Co.Design

How Nike Made Track Spikes For Oscar Pistorius’s Carbon Fiber Blades

They call him blade runner, or the fastest man with no legs. But how do you build shoes for someone with no feet?

Oscar Pistorius is a world class Olympic sprinter. He’s also a double, below-the-knee amputee. What allows him to compete is a grit that most of us can only imagine, along with a pair of Össur’s Flex-Foot Cheetah legs, J-shaped carbon fiber prostheses that fill in for feet and calves.

By now, you’ve surely heard of Össur legs and Pistorius’s watershed Olympics qualification. But what you may not know is a design problem that had to be solved first. Whereas every sprinter competes on spikes, Össur legs are smooth carbon fiber bands. So how do you affix spikes? By hand. Roughing up the surface, strong fixatives, and lots of brute force.

Even for a famous athlete of Pistorius’s resources, his spikes were a logistical nightmare that took two hours to replace. His trainers were worried about the ongoing impact of the Össur legs on his knees. And, because the spike work was totally manual, there was a lot of inconsistency on the fit of the tread (and thereby, the traction Pistorius could expect, especially during wet races).

Luckily, Pistorius is sponsored by Nike, and one of the perks of a Nike sponsorship is access to the first wave of technologically superior equipment. Tiger Woods can use prototype Nike drivers--clubs that hit farther and more controlled than others--because the top athletes in their fields get the really good stuff. For Pistorius, that meant Nike designer Tobie Hatfield chased the athlete down around the globe to create a newer, better Cheetah spike called the Nike Spike Pad.

“We were certainly able to take the learnings of spikes on shoes for 22 years, but obviously the difference is that we’re affixing it to a more immovable object, the carbon fiber blade,” Hatfield tells Co.Design. “It doesn’t articulate like a human foot does, so it was really really important for me to understand where he hit, his initial contact on the blade. Because it’s so stiff and rigid, we had to be very exact.”

So in Össur’s Iceland lab, Hatfield, along with Pistorius’s prosthetist, made Pistorius sprint again and again using Spike Pad prototypes on a pressure-sensitive treadmill--while also filming his foot strike at 500 fps. With Pistorius obviously unable to feel his feet to comment on the fit, they could only use Pistorius’s form as feedback, meaning these measurements were especially critical.

“We did that over three hours. He was pretty tired by the end,” laughs Hatfield. “I think the treadmill was fixed close to 20 mph. He’s a sprinter, not a marathon runner.”

In February, Hatfield visited Pistorius again--this time at his home in South Africa--carrying all sorts of Phylon (Nike’s branded EVA) to lessen the loads on Pistorius’s knees. Hatfield wanted the most shock absorption possible, but didn’t want Pistorius to lose launch power to a spongy pile of foam. So the resulting Spike Pad itself was fully realized then. It’s formed of a midsole--two machine-molded pieces of foam with two different densities (softer is in the back where the Pistorius lands during his stride and harder density is in the front where Pistorius begins his stride)--along with a carbon fiber Spike Plate that attaches to the bottom. But to affix it quickly for testing, Hatfield went super low tech.

“We decided to use just contact cement. We thought, anyway, that was going to be very temporary,” Hatfield explains. “I was wondering how many runs he was going to get in before starting to peel off. We found out that, it actually not only stayed on a few practices, he kept using it for months.”

As a further bonus, contact cement had another advantage over more industrial affixatives. With just a bit of heat--a mere hairdryer--the Spike Pad can be peeled from the Cheetah foot. This cut down spike replacement times from two hours to roughly fifteen minutes per leg. And Nike’s consistent production process brought much-needed predictability to Pistorius’s feet.

“Before they were shaving foams, doing all kinds of different things to get to the right thicknesses and hardnesses,” Hatfield explains. “It was arduous, took a long time and was never truly the same.”

Now, every time Pistorius launches from the starting line, it’s with an inherent confidence that his foot will always land in the same way. But the best part of the story is one easily lost in all of the tech.

“I think the cool thing about this is, it’s different than what Nike is even used to, where we make something special for our elite athletes, then we let them use it for a while before spreading it around,” Hatfield explains. “Oscar didn’t want any of that. He wanted to make sure his fellow competitors had this available to them. So we’re starting with some Nike athletes that we know--one of Oscar’s arch rivals--Jerome Singleton."

Singleton was the 2011 100m gold medalist, consistently placing as one of the top double amputee sprinters in the world. And in a few weeks, he’ll be competing against Pistorius in the Paralympic Games--on decidedly equal footing.

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  • angel

    The
    ancient Olympic Games began in the year 776 BC, when Koroibos, a cook from the
    nearby city of Elis, won the stadium race, a foot race 600 feet long. According
    to some literary traditions, this was the only athletic event of the games for
    the first 13 Olympic festivals.

    Other
    evidence, both literary and archaeological, suggests that the games may have
    existed at Olympia much earlier than this date, perhaps as early as the tenth
    or ninth century BC. A series of bronze tripods have been found at Olympia,
    some of which appear to be dated at about the ninth century BC, and it has also
    been suggested that these tripods may in fact be prizes for some of the early
    events at Olympia.

