In recent years, a new technology has taken the world of running shoes by storm: carbon plate running shoes. These pricey and often highly acclaimed shoes shoes have garnered immense attention and sparked heated debates among athletes, coaches, and enthusiasts alike. I’ve done the testing to help you understand how different brands feel.
But what exactly are carbon plated running shoes, and what makes them so special?
Traditionally, running shoe technology focused on providing cushioning, stability, and support to enhance comfort and prevent injuries.
However, carbon plate running shoes have redefined the game by introducing a revolutionary element: a thin layer of carbon fiber embedded within the midsole. This seemingly small addition has created a shift in the running world, as athletes have experienced unprecedented benefits and performance improvements.
In talking with a number of professional runners this year, many have said “you can’t expect to win without them.” This was part of a larger discussion about potential injuries from carbon fiber shoes simply being worth the risk.
As we delve deeper into the world of carbon plate running shoes, we’ll explore their composition, unravel the science behind their performance-enhancing capabilities, and discuss the ongoing debates and considerations surrounding them.
Plus, I’ve spent the last 6 months trying to test as many new models as possible with a variety of speed workouts so I can tell you exactly how they stack up! You can skip over some of the tech talk if you just want to see the recommended shoes.
What is a Carbon Plate Running Shoe?
Imagine strapping on a pair of running shoes that seemingly propel you forward with each stride, effortlessly converting your energy into forward momentum. That’s the promoted and sought after power of carbon plates.
The allure of carbon plate running shoes lies not only in their cutting-edge technology but also in the tangible results they have delivered. Record-breaking marathon times, jaw-dropping sprint performances, and personal bests shattered with every race are becoming synonymous with those who lace up in carbon-plated wonders.
Understanding Carbon Plates
Carbon plates, in the context of running shoes, refer to thin layers of carbon fiber material strategically placed within the midsole. These full-length plates are typically sandwiched between layers of foam to provide cushioning and support while leveraging the unique properties of carbon fiber.
Carbon fiber is known for its exceptional stiffness-to-weight ratio, making it an ideal material for maximizing energy transfer and responsiveness in running shoes.
4 Key Benefits of Carbon Plate Running Shoes
- Enhanced Energy Return: Carbon plates act as a spring-like mechanism, storing and releasing energy with each footstrike. This increased energy return propels runners forward, enabling them to maintain higher speeds and cover greater distances with less effort.
- Improved Running Economy: By reducing the amount of energy dissipated during ground contact, carbon plates help runners achieve a more efficient running economy. This means they can sustain a given pace while expending less energy, ultimately enhancing endurance and delaying fatigue.
- Increased Propulsion: Carbon plates contribute to a more pronounced toe-off, providing an extra boost of propulsion during the push-off phase of the running gait. This additional propulsion allows runners to generate greater power and accelerate with ease.
- Lightweight Design: Despite their remarkable performance benefits, carbon plate running shoes are often surprisingly lightweight. The combination of carbon fiber’s inherent lightness and the minimalist design of the shoes allows for agile and swift movement.
But is it the Plate or the Cushion??
In recent years, there’s been a little more debate about if the plate or all the new added midsole foam technology is making the difference. It seems likely that the combination of the two is producing a lot of the results.
In fact, the World Athletics Association placed restrictions around stack height (20mm) and limited shoes to a single carbon fiber plate to be legal for racing.
They have also said that shoes must be available for at least 4 months on the market to also be race legal. This one I have to question because I don’t believe that Helen Obiri’s Boston winning shoes were in fact for sale yet. So this may be a regulation that’s going to start in 2024 along with the stack height.
All right, now that you better understand the what of carbon fiber shoes, let’s start going through some of the top options and how they compare.
7 Best Carbon Plate Running Shoes
Obviously I have not tested every single shoe on the market, which means I might have to update this article at some point. But right now, I’ve spent time running in some of the models we are hearing a lot about and it’s made it very easy to compare and contrast each of them.
As the demand for carbon plate running shoes continues to surge, a wide array of models from various brands have emerged, each promising to deliver unparalleled performance.
By scrutinizing their unique features, performance attributes, and user feedback, we aim to provide a comprehensive analysis that will assist runners in making an informed decision when choosing their next pair of carbon plate shoes.
Comparison of Carbon Plate Shoes
Below I’m going to give a deeper dive in to each shoe, but for a quick comparison this should be useful.
- Nike Vaporfly 3 – Bounciest of them all and a very narrow fit, can feel like running on a rail
- Nike AlphaFly – Second bounciest, still a narrow fit, but much more stable
- Adidas Adizero Adios Pro – Wider fit than Nike, more stable and still a good bounce. Good for long distance
- On Cloudboom Echo 3 – Most like running in your traditional running shoe, which can mean it’s more comfortable and lower injury risk
- Saucony Endorphin Elite – Great cushion and similar to Adizero and Alphafly, definitely distance shoe
- New Balance FuelCell Super Comp Elite 3 – Lowest stack height, not a ton of cushion, better fit and can feel the rocker
- HOKA Rocket X2 – Probably widest option, similar cushion to Nike, but issues with heel
Running Coach note that I must make…while these shoes can help you run faster and that is SO FUN, remember they are not shoes to wear for every single run. You should save these for intervals, tempo and race day. You need to spend time in your other shoes and avoid potential injury.
I’m starting here because it’s the shoe you see most often on the feet of elite runners. And one that feels quite different from most of the other shoes. For me it was an instant recognition that my running felt different in this shoe.
The Nike Vaporfly was first introduced in 2017 and immediately caused a sensation in the running community.
The shoe’s unique design and advanced technology were credited with helping runners set multiple world records and break long-standing personal bests.
The Nike Vaporfly features Nike’s innovative ZoomX foam, which is designed to provide unparalleled cushioning and energy return. The shoe also features a carbon fiber plate that is embedded in the midsole, which is designed to provide stiffness and help propel the runner forward with each stride.
Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows that I was STOKED to try these in a 10K race after months of testing the Vaporfly 2. I had a PR, but also with just 10 miles on the shoes the outsole peeled away and I chose to return them and keep using the 2.
So while I liked the feel and performance of the Vaporfly 3, it was absolutely not durable. Somewhat to be expected as they try to make the sole as thin as possible.
In both Nike’s you will notice a feeling of arch support. This was mildly uncomfortable to me at first, but I quickly forgot about it.
- Neutral Carbon Fiber Shoe
- Weight: 6.9 oz men’s, 5.8 oz women’s
- Heel drop: 8mm
- 2 colors
- Not available in wide
- Previous Model: Nike Vaporfly Next 2%
- See current colors and availability
- Read my full Nike Vaporfly 3 review
The shoe was designed to build on the success of the Nike Vaporfly and take things to the next level. Consider this the shoe you’d want for half marathon and marathon running because it’s much more stable, but still has a lot of bounce.
The Nike Alphafly features a number of updates and improvements over the Nike Vaporfly, including a thicker midsole and an additional carbon fiber plate. The shoe also features Nike’s latest foam technology, Nike ZoomX, which is designed to provide even greater cushioning and energy return than the ZoomX foam used in the Nike Vaporfly.
The Nike Alphafly Next% 2 has been making headlines ever since it helped Eliud Kipchoge set the World Marathon Record in Berlin in 2022. Then the Alphafly 3 was worn by Kelvin Kiptom to set the new Marathon Record and our obsessions has only grown!
Checkout my complete Nike Alphafly 3 review >>
- Neutral Carbon Plated Shoe
- Weight: 7.8 oz men’s, 5.8 oz women’s
- Heel drop: 8mm
- 2 colors
- Not available in wide
- Previous Model: Nike Alphafly Next %2
- See current sizes and availability
- Ready my Vaporfly vs Alphafly comparison to help make your decision
After seeing Helen Obiri win Boston, a lot of runners stood up to take notice of what On was doing with carbon fiber. It’s a very different type of shoe than Nike and for a lot of runners, that’s a good thing.
Slipping on the On Cloudboom Echo 3, I could tell right away a lot of things had changed from the first model in 2020. Changed for the better!
- Increased cushion for distance running
- No pods along the bottom to collect rocks
- Better overall fit and foot room
This is a lower stack height and slightly higher heel drop than many of the other super shoes on the market. Compared to the Nike Vaporfly 2 or 3, it’s a 100% different fit and feeling.
Where Nike feels like bouncing, this shoe mostly feels super light. And where you might hate the super high stack on the Nike, this shoe is going to feel more natural.
- 10 mm heel drop
- 7.6 oz men’s and women’s
- Carbon fiber neutral shoe
- Available in 1 color
- Not available in wide
- Available at On Running for $289
- Ready my detailed On Cloudboom Echo 3 review
All right, having seen this shoe also on a Boston marathon winner, I too was intrigued to test it out. My first run it in reminded me a lot of the Nike Alphafly. You’ve got that spring and bounce off the ground, but with a wide platform that allows you to also feel stable in the shoe.
The fit is MUCH wider than Nike, which for most will be a good thing. I did find that I had to work a bit on the lacing to stop the shoe from breaking across the top of my foot.
This is a personal preference for the enjoyment of maximum cushion shoe that also has the carbon fiber to help propel you forward…and honestly there’s a reason this is what the pro’s are racing in. It works!
Great breathable shoe that’s designed for race day from the 10K to marathon.
- 10mm drop
- 7.7 oz women’s, 8.3 oz men’s
- Carbon plated neutral shoe
- 5 colors
As someone who raves about the NB 1080, I was really curious to find out how their carbon fiber would feel. It reminds me a lot of the original Saucony Endorphin Pro, but with a more pronounced rocker.
It does not have the super bouncy feel of the other carbon plate running shoes I’ve mentioned, which is going to be a bonus to some runners and turn off for others. I would not be surprised to see more cushion added to this shoe over time, but for right now it’s one that you might feel a lot more stable using for 26.2 miles of racing!
