The Carbon-Plated Running Shoe Revolution

I often hear a complaint from customers that they wish the running shoe companies would stop fiddling with their tried-and-true favourite model.

“I loved the version X of my [favourite shoe brand], why did they change it?" or (even worse) "The blue shoe I had three years ago was perfect!"

And while it’s easy to sympathize with the frustration (we all have our favourite pair of runners) for better or for worse, nothing ever stays the same. In sport, searching for competitive advantage is a constant. We may not always like it, but change is inevitable. On the bright side, small changes often light the path for innovative and technological advancements that can significantly change the game. 

What major changes have running shoes seen recently?

In the running shoe world, we have recently seen a change that is one of those “no looking back” advancements. From the mile to the marathon, running shoes with carbon fiber plates have revolutionized the sport.

It’s a bit crazy, especially from the recreational runners viewing ground, that these ‘magic shoes’ hit the market during a pandemic, a postponed Olympic games, and a year with absolutely no in-person races being held for the masses. Nonetheless, the record books are being re-written, and podiums are now owned by athletes with carbon fiber plated shoes on their feet.

What are carbon fiber plated running shoes? And how do they make you a faster runner?   

Quite simply, a curved carbon fiber plate is embedded in the midsole of the shoe. The plate itself is like a blade, and is made from lightweight carbon fiber. These blades store kinetic energy (generated by running) like a "spring" which allows the athlete to run and jump farther, faster, and with less fatigue. I often think of the prosthetic carbon blade that amputee athletes wear to run and compete. Kind of like that but surrounded by foam!

How do carbon-plated running shoes work?

Equally crucial to the carbon fiber plate within the running shoe is the light propulsive midsole foam on which the carbon plate sits. With every step, the stiff carbon fiber plate helps the foam compress and expand more quickly, returning more energy to the runner as they move. The carbon fiber plate also helps stabilize the runner’s ankle, reducing rotational force and lessening the workload for the calves. In theory, the carbon plate is assisting runners to stay "fresher" for longer throughout a race or hard work out, while recovering more quickly afterwards as their biomechanics have had less strain.

Nike, who was first past the proverbial goalpost with this new technology, was not shy about shouting its advantage from the mountaintops. They hammered home the point, naming their early iteration the "Vaporfly 4%" after tests showed it required an average of 4% less energy to run at a given pace compared with regular shoes. 

It’s worth pausing to contemplate this claim. Anyone who has run a marathon or appreciates what it entails can acknowledge that 4% less effort isn’t just nibbling at the edges; it’s a colossal chunk. For a 3:30 marathoner, it would lop off ~8 minutes over the 26.2 miles (bringing their time down to ~3:22) something that could otherwise take years of training to accomplish. 

What is the controversy associated with carbon fiber shoes?

To date, it seems to me that most discussions surrounding the new carbon fiber shoes are in the realm of elite racing.

Specifically, what are the ethics of carbon shoes in competition, the science behind what makes carbon fiber running shoes so effective, and even the potential need for regulation by governing bodies of athletics.

This is a topic for another day. 

Who can wear carbon-plated running shoes?

These shoes are not just for the elites. Recreational runners, our day has arrived!

Who among us would love to have an easier run? A faster race? A new personal best? Umm... the answer would be: everybody!

These “magic” shoes are for anyone who runs. The World Athletics Association has even mandated that these types of shoes must be available to every athlete (elite or otherwise) in the spirit of fair competition.

With run clubs and races making a comeback, as well as a bit of post-Olympic motivation, you will want to consider taking a pair of these carbon fiber beauties out for a spin.

This new generation of speedy shoes has proven it’s here to stay! We’ve got all kinds of options for you to try on at The Runners Shop. Take your running to new heights. 😊 

Here are the best carbon fiber plated running shoes you need to know about:


Want a little more information? Check out this great article by sports science writer Alex Hutchison.