Mechanical Doping: The Running War on Super Shoes

by Benjamin Bafumi

            Competitive racing’s allure is all about doing the inconceivable and breaking personal barriers. For years, feats in professional distance running saw few advances and many runners were reaching unbreakable plateaus using the same shoes they’ve been wearing for years. Recently, however, many sportswear companies have developed “super shoes.”[1] Basically, “super shoes” are meant to be fast and lightweight with enough cushion and bounce to propel your next step to the finish.[2] However, it is the implementation of more specific attributes that has garnered worldwide attention from the running community – carbon plates and engineered mesh uppers.[3] These plates and lightweight uppers provide a greater energy return during a runner’s stride and was marketed to have increased running economy by roughly over 4%, hence Nike’s “Vaporfly 4%” sneaker.[4]

Super shoes are highly controversial, as many consider them to be a form of “mechanical doping.”[5] Mechanical doping has been at the subject of controversy in other endurance sports like swimming and cycling, as new products have been banned for the unfair advantages that they offer athletes.[6] The advantages super shoes offer runners are no exception, as they seem highly unfair to runners who compete without them. In fact, Nike’s original Vaporfly model was banned from competition initially.[7] Professional runner Eliud Kipchoge broke the world marathon record for his sub-2-hour marathon in one of Nike’s super shoes, the Alphafly Next%[8], and many critics were quick to discredit his race as a result almost entirely obtained because of his shoes.[9] Critics and athletes argued that, at the time, Nike was the only producer of running sneakers with this level of technology.[10] This technology was groundbreaking, and non-Nike athletes were paying the price.[11] Runners at all levels could not seem to catch a break, because, until recently, athletes at the podium were all sporting Nike shoes alongside their medals. But now, seemingly every competing sportswear company that produces high-level running shoes is releasing models that can compete with Nike’s. Numerous athletes are breaking records and out-pacing Nike athletes in non-Nike shoes.[12] Resultantly, Nike is fighting back.[13]

Nike’s most popular competitor in this running shoe arms race is Adidas. The Checks vs. Stripes feud seems to date back nearly as far as Nike’s inception.[14] Adidas has been able to rival Nike’s Vaporfly and Alphafly models with the introduction of their Adios Pro line.[15] These Adidas shoes are made using Primeknit technology, while Nike’s are made using patented Flyknit technology, and this is where the issue lies.[16] Nike claims that Adidas has stolen their “game-changing” technology for various product designs, seeking injunctive relief as well as monetary damages.[17] Before this complaint filed by Nike, Adidas lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit after alleging that Nike violated two of these design patents owned by Adidas.[18] As part of their request for injunctive relief, Nike has further requested that the U.S International Trade Commission block all imports of various Adidas shoe models that allegedly infringe on Nike’s patented designs and technology.[19] These patents that Nike seeks to protect are some of the most crucial aspects to the Vaporfly and Alphafly designs, as they allow the shoe to be extremely lightweight and comfortable, which increases running performance.[20] This technology is constantly being developed and improved, and Nike will continue to attempt to protect their designs to stay on top, while Adidas will fight to remain competitive. While many other running brands, like Asics[21], have developed more unique models of super shoes, it is notable that Nike and Adidas are seemingly the only players that wish to compete not only with the entire market but with each other in a separate race to the finish. As of August 2022, Nike and Adidas have settled this dispute jointly.[22]

As more people pick up competitive racing, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic[23], we will likely see many similar disputes regarding running shoe technology – superpower companies will try to protect technology that they believe is elite and proprietary while smaller companies will fight to remain competitive in a market dominated by few large players. Adidas and Nike have both released new super shoe models, the Adizero Adios Pro 3 and the Alphafly Next% 2, respectively, before the Fall 2022 marathon season.[24] As the results of the fall racing circuit come running in, maybe the king of super shoes will be crowned once and for all.

[1] Jonathon Taylor, Super shoes: Explaining athletics’ new technological arms race, The Conversation (Mar. 2, 2021, 7:47 AM),

[2] See id.; Bryce Dyer, Nike Vaporfly Ban: Why World Athletics Had to Act Against the High-tech Shoes, The Conversation (Feb. 6, 2020, 6:50 AM),

[3] E.g., Taylor, supra note 1.

[4] Id.  

[5] E.g., The Curious Case of Mechanical Doping, Sneaker Speculation (May 7, 2020),

[6] See id.

[7] E.g., Stuart Greenwood, Kicking up a Storm – A Breakdown of Nike’s Ground-Breaking and Controversial Range of Running Shoes, AA Thornton (Feb. 2020),; Wall Street Journal, The Controversy Behind Nike’s Vaporfly Running Shoe, Explained | WSJ, YouTube (Jan. 23, 2020),

[8] Luis Torres, How Eliud Kipchoge and the Nike AlphaFly Made History, Nice Kicks (Oct. 14, 2019),

[9] See James Witts, Technological Doping: The Science of Why Nike Alphaflys Were Banned from the Tokyo Olympics, Science Focus (Sept. 4, 2021, 4:00 PM),

[10] E.g., Running Shoe Tech: The Emperor’s Clothes, and the Issues for the Integrity of Running, The Science of Sport (Feb. 6, 2020),

[11] Sneaker Speculation, supra note 5.

[12] See Tony Owusu, Adidas Runs into Nike FlyKnit Patent Lawsuit, TheStreet (Dec. 10, 2021, 9:18 AM),

[13] E.g., Rachel Bernardo, How Adidas Develops Adizero for World Record Performances, Believe In The Run (Apr. 21, 2022),

[14] Nike vs Adidas: A Clash of Giants to Dominate the Sneaker Market, AIO bot (Oct. 6, 2017),

[15] See Brandon Law, Comparison: Nike Alphafly Next% vs Adidas Adizero Adios Pro, Running Shoes Guru (last visited Sep. 2, 2022),

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] See Blake Britian, Nike Asks U.S. Agency to Block Adidas Shoe Imports, Citing Patents, Reuters (Dec. 9, 2021, 12:16 PM),; Brendan Pierson, In Brief: Nike Prevails in Shoe Patent Dispute with Adidas, Reuters (June 25, 2020, 6:57 PM),

[19] Id.

[20] Owusu, supra note 12.

[21] Cory Smith, ASICS Challenges Nike Super Shoe With ‘MetaSpeed Sky’: Review, Gear Junkie (Mar. 29, 2021),

[22] Blake Britian, Nike, Adidas Settle Patent Fights over Shoe Technology, Reuters (Aug 19, 2022, 12:31 PM),

[23] Wings for Life World Run, Running becoming increasingly popular, Red Bull (Jan 2, 2021),

[24] See Taylor Willson, Nike vs Adidas: Battle of the “Super Shoe”, Highsnobiety (June 15, 2022),