Advanced technology or technology doping? GVSU expert's research key part of running shoe debate ahead of Olympics

Kyle Barnes conducts research.
Kyle Barnes conducted research on a shoe for runners that has changed the sport.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts
Kyle Barnes works on his research.
Kyle Barnes conducted research on a shoe for runners that has changed the sport.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts

A rules change regarding competitive distance runners' shoes ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics comes amid a robust debate about the fairness of athletes using specialized shoes that can significantly improve performance.

The governing body for the sport of distance running, World Athletics, recently announced that shoes used by runners must have been commercially available at least four months before a competition. The group also set limits on shoe specifications such as the thickness of the sole and the number of plates used internally to stabilize the shoe.

What's more, the body of research used to fuel both the debate and rules change contains key findings from a Grand Valley expert's independent study of a technologically advanced Nike shoe in comparison to other options.

Kyle Barnes, assistant professor of exercise science, tested groups of Grand Valley track athletes in a Nike shoe known as the Vaporfly. His work, done in conjunction with exercise physiology professor Andrew Kilding from Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand and published in Sports Medicine, found that those wearing the shoes demonstrated about 4.2 percent more efficiency while running.

Running economy essentially is a measure of the oxygen consumed by a runner at a given speed. Oxygen is the fuel for runners, Barnes said, so if they are more economical in using it, they generally experience better performance.

One result is that elite runners could see — and have seen — significant reductions in their running times, in some cases crushing records, Barnes said.

"It's definitely shifting the dynamic," said Barnes, who has competed in such races as the Boston Marathon. "What are we watching? Some say we're not just watching athletes but seeing whose technology is better. There is worry about engineers dictating outcomes."

Indeed, the integrity of the sport is at the center of the debate over shoe technology. What some see as advancement of the sport, others see as technology doping, which involves producing a competitive advantage through sports equipment. A high-profile example of this dilemma involves the restrictions placed on swimsuits for competitions after swimmers using full-body suits at the 2008 Beijing Olympics repeatedly shattered world records, Barnes said.

Barnes said the independent nature of his research, which has been widely referenced in both traditional and social media, plays an important role in the data that is available since companies also fund studies.

As for any further research, Barnes said he is assessing that possibility while also considering the challenges presented by the dizzying pace of technology breakthroughs. One thing is for sure, though, he said: Shoe advancements are now part of the sport and runners must stay on top of the latest technology to stay competitive.

"Shoe technology is at an arms race right now, it's evolving so fast," Barnes said.