How Product Design Supports Success in Sport
What is the 21st century equivalent of running a four-minute mile?
And what’s this got to do with product design?
For the first part of this question, we need to look at the achievements of Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge.
Kipchoge currently holds the world marathon record – in a time of 2:01:39 – which he set at the Berlin Marathon in 2018. This is a remarkable achievement, knocking a full minute and eighteen seconds off the official record. Surprisingly though, this isn’t Kipchoge’s fastest time over 26.219 miles.
Which is what brings us to the 21st century equivalent of the four-minute mile: the sub-two hour marathon.
Officially, a sub-two hour marathon hasn’t yet been completed, because to qualify officially a marathon must be run under extremely strict circumstances. These can include everything from the elevation of the course to the use of pacemakers and even drinks taken on board during the race.
Unofficially, the Chicago marathon of October 2019 saw Kipchoge complete the distance in a stunning 1:59:40.
Breaking the two-hour barrier has long been thought to be impossible – as was the four-minute mile in its day – and proving that this wasn’t the case was an almost superhuman feat of athletic endeavour.
Controversy did surround the race however, as Kipchoge used a group of handpicked pacemakers and, more importantly, wore highly innovative footwear in the shape of a pair of Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% running shoes (which we’ll refer to as Alphaflys).
And it’s the Alphaflys that bring the power of great product design in sporting greatness into focus.
Alphafly NEXT% running shoes
Whether or not the Air Zoom Alphaflys played a key role in enabling Kipchoge to maximise his performance is indisputable, not least in the fact that an athlete of his global standing chose them for a race of this magnitude – and got the result he was looking for.
Questions over the fairness or otherwise of using technology to improve results in this manner are always going to rage. However, it has to be recognised that the Alphafly, which was initially banned from elite competition by World Athletics in January 2020, has since been tweaked to comply with rules on the height of the midsole, and is thus legal for runners to wear.
According to peer-reviewed research (which was admittedly funded by Nike), the Alphafly “delivers a 4% increase in running efficiency and a 3.4% increase in speed”.
Take this with a pinch of salt maybe, but what can’t be denied is the fact that since the shoes were launched in their legal form, 31 out of 36 podium positions in major marathons have been claimed by athletes wearing them.
The British Journal of Medicine examined the design of the Alphafly and decided that the main features that improved results were:
- a full-length carbon fibre plate in the sole of the shoe
- a thick but lightweight midsole constructed from Nike’s lightweight, springy ZoomX foam (officially known as Pebex) and
- the presence of Air Pods towards the front of the sole. These pods are air-filled pockets that act as a shock absorber or suspension system for the runner and reduce the weight which a thick, solid sole might add to the shoe.
The impact of these design features is difficult to quantify, except to say that they maximise the efficiency of the runner wearing the shoes.
In simple terms, less energy is wasted per stride the runner takes.
Ultra-light shoe design
Although the sub-two-minute marathon is a headline-grabbing achievement, the application of design and technology to drive sporting excellence is not a new thing.
In the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, Michael Johnson became the first athlete to win gold in the 200m and 400m races, setting a world record in the 200m.
As with Kipchoge, the first thing to applaud is the sporting excellence involved, but it’s also important to note that Johnson was wearing a specially designed, ultra-light shoe – again by Nike – weighing in at just 3.40z.
Tennis rackets and ball speed
It isn’t just runners who’ve been able to take advantage of improvements in sports design.
In tennis, the switch from wooden rackets to steel and aluminium ones originally took place in the 1960s, but the real revolution didn’t happen until manufacturers started using composites such as titanium and graphite, with foam plastic cores.
These materials offer all of the strength of a traditional racket while being lighter and more flexible, even as the length of the rackets (and thus the reach or leverage of the players) was extended.
In addition to using innovative materials, manufacturers such as Head created rackets with a 20% larger face, an innovation that increased the size of the ‘sweet spot’ by 300%.
A swimsuit too far
Most people would assume that swimming is a sport in which technology can play only a minimal part. But the development of the LZR swimsuit proved this assumption wrong.
Designed and manufactured by Speedo, these body length swimsuits were manufactured from a composite of spandex, nylon and polyurethane, and were designed to increase buoyancy while minimising drag through the water.
To the non-expert, logic would suggest that anything other than the briefest suit would slow a swimmer down, but the results delivered by the LZR suits speak for themselves.
The LZR swimsuits were introduced at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. By the closing ceremony, 98% of the swimming medallists had been wearing an LZR suit.
Just a year later, the suits had played a part in no fewer than 97 new swimming world records.
So revolutionary was the impact of the LZR swimsuit that the sport’s governing body – FINA – banned its use in competition in July 2019.
Golf balls and the quest for distance
For many years, the design of the humble golf ball barely changed, and was comprised of tightly wrapped rubber bands. Indeed, of the 95 players at the Masters in 2000, 59 were using wound balls of this kind.
However, a year later in 2001, this number had dropped to just four players as solid-core balls revolutionised the sport.
One of the strongest and longest hitters in the game at the time was Tiger Woods. He noted that his average drive with a wound ball was 264.17m, while with a solid-core ball it jumped by around 15 meters to 279.62m.
It’s the nature of product design to evolve constantly as we strive for greater efficiency, speed, performance and other improvements.
A great example is the Nike Viperfly. Currently illegal, this shoe takes the principle of the Alphafly and applies it to sprinting by using a trio of carbon plates and a sole comprised almost entirely of a single large Air Pod.
The shoe has been designed to give runners more energy entering the closing stages of 100m and 200m races, and it’s likely that a tweaked version of the concept – one which complies with existing rules – will eventually be seen on the track.
The Air Pod concept is also being developed for football boots designed to leave players with more energy in the closing stages of a match, while the use of new materials in equipment such as a vaulting pole will inevitably add – even if only incrementally – to the results athletes are able to achieve.
There are those who argue that using product design to improve sports performance in this way is unethical – an attitude summarised by the banning of LZR swimsuits.
But an alternative view is that these innovations merely enable elite athletes to reach their full potential.
In simple terms, the Alphafly may have made the sub-two-hour marathon possible, but it took the superstar running ability of Eliud Kipchoge to make it happen.
What do you think?
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