Mechanical Doping - Running and swimming get their very own Pandora’s box

Behold the carbon-fiber Vaporfly 4% (above)

One of history’s most amazing athletic feats occurred in 2019 when Eliud Kipchoge became the first man to run a 26.2-mile marathon in under two hours. Eliud ran a mile every 4.6 minutes for 119 straight minutes. Incredible. Unprecedented. But wait! No sooner than the feat occurred than controversy ensued. Knowledgeable observers insisted Kipchoge was using secret prototype shoes that enabled him to run faster than he was capable of without them, aka mechanical doping.

It seems that Eliud is wearing a revolutionary shoe, a shoe so sophisticated that it improves long distance running times by 4%. Which doesn’t sound like a lot. The longer the distance the more the 4% matters. And this is just the beginning.

Now that super-shoes have a toehold, the equivalent of the nuclear arms race is about to break out. Shoemakers will work within the rules and over time that 4% will increase to 10% and beyond. Trust me. I have personal experience witnessing technology pervert and destroy a noble sport through mechanical doping. This raises a larger question: why should any type or kind of footwear or apparel be allowed that improves performance?

Nike, the corporate monolith, put their best shoe scientists and designers on the super shoe project: create a shoe that when worn would indisputably improves running times. The result is the Vaporfly 4%. It costs $250 and in 2019 31 out of 36 of the world’s best marathon runners wore the Vaporfly 4%. That the shoe works is proven, the question is: why should it be allowed?

The prototype Vaporfly that Kipchoge wore had three ridged and embedded carbon fiber plates. These ran the length of the shoe. The carbon fiber plates absorbed the downward energy of the runner’s bodyweight and provided an amplified rebound with every stride step. The hyper-bouncy foam cushion shoe slashed times by absorbing and amplifying a runner’s surface rebound, like a parkour expert landing and rolling to absorb energy.

One easily envisions shoes constructed to maximize sprint speed: a shoe that improved 100-meter dash times by even ½ second would upset the world order. Lesser runners with better shoes can defeat better runners with lesser shoes. Shoe technology breakthroughs could be kept secret to give a country or organization an undeniable competitive advantage.

Critics in the racing community called the cutting-edge shoe prototypes “mechanical doping” when they first showed up at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “Running is not supposed to be about who has the best technology.” Runners World opined. Amen to that.

The first time mechanical doping appeared in an Olympic sport was when the Speedo LZR Racer Suit showed up in swimming in 2008. 98% of swimmers that won medals at the Beijing Olympics wore the elastane-nylon and polyurethane singlet. In 2008, 23 of 25 world records were broken by suit wearers. Michael Phelps promoted the suit.

Eventually, FINA, which administers international rules for water sports, banned the ultra-slippery sharkskin suits. “The Speedo LZR Racer suit rotted the sport from the inside out because it was no longer accessible to all.” Truer and more prophetic words were never spoken.

The sport of powerlifting was “rotted from the inside out” by mechanical doping. The 4% boost the Vaporfly 4% provides is infinitesimal, a pipsqueak increase in performance. Powerlifters routinely increase their maximum lifts by 40% to 60% by wearing supportive gear: in the bench press a canvas shirt, a “bench shirt,” enables the shirt-wearer to lift 30-50% more than could be done without one.

“Geared lifting” enables men barely able to bench press 400-pounds “raw” (no gear) to routinely bench press 550-600 pounds simply by putting on a restrictive, expensive canvas bench shirt. The seduction is that when used poundage handling ability skyrockets.

A lifter with a legitimate raw 300-pound bench press buys a bench shirt and suddenly is bench pressing 400 without increasing strength one iota. When asked how much the 300-pound bencher benches, guess what he answers?  “400!”

A “bench shirt” is so restrictive that one common cause for disqualification is that a lifter wearing a bench shirt is unable to get an 800-pound barbell downward enough to touch the chest, this despite pulling downward with all their might on a barbell already loaded to 800-pounds. Imagine the coiled spring action this type of restrictive tension has when released on the concentric?

  • The biggest “raw” (just the man) bench press ever recorded was recently set with a magnificent 745-pound legitimate (paused on the chest, fully locked out, butt and head remaining on the bench, feet flat on the floor) effort.
  • In the world of raw, no-gear bench pressing, the all-time world record has moved upward a scant 45-pounds in 50-years. Jim Williams benched 700-pounds in 1971. In 50-years since, the bench press record has increased a scant 45-pounds, 6%. This tells us that humans today are not appreciably stronger than humans of yesteryear.
  • The current bench press record wearing a bench shirt is a science fiction-like 1,102 pounds. This is more than the all-time deadlift record. The fellow that benched the 1100 is not the same guy that bench pressed 745 raw.

Being generous and assuming the 1100-pound shirted bencher could bench press 700-pounds without a shirt (doubtful,) a 700-pound raw bench presser putting on a shirt and benching 1100 represents a 58% increase in performance. Insane.

Imagine if a shot-putter, a man with a 50-foot best throw using a 16-pound ball, could put on a special shirt or pants and throw the 16-pound ball 79-feet, (a 58% increase) shattering the current world record.

What if Nike invented a sprint shoe that could make you run 58% faster? A high school runner with a respectable (for high school) 11-second 100-meter dash time could post a 6.38-second 100-meter time. Hell, a shoe wearer with a 6.38 100-meter (58% better than 11-seconds) could beat Usan Bolt’s 9.59 running backwards.

How about a new carbon fiber pole that could launch a decent 17-foot pole-vaulter 37 feet into the air?  This makes Vaporfly’s 4% increase seem insignificant. In bizzaro powerlifting world the all-time best shirted bench press record exceeds the all-time deadlift record. Sick.

The track and field world should take a hint from swimming and ban super shoes. Take it from a man whose sport was ruined, rotted from the inside, by mechanical doping run wild. Nike squeezing a 4% improvement from a shoe is akin to smoking weed; powerlifting gear adding 58% is akin to a five gram a day meth habit.

There is no such thing as slightly pregnant. If mechanical doping is allowed any toehold, it will, over time, spread like cancer. I would advise the runners strangle super-shoes in their crib. Otherwise the lid on Pandora’s Box is opened ever so slightly.

But wait! This past Friday the Vaporfly 4% was approved for use in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games! The world governing body issued “shoe construction rules.” Let the shoe arms race begin.

The current shoe construction guidelines released by World Athletics specify an upper limit of 40 millimeters for a shoe’s sole height. They allow for one rigid embedded plate. Good news for Nike: The sole of the current Vaporfly is a single carbon fiber plate running the length of the shoe — earlier variants of the Vaporfly had three carbon fiber plates. Brigid Kosgei used a triple-plate prototype shoe to break the women’s all-time marathon world record.

As the powers-that-be will discover, over time, and with research and money, shoemakers will figure out how to improve performance dramatically (to an unacceptable degree,) all while staying within the legal limits of the established rules. The restrictive rules of today are child’s play for the technology of tomorrow.

Future technological breakthroughs used for mechanical doping could create single carbon fiber plates no more the 40 MM in height that will have spring and rebound lightyears past today’s limits. A prediction: within five years shoemakers will stay within current rules and quadruple the current 4% boost. I can’t wait for the sprint shoes. I might get me a pair.

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About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.