You’ve probably heard the term “super shoes” floating around the running world. Over the past few years, carbon-plated shoes have taken the road racing world by storm and have been worn by numerous professional athletes during their world-record breaking races. Globally, distance runners worldwide have been getting faster and more efficient – and one of the big things that’s changed is their footwear. Which for those of us who are chasing our own racing goals begs the question – will super shoes really make me faster?
And at a $250+ price tag, answering that question can make a big difference. As far as answers go, in recent years there has been more and more research being conducted on the effect of carbon plated “super shoes” on the amateur runner’s performance.
What are super shoes?
The term “super shoes” refers to footwear with stiff plating made from carbon fibers, combined with lightweight foam designed to propel the user and provide a “bouncy” ride. Super shoes supposedly increase running economy by providing a lever to propel the heel up and the foot forward.
This technology was first introduced to the running community in the form of the Nike Vaporfly, at the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, super shoes gained even more popularity and buzz following Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:01:39 marathon finish at the 2018 Berlin Marathon while wearing a pair of Vaporflys – the largest improvement in 50+ years1.
Since the introduction of the Vaporfly in 2016, long distance runners have been breaking new barriers. In fact, the most recent marathon world record was set by 23 year old Kelvin Kiptum with a time of 2:00:35 at this year’s Chicago Marathon while wearing a prototype of the Nike Dev 163 prototype sneaker – which Nike recently confirmed are the soon to be released Alphafly 3’s2. Within the women’s field, 29 year old Tigist Assefa broke the marathon world record with a time of 2:11:53 in Berlin this fall while wearing the Adidas Adios Evo Pro 13.
Super shoes are more rigid than typical training footwear. They use a curved, full-length carbon-fiber plate embedded within the shoe and then a foam for the midsole. These midsole foams typically are stacked high and are notably lightweight. Commonly these foams are made from what’s called PEBAX , or Poly (amide-b-ether) which is a copolymer consisting of flexible polyether segments (PEO) and rigid amide blocks.4
What are the supposed benefits of super shoes?
Following Kipchoge’s 2018 Berlin performance, the boundaries of long-distance running were suddenly being pushed while utilizing this new technology – and everyone wanted to access it. This clear demonstration of someone breaking barriers in sport had everyone asking the question: could these improved performances be attributed at all to your footwear choice?
Initial studies5 conducted on the Nike Vaporflys demonstrated clear economic improvements with carbon plated vs traditional. A preliminary 2017 research study determined that Nike Vaporflys reduced the energetic cost of running by 4% (as measured by VO2max, or the maximum oxygen an individual can consume during high intensity exercise), which would translate to a 3.4% improvement in running performance for a marathon ran at world-record pace.
Follow-up studies examining the impact of both carbon-fiber plates and PEBA midsole foams have shown that carbon plates on average improve running economy by 1%, while the foams can improve running economy by 4-6% depending on the person. What’s interesting about this information is that plates have been the most commonly included component of a “super shoe” in various company designs, however, most are missing the mark on the inclusion of a PEBA foam.4
That’s great, they help the pros run better. Are super shoes going to help me?
In short, potentially, or at least a small amount. A 2022 study6 demonstrated that runners who were performing at a slower speed, with a lower baseline running economy than the previously studied runners were able to still experience some benefit from wearing super shoes. However, this benefit was less than that found by previous research, instead around 0.9-1.4% versus 3-4% improvement in running economy (as measured by VO2max), and therefore performance. Another study conducted by Heyde et al7 found that there is also high variability shown in performance benefits among slower runners. The Heyde study depicted a 4% average improvement in running efficiency but the effects were only shown in some runners within the group.
Joubert & Jones’ 2022 study8 examined 7 highly cushioned racing shoes across brands, and found that 3 footwear models had more significant impacts on VO2 max and, therefore, running performance. Two Nike models–the Nike Zoom Alphafly Next% and then Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next% 2, and one model from Asics–the Asics Metaspeed Sky–were determined to show comparable benefits, with a 3% improvement in running performance at approximately 8.5mph and a 2.6% improvement at 12 mph. These improvements, per the study, translate to ~4-6 min knocked off a 2.5-3.5hr marathon time.
More recently, Joubert et al’s 2023 study9 showed that at slower paces there was a smaller but still present improvement as well. At 8:00 min/mile pace, the Nike Vaporfly had a return on running economy of 1.4%, and of 0.9% at 9:40 min/mile pace. However, this study was performed on a small sample size of 16 participants, and there was high variability amongst the group.
The key takeaway from the currently available research is this: the faster you run in these shoes, the more drastic the impact you’ll see on your performance – faster times with less work required by your body.
