Twice per year I attend the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow, where I’m told about dozens of products that are the best thing since sliced bread and where I’m bombarded with increasingly stretched marketing hype to match these supposed earth-shattering advances.
When I first heard about the Nike Zoom VaporFly 4% road racing shoes, I applied this same BS filter, doubtful that they would be materially better than Nike’s previous top-of-the-line model, the Nike Air Zoom Streak 6, which also had been presented as revolutionary in its day:
Marathoners, rejoice! You’ve found a new shoe that’s sure to improve your results and your comfort, the Nike Air Zoom Streak 6. You’re sure to feel the difference when you go the distance in these shoes that boast a profile that’s built to the exact specifications of some of the best marathoners in the world.
Yet I bought a pair anyway
It was painful to enter my credit card last week at Nike.com, which is currently the exclusive distributor of the VaporFly 4%. I own a few $250 shoes, but they’re leather dress shoes that I’ll wear for 15 years.
Ironically, I would have been financially better off by buying two pairs. On eBay, new pairs currently sell for more than $300 because Nike can’t keep them in stock. Crazy.
So why’d I pony up?
First, a coaching friend of mine specifically asked me if I’d bought a pair, because he was seeing unexpected results among his athletes. “They’re worth 3-6 minutes based on our estimation. Maybe placebo, but man, that’s a strong placebo.”
Second, the shoes were independently tested by a local lab at CU, and the findings were consistent with Nike’s: when wearing the VaporFly 4%, the 18 highly trained runners in the study used an average of 4 percent less metabolic energy versus the Nike Zoom Streak 6 and the Addidas Adios Boost 2 (now the Adizero Adios 3), which Dennis Kimetto wore for his marathon WR of 2:02:57.
Third, I’m nearly 37 years-old and this may be my last marathon while I’m still in (or still very close to) my physical prime. I’ll take full advantage of the resources that I can afford, including coaching, whole foods, and $250 shoes.
Some have argued that the VaporFly 4% should be banned, on the grounds that it provides an unfair advantage. We’ll see. It seems difficult to make a clean distinction between “fair” and “unfair” footwear technologies, and I’m more inclined to think that the VaporFly 4% is the start of something, not the end of it.
After the Houston Marathon, perhaps I will feel sufficiently confident to properly review the VaporFly 4%. But for now, to address apparent interest among readers, I will provide initial impressions based on casual wear and a single 8-mile workout.
Does it make a difference?
I don’t know yet. Maybe I can say with more conviction after Houston. For now, I can only say that they are different than any other shoe I have worn. I did have a good workout yesterday and I felt like my kick-back was higher than usual, but I’m also in a taper and it’s not unusual to have random good days and bad days.
As you would expect and hope of a road racing shoe, the VaporFly 4% is feathery. They spec at 6.5 oz in men’s size 10, although that seems optimistic relative to my size 11, which weigh 7.7 oz.
Conventional road racing shoes are low-to-the-ground. For example, the ASICS Gel-Hyper Speed 7 (my review), in which I ran the Boston Marathon last year, have a stack height of 16 mm/10 mm at the heel and toe, respectively.
In contrast, the VaporFly 4% is Hoka-like, with significant underfoot volume. Nike does not specify the stack height, but the consensus is low- to mid-30’s in the heel and low- to mid-20’s in the toe, with a 10 mm offset.
Stiff but not hard
The most unique component of the VaporFly 4% is the stiff, full-length carbon fiber plate in the midsole. Because of it, the shoe cannot be folded or twisted. However, because the plate is sandwiched between two layers of foam, the VaporFly 4% remains well cushioned, not hard.
Bounce house bouncy
I’ve worn generously cushioned shoes before, like the Hoka Speedgoat 2 (my review) and Hoka Clifton 4 (my review). But I’ve never worn a shoe that is bouncy. When I weight the VaporFly 4%, I feel an almost equal force pushing back, a sensation that I believe is attributable to the midsole foam, not the carbon plate.
In geeky lab talk, bouncy foams are described as “resilient,” in comparison to more standard “complaint” foams that feel softer and more marshmellowy.
The VaporFly 4% has a heel/toe offset of 10 mm, but this spec seems overstated because of the aggressive rocker shape under the toes. I felt no shift in my gait or footsrike-to-push-off sequence versus my normal shoes, which have 4 to 8 mm of drop.
The engineered mesh upper is minimally constructed: it lacks reinforcing overlays, and has scant padding around the rim of the heel cup. The quick-dry fabric is extremely air-permeable, making it a liability for workouts in wintertime temperatures.
About two-thirds of the outsole is covered with rubber, including the entire forefoot and several rubber pods in the heel. The outsole is minimally textured — caution is advised when running on oil patches, sandy shoulders, ice, or wet paint stripes.
The remainder of the outsole is exposed midsole foam. So long as the foam is not in landing or push-off zones, my experience (based on Hoka shoes) is that the foam wears no more quickly than the rubber.
The Bright Crimson appears predominately red in online photos. In person, it’s more pink-ish.
Between the eye-catching color and the huge swoosh logo on the lateral side, the VaporFly 4% is a flashy and distinct shoe. Be prepared to run your fastest.
I am a consistent size 11.5 in Altra, Hoka One One, La Sportiva, Merrell, Salewa, and Salomon.
In the VaporFly 4%, size 11 seems to fit perfectly. This was convenient, because size 11.5 was already sold out.
First, some context: I have a narrow and low-volume foot.
The mesh upper is perfectly shaped. It wraps my foot like a slipper, securely locks down my heel, and offers my toes a comfortable amount of wiggle room without being sloppy.
At first, I was less sold on the last, which seemed extremely narrow under the arch. It felt like the inside of my foot was hanging over the edge of the shoe. After my workout yesterday, I’m less concerned — when at speed, they felt natural, not narrow.
Overall, I think the VaporFly 4% will best fit narrow and small-volume feet, and will be acceptable for average feet due to the forgiving upper. Paddle feet may want to look elsewhere, sorry. If your fit experience has been different, please leave a comment.
Questions about the Nike Zoom VaporFly 4%? Leave a comment.
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