What makes these sneakers so damn special? Hear what one of the masterminds behind the world record–setting kicks had to say.

By By Karla Bruning
October 29, 2018
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Photo: Nike

Eliud Kipchoge set the marathon world record in them. Shalane Flanagan won the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon in them. And once again, she'll wear them to defend her title on November 4. I'm talking about the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% running shoes.

First, why 4%? That's the average leg up runners get while racing in them, according to Nike-funded research at the University of Colorado. After watching pro runners and friends on Instagram crushing it in these kicks, I was intrigued, so I coughed up $290 on the secondary market. The shoe is only available in "unisex" (aka men's) sizing, so I locked down a men's size 8 to correlate to a women's 9.5.

After a lethargic long run in the shoes (thanks, marathon training), I put them to the test at Wineglass Half Marathon in Corning, New York. It turns out the magic worked for me too: 1 hour, 58 minutes, and 49 seconds later, I crossed the finish line in happy tears, having achieved the sub-2-hour half marathon goal I'd been chasing for close to a decade. Yes, I said a decade. (P.S. Here's how training through my first year of motherhood made me a better runner.)

Bret Schoolmeester, Nike senior director for global running footwear and one of the masterminds behind the kicks, says PR stories like mine are not uncommon. "The best moments for me have been the reactions of athletes when they put the shoes on their feet and do amazing things in them. And it's not just the elite athletes we work with; it's stories like yours of people who have finally broken through a barrier that may not have seemed possible before," Schoolmeester tells me. "Our goal is always to make athletes better, and to deliver measurable benefits to Eliud Kipchoge, Shalane Flanagan, and you-it's amazing." (Related: How NYC Marathon Champion Shalane Flanagan Trains for Race Day-Plus Tips You Can Steal)

Was it the shoes? I don't know, maybe, probably? I mean, just one of six podium finishers at the rain-soaked 2018 Boston Marathon had Nike shoes on their feet. But in 2017, 19 of 36 World Marathon Majors podium finishers were Nike athletes in Vaporflys; seven of 12 champions had the kicks on their feet.

Like everything in life, you can't pin success or failure on one thing. After all, every running calculator I plugged my times into agreed that I easily had a sub-2-hour half marathon in me, but I'd failed to execute it in race after race. Those failures only compounded my self-doubt.

Maybe it took the shoes-and thinking I had magic on my feet-to finally push me over the edge. Yes, I also trained better, felt mentally stronger, executed a perfect race strategy, picked a great course, and lucked out with cool, rainy weather. The stars finally aligned for me-including picking the right pair of kicks. (Related: The 2018 Shape Sneaker Award Winners Will Replace Every Pair of Shoes You Own)

Having firmly rooted my belief in magic sneakers, I decided to ask Nike what was up with these incredible shoes.

"The researchers who run the lab we worked with told us they started referring to it as the 'magic shoe,'" says Schoolmeester. "When career scientists start believing in magic, we knew we had something special."

Schoolmeester, a lifelong runner himself, says Nike was working toward a singular goal: to create a shoe that would make the world's fastest marathoners even faster. (Related: I Own 80+ Pairs of Sneakers But Wear These Almost Every Day)

The one-two punch is Nike's ZoomX foam-which has the highest energy return ever seen in independent testing at the Runner's World lab-and a full-length carbon fiber plate. Together, they reduce the amount of energy a runner needs while maximizing propulsion. Translation: If you can use your energy more economically, you can run faster.

Of course, not every runner will get that 4 percent bump, which Nike says is an average. Factors such as running form, foot strike, or weight can all impact the wearing experience and the results, says Schoolmeester. Still, all of the runners in the Nike-funding testing experienced saw improvement while wearing the 4% versus a traditional racing flat-and no one experienced a decrease in performance, he says.

It's not just Nike that thinks they're amazing, either. Runners in the Vaporfly 4% run 3 to 4 percent faster than similar runners in other shoes, according to an independent New York Times analysis of almost 500,000 marathon and half-marathon finish times on Strava. It bested the next fastest shoe, Nike Zoom Streak, by 1 percent according to their data.

Now, almost a year and a half since Nike introduced the original Zoom Vaporfly 4%, the latest iteration (which hit shelves earlier this month) features a new Flyknit one-piece upper that makes the shoes even lighter and, theoretically, faster. Thanks to all the buzz, the shoes are notoriously difficult to come by. Nike releases them in small batches, which quickly sell out at $250 a pop. That might change in the future-Schoolmeester says they have and will continue to increase production.

Don't want to wait? You can find the bouncy ZoomX foam (minus the carbon fiber plate) in the Nike Zoom Pegasus Turbo ($180; nike.com). (Here, our fashion director put them to the test.)