Can a $500 Sneaker Really Turn You Into a World-Class Runner?

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Photographs: Getty Images, Nike, Adidas; Collage: Gabe Conte

Last September, Ethiopia's Tigst Assefa set a new world record at the Berlin Marathon, besting the previous time by more than two minutes—an eternity in road running. This feat was all the more impressive considering that Assefa, a former 800-meter specialist, was not known for her distance running, having only entered the pro marathon circuit a year earlier. Now the first woman to have run a sub-2:14 marathon, Assefa is considered nothing short of a running phenomenon—and one that largely came out of nowhere.

But one of the most striking features of Assefa’s record-breaking race was what she wore on her feet: the all-new Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1, the extremely lightweight “ultra supershoe” developed by Adidas. Laden with tech that Adidas says “challenges the boundaries of racing,” the shoe is equipped with a “first of its kind forefoot rocker” designed to generate energy and produce forward momentum with every step. Assefa did not win the Berlin Marathon because of her shoes. But her shoes clearly helped Assefa run the marathon as efficiently as possible.

Marathon running is in the midst of an arms race, as competing shoe brands vie to one up one another with greater and greater advances in high-performance footwear. It kicked off in 2016, when several high-profile marathon runners podiumed at the Olympics while wearing prototypes of Nike’s then-unreleased Vaporfly shoe, which used a plate of carbon fiber to give runners a massive boost of energy that enhanced their stride. Nike-sponsored athletes seemed to have such a leg up over the competition that athletes sponsored by other brands even started racing in Vaporflys in secret, “blacking out” the shoe by covering the branding and logos so as to not offend their own affiliates.

It wasn’t just a perception. It was backed up by evidence: A study conducted by The New York Times found that runners wearing Vaporflys ran 4 to 5 percent faster than runners wearing average shoes. Such studies made clear what many in the racing world had long suspected—if you want to compete seriously in marathon running, you’d better be wearing the best shoes on the market. The edge conferred by the tech was simply too advantageous to do without. The question was whether it was even more than an edge, but actually an unfair advantage.

The scrutiny intensified in the fall of 2019, after Eliud Kipchoge became the first runner ever to complete a marathon in under two hours—a plainly extraordinary feat widely deemed dubious due to the extent of the assistance Kipchoge received to pull it off, from surrounding himself with pacesetters to serve as wind barriers to selecting the almost entirely flat and temperate Vienna as the ideal location. (The Guardian said that it was “an operation afforded military levels of planning and an even loftier budget.”)

And of course, there were the shoes. Kipchoge had to defend his decision to wear Nike’s Alphafly Next% sneakers for the record-breaking effort after critics insisted that their technological superiority violated the spirit of marathon racing; he shot back that critics should “open their hearts and move on,” arguing that the entire world embraces technological change elsewhere, and that running was no different. The controversy led to new regulations from the World Athletics governance board limiting the kinds of shoes that could be worn for official races. Nike’s top shoes, however, were determined to be acceptable—maintaining the marathon race status quo and keeping Nike’s athletes at the top of the field.

More recently, however, the battlefield has changed, and some of Nike’s top competitors have begun to reassert themselves with new and more powerfully advanced sneakers of their own. Kenyan runner Evans Chebet won the Boston Marathon last year in a pair of Adizero Adios Pro 3s, while Hellen Obiri won the same race in On Running’s Cloudboom Echo 3. Although each of these new models has its own unique silhouette and features, they tend to follow similar design principles: The sports engineer Thomas Allen told The Guardian that there’s “been a natural kind of evolution towards lighter foam, greater energy resilience, and a very curved rocket at the front” that improves efficiency.

In some ways, then, modern marathons have become as much a race between competing shoe technologies as between runners, with each brand angling to have their logo atop the podium after each and every race. Right now, the Adios Pro Evo 1 seems to have clinched the title of best marathon shoe on the market—but at any moment another supershoe from Nike or one of a half-dozen other brands could emerge to claim the crown. Somewhere, right now, engineers and shoe designers in world-class laboratories are testing some technological game-changer that is months or years away from helping someone break another record. New times are no longer a matter of if, but when—and in what shoe.

At the same time, all of those runners not harboring ambitions to win the race or break world records are left to decide what to do about their own footwear needs. This past September, nearly 50,000 men and women ran the Berlin Marathon, many of them hobbyist runners who trained diligently but not at the level of full-time professionals. For the most part, these runners are there to see the marathon through and chase their own personal bests, not to edge out their competitors or dominate the group.

Nike’s Alphafly 3 Proto retails for $285, and the Vaporfly 3 retails for $250. The Adidas Adios Pro Evo 1, even more remarkably, retails for $500, an enormous price tag for a pair of runners. More astonishingly still, these shoes are not long-term investment pieces: The Adios Pro Evo is designed to be used one time only, to be worn throughout a single marathon before needing to be replaced. Elite runners hardly have to worry about the price tag of a superior performance shoe (and sponsored athletes get these shoes provided for them, naturally). But what about someone for whom running is a passion but not a career? A supershoe might help them shave a few minutes off their PR—but without world records on the line, is it worth the cost?

“I’ve long had the impression of these shoes as being something for the pros,” says Jeva Lange, a New York–based runner who flew to Berlin in September to run the marathon. A supershoe for her, she says, has long felt like “a Stradivarius if I’m just in the high school symphony—silly, expensive overkill.” Recently, however, her attitude has shifted: “Supershoes have become a lot more mainstream, and I’m definitely curious about how it would potentially improve my time in an actual race,” she says. “I don’t care necessarily for the clout of having the cool shoe that the pros have, but I keep going back to look at them, just because they seem to be such a game changer in technology.” She says that she could “absolutely” see herself getting a pair within the next year or two.

As even noncompetitive athletes become the beneficiaries of these huge advancements in performance technology, it’s likely that more and more people will feel the pressure to opt in and compete to the best of their ability. Even if you’re not going for gold, the temptation to maximize your own output—to finish with the best possible time, full stop—will be too tempting to resist. Running without supershoes might eventually seem like playing basketball in jeans: possible, but severely limiting. And no one wants to impose an unnecessary limit.

At the same time, as the tech keeps getting better, it begs the question: Is there a limit to the change? Will, at some point, the efficiency of the shoes overshadow the natural skills of the runners? Will marathon running become simply a race between shoe companies? There might be a time in the future when supershoes or their next logical iterations will be limited in professional races, if not banned entirely, the way that super-suits were banned in professional swimming. It’s an arms race for the time being. We’ll have to keep watching to see if it turns into an all-out war.

Originally Appeared on GQ