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What Happens When A Mid-Packer Runs In Nike’s Fastest Race Shoe

Shoe tester Sam Winebaum tries the newly released Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% and determines if it actually makes the average runner faster.

This past spring, the exclusive Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite was worn to run the fastest (unofficial) marathon ever recorded by Eilud Kipchoge in 2:00:25 as part of Nike’s Breaking2 project. It’s also the shoe worn by both the men’s and women’s 2017 Boston Marathon winners. Now, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% ($250), a slightly modified version of the Vaporfly Elite, is available for purchase.

The Vaporfly is a heady mix of thickly stacked, super light ZoomX Pebax foam, a curving embedded 100 percent carbon fiber plate, topped off by a sleek minimal breathable upper. Screaming exotic race machine, is this marvel only for the best of the best or can it also shine for mid-pack runners? I’ve set out to discover the answer.

Since the Vaporfly was created for Nike’s Breaking2 attempt, it is engineered to be the lightest possible shoe with plenty of responsive cushion and dynamic propulsion. The goal for the design is to improve running economy by 4 percent. My pair of men’s size 8.5 weighed 6.56 ounces with a 10mm heel-to-toe drop (31mm heel/21mm forefoot stack). The upper is a single, super breathable layer of Flymesh with internal arch bands.

Unlike other race “flats” typically worn by elites in marathons and Nike’s own Zoom Streak 6, the ZoomX midsole makes the Vaporfly 4% one silky cushioned shoe with a claim of up to 85 percent energy return. It has a race shoe narrow rear platform, so wide, flat feet, heavy heel strikers and severe pronators may struggle to stay on the platform. To help tame the softer foam, a full length 100 percent carbon plate is embedded in the midsole, running not far under the sock liner at the heel and curving down so that the plate is just above the outsole rubber at the forefoot. This seems to have a similar function as that of a spike plate.

Due to the plate, the shoe feels stiff and according to Nike this is meant to provide a sensation of propulsion—the feeling of falling forward then a smooth toe-off. The sensation is a softly tempered one and is in no way harsh on the road. Except for very steep uphill running, I never would have known the shoe was as stiff as a board.

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This is a shoe designed for marathoning, and while my first race in them was a downhill 10K, I was amazed by the cushion. All that 31mm of softer heel didn’t give a sinking feeling due to the plate. (Except at one point during a very steep downhill due, I think, to the pointy rear heel landing zone.) And I felt an effortless transition to toe-off with the 21mm forefoot—the forefoot cushion softening the push off but without losing much zip. My toes formed to the foam, making the shoe respond a bit slower than a conventional firmer race shoe. Yet, when downward forces met that stiff plate under the outsole I was instantly propelled up and away. Hence, a great shoe for Boston’s hilly course. No wonder it was worn by both 2017 Boston Marathon winners!

I received a pair of the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% the day after release and tested them at my faster tempo paces at 8:11 for 4 miles on a hot day at 6,800 feet. My effort on the tempo run and comparisons to other runs on the same roads indicates that, at least for me, the claim of a potential 4 percent improvement in running economy may be in the ballpark. Three days later, and a bit tired, I raced them in a downhill 10K race in Salt Lake City at 4,800 feet. I averaged 7:07 per mile and won my 60-64 age group in almost the same time as my finish five years ago and only a minute slower than eight years before when I was in superb shape and ran two 1:35 half marathons.

At $250, the Vaporfly 4% is among the most expensive of running shoes. Its design and price mirrors the trend in cycling and skiing where ever costlier, lighter, higher performance materials and new designs can provide distinct advantages to elites as well as recreational athletes. Faster runners may stay with more conventional race shoes for sub-marathon distances. When it comes to marathoning, finishers from the Breaking2 level to 4 hours should consider the Vaporfly as a very special race shoe. Mid-pack runners can certainly also appreciate its comfort and performance at sub-marathon distances.

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