Nike announce technology and location for its breaking2 attempt

The famous race circuit of Monza, Italy, has been announced for the location of Nike’s ambitious breaking2 project; an attempt for an athlete to run a marathon in under two hours this year.

Gathered yesterday in the pit lanes of Monza, Nike showcased its latest shoe and apparel technology, the take away pieces of information being that they have stepped away from the typical marathon racing flats and have developed a cushioned, yet light weight shoe, have officially announced a venue and are still not sure if it’s possible (though they are confident).

The shoes

With the input of its breaking2 athletes (Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea), and some extensive testing including race use by Nike athletes at the Rio Olympics and four of the major marathons including Kipchoge’s win at the London Marathon last year, Nike revealed the Zoom Vaporfly Elite – a cushioned race shoe that currently weighs in at a reported 185g. Check out the video below for a tour of the shoe. 

 

Along with Flyknit, Flywire and other established Nike design features, the major advance comes from a patented carbon fibre insert (see pic below, that's it between the two layers of white foam) that is reported to dramatically change the performance and profile of the shoe. The plate acts as a ‘stiffening element’ according to Nike’s design team, yet its impact on the shoe as a whole is perhaps more important. The curve of the plate changes the foot shape in the shoe, placing it more in the toe-off position and this does a couple of key thing; it helps improve on running economy due to reducing the strain on the lower leg thus delaying the onset of fatigue and it allows for increased cushioning in the shoe without a loss of performance.

The foam that covers this increased cushioning in the midsole has been improved too, as Nike’s Zoom foam becomes ZoomX. What does this mean? Well, apparently an 85% energy return compared to the typical 60-70%. This makes a big difference over 26.2 miles. Nike wouldn't really elaborate more on the foam, but did mention that it's a brand new technology for them and it's made from something called Pebax. A quick Google search revealed it’s a trademarked product of Arkema, a polymer company who produce a variety of grades of this resin, which it claims are “extremely light - usually more than 20% lighter than competitive polymers”.

Ok, so taking Arkema and Nike on their word (the RW shoe lab will verify all these claims), as it is lighter than the standard cushioning that is found in Nike's shoes, this means they can use more of it and they have. The shoe has an offset of 11mm between forefoot and heel, 20mm at the front and 31 at the back. This is considerable for a race shoe where you’d normally see 0-4mm in difference.

And then there's the heel shape. This is the result of aerodynamic testing where a design driven by data has shown the tapered heel is there to improve the way the shoe cuts through the air. 

Without trying the shoe it’s impossible to verify these claims, but in the hand the shoe feels impressively light for its size. It is a chunk of shoe compared to a racing flat, but the role the plate plays in offsetting the softness of the ride in relation to the cushioning is clear when flexing the shoe. There is a noticeable feeling of resistance or spring to the shoe, something Nike clearly feel is a benefit to this record attempt.  It seems that Nike has opted for the lightest possible product fit for the task rather than just the lightest possible product.

For the consumer, there is the Vaporfly 4% - so named due a claimed 4% improvement in running economy – that features the same technology and geometry as the Elite, but without the bespoke customisation. Then there is the Zoom Fly, which uses the same geometry and principles but different materials to reduce the end cost, so a plastic rather than a carbon plate, no ZoomX and other elements like this.

Apparel.

With every margin of improvement being looked at, the apparel for breaking2 features the same attention to detail that the shoes received.

With a combined weight of 250g, the total outfit that the athletes will wear has also been worked on to improve weight, fit, comfort, fatigue and grip; weight is an obvious one and it’s clearly lighter and the fit is about customised sizing. Working at such high intensity extrapolates even the smallest irritant so every seam and stitch must be considered for comfort, fatigue relates to how the clothes can support the athlete and grip is all about the positon of the apparel and reducing friction, especially in the shoes, as it’s a waste of energy (plus no one wants to see the insoles pop out again).

The main technology progression is what Nike call ‘Nanoweave’, a lightweight yarn that allows for an open construction process meaning each section of the singlet can be built to a certain requirement i.e. vented panels where heat dissipation is key and denser knit where tension is needed.

As seen on kit for the Rio Olympics, Aeroblade spikes have been attached to the singlet in two panels covering the ribs and obliques.  The same thinking has been applied to the ‘half tight’ short that has been developed, a compression short where muscle support is the aim without impacting on movement, especially in the hips.

Arm sleeves serve a purpose to keep the athletes warm but again, aerodynamics and data have played in the design and function, yet the most obviously different piece is the aeroblade tape stuck to the legs. Nike admit they want to change the way marathon running looks, but will this spikey tape make all the difference?

Monza


(Nike pacers and breaking2 athletes run the famous race track at Monza)

Nike also announced the race track in Monza as the location for this race. They held a test event yesterday too, a half marathon with the athletes focusing on pacing and drafting techniques and protocols that saw Kipchoge run a 59:17 (a new PB for him).

A fine performance for sure, but this was a test on a very windy day, so nothing else seems to be set in stone about the exact measures they’ll be taking for calm weather on race day, however Monza is the place this will happen.

Looking for locations that satisfied the scientists in regards to climate, altitude, course profile, and run surface, Monza ended up as location number one amongst others. The race will take place on the junior course, a 1.5-mile loop. It’s not totally flat either, with a gradual uphill and one gradual downhill per loop, rising a total of 5.35 meters. An ideal day according to Nike for running the event would be 12ºc, cloudy and with no wind. How does Monza compare to Berlin? Read more here

In the history of running, be it amateur or professional, breaking through nice round numbers allows for success can be easily quantified and a target like sub two hours has all the big time credentials of the 4-minute mile; this is a big scalp in an ever dwindling list of feasible running trophies, so it makes sense that a major running brand like Nike would go after it.

Taking a step aside from the debate other verified courses and sanctioned races, what was witnessed yesterday was the first really public exploration of the time target and how something based purely in math and theory has been brought into the realms of ‘possible’. This is partly because elements like engineering and design have reached a point where it can aid human biomechanics like it never could before but also because these athletes are already incredible. Without them it remains numbers on a chalk board (laptop), but they too are learning from experts in nutrition and physiology, so their performances can be optimised for this task.

This doesn’t mean it will happen and the most reassuring thing about this test event was that Nike know that. The logistics teams still don’t know what the final game plan is and it is investing a lot of time and resource into something that might not be pulled off. That’s not very Nike. Shoes will be sold, but the new shiney trophy is the target. It’s a risk and I for one can’t wait to see what happens.