Photograph by David Moll, BA’02, BA’05, BEdP’07
Photograph by David Moll, BA’02, BA’05, BEdP’07

The Science Behind Your New Kicks

The first rule of running shoe innovation is that you don't talk about running-shoe innovation

On Nov. 24, 1989, the Reebok Pump became the most exciting (and, at $170, most expensive) athletic shoe on the market, dazzling basketball players and sporty sartorialists alike with its newfangled internal inflation technology. Sales skyrocketed further when NBA player Dee Brown pumped up his shoes in front of millions of viewers before winning the ’91 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.  

Faddish as those shoes were (but hark! They’re back — for twice the price), Reebok Pumps forever upped the ante on high-tech athletic footwear. Since then, researchers in UCalgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology have been major players in a competitive game that insists on constantly evolving performance-enhancing innovation. 

As a doctoral student in the faculty nearly 25 years ago, Dr. Darren Stefanyshyn, PhD’96 — now a professor whose current research looks at maximizing athletic performance and minimizing risk of injury — began testing a theory in the Human Performance Lab with his supervisor, renowned human-locomotion researcher and professor emeritus Dr. Benno Nigg, DSc, founder of Biomechanigg Sport and Health Research

The duo discovered that a carbon-fibre plate embedded in the sole of a running shoe would provide a speed boost to everyone from weekend plodders to Lycra-clad gazelles. Their findings would eventually contribute to a running-shoe revolution — they just had to wait a couple of decades for the world to catch on. 

The magic of featherweight, millimetre-thin carbon-fibre plate — which was prohibitively expensive and difficult to manufacture back when Stefanyshyn and Nigg were first on to it — lies in its ability to optimize an athlete’s movement when set in the midsole of a shoe.  

“Old shoes bend an awful lot, and, any time something bends, it absorbs energy,” explains Stefanyshyn. “The carbon-fibre plate stiffens the shoe, so it doesn’t lose energy in the first place.” A rigid shoe also increases the lever arm, thereby creating a more efficient biomechanical position for the wearer. “By doing that, you’ve given the runner an opportunity to be, in layman’s terms, in a higher gear or in a better gear. They can now generate more force during each push-off.” 

It wasn’t until 2016, however, that carbon-fibre tech took hold. While many companies had experimented with the plates, it was Nike that pushed carbon-fibre into the market in a big way. “The technology really took off after it was used in their Vaporfly Elite shoes during their Breaking2 marathon record attempt that year,” says Stefanyshyn of the National Geographic-documented project that saw the athletic giant try to break the two-hour marathon barrier. Although Nike’s runner, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, came in two minutes over the two hour mark, they had already won the footwear game. 

Stefanyshyn says carbon-fibre plated footwear can offer a speed boost to runners to the tune of up to four per cent: “Such an instantaneous improvement is almost unheard of, it’s very rare.”  

It’s such a remarkable edge that some observers claim carbon-fibre plates are a form of cheating — shortcuts to personal bests; spring-loaded trips to the winner's circle. Stefanyshyn doesn’t see it that way. “My argument is that, until recently, we were giving inferior products to athletes,” he says. “All we’re doing now is giving them better products, so they're not limited.” 

Not only that, but Stefanyshyn and his fellow biomechanics specialists around the world are committed to refining the technology for even faster results. Working in collaboration with Adidas, his research explores the next big thing in athletic footwear, a business whose estimated global revenue is expected to approach US$100 billion in 2025. “Nothing has been perfected yet,” says Stefanyshyn. “We can do everything better — we just haven't figured out how yet.”  

What is almost certain is that whatever comes next will have a UCalgary connection. “You can name literally any of the top footwear brands and I can tell you that there’s someone from this university working there,” says Stefanyshyn. “I don’t want to brag, but it’s unbelievable — our reputation, with respect to footwear research, is among the best in the world.” 

If you’re wondering what speedy innovation your next pair of running shoes will hold, you’ll have to exercise the same patience as the researchers themselves: the first rule of running-shoe innovation is that you don’t talk about running-shoe innovation.  

“People are trying to get an industry advantage, right?” says Stefanyshyn. The most he’ll say about his current research is that he’s working on new and unique materials, and different uses of carbon-fibre technology that goes beyond plates. “There are some secret aspects,” he says with a smile. 

We’ll try to hit a new personal best while we wait.