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Super shoes have ‘devalued’ marathon world records, say former Olympians

Assefa's Adidas shoes
Tigist Assefa obliterated the women's world marathon record in Berlin on Sunday wearing the £400 Adidas Adizero Adios Pre Evo 1

Athletics world records have been labelled “devalued currency” after a leading former British runner criticised the “farce” of the women’s marathon best being destroyed in a £400 pair of new Adidas ‘super shoes’.

Ethiopia’s Tigist Assefa took more than two minutes off the world record in Berlin on Sunday, setting a new best of 2hr 11min 53sec that is now almost four minutes superior to Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year world record, which has only ever been surpassed by runners in carbon-boosted shoes.

Every major world record from 5,000m all the way up to the marathon has now also been beaten since 2020 by athletes in ‘super shoes’ or ‘super spikes’, which combine rigid enforcement in the soles with bouncy foam midsoles.

Adidas will on Tuesday release their new ultra-lightweight Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 road shoe to the general public following its staggering major race debut on Assefa’s feet.

Tim Hutchings, an Olympic finalist and a world, European and Commonwealth medallist in the 1980s, questioned whether there was now a generation of runners who will never know exactly how good they truly are.

“One big mark of greatness is record-setting, and that’s a devalued currency,” he said. “It’s one that could and should be raised to its previous value, if only someone used the data to show the big differences made by shoe tech. This generation deserves that and so a fair comparison with history.

Ethiopia's Tigist Assefa races to the finish line
Tigist Assefa's triumph was criticised as a farce by one former runner who said the new shoes made world records meaningless - REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

“While this was a truly fantastic run … the shoe-tech should have been policed better and a ‘new era’ formally recognised. It’s fine if recent iterations of shoes by various brands have cost £150-£200. Many runners will stump up this cost. When it starts becoming £300-£400 then it’s clearly getting ridiculous.”

Mara Yamauchi, who has slipped from being the second fastest to fourth quickest British women’s marathon runner of all time since last year, told Telegraph Sport that she was “struggling to understand” Assefa breaking a world record by more than two minutes.

“What impact the shoes had, or if it was her own ability, we just don’t know,” she said. “As I understand it some people respond very well to them [the shoes], others not at all and then everything in between.”

Another retired British marathon runner added: “It’s a complete and utter farce – 2hr 11min for a woman is just ridiculous. Nobody got close to Paula Radcliffe’s record for 16 years, then it got obliterated and now this.

“It’s unsustainable and to me world records now are meaningless. But I think this was quite predictable and World Athletics probably didn’t have much choice but to go along with what the manufacturers wanted. You’re comparing apples with pears compared to former world records.”

Oli Blake, a former national British triathlete, said that attention should be paid to how the new Adidas shoe is reportedly designed only for optimal use over one marathon distance race. “Are you happy spending £400 on shoes (on top of race entry fee) whilst knowingly engaging in throw-away culture?” he said.

Adidas told Telegraph Sport that the shoe had been made “for speed, versus durability, and has been engineered to provide maximum support for athletes at the lowest weight possible”. They said that it had been “optimised for over one marathon race, including respective training sessions”.

Why ‘Super Shoes’ are so powerful – yet hugely controversial

When did the ‘super shoe’ era begin?

It was in 2016 that scientists testing a new Nike prototype road shoe reported a four per cent energy saving and Nike runners enjoyed a clean sweep on the men’s marathon podium at the Rio Olympics. The gold medallist, Eliud Kipchoge would then become the symbol for Nike’s launch of the Vaporfly and Alphafly innovations; shoes that transformed distance running and in which he broke both the official world record and became the first human to run a marathon under two hours.

Eliud Kipchoge crosses the finish line
Kipchoge breaks the two hour barrier for marathons in his Nike Vaporfly

By 2019, Nike athletes took up almost 90 per cent of the podium places at the six marathon majors and runners from other companies were sometimes even reduced to wearing a Nike shoe but covering the label. Scientists were working hard behind the scenes, however, and every major shoe company now has a ‘super shoe’ that is comparable to the Vaporfly or Alphafly. Indeed, Adidas athletes also took the top-four places in the men’s race of the Boston Marathon earlier this year. The big question is whether Sunday’s extraordinary women’s world record – set in the ultra-light newly unveiled Adizero Adios Pro 1 – signalled that Adidas has now genuinely stolen a march on Nike.

How do the shoes work?

The defining ‘super shoe’ features are a stiff plate or rods embedded within the midsole, usually made of some sort of carbon, to help hold the shape of the shoe. A curved midsole geometry is also designed to propel the runner forward, with manufacturers all using a lightweight but resilient high-energy foam which, in combination with the stiff plate or rods, can hugely benefit performance. Runners report a much springier feeling that is incrementally more beneficial over longer distances. Experts have estimated improvements in road super shoes of as much as four minutes for elite runners over a marathon, although this varies according to an individual’s running style. These benefits remain significant but are reduced on the track with ‘super spikes’, which are limited to a heel height of 25mm. The limit on the road shoes is 40mm.

What has been their impact?

The arrival of super shoes has correlated with a total rewrite of athletics records from the 5,000m upwards. According to Chris Thompson, a European 10,000m silver medallist in 2010 and twice an Olympian, this is not just a result of the improved race-day performance but how the shoes have helped runners prepare differently. Thompson is now 42 but still finished in the top 10 of April’s London Marathon and says that athletes recover from intense training sessions more quickly in super shoes, meaning that they can potentially also train harder.

Although the shoes were largely worn only by elite athletes between 2016 and 2021, they have now also become widely available to the general public, generally at a cost of between £160 and £280. An improvement in recreational performances has also followed and, despite the price-tag, the shoes are now common in every sort of running event from local parkruns up to the most elite championship races. Their lightweight design has always meant some sort of sacrifice in durability and it remains to be seen whether club runners will be prepared to shell out £400 for the ultra fast Adios Pro 1 which have been designed for optimal use in only one marathon race.

Where does the arms race end?

World Athletics has so far introduced guidelines which limit rather than stifle further innovations, as we have seen this week with the dramatic arrival of the 138 gram Adidas shoe. Ethical questions prompt sharply diverging opinions. Swimming, remember, stepped in to ban super aerodynamic one-piece costumes following a spate of world records. Cycling, by contrast, has allowed technology to flourish and seen great records from past eras surpassed for scientific rather than athletic reasons.

All of the shoe companies now employ vast teams of engineers and scientists and the race to create faster shoes has become a highly secretive multi-million pound industry. Nike, for example, has the LeBron James Innovation Center in Oregon which boasts 400 cameras, an endurance and sprint track and experts ranging from biomechanics researchers to robotics specialists. Adidas, similarly, has its state-of-the-art ‘World of Sports’ research campus in Germany.

Dr Thomas Allen, who used to work at Adidas and is now at the Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport, believes we are in an era of continual innovation and that the first sub two-hour marathon in a major race has become inevitable. “I would argue that this [the Adidas shoe] is just the next iteration – probably next year Nike will come back with something, then another company, and it will just be continuous unless there is some kind of rule change,” said Dr Allen.

“The benefit to these brands is enormous. We have crossed into a new era of alignment between engineering companies, marketing and athletes where shoes are released to coincide with a particular race.”