In May 2017 the best distance runner on the planet was on pace to break the biggest record in the sport. Taking laps on the Formula 1 track in Monza, Italy, Eliud Kipchoge, then the reigning Olympic gold medalist, wasn’t running an official race. Instead, he was mostly testing a new Nike sneaker, the Vaporfly Elite.
His race against the clock was held under specific conditions ideal for completing a marathon in under two hours. Nike and Kipchoge, who had won seven of the eight marathons he’d competed in, were leaving nothing to chance. A sub-two-hour run could be the equivalent of Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile and change the sport. But with a mile and a half left to go, he started to lag.
With other marathoners running in front of him to draft off the wind and the new shoes, he shaved two minutes off his personal best — but still crossed the line at 2:00:25, half a minute off the magic round number. Was it him, or the shoes that didn’t do the job?
For the past 40 years, endurance sports, like distance running, have been the best functioning example of athletic commerce. Marathoning’s affluent base and its grueling training regimen made up of character-building practice runs that eat up time and money make it a sport tailor-made to sell.
Marathoning’s would-be simple toolkit — how much stuff do you actually need to run? — is really a basket of pricey, improving products. Kipchoge has worn 11 different shoes in the 14 marathons he’s run. Despite a veneer of simplicity, it’s a rigorous, technical sport. The modern runner’s hyper-specific shopping list — headphones and trackers and running watches and gloves and wallets and tights and shoes that cradle the foot — exists to answer a question. How can I shave time off my run?
Which sounds like something a lifter might ask. How can I do more? In running, it’s a carrot and stick, or training and gear. Long, stamina-building runs and shorter pace-building sprints are wasted without time-shredding sneakers. With lifting, it depends on what you want. There’s a wealth of programs. But like running, it’s about improvement. Both are exercise protocols that demand discipline and build up skill. They’re a series of endless practices and occasional competition; they go on forever.
And like running, lifting is becoming upscale, with Crossfit an upper-class marker, and the sport’s shopping bag, once just tape, Chuck Taylors, squat stands and shorts, has ballooned into one full of lifestyle brands, use-specific equipment, and baroque home gyms
What gear do you need to lift?
In lifting, there’s what you wear to the gym and what the gym has. Gear can be endless. It’s everything from knee wraps to compression shorts to tights to tape, and can be deceptively specific. Weightlifting shoes are the best example. Made with raised, solid heels to provide ankle flexion, they transform exercises, allowing lifters to turn a bent-over squat to an upright one, and complete the Olympic lifts. But although you can’t snatch or clean and jerk without a pair, they’re barely sold in stores.
Idalberto Aranda in the 1999 World Weightlifting Championships training hall.
But while specialty items can always be ordered, it’s even worse for equipment. In most gyms, the best gear is nowhere to be found. Machines like the belt squat and reverse hyper, both reportedly invented by the same Ohio strength coach, are revolutionary pieces of equipment that are as important for lifters as squat racks and kettlebells. The machines, which don’t load the spine and build serious muscle, are ideal for desk jockeys who fill out commercial gyms’ member lists and whose posterior chains need help. But they won’t be found there. Few gyms have them. They’re like squat shoes, only more important. You can buy them online or build them yourself.
Both runners and lifters might ask what happens if they don’t buy. Does bad gear hold us back? Those questions feel at once-off and understandable. Kipchoge debuting the puffy, extended Vaporfly was less a sneaker drop than a rocket launch: the return on hundreds of man-hours spent to push the best runner in the world over the edge. Skirting the latest technology can be a missed opportunity. But lifters and runners on a budget have to make do.
Still, whether you’re running in Chucks or missing out on the right piece of equipment, gear is only one factor. Nike’s R&D team spent years perfecting Kipchoge’s sneakers, and the shoes work (maybe too well). But that time only complements what he put in himself. Considered an ideal athlete by peers and coaches, Kipchoge has perfect form — unmoving shoulders, flawless posture, insane lung capacity — that almost never wavers. He holds up at the end of a race because of a mindset that’s as well-documented as his stride pattern. He works at both things.
Gear matters, of course, since bad gear gets in the way. But at the highest levels of sport — when athletes, elite or not, are pushed to their limits — it’s less about how you feel than whether you think you can do it. Running analysts describe how a “subjective sense of effort” outweighs metabolic rate or exhaustion. In lifting, there are singlet gains, where athletes, prepping for a competition, take their penultimate session at the gym in their onesie and hit personal bests. If you think you can do it, you can. If you think you can’t, you might not. It’s as much guts as legs.
Which can explain why some athletes don’t seem to need any gear. While Kipchoge, for his efforts, loves technology — he gives exhaustive notes on his sneakers to Nike — and most other elite athletes will take the best stuff when they can get it, not everyone does. If you’re as talented as Pete Sampras — who stuck with his Wilson Pro Staff racket long after it was discontinued — or Rasheed Wallace — fifteen-plus NBA seasons played in unforgiving Air Force Ones — you can use what you like. The emotional connections athletes have to their gear — Michael Jordan keeping his practice shorts on throughout his career — may have something to do with this subjective sense of effort.
The rest of us, though, need more than luck. The best running gear — like the Vaporfly sneakers Kipchoge wore in Italy, shown to cut 4 percent off racers’ run times — changes everything, and can even prevent injuries. And advancements from a generation ago, like Dri-Fit clothing, while common-place, are still revelations. They’re so much lighter and less noticeable than their precursors. They’re invisible — one less thing on a runner or lifter’s mind.
In 2019, a couple of years after Kipchoge finished right over two hours, he ran in another controlled race. In Vienna and in an updated sneaker, he ran behind a different team of drafters, with an updated strategy, and in a closer time zone to his Kenya training camp. Nike improved on its forebear, and he received psychological help from the crowd. Kipchoge, who in the interim had won four marathons and set the standing world record, kept on his form, and cracked the round number, completing the marathon, such as it was, in 1:59:40.
The time didn’t count in the record books but mattered everywhere else. Shaving off a minute could be traced back to a number of elements all gelling. Kipchoge’s pitch-perfect form and mental finesse, help from the crowd, maybe a better breakfast, a better night’s sleep, and those controversial sneakers.
But the lifter in me wonders if it was something else. The Monza race where he came up just short was a test: where the best runner on the planet, with untold dollars being spent, ran a race that didn’t count, and just missed the mark. When he tried it again, he succeeded. It felt like singlet gains. Having done this weird, drafted promotional race before, it was the second shot that mattered.
Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.