running shoes

A few days ago, when back from my morning run, I spotted a NYT article on Nike shoes that are supposed to bring on average a 4% gain in speed. Meaning for instance a 3 to 4 minute gain in a half-marathon.

“Using public race reports and shoe records from Strava, a fitness app that calls itself the social network for athletes, The Times found that runners in Vaporflys ran 3 to 4 percent faster than similar runners wearing other shoes, and more than 1 percent faster than the next-fastest racing shoe.”

What is interesting in this NYT article is that the two journalists who wrote it have analysed their own data, taken from Strava. Using a statistical model or models (linear regression? non-linear regression? neural net?) to predict the impact of the shoe make, against “all” other factors contributing to the overall time or position or percentage gain or yet something else. In most analyses produced in the NYT article, the 4% gain is reproduced (with a 2% gain for female shoe switcher and a 7% gain for slow runners).

“Of course, these observations do not constitute a randomized control trial. Runners choose to wear Vaporflys; they are not randomly assigned them. One statistical approach that seeks to address this uses something called propensity scores, which attempt to control for the likelihood that someone wears the shoes in the first place. We tried this, too. Our estimates didn’t change.”

The statistical analysis (or analyses) seems rather thorough, from what is reported in the NYT article, with several attempts at controlling for confounders. Still, the data itself is observational, even if providing a lot of variables to run the analyses, as it only covers runners using Strava (from 5% in Tokyo to 25% in London!) and indicating the type of shoes they wear during the race. There is also the issue that the shoes are quite expensive, at $250 a pair, especially if the effect wears out after 100 miles (this was not tested in the study), as I would hesitate to use them unless the race conditions look optimal (and they never do!). There is certainly a new shoes effect on top of that, between the real impact of a better response and a placebo effect. As shown by a similar effect of many other shoe makes. Hence, a moderating impact on the NYT conclusion that these Nike Vaporflys (flies?!) are an “outlier”. But nonetheless a fairly elaborate and careful statistical study that could potentially make it to a top journal like Annals of Applied Statistics!

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