Considerations for training/racing in super shoes
While super shoes have been shown to improve running economy and performance, they’re not meant to be used for all training sessions. Considering the fact that they demonstrate a higher return on running economy at faster speeds, they’re best used for speed work vs. easy runs. Further, the relatively short lifespan of approximately 200-250 miles, vs 300-500 miles on a typical trainer means they’re best to reserve for key sessions in your training cycle and to ensure you’re happy with fit and feel prior to race day10.
Another consideration is that the responsive foam midsole can improve recovery time due to less demand required of your muscles during a run. Carbon-plated footwear can help reduce the micro-traumas occurring cellularly, and a reduction in these can decrease post-run muscle fatigue and soreness, as well as decrease the time required for your body to recover10.
However, long time reductions in recovery time and stress to joints/muscles can reduce your body’s ability to adapt to these stressors. The loss of adaptations in addition to the stiffness of the carbon plating can allow for less long-term strengthening of the lower leg, possibly leading to weakness of foot/ankle muscles and potential for injury to these areas.
While there is no current research between super shoes and an increased risk of injury at this time, there could be merit to airing on the side of caution secondary to anecdotal evidence of runners experiencing injury from over-reliance on these shoes.
Overall, super shoes offer definite potential for improvements to running performance for non-professional runners, however, the improvements may be more minimal for us recreational participants running at slower speeds than professional athletes. Furthermore, any benefit from super shoes to be gained by the amateur athlete will be gained at a faster speed, so consider wearing super shoes only for races, or during speed training workouts to assess comfort and fit prior to race day.
One consideration for the average, recreational runner to make on a personal level is also cost versus benefit. Super shoes are considered to have a short shelf life of 200-250 miles, versus 300-500 miles on a typical trainer. Further, looking for footwear with not only have a carbon-fiber plating but also a PEBA foam can lead to a larger increase in running performance, and allow the user to maximize the potential improvements from super shoe technologies.
Overall there is potential for improved performance while wearing super shoes, but being mindful of when and where you are wearing your pair and strategic with your use can help ensure that you’re getting the largest benefit for the amount of money you’re spending.
Planning for a 2024 race and unsure if your footwear is the best for you? Curious about establishing a structured training plan? Contact us (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org – Call: 917-494-4284) to schedule a visit with one of our Doctors of Physical Therapy, who are also RRCA certified Running Coaches.
Written by Madison Doherty PT, DPT
- Hutchinson, Alex. “Researchers Confirm Nike’s ‘4%’ Marathon Shoe Claim.” Outside Online, 12 May 2022, www.outsideonline.com/running/researchers-confirm-nikes-4-marathon-shoe-claim/.
- Nike Surges Ahead in the ‘War of the Super Shoes’ as Kiptum Breaks …, www.runnersworld.com/uk/gear/shoes/a45481094/war-of-the-super-shoes/.
- Results and Highlights from the 2023 Berlin Marathon – Runner’s World, www.runnersworld.com/races-places/a45286217/berlin-marathon-2023-results/.
- Matt Klein PT DPT PhD(c) OCS GCS FAAOMPT. “Footwear Science: An Evidenced Based Review of PEBAX and Carbon Fiber Shoes.” Footwear Science: An Evidenced Based Review of PEBAX and Carbon Fiber Shoes, www.doctorsofrunning.com/2020/04/footwear-science-evidenced-based-review.html.
- Hoogkamer, Wouter, et al. “A Comparison of the Energetic Cost of Running in Marathon Racing Shoes – Sports Medicine.” SpringerLink, Springer International Publishing, 16 Dec. 2017, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-017-0811-2.
- GT;, Joubert DP;Dominy TA;Burns. “Effects of Highly Cushioned and Resilient Racing Shoes on Running Economy at Slower Running Speeds.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36626911/.
- Heyde, Christian, et al. The Percentage of Recreational Runners That Might Benefit from New …, www.researchgate.net/profile/Christian-Heyde/publication/362416754_The_percentage_of_recreational_runners_that_might_benefit_from_new_running_shoes_A_likely_scenario/links/62ffa938ceb9764f720b2680/The-percentage-of-recreational-runners-that-might-benefit-from-new-running-shoes-A-likely-scenario.pdf.
- Joubert, Dustin P, and Garrett P Jones. A Comparison of Running Economy across Seven Highly Cushioned Racing …, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19424280.2022.2038691.
- Joubert, Dustin P., et al. “Effects of Highly Cushioned and Resilient Racing Shoes on Running Economy at Slower Running Speeds.” Human Kinetics, Human Kinetics, 10 Jan. 2023, journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijspp/18/2/article-p164.xml.
- training4endurance. “To Wear or Not to Wear: Super Shoes in Your Daily Training.” Training 4 Endurance, 4 Aug. 2023, training4endurance.co.uk/to-wear-or-not-super-shoes-daily-training/.