I think this is going to be a good option for a lot of runners. Especially as some are seeing foot issues from the super cushy foam carbon fiber shoes.
One thing that I noticed even setting this shoe on the table is with a slight touch you can see the rocker motion! So it’s absolutely designed to help roll you forward. You’ll also notice it has a socklike fit, which is something I tend to generally like and it’s a win in this shoe.
- Offers more stability than most carbon shoes
- 4 mm heel drop
- 6.3 oz
Good news, I finally got my hands on a pair and they’ve now been used for a medium long run and goal mile pace speed work, so I’ve got a variety of uses to give you some thoughts.
These shoes have been high on my list of “want to try” because I’m a big fan of Saucony running shoes. They’ve traditionally felt really great to me and I’ve raced in everything from the Kinvara to the original Endorphin Pro.
It’s a high-performance running shoe designed for long-distance running and marathons. The Endorphin Elite is part of Saucony’s Endorphin line, which focuses on providing lightweight and responsive footwear for serious runners.
- Great bounce (i.e. good cushion comparable to others)
- I liked that it has a little pad on the back heel, this helps prevent blisters which felt like an issue with Rocket X2
- Not the Vaporfly, but comparable to the Alphafly or Adidas
- Super thin upper construction to keep it as light as possible and breathable
- Felt more stable than the Endorphin Shift
- After 2 runs the outsole was peeling much like the Vaporfly 3
- 8 mm heel drop
- 8.1 oz
Another shoe that was supposed to be heading my way, but has not. So I can’t give you my personal thoughts, but I can share details of these shoes and why many folks are enjoying them.
ASICS is trying to catch up in this area and released a few shoes all at once which many folks can’t quit tell apart. The Metaspeed Edge is going to be the shoe with less cushion, less weight and better for those racing sub 3, etc.
This is a maximum cushioned carbon fiber plate for the marathon runner in you. It’s going to give you both that feeling of comfort over the miles along with the pop that’s often lost in a highly cushioned shoe.
- Unisex in the SKY+
- 5 mm heel drop
- 5.8 oz women’s SKY, 7.2 oz SKY+
I am a huge fan of HOKA, but did not like the Hoka Carbon X and the Hoka Bondi X was a good shoe, but not a top speed racer. So I was really excited to test out this shoe and proclaim it one of my favorites, but I’m just not sure that would be totally honest.
Having JUST spent a few weeks doing runs in this shoe I am torn…
- The heel doesn’t cup very well and as a result I was constantly terrified of blisters and even stopped one long run to head home. Maybe this is because they don’t have a male/female version, just all gender.
- It has great bounce and cushion, you are getting that Nike feeling that most brands are striving for
- You’re getting the HOKA wider fit that so many love
- 5mm drop definitely a preference and feels light
I love the feel, but the fear around the heel may keep me from using this shoe. This could be an issue with being Unisex or simply the fit of the heel, which is why Saucony added that little bit of padding.
- 5 mm heel drop
- 8.3 oz
Other brands are jumping on this wagon and I think we will continue to hear more about Brooks Hyperion Elite, Puma Deviate Nitro Elite as a road racing shoe as their technology continues to catch up.
If you’d rather watch me talk about the shoes, I’ve done that here as well!
Downside of Carbon Plate Running Shoes
While carbon plate running shoes have undeniably revolutionized the running world, it is crucial to acknowledge the challenges and considerations associated with these innovative footwear options.
As with any technological advancement, there are potential drawbacks and important factors to consider before incorporating carbon plate shoes into your running routine.
Carbon plated running shoes often come with a higher price tag compared to traditional running shoes. The advanced materials and intricate engineering involved in their production contribute to their elevated cost.
Add to that they only last around 200 miles, instead of 500.
Ethical Concerns and Controversies
At the elite level of competition, the use of carbon plated running shoes has raised ethical concerns and controversies.
Some argue that these shoes provide an unfair advantage, potentially distorting the integrity of competition. Governing bodies and event organizers have implemented regulations and guidelines to address these concerns and maintain a level playing field for all athletes.
Carbon fiber alone is usually not a cause for injury, however the design of shoes seeking to make out cushion in a less stable way has been shown to put more strain on the Achilles tendon.
I’ve seen a number of elites with Achilles injuries that they directly contribute to more miles in these ultra cushioned shoes. But as noted previously, they will continue using them because it’s simply not an option not to.
If you want to know even more about carbon plate running shoes, checkout this Tread Lightly Podcast episode.
All right this was a lot of information about the best carbon plate running shoes. I hope it gave you some info to make a decision. And as always, if it was valuable and you click through one of my links I will make a few pennies, but won’t know anything about you or your order.
Looking for more running shoe info?
- How to Lace Running Shoes to Relieve Pain
- Best Wide Toe Box Running Shoes
- HOKA VS Brooks Running Shoes
- What is Heel Toe Drop
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