Breaking Down Carbon Plated Shoes

Use of the term “carbon plate shoe” has proliferated in the running world over the past few years. But what is it actually referring to? And what does it mean if it’s in your shoe?



The Nike Vaporfly Next% 2


While not the first to market, Nike put carbon fiber technology on the map in recent years when they released the Vaporfly Next 4%, which was claimed and later proven to increase performance by approximately 4%. Eliud Kipchoge wore them in the Berlin Marathon in 2018, where he set a new world record with a time of 2:01:39. But that wasn’t enough – he wanted to break the unfathomable two hour barrier. He crossed the finish line a year later in Vienna with a time trial of 1:59 and -similar to Sir Roger Bannister’s iconic sub 4 minute mile moment- Kipchoge once again shattered the ceiling on what is humanly possible. Kipchoge’s effort was widely publicized and the carbon fiber technology was given substantial credit for aiding this achievement. Shortly thereafter, carbon plate shoes became available to not only elite runners, but to the general public as well. Let’s dive into how this technology came to be and what it can do for you.


How does the technology work? Why is it important?


Carbon plate shoes may seem like voodoo magic, so let’s break down the anatomy of the shoe and find out what’s really occurring. The energy and resulting momentum that a runner puts into -and through- the shoe with each footstrike effectively rocks the foot forward and brings about the sensation of running downhill; the carbon plate harnesses the runner’s energy (in part through simple gravity) and facilitates forward trajectory, thus propelling the runner forward.


The actual carbon plate in the shoe is made of thin but incredibly strong crystalline filaments of carbon. Although very lightweight, it’s also five times stronger than steel and has double the amount of stiffness. (This is why carbon is ubiquitous in the high performance cycling world.)  The carbon plate is sandwiched between two pieces of foam in the midsole of the shoe. Buffered by foam on either side, it acts like a seesaw. When you take a step forward, the plate rolls the foot forward through the gait cycle by harnessing the force of your leg muscles. The carbon plate does not act on its own. Rather, it is self-activated through a runner’s foot strike.


In addition to this lever-like assistance, the carbon plate aids in keeping the big toe joint straighter when your toes come off the ground. Although toe stabilization may seem like a small detail, this more economical biomechanical motion saves your body energy and can help you move faster through your stride. And believe it or not, by eliminating ground contact time, it’s easier to recover between workouts. It’s also important to note that the carbon plate is not the only aspect of these types of shoes across all brands that make an impact in results.


The continued evolution of foam technology partners with the carbon plate creating a wonderful marriage effect of a speedier and more efficient ride.


The history of carbon plate shoes


Running shoe companies have always turned to technology to find ways to increase performance. Carbon plates and myriad variations of “foam” have been the most notable innovations in recent years. The carbon plate age actually began in the 90s when Reebok released the Graphlite Road which had a carbon bridge in the midfoot of the shoe. (Reebok brought us the Pump AND the carbon plate?!) This release was quickly followed by Adidas producing a similar version. The first editions of the carbon plate were way too stiff and very few athletes could muster enough force to optimize the plate, so it flopped and was taken off the market.


Since that time, many trends and/or innovations have swept the running shoe world including minimalism (FiveFingers craze anyone?), maximal cushion, rockers, reimagined foam, a wide variety of heel-toe drop, knitted uppers and more. Fast forward to Nike’s 2017 release of the new-age carbon plate shoe, the VaporFly 4%. Elite athletes start breaking world records in them and it prompts the “technology doping” conversation. Where is the redline?


When is the (identifiable and even quantifiable) extra performance boost provided by a shoe considered illegal or competitive racing? 


At present, guidance from the IAAF states that any racing shoe must be available for purchase by any athlete on the open retail market, the sole must be no thicker than 40mm, and it can only include one carbon plate. In addition, shoes may be collected and tested after pro races. Nike remains defiant in their stance that the shoes don’t actually produce more energy, but rather maximize energy return. An important nuance.


Since this surge in carbon plate success, other brands have quickly stepped into the arena, like Hoka with the Rocket X, Saucony with the Endorphin Pro, Asics with the Metaspeed Sky, New Balance with the FuelCell RC Elite, and Brooks with the Hyperion Elite.


When should you use them?


As you may have known or concluded by now, the most popular application for the carbon plate shoe is racing. But given the excitement around the performance gains it has yielded in races, runners have also embraced this footwear technology for their training in everyday versions of the shoe. (See below.)


Can I use a carbon plated shoe to run in everyday?


Yes, you can. There are some carbon plate shoes that are more suited for everyday wear, and others that are better utilized for race day. By coming in or booking a virtual fit, Brooklyn Running Company’s fitting experts can help you choose what may be best for your needs. This decision also depends on your budget, as the carbon shoes trend higher than most due to the technology and materials that comprise them.


If I want to wear carbon plate race shoes, how can I break them in before a race? 


Some runners will have a shoe for their everyday trainers, a plated or rocker-effect shoe for speed work and tempo runs, and then a carbon plate shoe that is made for race day. If you are looking to run a race in something like the Vaporfly, Steve Crnic from Brooklyn Running Co. suggests to start breaking them in about 2 weeks before a race in your final weeks of training before wearing them on race day.


Are these shoes right for me? 


Generally speaking, the running community has voted with a resounding “yes” to these types of shoes, but what works for one person, might not work for everyone. Although these shoes are fast, Crnic says that they are not a silver bullet for performance nor a cure-all for any of your running problems. You are still at risk of injury just as you were before carbon plate shoes, so don’t skimp on your daily physical therapy or maintenance exercises just because you got the shoes. Emmi Aguillard, DPT, from Finish Line Physical Therapy says that there is no such thing as “free energy; your body actually needs to be stronger to handle that extra 4%”. Less experienced and/or less competitive runners likely don’t need to run in carbon; any pace from a 9 minute mile would imply the greatest returns. Emmi is a big fan of them herself but urges, “the shoe doesn’t run the race for you – you put in the work and then they help you”.


Check out these carbon plate options at Brooklyn Running Company: