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Nike’s Dominant Marathon Running Shoe Skirts Ban, But Prompts New Footwear Regulations

Nike’s Vaporfly Next% marathon footwear is set to continue its run of dominance as new regulations set forth by the sport’s official governing body have sidestepped concerns that the line might be banned for providing an unfair advantage in competition.

In January, multiple outlets reported World Athletics (formally IAAF) might soon take action to ban the footwear, which has become the overwhelming favorite for professional long-distance runners since its release in 2016.

More than just a matter of branding or aesthetics, Nike’s Vaporfly was an immediate game-changer in terms of its athletic prowess. In fact, Vaporfly technology is said to increase a runner’s speed and endurance by roughly 4 percent, a feature that has bred criticism among those who decry its use in official competition.

Now, it appears that World Athletics will decline to single out Vaporfly shoes, instead choosing to keep the status quo while enacting strict regulations under the recommendation of its Assistance Review Group for any future footwear technology that might exceed Vaporfly’s abilities.

“It is not our job to regulate the entire sports shoe market but it is our duty to preserve the integrity of elite competition by ensuring that the shoes worn by elite athletes in competition do not offer any unfair assistance or advantage,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement.

“As we enter the Olympic year, we don’t believe we can rule out shoes that have been generally available for a considerable period of time, but we can draw a line by prohibiting the use of shoes that go further than what is currently on the market while we investigate further,” he added.

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To start, beginning on April 30, any shoe to be used in official competition must be available for purchase on the open market for a period of four months prior to being accepted.

This particular point does appear to single out Eliud Kipchoge, one of the world’s leading marathon runners and the first athlete to run a marathon in under two hours—albeit in ideal conditions at a Nike training facility.

During that run, Kipchoge wore an even more powerful prototype Vaporfly model, the Alphafly, which is said to deliver double the benefits of the previous models thanks to an even higher foam midsole infused with more carbon plates.

Kipchoge, for his part, has gone on the record saying that new footwear technology should be embraced as a facet of competition, though the new regulations may not clear the path for the Alphafly to be used in World Athletics sanctioned events in the near future.

In fact, a number of footwear regulations were added by the group for immediate implementation that would disqualify the Alphafly even if it were made widely available. As of Jan. 31, no marathon runner can wear footwear with soles thicker than 40 millimeters or with more than one rigid embedded plate or blade—except in the case of spiked shoes, though the extra plate may only be used to affix the spikes to the outsole.

If a competition referee feels a runner’s footwear may have violated any of these rules, World Athletics will now give them the power to perform a post-race inspection of the footwear under reasonable suspicion.

“I believe these new rules strike the right balance by offering certainty to athletes and manufacturers as they prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games while addressing the concerns that have been raised about shoe technology,” Coe said. “If further evidence becomes available that indicates we need to tighten up these rules, we reserve the right to do that to protect our sport.”

Overall, it appears the emergence of the Vaporfly (which has already inspired its fair share of imitators and innovators) has spurred a change of protocol regarding footwear technology at World Athletics. Although it won’t be banning the Vaporfly line, the group will begin studying the effects of new technology on runners independently via an “expert working group.”

Already, the Assistance Review Group said its research was sufficient to “raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened” by new technology, affirming criticism that such footwear provides a significant performance advantage.

World Athletics invited footwear manufacturers and interested stakeholders to continue a dialogue on how to ensure new footwear innovations peacefully coexist with the group’s mission to protect professional track and field sporting events.

Expectations are that these studies will be carried out at partnered university facilities under the watchful eye of World Athletics and participating brands. The Assistance Review Group has recommended that a working group of biomechanics specialists and other experts to lead this research, performing tests on new shoes that enter into the market as necessary.