Nov 6, 2023 - Economy & Business

Inside the race to develop $500 "super shoes"

Illustration of a shoe suspended in air with a cape flying behind it.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Shoes that cost the same as an iPhone — and with just about as much technology — are helping runners shatter records and triggering a feverish race among shoe companies.

Why it matters: Elite athletes are always looking for an edge — and their equipment decisions influence countless amateur athletes, which is where apparel companies make their money.

Catch up quick: Ethiopian long-distance runner Tigst Assefa obliterated the women's marathon record in September, recording a time of 2:11:53 while wearing Adidas' state-of-the-art Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1.

  • Two weeks later, Kenyan long-distance runner Kelvin Kiptum shattered the men's marathon record, posting a time of 2:00:35 while wearing Nike's Dev 163 prototype shoes.
  • Ethiopian runner Tamirat Tola broke the men's course record at the New York City Marathon on Sunday while wearing Adidas super shoes.

State of play: These super kicks are super light, cushy and springy — the antithesis of clodhoppers, you might say.

  • "We call them the super shoes for mere humans," Caspar Coppetti, executive co-chair of Swiss shoemaker On Holding, told investors earlier this month.

But they're controversial among elite runners, some of whom think they provide an unfair advantage — not unlike how now-banned high-tech swimsuits once gave an edge to competitive swimmers.

  • "Whether you agree or disagree with them, the war of the super shoes is well and truly on," Runner's World says.

Zoom in: The public can buy the Adidas super shoes for $500, which makes them legal in competitive races. The Nike shoes are set to arrive in January as the Alphafly 3.

  • One day, this technology could become cheap enough to integrate into shoes for the everyday consumer, but for now, it's about providing a halo effect to the shoe brands.
  • "A $500 running shoe that is designed to be worn once or twice is a very niche market, but could help drive popularity to other Adidas products," CFRA Research analyst Zachary Warring tells Axios.

Between the lines: Super shoes are powered by what Gazelle Sports calls a "stacked foam, carbon-plated, rocker design."

  • The Adidas kicks weigh less than a third of a pound, which the Wall Street Journal notes "is so lightweight that elite runners initially doubted it could hold up over a long race."

The bottom line: If and when someone breaks the two-hour mark in a marathon for the first time, it'll almost surely be while wearing super shoes.

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