Neil Featherby: The great trainer debate... can a shoe really make you four percent faster?
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During the last few weeks, I have been amazed at some of the discussions I have been having surrounding runners' perceptions and beliefs about what a running shoe really can do for them by way of improved performance.
I will be the first to admit that whilst I love new technology and updates in sports science, I am still very much cynical about a lot of things. Certainly until I have seen it or tested it out for myself.
However, amongst all those who I have had discussions with, two of them just happen to be world class athletes and they are adamant that two particular models of running shoes on the market are key to further improvement.
My thoughts always go back to when I started working in the sports trade over 30 years ago and my then boss would always say that whilst it was so very important for sportspeople to have the right equipment, it was just as important to realise that it was also down to the person using the product when it came to performance. Being a first class tennis player he said: "It's not the racket, but the man on the end of it that counts". Needless to say, I changed that to: "It's the man in shoes and not the shoes on the man."
Anyway and on the back of the Eliud Kipchoge's recent sub 2 hour marathon and his previous marathon triumphs, claims by his shoe manufacturer suggests that the shoes he wear can actually help improve running efficiency by 4% due to the construction of them and the special foams which are situated between carbon plates.
I can honestly say that I cannot remember a time during my 30 years in the trade when so many people have talked so much about a specific pair of running shoes. Whilst four percent to some may not seem that much, it most certainly is and is actually huge over the distance of a marathon.
With regards to the two international world class athletes earlier mentioned, one of them prefers the shoes which Kipchoge and just about all the other Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes wear whilst the other one (a female athlete) who we see regularly at Sportlink, prefers a shoe made by a rival manufacturer and although designed slightly differently, the overall effects are still all about running efficacy and energy return.
When she came into the store to get a pair, I did actually laugh and say: "What do you want them for when you are already doing so well?"
She replied: "Because everyone else is using them."
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I totally get it as any motivated athlete will at the end of the day want to run and perform to the very best of their ability and will always look for any advantage they can get when it comes to their equipment.
I also get the fact that when you line up on the start line and see so many other elite athletes wearing the same shoes it can distract your focus if you are wearing something different.
Or of course when it starts to hurt mid race, the last thing you want going through your head is that the athlete who might just be sitting on your shoulder has an extra advantage over you due to them having a pair of shoes which supposedly helps with improved running efficiency.
I did also say to her very much tongue in cheek: "If they are that good then is it not cheating?"
I was very much joking but I suppose you could also argue that if you go right back to when a running shoe was nothing much more than just a plimsole or even a heavy leather type shoe, manufacturers and designers have for over 100 years been looking at ways to develop footwear to help athletes run with more ease, comfort and more pace.
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With regards to Kipchoge's recent history making run, whilst I am sure his shoes, which were actually an upgraded version, did actually help, there were also much bigger factors which enabled him to produce what really was an amazing performance.
Everything came together for him on the day that's for sure and he is undoubtedly the world's best marathon runner. However, with all the other factors which were put in place for the run, I still feel sure that his performance would have been the same in any other good racing shoe.
At the end of the day it does very much come down to clever promotion of a product and how the marketing affects our mindset and thoughts, be it directly or subliminally.
With that in mind there was of course only one way to find out and that would be to test the so called four percent shoes out vs the rival brands version for myself for which that is exactly what I have done during this last week.
Up to now, I have always preferred running in lightweight and low profile shoes without any real support or cushioning so in truth I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.
However and after a week of running in both sets of shoes, I do now have to say that I really am amazed.
Both pairs definitely gave me an extra spring in my step and no pun intended there either. In fact as the week has gone on I have discovered that I really can still run at a pace which I thought I left behind years ago.
Needless to say I am totally aware that a lot of it could be down to the buzz of having a bit of a challenge, but there is no two ways about it, in terms of running efficiency and pace, both sets of shoes certainly do have that extra something.
Is it ethical? I am not sure is the answer.
Were the four percenters better than the rival? Yes and no, as there were factors whereby if one had more of this, then the other pair had more of that.
Would I have liked to have been able to run and, more importantly, race in either of these shoes back in my day? Absolutely.
I now tell everyone, a four percent difference makes me a 2:11:52 marathon runner although I am pretty sure by the moans, groans and definite yawns from those who I have dared to listen to me, none of them believe me.
Going forward, all the leading brands will now manufacture shoes with claims of not only having the same benefits, but no doubt other benefits which is exclusive to them for which after all these years, I still find running shoe technology fascinating and can only wonder where it will all end.