    The
    marathon was not an event of the ancient Olympic Games. The marathon is a
    modern event that was first introduced in the Modern Olympic Games of 1896 in
    Athens, a race from Marathon—northeast of Athens—to the Olympic Stadium, a
    distance of 42.195 kilometers. The race commemorates the run of Pheidippides,
    an ancient “day runner” who carried the news of the Persian landing at Marathon
    of 490 BC to Sparta (a distance of 149 miles) in order to enlist help for the
    battle. According to the fifth-century BC ancient Greek historian Herodotus,
    Pheidippides delivered the news to the Spartans the next day. The distance of
    the modern marathon was standardized as 26 miles and 385 yards or 42.195
    kilometers in 1908 when the Olympic Games were held in London. The distance was
    the exact measurement between Windsor Castle, the start of the race, and the
    finish line inside White City Stadium.

    From
    776 BC, the games were held in Olympia every four years for almost twelve
    centuries. Additional athletic events were gradually added until, by the fifth
    century BC, the religious festival consisted of a five-day program. The
    athletic events included three foot races (stadion, diaulos, and dolichos) as
    well as the pentathlon (five contests: discus, javelin, long jump, wrestling,
    and foot race), pugme (boxing), pale (wrestling), pankration, and the
    hoplitodromos. Additional events, both equestrian and for humans, were added
    throughout the course of the history of the Olympic Games. Equestrian events,
    held in the hippodromos, were an important part of the athletic program of the
    ancient Olympic Games and by the fifth century BC included the tethrippon and
    the keles.

    Track-and-field
    athletics in the United States dates from the 1860s. The Intercollegiate
    Association of Amateur Athletes of America, the nation’s first national
    athletic group, held the first collegiate races in 1873, and in 1888 the
    Amateur Athletic Union (which governed the sport for nearly a century) held its
    first championships.

    As
    track and field developed as a modern sport, a major issue for all athletes was
    their status as amateurs. For many years track and field was considered a
    purely amateur sport and athletes could not accept training money or cash
    prizes.

    If
    charged with professionalism, athletes could be banned from competition for
    life. In 1913, American Jim Thorpe was stripped of his 1912 Olympic victories
    in the decathlon and pentathlon and banned from further competition after it
    was learned he had played semiprofessional baseball. (In 1982, the
    International Olympic Committee [IOC] posthumously restored both Thorpe’s
    amateur status and his two Olympic medals.)

    Beginning
    in the 1920s, track and field’s scope widened. The first NCAA national
    championships were held for men in 1921, and women’s track and field became
    part of the Olympic Games in 1928. In 1952, the Union of Soviet Socialist
    Republics (USSR) sent its first Olympic team ever to the Summer Games in
    Helsinki, Finland, where the squad captured several track-and-field medals.
    Over the next 30 years, the U.S. and Soviet teams battled in one of the sport’s
    longest and most competitive rivalries. Women’s track struggled for widespread
    acceptance until the 1970s, when track and field as a whole enjoyed a boom in
    popularity. During that time, the U.S.-based International Track Association
    (ITA) organized a professional track circuit. The venture, although popular
    among fans, went bankrupt after several years. Few athletes wanted to
    participate in ITA competitions because athletes were actually receiving larger
    illegal payments for appearing at amateur meets than legitimate professionals
    were making on the new circuit. Many athletes also turned away from ITA
    competition because it disqualified them from participating in future Olympic
    Games. The Athletics Congress now regulates the sport in the United States; the
    International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) sanctions international
    competition. Track and field has been the centerpiece of the Summer Olympic
    Games since their revival in 1896. International professional running,
    initiated in the 1970s, has had limited success. Track and field is a sport
    comprising various competitive athletic contests based on running, jumping, and
    throwing. The name of the sport derives from the competition venue: a stadium
    with an oval running track around a grass field. The throwing and jumping
    events generally take place in the central enclosed area. The sport of track and field has its roots in
    human prehistory. Track and field-style events are among the oldest of all
    sporting competitions, as running, jumping and throwing are natural and
    universal forms of human physical expression. The first recorded examples of
    organized track and field events at a sports festival are the Ancient Olympic
    Games. At the first Games in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, only one event was
    contested: the stadion footrace.[1] The scope of the Games expanded in later
    years to include further running competitions, but the introduction of the
    Ancient Olympic pentathlon marked a step towards track and field as it is
    recognized today—it comprised a five-event competition of the long jump,
    javelin throw, discus throw, the stadion foot race, and wrestlingLeave a message...

  • tinamirtha

    Would the developers have used the force signals as feedback, in addition to his form, from the pressure-sensitive treadmill to aid in improving the design of the spike pads?

  • immeemz

    Great article.  I love that Nike sponsors Pistorius.  Also very interesting is the comment from Nike designer Hatfield, who had ample time to study the blades in detail, proclaiming them "stiff and rigid".   There are so many people complaining about Pistorius running on "springs"...clearly that is not the case. 

  • FluxAppeal

    Thank you for giving us the low-down on Pistorius' prosthetic gear. I was so happy to see him run in the Olympic games and hope to see more people with disabilities able to compete in the future.