Eliud Kipchoge stunned the world in October when he ran a marathon in less than two hours, blazing through the streets of Vienna at a pace of just over 4½ minutes per mile. The next day in Chicago, fellow Kenyan Brigid Kosgei broke the women’s record for the 26.2-mile distance, a mark that had stood for 16 years.
Can anyone in the Philadelphia Marathon on Nov. 24 hope to come close? Unlikely, but that won’t stop plenty of everyday plodders from adopting some of the high-tech performance products used by these elites.
Shoes that contain springlike, carbon-fiber plates. Compression sleeves for arms and legs, designed to enhance venous blood flow. Scientifically formulated gels and liquids for midrace refueling.
Expect to see them all during the marathon, the culmination of a weekend that also includes a half-marathon and eight-kilometer race the day before. The trio of races is expected to draw 30,000 runners — and plenty of spectators — to courses that meander through Center City and along the Schuylkill.
The gear can be pricey, with some high-tech shoes retailing for $250, a contrast with running’s history as an activity for the masses. But much like golfers, there are runners who believe they must have the latest and greatest trappings of their sport, eagerly snapping up pacing watches, sweat-wicking garments, and shoes for every kind of surface and distance.
Less clear is whether some of the products help a person to run faster. Here’s a rundown of the scientific evidence for three popular categories of performance aids:
The first time Craig Keefer laced up a pair of Nike’s Vaporfly shoes for a short training run, in 2017, it felt effortless. And fast.
“I literally thought that they should be illegal,” said Keefer, 55, of Fairmount.
In his first half-marathon with the bright-red footwear, Keefer shaved 1 minute and 45 seconds off his time, dropping from 1:54.05 to 1:52.19.
Conceptually, the carbon plates embedded in the soles of Nike’s various Vaporfly models work like stiff springs. They are curved slightly upward, but they flatten out with the force of the runner’s foot hitting the ground, rebounding to their curved shape immediately. The runner also gets a boost from the resilient, lightweight foam in the sole, the shoemaker says.
Evidence suggests that there is something to it. In a 2017 study, researchers from Nike and the University of Colorado-Boulder found that runners who wore shoes with the embedded plates used 4% less energy than when they wore shoes without plates.
Though the company was involved in the study of its own product, the research methodology and conclusions appear to be sound, said Jill Higginson, a University of Delaware professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering.
Upon reviewing the results, she was struck by the fact that the unorthodox plates seemed to result in little change in the patterns of force on runners’ feet. The main difference with the high-tech shoes was that runners’ stride length was slightly longer.
“Not only is it saving energy and bouncing back, it also doesn’t affect the way that you move all that much,” she said.
Using less energy does not necessarily mean running faster. Wearers of the shoes also could opt to run at their usual pace with less fatigue, said Gregg Lemos-Stein, 51, who wore Vaporfly shoes when he broke three hours in the 2018 New York Marathon.
Either way, the technology is no substitute for dedication and training, said the West Mount Airy resident, who cohosts a running podcast called Cloud259.
“It won’t run the race for you,” he said.
Some purists have referred derisively to the technology as “shoe-doping.” Defenders say it is no different from equipment advances in other sports such as tennis, where we do not expect Serena Williams and Roger Federer to play with the wooden rackets of old.
Still others, Keefer and Lemos-Stein included, lately have had misgivings about buying Nike products following allegations that its professional coaches pressured already-lean female runners to lose weight. For those looking for alternatives, other shoemakers, such as Hoka, have come out with their own carbon-plate models.
Regardless of who makes them — Kipchoge and Kosgei both wore Nike shoes for their October efforts — carbon plates seem to be here to stay.
Running is a demanding sport, consuming one calorie per kilogram of body mass every kilometer. For a 150-pound person running a marathon, that works out to about 2,870 calories.
A person running at a good clip, a time of 3½ hours, typically gets 70% of that caloric total from carbohydrates — about 2,000 calories — while the rest comes from stored fat, said Alan McCubbin, a sports dietitian and lecturer at Monash University in Australia.
The runner can get much of the needed carbs from storage, too, in the form of glycogen in the leg muscles and liver. (There is glycogen in other muscles, too, but the legs can’t borrow from other body parts.)
“It’s kind of like the gas tank in your car,” said University of Minnesota medical school professor William O. Roberts, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
Runners typically top off that gas tank in the days leading up to a race by “carbo-loading” with a diet heavy in pastas and fruits. But unlike a car, a runner’s performance during a marathon starts to tail off well before using all those stored carbs, said Robin Danowski, an assistant professor of nutrition at LaSalle University. Mid-race replenishment is crucial.
A good rule of thumb is to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs an hour, Danowski said. (A banana contains 30 grams.)
Elite runners typically want more. But the small intestine’s capacity to absorb carbs is limited — at most 60 grams of glucose an hour and 30 grams of fructose, McCubbin said. Overload the system, and there’s a risk of bloating, abdominal pain, or a sudden need to defecate. (Some envelope-pushing types wear dark-colored shorts for that reason.)
Here’s where the high-tech gels and drinks come in. One popular brand, called Maurten, contains natural additives that take the form of a “hydrogel” in the stomach’s acidic environment, purportedly encapsulating the carbs so they are less likely to cause gastrointestinal complaints. The company says that when the carbs reach the small intestine, they then are absorbed at a higher rate.
McCubbin is not convinced. In a small study, he and colleagues found no difference in the rate of G.I. issues in athletes who used Maurten, compared with those consuming similar nutrients without the hydrogel.
A sports drink such as Gatorade gets the job done just fine, he said. But the various gels do have one key edge: They are easy to consume on the run.
Warning: Do not be tempted by vendor giveaways to try a new gel on race day, said LaSalle’s Danowski.
“For the race, stick with what you know works,” she said.
Compression garments for the legs and arms can help blood return to the heart, especially in those with medical conditions such as heart failure. But do they improve the performance of a highly conditioned runner?
The evidence is mixed, said physical therapist Bryan Heiderscheit, a professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
On the whole, studies have not found the garments make runners faster, though they may aid muscle recovery afterward.
Bob Goodman, 68, of Westampton in Burlington County, who underwent a heart transplant in 2013, wears them for another reason.
It has nothing to do with his donated heart or his speed. The weather promises to be chilly when he runs the Philadelphia half-marathon, so his calves will be covered with the stretchy garments, he said.
“They keep you a little bit warmer.”