefa (right) has a shot at breaking the marathon world record on Sunday in London. She will be wearing a version of Adidas's super shoes - Getty Images/Luciano Lima

Carbon-reinforced shoes with super responsive foam were first worn by elite runners in 2017 – and so these newest prototypes contain only more marginal improvements – but the past two years have seen variations of earlier models sweep the mass market. Significant price reductions have followed and it is fairly easy to buy a pair for between £150 and £200.

Par times for marathon will be reduced

The effect of improved footwear on amateur running times is already evident at hundreds of recreational races every week. Research this week by Strava found that the average London Marathon time had improved by 12 minutes between 2022 and 2023 (from 4hr 18min to 4hr 6min) and, as more and more runners catch on, this trend will surely continue.

It is something that is already being accounted for by London Marathon organisers who have found that their traditional ‘good for age’ time achievements that guarantee sought-after places risk becoming over-subscribed. It all means that the required standard for those 6,000 spots will be improved next year to take account of the super shoe era.

“Everyone’s really talking so much about the speed – and 100 per cent it helps the speed – but the foam that they’re using is of a consistency where the recovery is much better; the impact on your muscles is reduced,” says Hugh Brasher, the event director.

This observation is potentially even more significant than just the race-day improvement. Older runners now may be able to stay in the sport for longer. Heavier runners are less at risk of injury. And many more runners can contemplate moving up from perhaps a 5km Parkrun to the pounding of a marathon or half-marathon. At an elite level, runners are finding that they can absorb more miles, meaning that the entire equation between optimum levels of volume and intensity are being redrawn and experimented with.

Super shoes ‘bring new interest’ to running

Athletics is full of exaggerations about training plans but there was no doubt that Kelvin Kiptum, who had rewritten the marathon record books at the age of only 23 before his sudden death earlier this year, was challenging conventional wisdom. Elite athletes traditionally only moved up to the marathon after years spent racing over shorter distances. The challenge of a marathon was supposedly so extreme that it risked ruining young legs. Kiptum had no track background and, off the back of training weeks when he apparently touched 185 miles, seemed to be treating the marathon almost like a middle-distance race with his habit of finishing faster than he started. He was wearing the Nike Alphafly 3 shoes when he set the world record last year, as was Sifan Hassan when she demonstrated in London that the 26.2 mile distance is perhaps no longer quite such a vast step up from a track 10,000m.

For the shoe companies, an arms race is now taking place at multiple levels. Testing continues to find small advances in the next incarnation of an Alphafly or Pro Evo 1 and those newest models will continue to come at a huge premium. Adidas, for example, will put the Pro Evo 1s back on general sale next week at a cost of £450.

But, rather like the emergence of carbon fibre bikes in cycling, the really game-changing advances are already now widely available, leaving only a rapidly diminishing old guard still resolutely loyal to more traditional shoes.

Why, after all, would you not make the switch if you can run faster and recover better at an increasingly comparable price?

There is talk now of designing shoes for amateurs that are more responsive than those in official competition, which remain governed by fairly arbitrary World Athletics rules on a maximum 40mm heel height. That could even end up with Parkrunners having access to faster shoes than the winners of a marathon major.

Brasher believes that the advances should be welcomed, just as when his father Chris was innovating back with titanium spikes when he won Olympic steeplechase gold in 1956. “Technology has always been at the forefront of moving society on,” he says.

Some have argued that the record books should be reordered to differentiate between shoe eras. We will never know, for example, if Assefa really was athletically superior to Paula Radcliffe. “Technology moves on, science moves on and it’s happened in other sports,” says Eilish McColgan, who is fast rewriting her mum Liz’s old records with the help of carbon-boosted shoes. Eilish is sponsored by Asics but speaks for many athletes in feeling relief that there does at least now appear to be a relatively even playing field between brands.

“I’m happy now that every single shoe company has their own version of the super shoe,” she told Telegraph Sport. “There’s no doubt it brings a huge benefit from previous old school-racing flats and will perhaps help more people to run half marathons and marathons. A huge component is training. It does create another element that is a bit different and definitely brings in a new interest.”