There are no more racing flats, only super shoes.
The end of the minimalist running shoe era.
Runners are a loyal crowd, particularly when it comes to their favourite shoes.
Training for long races requires long hours and high mileage, and using shoes that don't provide the perfect support or fit just right can result in severe injuries. Therefore, it's no wonder runners are so particular about their footwear. Once they find a shoe that works for them, they will likely stick with it for the long haul. Cue the ASICS Cumulus and Brooks Ghost.
However, as new technologies and materials become available, even the most loyal runners might be tempted to switch things up. Especially when they see unthinkable records broken with the help of new shoe technology.
Runners that have traditionally loved the lightweight racing flats of yore are suddenly becoming maximalists in the latest foam and carbon-propelled designs.
So are racing flats really on their way out? And are the new so-called "super shoes" really as super as they claim to be?
Let's look to see if all the hype is worth it.
The history of the racing flats
The first racing shoes do not look anything like the sleek, lightweight ones we know today.
In 1925, Adolf "Adi" Dassler (founder of Adidas) created the first modern running shoe. Jesse Owens wore Dassler's shoes to the 1936 Olympics, earning the shoes widespread recognition.
And so, the innovations began.
Regarding early running shoes, some runners wore moccasins, some wore sandals, and others wore models made of leather with fabric uppers. In any case, they were heavy and bulky, with rubber on the bottom to provide traction.
It wasn't until the 1960s that advances in materials and design led to lighter shoes with better grip. These shoes, known as racing flats, quickly became popular among runners because they helped them to run faster and farther. They had a leather upper and rubber ripple sole and were ideal for practically any running surface.
The purpose of racing flats is to make running more efficient and faster. They are lighter than other running shoes while providing less heel lift and support, allowing the body’s biomechanics to do their best work. But despite their benefits, racing flats are not without their problems.
Racing flats' fall from grace
One of the biggest complaints about racing flats is that they can cause injuries. They provide less support and stability than other running shoes while lacking the cushioning that can help to protect less biomechanically efficient runners from injuries.
While it may seem like there were only a few options to choose from at the time, over 66 models of running shoes (mostly flats) from 32 brands were listed in Runner's World in 1971. However, most runners wore brands Tiger, Adidas, or New Balance. Tiger's Marathon was praised for its glove-like fit and flexibility, making it feel like walking barefoot. However, the Cortez, their top training model, offered cushioning for the first time. In 1972, this shoe became the flagship product of a new company – Nike.
This is when sports gear manufacturers introduced new shoe designs with support and cushioning improvements. These shoes traditionally have a higher heel-to-toe drop, providing more heel cushioning for heel strikers, taking some of the strain off the joints.
The thinking was that the increased arch support and cushioning in these shoes would protect runners from injuries, and they quickly became the preferred choice for running. Racing flats fell out of favour and were seen as being only for efficient elite runners who could handle the extra stress on their feet and legs.
However, excess cushioning in shoes has also more recently been linked to injuries. This is because the increased cushioning can make runners land harder and faster, leading to stress injuries. In addition, the extra weight of these shoes can make runners slower and more fatigued, a critical limitation in long races.
With the problems associated with both racing flats and traditional running shoes, it's no wonder these trends are cyclical. When the book Born to Run was released in 2009, there was a shift back to lighter, more minimalist shoes and even barefoot running. After this trend began to phase out, Nike released the famous Vaporfly, a maximalist approach to racing claiming performance returns of up to 4.2% improvement for elite athletes.
It's no surprise that there has been a lot of excitement about the latest generation of "super shoes."
Introducing super shoes
These shoes are designed to combine the biomechancial benefits of racing flats with next-level cushioning, without the associated risks. They have some added features, like carbon fiber plates and nitrogen-infused midsole foam, that help to improve performance and protect runners from injuries.
The typical super shoe is made up of extremely light and energy-efficient midsole foam, together with a plastic or carbon fiber plate, creating a highly cushioned, springy shoe with no extra weight. Many of these super shoes have extra cushioning in the forefoot to help absorb impact and minimize stress on the feet and legs.
Being incredibly lightweight, they won't weigh runners down and slow their pace, while providing ankle stability and reducing rotational force,
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Made from high-tech materials, such as the carbon-plated Nike shoes that Eliud Kipchoge wore when he broke the two-hour marathon barrier, these shoes are built to help runners go faster and farther than ever before.
Are they really all that super?
Manufacturers claim that super shoes can improve performance on race day by 4%. But can they truly live up to the hype?
A recent study tested this claim by having average recreational runners try out three different types of shoes: their own running shoes as a benchmark, a racing flat, and a super shoe.
According to the study, 25% of participants achieved the manufacturer's claimed performance improvement of 4%. Researchers found that runners whose shoes were heavier improved the most, again demonstrating how the weight of the shoe plays a critical role in running performance, and the advantage carbon shoes have in this regard. Athletes who are at peak physical fitness are also more likely to reap the benefits of these shoes, as biomechanics absolutely come into play.
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There's no doubt that super shoes have a lot to offer runners. However, it's important to remember that there is no one perfect shoe for everyone. What works for one runner might not work for another. It's important to bear in mind your own individual needs and preferences, training goals, mileage, and running style when choosing the right shoe.
Still, don't discount the super shoes if you're looking for a new pair of running shoes. They just might be the perfect choice for you.