Written by Dominic Greco
First included in running shoes in 2017, carbon-fiber plates greatly increase running efficiency. Most professional runners now use this technology because of the advantage it provides.
Alex Marrione, a long-distance runner for the Wisconsin Track Club, purchased a new pair of Nike running shoes for training during his senior year of high school. These shoes, the Nike Air Zoom Tempo NEXT%, were lightweight and featured a new type of foam. More importantly, they included carbon-fiber plates — marketed to increase running efficiency.
“When I wore them for the first time, I felt faster immediately,” gushed Marrione. He described the feeling as “light and springy,” and used the shoes for training and in several races.
In 2017, Nike became the first brand to release running shoes containing carbon-fiber plates with the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%. The predecessor of this technology, the Graphlite Road, a running shoe manufactured by Reebok, was developed back in 1993.
The Graphlite Road contained a carbon bridge in the middle of the shoe, but were too stiff for most runners and did not improve performance. Other brands attempted to improve upon this concept, but nothing proved successful until the Vaporfly.
Nike’s technology greatly increased performance and produced a more comfortable shoe than its predecessors. With this new technology, each time the runner takes a step the extra energy is stored in the plate and released when the runner pushes off the ground, allowing for a longer stride. The new design of foam in the midsole, made of a polymer called Pebax, contributes to the storage and release of energy, giving the shoes a bouncy feeling.
These new soles also allow for a softer landing, decreasing the strain of ground impact on the runner. The combination of improved performance with a lower chance of injury made the shoes an instant success with runners.
Nike advertised that the shoes saved 4% of the energy needed to run. They fit the world’s top marathon runners with the shoe. The results were staggering. 31 out of the 36 top finishers in the 2019 Chicago Marathon wore Nike Vaporflys. Every world record marathon set since 2017 has been run with a pair of shoes containing carbon-fiber plates.
While there is no question that this technology leads to faster race times, both runners and experts question the ethics of carbon-fiber plated shoes. Many designs that include this technology cost over $200 and lack durability, making them financially inaccessible to the general public. This issue is of particular importance at the high school and collegiate levels of running, where athletes often purchase their own shoes.
Marrione agrees, “I have no problem with professionals wearing the shoes since their goals are pushing the boundaries of the sport, but it can create unfair advantages [at lower levels] when not everyone has access.”
Carbon-fiber plates are still controversial at the highest levels of the sport. Sports technology experts allege that they are a form of technological doping and pushed for them to be banned in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. While carbon-fiber plates were never banned, World Athletics, the governing body of track and field, required that all running shoes be available to the public for at least four months before the time of competition. This was an attempt to ensure that no runners had advantageous prototypes that were unavailable to their competitors.
Today, nearly every brand of running shoes sells a model with carbon-fiber plates to keep up with Nike. The widespread use of this technology makes them more accessible to amateur runners. As they become more commonplace, it is becoming clear that carbon-fiber plates are here to stay and should be embraced by the running community. Technological advances have improved performance in competitive sports for centuries, and there is no reason to stop here. Carbon-fiber plates have already led to remarkable advances since 2017, and are poised to shape history, particularly as humans close in on the possibility of a sub-two-hour marathon.