It should have been a perfect moment for Carson Caprara, head of footwear development for Brooks Running, when the company’s star athlete claimed bronze in the 1,500-meter finals at the Tokyo Olympics.
Instead, there was a catch. The runner, Britain’s Josh Kerr, wore shoes designed by Nike. That’s because, amid the complications of COVID-19, Brooks had been delayed in developing a version of next-generation track spikes that are transforming the sport.
“It was so frustrating,” said Caprara, whose company let Kerr and other sponsored elites race in spikes from rival brands. “We’ve always responded for our athletes, every time. To come up a little short really grounded us.”
The experience stung because makers of running shoes are in a race of their own. The industry’s somewhat controversial “super shoe” technology — pioneered by Nike with springy foam and hard plates in thick soles — already made the world’s top marathoners faster by providing a trampoline effect with every stride.
Companies then started putting those components in track spikes, historically a niche market of minimalist footwear that now includes bestsellers like the fat-soled, carbon fiber-plated $180 Nike Air Zoom Victory.
Now the same features are filtering down to sneakers designed for the masses, giving even casual joggers a chance to experience some of the same benefits as elite runners. It also has companies such as Brooks (owned by Berkshire Hathaway), Adidas and Puma chasing after Nike to increase their share of the more than $10 billion global market for running shoes.
“You will see even more extreme things when it gets to the shape of the midsole over the next two or three years,” said Bjorn Gulden, chief executive officer of Puma, which this summer unveiled a line of track spikes codeveloped with Mercedes-Benz’s Formula One racing team. Norway’s Karsten Warholm wore a pair while smashing the 400-meter hurdles world record in Tokyo.
Companies began experimenting with carbon plates decades ago, but the concept only flourished with the advent of extremely light and bouncy types of foam — especially ones made from a material called Pebax. That alone gives people a better energy return with each step, and the effect is heightened with a hard plate inside to act like a springboard.
Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge ushered in this era in 2017 when, in a much-hyped Nike event, he completed the marathon distance in 2 hours and 25 seconds — beating the world record by more than 2 1/2 minutes.
Soon, Caprara got worrying feedback from a coach of Brooks athletes. For the first time in the coach’s career, his runners were at a disadvantage because racing shoes from rival brands were superior. That kicked off five months of frenzied development, after which Caprara delivered a pair of prototypes with carbon plates to U.S. runner Desiree Linden before the 2018 Boston Marathon. While far from a favorite, Linden emerged at the front of the pack. “We were scared to death,” Caprara said.
The shoes, which led to a line called Hyperion Elite, held together, and Linden won. Brooks hasn’t yet released a comparable track spike, which is why Kerr was allowed to wear a shoe from a competitor.
Other companies made their own versions. Hoka One One produced the Carbon X, used in a world-record 50-mile performance. New Balance made the 5280, designed for 1-mile road races. And Adidas released the Adizero Adios Pro, which has five carbon rods under people’s metatarsals rather than a single plate.
Caprara sees the technology benefiting more than just elites. The fact that the new shoes focus more of the force of impact on a person’s lower limbs could help those accustomed to knee injuries. Others will simply prefer the feel of running faster.
Asics is targeting consumers with a thinner-soled, slightly heavier version of its elite shoe called Magic Speed. Puma has the Deviate Nitro, a product Gulden calls the “carbon shoe for everyone.”
Such sneakers may not suit “somebody that just wants to use a running shoe for walking around,” said Kasper Rorsted, CEO of Adidas, who put out the $140 Adizero Boston 10 with its “carbon-infused” energy rods — slightly scaled back from the elite version. “But you are seeing it outside the top running sector.”
For longtime runners, it’s the latest big change in the industry. At the turn of the century, brands fixated on controlling how a person’s foot rolls inward with each step — known as pronation — even if the resulting landing was unnatural. That led to a consumer revolt around 2010 when a wave of people embraced running barefoot — a trend turbocharged by Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book, “Born to Run.”
“We were questioning our own existence,” Caprara said. But after several years of lab research, Caprara concluded that pronation is only one of several important aspects to a person’s stride — and shouldn’t always be controlled. Shoes should offer support, while allowing people to run in their own unique way, he said.
For now, the demand for innovation is coming mostly from hard-core runners. That hit home for Caprara on a summer night in 2019, when he was watching a series of 5-kilometer races at a stadium in Tokyo. Most younger runners were wearing carbon-plated road-racing shoes — not the track spikes he had expected.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Caprara said. “There’s clearly a benefit happening here with energy return, and spikes aren’t providing them.”
Rushing out a prototype for the Olympics proved difficult. Track spikes are highly technical, and Caprara’s team needed to be on the ground in factories in Asia to cater to every detail, which became impossible with pandemic lockdowns.
His goal for next summer? Make sure that when Kerr toes the line for the world championships in Oregon he’s wearing Brooks.
“We want to have our products ready to go at the most important moments,” he said. “Over the next three to five years, I think you’re going to see some really cool stuff.”