Are Carbon Plated Running Shoes Worth the Cost?

Are Carbon Plated Running Shoes Worth the Cost?

Ever since vibrantly pink Nikes started popping up on finish lines and podiums, carbon plated shoes became the biggest technological revolution in the running world since the GPS watch. These shoes feature a stiff carbon plate in the midsole, roller heel, and lightweight foam. Carbon plate shoes claim to enhance your running economy so that you run up to 4% faster than in normal running shoes. That’s a big change in pace! So are carbon plated running shoes worth the hefty pricetag?

This article focuses more on the science behind these so-called “supershoes.” For more on how the shoes work and how to use them, listen to this episode of the Tread Lightly podcast

(This article frequently references the concept of “running economy.” You can read this article for an overview of running economy.)

The Science Behind Carbon Plated Running Shoes

The hype around supershoes began with the Nike Vaporfly 4%. The claim was it could make you run 4% faster at the same effort level/oxygen cost. 4% improvement is significant. For a 3:30:00 marathoner, 4% faster is 3:21:35! Does the science support those claims?

The 4% claim is actually based on study findings. A 2019 randomized controlled trial published in Sports Medicine found that the lever effects and energy return of carbon plated shoes resulted in an average of 4% improvement for 18 participants. 

Since that seminal study, more research has been conducted on carbon plated shoes – both the Nike Vaporfly and models from other companies. From this research, we see that there is individual variance in response. 

A 2023 meta-analysis in Sports Medicine demonstrated the wide variation in response. Amateur-level runners experienced anywhere from a 9.7% improvement to a 1.1% decline. While overall, the shoes offered an average medium benefit, some outliers performed worse in super shoes.  

Terrain may also impact the efficacy of carbon-plated running shoes. In a 2022 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, 16 competitive male runners performed 5-min trials at 13 km/hr pace on flat, 5%, and -5% gradients while wearing Nike Vaporfly 4% and a non-plated Nike shoe. The average improvement in running economy was 3.83% on flat, 2.82% on uphill, and 2.7% on downhill. Notably, three out of sixteen (19%) of the runners had a worse metabolic response to the supershoes. 

Given that wide variance in responses, it is important to observe how the shoes work for you. How do you perform and feel in them? You can only learn your individual response through trial and error, which does come with some risk. 

Do Slower Runners Benefit From Carbon Plated Running Shoes?

For a few years there, most of the research looked at supershoe benefits for elite and sub-elite runners. Now, in 2023, some research has looked at how mid-pack and back-of-pack runners may respond to the new footwear technology. 

A 2023 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance examined the changes in running economy in response to supershoes with runners who averaged a 9:40/mile pace and an 8:03/mile pace. (These paces were 10 km/hr and 12km/hr.) The 9:40/mile pace had a 0.9% improvement – still an improvement, but not as profound as the 4%. At an 8:03/mile pace, the response was slightly enhanced, a 1.6% improvement. 

From the data, the researchers concluded that the magnitude of improvement from supershoes is dependent on pace. The faster you run, the more of a response you may see. However, a 1% response may be worth it to many runners. For a 4:15 marathoner, 1% still results in a couple of minutes faster in the marathon distance.

It is vital to note that in this study, the researchers found that five out of sixteen – 31% – of recreational runners had worse running economy in super shoes. Similar to faster runners, supershoes can work for a majority, but a not-insignificant demographic of runners do not respond well to them.

Can Carbon Plated Running Shoes Increase Injury Risk?

A 2023 opinion article published in Sports Medicine looked at five case studies on carbon-plated shoes and bone stress injuries. The researchers observed a trend between navicular stress fractures (bone injuries in the feet) and carbon-plated shoe use. 

The theory is that the biomechanical alterations of the foot and ankle in CPS may increase injury risk, especially stress fractures, for some athletes. However, there may have been other factors at play. Three of the cases were related to young (high school) athletes. For the two 30-something athletes, the shoes triggered a stress fracture when they were used for a half marathon race and 22-mile long run with no to minimal prior wear.

While carbon plated shoes may have an increased risk, you can mitigate that risk by carefully introducing them into your training. Start with short test runs. Then, gradually build up to being able to do a couple of workouts or long runs in them. Tune-up races also offer an opportunity to test supershoes. Once you know supershoes work for you, you only need to use them in a couple of key sessions before your goal race. 

On the other end of the spectrum, excessively frequent use of carbon-plated shoes may increase your injury risk. Anything that changes your running form can increase injury risk. One of the mechanisms through which carbon plated shoes make you run faster is by changing your biomechanics. As outlined in a 2019 study in Sports Medicine, part of the benefit of these shoes is how they change ankle and metatarsophalangeal joint action during running. 

Ultimately, it comes down to your own individual injury risk profile. If you are prone to foot injuries or have risk factors for bone stress injuries, it is worth weighing that in a risk versus reward equation. If your risk factors for injury are low, then cautiously introduce the shoes and look out for any new aches or pains. 

Can You Wear Carbon Plated Shoes for Every Run?

Some runners love the springy, energetic ride they get with carbon plated shoes. Because of how fast and comfortable the shoes are, they want to wear them every day. Some runners reach for supershoes regularly in hopes that they can train faster or reduce their recovery times. 

As discussed above, using carbon plated shoes too frequently may increase the risk of injury. For that reason alone, it is more advisable to have carbon-plated shoes as one type in your rotation, rather than your only training shoe.

The cost is another factor. Carbon plated running shoes are not durable. A majority of models will last 200 miles or less. At the cost of $250 per pair or more, that’s a lot of money spent on shoes. 

Additionally, since supershoes are a relatively new technology, we do not fully understand how they may play out long-term for training response. As Alex Hutchison discussed in a recent Sweat Science column, some pilot data indicates that training in supershoes may not improve your running economy as much as training in traditional speed shoes. It is nothing definitive – any claims require more research. However, it shows how little we know about the training impact of regular carbon plated running shoe use. 

In short: save carbon plated shoes for a few key training sessions and races. Many carbon plated shoes have similar versions in a daily trainer within the same brand. You can get the carbon plated shoe for racing and a similarly spec-ed shoe for training.

Are Carbon Plate Shoes Right for You?

Ultimately, the answer is up to you! If you respond well to them, you may decide that carbon plated shoes are worth the investment. But you do not need carbon plated shoes to run well. Running is already so expensive – there is no need to add in costly shoes unless you want to. Plenty of runners earn PRs, BQs, and age-group placement without carbon plated shoes. 

If you decide that supershoes are not a match for you, there are plenty of other shoes out there! This article delves into how to choose marathon running shoes, including non-plated options.

For more on running shoes:

How to Choose a New Model of Shoes

How Often Should You Replace Running Shoes?

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