Are Carbon Plates The Key To Trail Running Supershoes?

Over the past five years, running shoes with carbon plates have earned the reputation as “supershoes” among the road running community. These shoes have undeniably improved race performances in nearly all road racing distances and aided athletes in setting new world records. These days, every elite runner at the startline of any major marathon (Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin) will be wearing carbon-plated supershoes.

Trail running has been slow to adopt carbon-plated shoes designed specifically for trails, but there is increasing interest to do so and several major trail running brands have recently released, or have a carbon-plated trail running shoe in production. In the following article, I share my insights into carbon plates in road running and how carbon plate integration may look different in trail running shoes.

Why Are Carbon-Plated Shoes “The Craze” in Road Running?

Carbon-plated running shoes have been hyped for the last few years in road running circles and with good reason. The craze for carbon-plated shoes began in 2017 after Nike’s Breaking 2 Project, where Nike set out to have a team of athletes break the previously mythical 2-hour marathon barrier using cutting edge technology and training methods. One result of this project was the development of the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%, an extremely lightweight carbon-plated marathon-specific running shoe, which Nike’s lab tests claimed could provide runners with a 4% increase in running economy. This translated to less effort with each step. Over the course of a long race such as a marathon, that meant reduced energy costs and faster paces.

Although Nike’s project missed breaking the two-hour barrier by a mere 26 seconds, it became clear that the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% was one of the best high-performance marathon running shoes ever made. Higher percentages of elite road runners began running in carbon-plated shoes and Nike’s competitors such as adidas, Saucony, Brooks, and Asics raced to catch up with Nike’s carbon-plated shoe development. There were many stories of athletes from other brands “blacking out” Nike 4% shoes so they could wear them in competition without jeopardizing their shoe contracts. Elite runner sponsored by Altra Running, Tommy Rivers Puzey, was one such athlete and wore “blacked out” Nike shoes at the 2019 California International Marathon (CIM).

Puzey spoke on his decision to wear Nike’s instead of Altras, “I loved that company, but in terms of performance on race day, the Nike runners were driving a race car and we were driving a Mack truck.” Puzey continued, “I don’t ever want to be in a position where I feel like there’s a superior product on the market and the company I represent wants me to have to choose between representing them or being the best I could be.”

In 2022, carbon-plated shoes have become the standard for elite road running racing shoes. Yet, is it actually the carbon plate that makes these shoes faster?

BOA Trail Shoes

Trail running shoes developed by BOA. Photo: Richard Bolt.

Are Carbon Plates Really the Secret Ingredient to Improved Road Running Race Performances?

Although nearly every major brand including Nike, On Running, Asics, adidas, Saucony and Brooks now have some version of a road running performance shoe that includes a carbon-plate, this is not the first time in running shoe history that carbon-plate technology has been integrated into shoes. Carbon-plated running shoes were used several times in the early and mid-2000s. Examples include the 2000 Fila Racer, Adidas Proplate, Reebok Graphlite, Ampla Fly and Zoot Sports. However, none of these shoes had the same impact on improving race performances as compared to the Nike 4%s. What was the secret to Nike’s success in creating a supershoe?

Carbon-plates, without a doubt, play an integral role in the “magic” behind the new high-performance road running shoes, but they are not the only reason behind their success. I spoke with Dan Feeney, biomechanics research engineer at BOA, who shared his perspectives on how carbon-plate technology has been used in recent years to successfully create better road running performance shoes, “There are a few key attributes as to why a carbon plate was used in a road racing shoe which enabled its radical success in 2016. In the original Nike 4% study, the combination of midsole and carbon plate enabled substantially greater energy return than any other previous shoe. By all mechanical testing, the Pebax foam used in these shoes provided a ton of energy return but it could be misused because that foam deforms so easily. The carbon plate in this case worked to help runners direct their forces into forward movement where the foam alone may have wasted some of their propulsive forces into side-to-side motion.”

Essentially, Feeney argues that better foam paired with carbon plates can, when designed correctly, minimize wasted energy and increase propulsive forces for linear running. This may be the true “secret sauce” to Nike’s 4% shoe. Carbon plates alone, without high-responsive foam, will not make a supershoe.

How Have Carbon Plates Been Integrated in Trail Running?

With the large performance and marketing success of carbon plates in road running shoes, it’s only natural that in the past few years we have started to see trail running brands attempt to integrate the same technology into trail running shoes. The North Face has been at the forefront of this movement since the release of the 2021 Vectiv model. Similar to popular carbon-plated road running shoes, this shoe was designed for performance and optimized energy return.

