Nike’s Marathon Fail – What Can We Learn

Over the past weekend, the culmination of Nike’s project to break 2 hours for the marathon distance came up just 24 seconds short.   The current world record for the marathon distance was set in 2014 by Dennis Kimetto when he ran a 2:02:57 to win the Berlin marathon.

Nike spent an incredible amount of resources in time, technology, and human capital in order to make this attempt.  While they were beat by the clock, they were successful in designing the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite.  A shoe that is 4% more energy efficient than any other shoe on the market – a running shoe so good that at least one runner who had the opportunity to train and race in it began to have nightmares that people were coming to take it away from her.

There are some important lessons that can be taken from Nike’s attempt:

  • Testing is important, but it is not everything.  Nike used a treadmill test developed by Andy Jones, PhD, a sports physiologist who identified Paula Radcliffe’s marathon potential, to help identify their potential record breaking runners.  However, Eliud Kipchoge’s potential on the treadmill test protocol was not as promising – because it was only the second time he had ever run on a treadmill.  There is a reason why physical abilities testing is not supposed to include tasks that can be performed better by those that are skilled than those that are novices.
  • Just because it improves performance doesn’t mean it works #1 – Nike left no stone unturned in their pursuit to find the performance gains necessary to break 2 hours.  One of the tweaks involved using webbed shirts that created a sling to support the arms while running.  This helped to improve performance but runners did not like the feel as they felt like they had T-Rex arms.  That’s great that something improves performance, but if it doesn’t “work” for the worker, it doesn’t work.
  • Just because it improves performance doesn’t mean it works #2 – Nike experimented with track spikes for improved performance and they also experimented with taking away anything that wasn’t needed.  The shoes were incredibly light, but unwearable.  This drove Nike’s team to try to design what they termed the “right weight” shoe.  Tools and processes should be designed to fit the task and the workers performing the task – the best tool or process takes both of these into consideration.
  • Use what you’ve learned from other areas – Back in the days of Nike’s affiliation with Lance Armstrong and his chase of Tour de France titles, Nike and Trek created the F1 project that looked at the different variables that created minor amounts of drag, such as where the race number is placed on the cycling jersey.  Nike applied these techniques to the running uniforms as well as the formation of the pacers to help reduce fatigue in the racers created by breaking their own wind.  Don’t reinvent the wheel, see what has been learned in other areas that applies to the task at hand.
  • You can’t control all of the variables –  Nike controlled as many variables as possible down to the track, pacers, etc.  The one set of variables that they had no control over was the weather.  In a task where they were trying to shave 2.4% off of the world record time, every variable matters.  The optimal temperature for the event had been determined to be 50 degrees Fahrenheit or lower with a humidity of 70%. Race day temperature on the track was 53 degrees with 79% humidity.  Three degrees doesn’t seem like much, but it was a six percent difference in the wrong direction from the optimal temperature.   We can control what we can and have to deal with the rest as it happens. Also, when dealing with people performing labor oriented tasks whether inside or outside, what would seem like small differences in temperature can make a huge difference in task performance.

It will be interesting to see how Nike applies the lessons that they have learned from this attempt to future attempts at breaking the record.  I hope that they make another attempt in the future.