pros and cons of carbon plated shoes

When Nike first launched the Vaporfly in 2017, featuring a full-length carbon-fibre plate, it claimed to improve running economy, allowing runners to cut down their race times. It could have been gimmicky, except that elite athletes began to race – and win – in these shoes. Other brands soon followed suit, with Hoka and New Balance releasing their own versions of a carbon plate in their models.

Running shoes are constantly evolving. The pendulum has swung from minimalism to maximalism over the past decade and carbon-plated shoes, also known as super shoes, have gathered attention. It’s worthwhile noting that the technology behind carbon-fibre-plated shoes isn’t new. Brooks and Reebok were already playing around with the technology and concept back in the ’80s and ’90s.

The basic science behind the carbon fibre plate is that being stiffer and lighter than steel, it allows better energy return to reduce fatigue.

To maximise results and minimise injury risk, we need to understand who carbon-plated running shoes are best suited for and when they should be used.

These super shoes are generally comprised of a lightweight foam that works in conjunction with the plate and are quite thick through the midsole and you’ll see them on the feet of most elite road runners. The design of the midsole foam is very particular and looks to maximise energy return for improved performance.  How much do they help, and can they actually hinder? Here are three things to consider before you fork out for a pair.

How is your running technique?

To optimise the weight of the shoe, the foam must be a much lower density. Generally, the softer a material, the less stable it becomes. This can be a problem for an inexperienced runner or someone with unstable biomechanics. The risk for things like plantar fascia overload, Achilles and calf injuries, ankle and shin issues and problems even higher up to the knee and hip, can increase.

Technique is something to consider. I’ve noticed that runners with a lower cadence and higher ground contact time (how long your foot is on the ground for) are more vulnerable in this type of shoe. If you’re not light on your feet, or strong and efficient, it can be risky.

We’re seeing a lot of younger runners getting injured in super shoes. Some because they’re not physically developed, some because they are training in them too much. These are not your everyday training shoe. They should be used sparingly for race day or performance running. It’s sensible to complement your super shoe with at least one sturdier shoe for the bulk of easy training runs.

What speed are you running at?

These shoes are made to go fast. Therefore, it stands to reason that to get the most of of these shoes, you should be going at a decent clip. Personally, I like to be running at four minutes per kilometre or quicker to get the most out of them. That can differ from person to person depending on many factors including strength, technique, body weight, and foot type.

I’ll happily use them for any race on the road between 10k and marathon distance. If you’re an inexperienced runner, be careful. If you’re not moving at a fast pace, you may not be optimising the energy return of the shoe. I wouldn’t usually recommend that runners use them as a ‘long run’ or ‘easy run’ shoe. I personally never train in these shoes as I prefer to save them for race day, for the reasons outlined above.

How long do you expect these to last?

The lifespan of carbon-plated shoes is much shorter than traditional shoes. Most elites will use their super shoes for one or two marathons. I used mine for one marathon, a City2Surf and a half marathon and all felt great. The fourth race didn’t give me the same pop, but I still got a result. Keep in mind that I don’t train in these shoes.

You might be thinking, at that point I’ll just use it for training runs then. That may be fine for some speed work, where you’re not relying on these shoes to provide that edge as you shoot for a PB, but be careful as they do break down quicker than non-plated running shoes that are designed for higher mileage and training runs. As mentioned, I’ve raced in these shoes and feel they have saved me around 15 to 20 seconds on my half marathon personal best.

In summary, if you’re a decent and experienced runner who fancies shaving some seconds off your goal race, give them a try. But use them sparingly. If you’re a little overweight, out of shape, prefer to run slowly, just starting out, have wide feet or have injury concerns, then tread carefully. Get some expert fitting advice before slipping on a pair of super shoes.

And remember, spend some time and effort on your body before your shoe – that’s where the real gains are made.

Our take on the latest models

If you’re looking at different brands and styles of super shoes, here’s who we think they’re most suited for. These are our impressions only; you’ll only be able to find your best fit with an in-person shoe fitting.

New Balance Supercomp Trainer: Soft upper with a generous fit, wide lever arm (wide base under the heel for stability), soft energy-absorbing foam type and a carbon forked plate through the sole. Suitable for training at long distances in preparation for a race using a shoe like the below.

New Balance Supercomp Elite: Very light, tight knit upper, similar wide lever arm to the Supercomp Trainer, less absorbent foam with a high bounce (think those little small rubber balls you used to bounce over the school walls when you were a kid). Again a carbon forked plate through the midsole.

Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 2.0: Very wide upper and an extreme rocker feel. Narrow lever arm with very high energy return foam. Carbon rods through the midsole. Suitable for elite level runners or runners with a very well developed gait who are also of a very slim build. More of a 5k to 10k race shoe for most humans.
Adidas Adizero Takumi Sen 8/9: Wide upper and a milder rocker feel than its bigger sibling above. Very narrow at the heel and suitable for experienced short distance runners who are very strong and light on their feet. 5k maximum.

ON Cloudboom Echo 3: A roomy toe box with a very snappy feel in the foam with this speedster. This shoe is one for the well conditioned who is already used to running forefoot.

Yours in running,

Phil de Mestre
Sports Podiatrist – Running Science