It should also be noted that integrating metal plates into trail running shoes is not a novel idea. Trail running shoe designers have been adding “rock plates” into shoes for many years. Rock plates are designed to protect the foot from sharp objects underfoot such as rocks or roots and overall ease the shoe’s “ride” over rough terrain. The function of rock plates is typically more protection-based, as opposed to performance-based.

Although major brands are starting to develop carbon-plated performance shoes for trail running, there hasn’t been the same craze over carbon plates that there was in road running. In fact, out of these five “best trail running shoes” articles from 2021 and 2022, there was only one carbon-plated trail running shoe that made mention in any of the lists.

This raises questions:

  • Are carbon plates just as effective at improving performance in trail running as in road running?
  • Should carbon plates be integrated differently in trail running shoes vs. road running shoes?
  • What has been hindering the development of carbon-plated supershoes in trail running?

Are Carbon Plates The Key To Trail Running Supershoes?

When it comes to the development of supershoes in road running, shoe designers have less to consider than designers of high-performance trail running shoes. Performance road running shoes seek to maximize running efficiency and economy on flat roads at fast paces in a straight line. In trail running, there are many more considerations. Trail races come in a variety of distances (short uphill races of only a few miles, 250-mile races, and everything in between), as well as drastically different terrains and environments including coastal, forest, desert or mountain trails. Each of these distances and terrains has their own set of unique challenges.

In contrast to the consistent pace and linear motion of road running, trail running requires constant changes in speed and direction over the course of a single race. Trail running shoes must address challenges including fit and stabilization on twisty, technical terrain, forward and lateral propulsion, braking (for steep downhills), and varying types of grip for rocky, wet, muddy or icy terrain. There are many questions to consider when creating a high-performance trail running shoe:

  • Does the shoe need a rock plate?
  • Does it need heavy or light traction?
  • Does it need more or less cushion?
  • Does it need to be breathable or waterproof?

There is no trail shoe that can do it all. There is an extensive variety of trail racing environments and it’s likely that there will never be a “magic” shoe suited for all types of trail races. Experienced trail runners develop a “quiver” of their favorite racing shoes, each with specific purposes or specialties. For example, an athlete seeking to perform well at the Leadville Trail 100 mile race would want a shoe with drastically different features than an athlete competing at the 3.5-mile Broken Arrow Vertical Kilometer Skyrace.

Although there is not likely to be one carbon-plated supershoe to rule all trail shoes (J.R.R. Tolkien reference intended), that doesn’t mean carbon plates won’t play an integral role in the future of trail running shoes. When designed properly, and in conjunction with the right types of foam, carbon plates can decrease linear energy costs. This increased return can save trail runners energy in certain sections of their races. This could be especially important in ultramarathon trail races where small energy savings lead to large gains.

Carbon plate shoe from Craft Sportswear. Photo: Craft Sportswear.

The Future of Carbon Plates in Trail Running

The future of carbon plates in trail running rests in their ability to be versatile and handle varied terrain. Traditional carbon plates may not be able to achieve this end. Traditional carbon plates used in road running shoes have several issues that trail running shoe designers must navigate. For one, these plates take away the flexibility of the shoe needed for athletes to run on technical terrain. Shoe flexibility allows runners to use their proprioception to handle difficult terrain without rolling ankles and to “feel” the ground. Another key for carbon plate development in trail running is its ability to handle lateral movement. Most carbon plated road running shoes have high “stack heights” with exceptional amounts of high-responsive foam. Both the high stack height and responsive foam may not be ideal for trail running and may actually decrease agility on trails. Brands will have to figure out the right types and amount of foam that allow the carbon plate to be most responsive, while also not sacrificing agility. Overall, trail running brands seeking to integrate carbon plates in trail running shoes will need to be more creative than simply copying the plate integration techniques used in road running.

One cutting-edge carbon plate designer, Carbitex, has patented three unique types of carbon plates that they believe are better suited for trail running than traditional carbon plates. These plates all have unique functions for different sports applications, but the common thread among each is the ability of their carbon to be both flexible and rigid. Carbitex currently partners with over fourteen brands across eight major sports. Their products have been used by global soccer GOAT (Greatest of All-Time), Lionel Messi and world marathon and half marathon champion Mary Keitany, to name a few.

