Carbon Fiber Gets Running Shoe Banned from Competitive Use

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There has been plenty of debate in recent months over whether or not adding a carbon fibre plate to a running shoe increases speed. Apparently, World Athletics believes it does. So much so that they are poised to ban one particular model of running shoe later in 2020. That model is the Nike Vaporfly 4%.

World Athletics, formerly known as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), acts as the international governing body for sports such as cross-country running and track and field. Their decision to ban the Nike Vaporfly 4% is, therefore, monumental to athletics. What they say becomes the standard moving forward.

More Energy, More Speed

The apparent problem with the Nike Vaporfly 4% is that it returns more power to runners with every stride. More power equals more speed. Nike and a few others have been pushing carbon fibre plates as of late for this very reason. Despite scepticism among runners and members of the sports media, it appears as though their claims have proved correct.

According to a recent Fast Company report, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour marathon barrier wearing a pair of Vaporfly 4% shoes in the fall of 2019. The women’s marathon record was broken the next day by Brigid Kosgei, wearing the exact same shoes.

If anecdotal evidence is not enough for you, a test of the Vaporfly 4% conducted by the New York Times proved the efficacy of adding a carbon fibre plate. Runners tested with the Vaporfly 4% ran between 4% and 5% faster as compared to standard running shoes.

How It Works

The physics of running dictates that a certain amount of energy is lost with every stride. As the foot makes an impact with the ground, some energy is transferred from runner to the running surface, regardless of whether that surface is concrete, an artificial track, or anything else. Reduce that energy transfer and you increase running efficiency.

Carbon fibre plates do just that. According to Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites, carbon fibre deflects energy rather than absorbing it. As such, inserting a carbon fibre plate inside a running shoe should theoretically return energy to the runner rather than transferring it to the ground.

Energy is first deflected when the heel hits the ground. That energy is then transferred forward where it is returned to the ball of the foot through the carbon fibre plate. This allows the rider to push off harder and faster with each stride. The end result is more speed with less effort.

New Standards for Carbon Fiber Plates

Fast Company claims that there is some disagreement over whether World Athletics will completely ban the Nike Vaporfly 4% and all similar running shoes. Even if they don’t, it’s likely that they will at least set standards for carbon fibre plates moving forward. World Athletics is almost certainly not going to allow shoe technology to have a significant impact on runner ability.

It is fascinating to think about the carbon fibre running shoe in relation to other sports. Where the Vaporfly 4% has now proved to measurably increase runner speed, carbon fibre has also improved performance on the golf course, the tennis court, the cycling track, and elsewhere.

Carbon fibre is a lightweight material that is exceptionally strong. It is more than adequate as a replacement for wood, aluminium, and other materials. Indeed, it is a favourite material among engineers who are tasked with the job of designing better sports equipment.

Carbon fibre apparently does work in running shoes. It works so well that World Athletics will be making efforts to control it. Who knew?