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Supershoes - staying on the right side of the track

What’s all the fuss about supershoes?

In recent months, the athletics world has seen sportswear giants Adidas and Nike battle to develop the superior “supershoe” in a bid to get their athletes closer to the elusive 2-hour marathon. The “supershoe” is a carbon-plated running shoe and, like other shoes worn by athletes in competitions, is subject to a range of regulations set by World Athletics.  

Supershoes have been hitting the headlines recently as new marathon world records have been set in both men’s and women’s races. In October, Kelvin Kiptum broke the previous men’s record by 34 seconds, coming in at 2 hours and 35 seconds, with Tigst Assefa smashing the women’s record by 2 minutes and 11 seconds in September, crossing the line in just 2 hours 11 minutes and 53 seconds. These astonishing times have shaken the world of athletics and stirred a debate about whether it is the athlete or the brands who are actually running the races. The regulations governing running shoe specifications have also come into the spotlight, especially since the shoes Kiptum wore for his record-breaking marathon are currently approved for developmental use only

What’s more, it’s been reported that supershoes only perform fully for a single race. In a sector increasingly conscious of its global footprint, there are concerns that supershoes might encourage wastefulness. Questions have arisen over whether brands owe a responsibility to build shoes for endurance, rather than simply performance, and whether regulators should step in to require shoes to be sustainable.

In this article we consider the running shoe regulations and their impact upon shoe brands, sponsors and athletes. This debate prompts us to also look at why those regulating footwear and kit in other sports might need to reconsider their regulations as well as diving into related legal, environmental and reputational risks.

What do the regulations say?

A range of technical requirements are set out under World Athletics’ Athletics Shoe Regulations applicable to shoes worn by athletes in competitions. The regulations have been in effect since January 2022 and some of the key requirements and restrictions are as follows:

  • Shoes must not contain more than one rigid structure (such as a plate or a blade);
  • The sole of the shoe must not have more than 11 spikes;
  • The maximum permitted sole thickness ranges between 20mm – 40mm for different events (with no limitation on mountain and trail race shoes). With effect from 1 November 2024, the limits are changing slightly but still range between 20mm for track and field events, 40mm for road events and unlimited thickness for mountain and trail events;
  • Shoes not previously approved by World Athletics (“new shoes”) must be approved in accordance with a set procedure. Specifications must be provided to World Athletics by the shoe brand or athlete, with an independent expert then examining a sample of the shoe (if one is requested by World Athletics). This process also applies to customised versions of new or existing approved shoes as well as shoes in the process of being developed (“development shoes”) with other additional requirements in place for these other types of shoe;
  • New shoes must have been available for purchase on the public market for a minimum of one month prior to the date of their first use in competition by an athlete, unless a shorter timeframe is agreed with World Athletics or the shoe is approved by World Athletics for developmental use; and
  • Development shoes may only be approved by World Athletics for a period of up to 12 months and may not be worn at World Athletics Series Events or the Olympic Games.

It is worthing noting that World Athletics is permitted to review athletes’ shoes at any time before, during or after an event.

Legal and reputational issues

Aside from the practical implications of World Athletics’ shoe regulations, there are a range of potential legal and reputational issues related to shoe regulation which might adversely impact upon shoe brands as well as athletes and their sponsors (which in many cases are the shoe brands themselves). Some of the key issues to consider are set out below.

A race time or record might not be ratified if an athlete races in unapproved shoes. In 2021, Derara Hurisa of Ethiopia wore non-compliant supershoes to win the Vienna Marathon. Derara was quickly disqualified as officials found his shoes were 1 centimetre too thick, and were not the shoes he had registered to run the race in.

Athletes and brands might face reputational damage if other teams think an athlete has worn shoes which don’t comply. At the London 2012 Paralympics, there was some controversy about the length of gold medal winning runner Alan Oliveira’s blades, although the IPC later confirmed that each athlete racing in the final wore blades permitted by its regulations on running blades.

Where athletes are sponsored by a shoe brand, particular requirements related to shoes should be addressed when sponsorship agreements are drawn up. For example:

  • Will the athlete be required to wear a specific brand of shoe? If the brand in the sponsorship agreement is a brand without supershoes (i) athletes may be reluctant to sign the agreement and (ii) wearing that brand’s shoes may reduce their performance.
  • Will the brand/sponsor require the athlete's input in developing a new shoe or in testing it in training and races? 

Is a fresh look at kit regulations and suitability needed across the sector?

Regulators and governing bodies in the UK across all sports may need to look at their regulations around kit and footwear, to consider whether the regulations ensure a level playing field for athletes and whether they are appropriate in the modern sport. It is important for regulators and governing bodies who do impose rules around kit, equipment and footwear to keep on top of new developments in design and technology and to consider whether they should amend regulations as a result (whether to be favourable to new developments or crack down on them, depending on their impact). For example, in 2010, FINA banned high-tech full body suits amid fears that they were damaging the integrity and competitiveness of swimming and, like World Athletics’, now has detailed requirements relating to swimsuits worn in competitions. 

The bodies regulating kit and footwear may also need to consider whether their kit, equipment and footwear regulations are appropriate for all genders or whether certain adaptations should be permitted for one gender or another. Some of these considerations are also applicable to sports clubs and federations who design and provide kits to their teams and players. Netball Australia introduced new guidelines earlier this year for their netball kits, seeking to recognise individuals' beliefs and preferences as well as the climate that players were playing in and England Netball brought in a more close-fitting kit to prioritise player comfort. Puma also ditched white shorts from football kits for Manchester City Women in response to players’ period concerns.

Furthermore, given the importance of sustainability in sport, kit and equipment manufacturers and regulators should not ignore environmental impacts. Finding a balance between performance and sustainability may be difficult for the regulators and manufacturers, but the concerns around sustainability in sport are not going away. Shoes and kit which can only be used for a single or limited number of uses are likely to become increasingly controversial, and calls for regulators to use their position to force a move toward sustainable kit and equipment are likely to grow. 


Staying on the right side of the track with regards to the regulations is essential for athletes and their sponsors, to avoid results being questioned and to stay clear of adverse media attention. Moreover, the recent controversies surrounding supershoes highlight the importance for the regular evaluation of regulations on sporting kit and equipment, to ensure a level playing field and to reflect the current sporting and societal landscapes. This need extends beyond athletics and improving an athlete’s speed and performance, to kit makers and regulators across sport responding to athletes’ needs and preferences.

How we can help you

Irwin Mitchell has a full offering on environmental, social and governance issues in sport and regularly works with clients in the sector. Get in touch with Tom Barnard to find out more.