Clark Morgan, VP of Business Development and Customer Product Development at Carbitex, speaks on his vision of Carbitex plates in trail running, “We truly believe that a fully rigid plate is not necessarily the best application for trail running. Being able to be flexible to provide the runner with proprioception, while having rigidity from the plate for spring when running faster is key. Generally speaking, if it’s a highly protective shoe (rock plates, etc.) you’re also fighting against that material in your running stance. With Carbitex plated shoes, you won’t feel the plate or be fighting against it, but it will still be providing you with increased protection and running economy. When we think about carbon coming into trail running, much of the market is focused on the particular recipe that is happening in road running right now. We’re focusing our attention on partnering with trail running shoe brands because that’s white space that we believe can’t be done well with traditional carbon plates.”

Carbitex has already partnered with both Saucony and Speedland to develop high-performance trail running shoes using Carbitex plates. The Speedland currently retails for $375 and is already endorsed by several high-profile trail athletes including Dylan Bowman and Ryan Becker. Saucony plans to release their Carbitex plated shoe, the Saucony Endorphin Edge, in August 2022. Given the incredible dual (rigid and flexible) features of Carbitex plates, it is likely more trail running shoe brands will be partnering with them in the coming years.

Ethical Considerations Of Supershoes in Trail Running

Supershoes have created an ethical debate amongst the road running community, which may soon become a debate in trail running. One of the main concerns in this debate is access to supershoes. Nike released prototypes of the Zoom Vaporfly 4% to select athletes before the marathon trials at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games. This secretive release gave an advantage to Nike athletes at a time when other shoe companies had not yet developed their own carbon-plated road running supershoes. Although trail running brands are mostly on an equal playing field in terms of access to shoe technology, it can become a concern if we suddenly see athletes of a particular brand drastically improving their performances using a novel shoe.

Another ethical consideration of supershoes is how to regulate their technology. Before the 2020 Olympic Games, World Athletics organized a committee to make a ruling on the second edition of Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly 4%, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Next%, and equivalent carbon-plated road running performance shoes from other brands. World Athletics did not ban any of the popular marketed marathon running shoes for use in competitions, but did set specific shoe regulations for marathon running shoes including a limit to the “stack height” at 40mm. (See current World Athletics shoe regulations). This ruling was made to prevent “mechanical doping” or unfair advantages given to athletes based on their footwear.

A major concern for the future of trail running is that there is no governing body to regulate high-performance supershoes. World Athletics only has a small amount of oversight into trail running (World Championship events). The vast majority of trail races have no central governing body that could make rulings on the fairness of footwear. For example, a trail runner could win one of the most prestigious trail races in the world, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), in a shoe banned for use in competition by World Athletics or with a new technology that other athletes don’t have access to, and there would be no repercussions.

Lastly, another ethical concern is access due to cost. Most carbon plated road running shoes are in the price range of $200 to $300. For many runners, this price point is too high for a pair of shoes that they will only use for road running competitions. This gives an unfair advantage to runners with the means to afford new supershoes for every race. Brian Metzler, award-winning sports journalist and author of Kicksology shares his opinion on the impact of supershoes on road running performances and culture, “These days, if you’re training for a marathon as a competitive age group or elite runner, you better have carbon plated supershoes or you’ll be left behind. For better or for worse that’s where the sport is. You won’t have the advantage relative to the field without these shoes.”

As trail runners, we should be aware of the impact of supershoes on race performance in the road running community and ask ourselves if we’re ready to allow the same in our sport. Are we willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a single pair of shoes that will improve our race performances? If so, what impact will this have on the rest of the trail running community who can’t afford these shoes? How will this affect new or younger runners getting into the sport? Trail running is currently an accessible sport to most demographics (all one needs is a pair of shoes and trails to run on), yet if it becomes normal for trail runners to spend $200 or more on a single pair of shoes we may hamper this accessibility.

Have you worn a pair of carbon-plated shoes? What are your thoughts on carbon-plated trail running shoes? Let us know in the comments below or leave a comment on our social media channels.

Nancy Hobbs with Kicksology author Brian Metzler. Photo Richard Bolt.

Interested in diving deeper in the science of why carbon plates and high-responsive foam make a supershoe? Read the following studies:

A Comparison of the Energetic Cost of Running in Marathon Racing Shoes
Creating Footwear for Performance Running
Optimal footwear longitudinal bending stiffness to improve running economy is speed dependent
Effects of running shoe construction on performance in long distance running

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