Updated: Apr 21, 2022
The Sneakerhead: an individual who appreciates the technology, art, and cultural impact of athletic shoes. This is what I would consider myself. I grew up in a Detroit neighborhood where Jordans were a big deal. The shoe that awoke my "sneakerheadery" was the Jordan XII. I cannot say precisely what it was about the XII that was so intriguing to me, but that started my life long love of athletic shoes.
While I could discuss Jordans all day, this article is about running shoes. Moreover, the current trend in modern "race" running shoes. From my time bike racing and playing hockey, I knew that not all shoes are created equal when I started taking running seriously in the mid-2000s. I have run in many shoes from many different brands—everything from zero-drop Altras to 12mm+ drop Karhus; and Reebok racing flats to Hoka maximalists.
* Disclaimer for this article: I am a fan of Nike shoes, so this article follows the Nike evolution of the modern "race" running shoe. Going over the convergent evolution of the modern "race" running shoe between Nike and Adidas would be an article in and of itself.
The Breaking2 project by Nike was one of the great watershed moments in the history of running shoes. At the time of Breaking2, running shoes had been technologically stagnant for some time. There had been tinkering with different sole materials/drop heights / sole shapes that helped optimize the shoe, but nothing new.
The Breaking2 project set out to accomplish something considered impossible--a sub-2 hour marathon. They did this by getting some of the greatest athletes in the world and redesigning the running shoe. The Vaporfly 4% was born.
The Vaporfly 4% was the first true carbon plate running shoe. Yes, I know Adidas made a carbon running shoe in the early 2000s, but that was a carbon shank, not a plate. Also, that Reebok had the Fury in the 1990s, but that was more cosmetic. Since the 2017 NYC Marathon, a carbon plated running shoe has placed in every major road running event. The key to a carbon plated running shoe is a carbon plate that provides stability to the sole of the shoe. A carbon plate can be tuned to add a "springiness" to a sole that has really squishy foam.
I like to think about it like a bike tire. When you have your tires set at low pressure (squishy), the bike has a comfortable ride because the tire can soak up all the little cracks and bumps in the road. But when you try to throw down some power, the squishy tire is not very responsive and does not accelerate well. On the flip side, when the tire is set at high pressure, the tire is very responsive and accelerates well, but the ride is harsh because every bump and crack is felt through the entire bike.
Just before the Vaporfly 4%, maximalist shoes with big squishy soles were very popular because they soaked up so much shock and were comfortable. However, a maximalist shoe does not feel very fast in racing/interval training conditions. On the other hand, track spikes had been around for decades and were very rigid. Track spikes feel fast, but no one would want to run a marathon in a pair of them.
The carbon plate running shoe is, in its simplest terms, a mix of a maximalist shoe and a track spike. There is a bunch of foam to soak up shock from the road and a carbon plate to add responsiveness for speed.
Most shoes brands have a carbon plated shoe at this point. If you asked me if I would recommend racing in a carbon plated shoe, my answer is definitely yes. I would compare the carbon plated shoe to aerobars on bikes. The advantage is so noticeable that the only reasons not to use them would be due to regulations or their pricetag.
Coach Adam Sczech is an IRONMAN University Certified Coach, USAT Level I Certified Coach, NASM Certified Personal Trainer and VFS Master Bike Fitter based out of the Western Slope of Colorado. Contact Coach Adam at Adam@TeamMPI.com