Can you run in carbon-plated shoes too much?

Two runners run along a greenway path.

There's been debate in the running community about the advantages that carbon-plated running shoes offer elite athletes. However, their popularity has surged with recreational runners wondering if they can get the same benefits, and we’re realizing there’s a lot to learn about these shoes.

Carbon-plated shoes are often used by runners for an advantage on race day, but some people wear them more often. So the question is: Can you run in carbon-plated shoes too much? To answer this, we’ll dive into what they are, why people wear them, who benefits from wearing them, how long they last and more.

What are carbon-plated running shoes?

The New Balance SC Elite v4.

“The simplest definition of a carbon-plated running shoe is one with a stiff, carbon plate embedded in the midsole,” says John Dewey, PT, ATC, and owner of Fleet Feet Greensboro and High Point in North Carolina. “However, you’ll often hear them called ‘super shoes,’ and that specifically refers to when the carbon plate is embedded in ultra-lightweight, specialized midsole foams.”

Any midsole can have a carbon plate inserted, but for the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on what people consider super shoes. Super shoes are designed to enhance performance by improving running economy, returning energy and reducing load on toes, ankles and calves.

Carbon-fiber

Carbon fiber is known for its light weight, high stiffness and tensile strength. When applied to running shoes, carbon fiber could be a full or partial plate positioned in different locations within the midsole. Several brands now offer carbon-plated shoes, including Nike, Saucony, New Balance and Hoka. Instead of a carbon plate, some shoes feature carbon rods that mimic the metatarsals in the foot. The Adidas Adios Pro uses carbon rods.

Some shoes use a nylon plate for a similar feel. It’s worth noting that nylon is less stiff than carbon fiber and does not perform at the same level but is intended to offer a similar experience. The Saucony Endorphin Speed features a nylon plate.

Going forward, we’ll collectively refer to all of these options as “carbon plates.”

Carbon plates are engineered with a curve to assist with the foot’s natural role through the gait while in contact with the ground, meaning the toes, ankle and calf do less work. They help compress and expand the midsole foam more quickly, sending more energy back to the runner and by “snapping” into place, helping propel the runner forward.

The materials vary in stiffness across brand, model and even size within a model. According to Dr. Kim Hebert-Losier, Senior Academic lead for Te Huataki Waiora School of Health (Tauranga Campus) and lead biomechanics researcher at the University of Waikato Adams Centre for High Performance, what makes it more complicated is that different runners may benefit more when stiffness is higher or lower, so there is no “one size fits all.”

However, not much else is known about the qualities and characteristics of the materials used by each brand—this proprietary information isn’t widely shared.

The Mizuno Rebellion Pro 2.

Midsole foam

We can’t explore super shoes without discussing how they differ from average trainers. They generally weigh less because the midsoles are made with an ultra-light, high-performance foam called PEBA (short for polyether block amide)—referred to by the brand name Pebax. You can put a carbon plate in an EVA or TPU midsole, but it won’t have the same benefits as the Pebax midsole of a super shoe.

For context, Hebert-Losier offers, “The Nike Vaporfly 4%, the super shoe created for Eliud Kipchoge for his Breaking2 effort, weighed in at 210 grams. By standard, most men’s running shoes weigh 310-320 grams.” That’s a 32 to 35% reduction in weight, providing a nice advantage for an athlete.

But the real advantage is in the foam technology itself. The Vaporfly 4% earned its name because it offers an average four percent running economy, and studies have backed that claim up. Compared to EVA or TPU foams, Pebax is specially engineered to offer explosive energy return. This cushy midsole foam absorbs impact and fights fatigue with the intent to help you run faster and/or longer.

Imagine being able to cruise through a marathon in a shoe that makes it easier to add a little gas to the last miles when other athletes might be hitting the wall. With a benefit like that, you’d think everyone would want to run in super shoes.

Why run in carbon-plated running shoes?

Many runners like to throw on a carbon-plated super shoe for the big day to chase down a new PR. The combination of a snappy carbon-fiber plate sandwiched between light, bouncy foam for maximum energy return is hard to resist, especially if it means shaving time off your race. But there’s a difference between running in carbon-plated shoes and saving them for race day, and the efficiency, biomechanics and recovery benefits can make it a struggle to decide which is right for you.

“Evidence shows that these shoes are more efficient. It’s not necessarily the shoe running for you—it’s designed to improve the body’s utilization of oxygen, and this is what equates to a faster time,” says Dewey. “Recent research shows that faster runners are seeing three to four percent more efficiency with these shoes. For slower runners it’s closer to one to 1.5% efficiency.”

Experts are finding another big reason athletes are running in carbon-plated shoes is for the recovery benefits.

“Some anecdotal evidence shows that people experience less muscle soreness when they train in super shoes,” suggests Hebert-Losier. “If the shoe is doing more of the work and you’re using your muscles less, you’re putting in less effort to run at a certain pace. It makes sense that people feel like they recover faster, and it’s great for elite athletes who can likely do more training in these shoes. However, in the long term, there isn’t enough data to substantiate this experience.”

The Saucony Endorphin Pro 4.

How often should you run in carbon-plated shoes?

So, the big question many people are asking is, can you run in carbon-plated shoes too much? And if so, how often should you wear them?

“There’s nothing concrete to suggest exactly how often to wear a carbon shoe,” says Hebert-Losier. “From a PT loading perspective, we recommend wearing them before race day, maybe 1-2 times per week. But some people can successfully wear them just on race day. You need to know your body.” How often you should wear carbon-plated shoes depends on so many things–including biomechanics and budget–but a big factor that surprises folks who are new to super shoes is training volume.

How long do carbon-plated shoes last?

If you’re running high-volume, you should pay close attention to how you feel as your super shoes accumulate mileage, just as you would with regular trainers. It’s generally suggested that traditional trainers with an EVA or TPU midsole can get 300 to 500 miles before they need to be replaced. Carbon shoes are on a totally different spectrum. Hebert-Losier states, “The foam loses its freshness faster. Many might say 100 kilometers, but others suggest you can go a bit longer. Although, it's likely less than your typical trainer.”

For those of you who think in miles, 100 kilometers is equal to 62.14 miles. That’s a huge departure from the 300 to 500-mile guideline, although keep in mind these numbers will vary widely by shoe model. Given that carbon-plated super shoes are quite expensive — often in the $200-300 range — the average person might not have the budget to wear a pair out during training and invest in a new pair for race day.

Can carbon-plated shoes cause injury?

The HOKA Cielo X1.

Because super shoes are still relatively new, there simply isn’t enough research to definitively prove whether or not carbon-plated shoes cause injury. Both Dewey and Hebert-Losier mentioned case studies that link carbon-plated shoes to navicular bone stress reactions and fractures. However, a sample of five isn’t an accurate representation of the entire population of athletes running in super shoes.

It’s worth noting that both experts suggested that because of the stiff carbon-plates with lightweight and bouncy foam midsoles that are designed with higher stack heights and specialized geometries, athletes are working the ankles (achilles tendon, especially) and calves less.

Further, carbon plates are tuned to optimize specific strides, not accounting for individual feet. As a result, the plates may line up in a way that is not beneficial for the metatarsals and fascia, which can lead to stress and potential injury such as stress fractures, plantar fasciitis and achilles tendinopathy for some runners wearing these shoes.

Wearing super shoes too often could result in altered foot and ankle mechanics leading to loss of strength in those areas and/or a changed gait. “If you start to have pain, it could be your body telling you something is off and warrants some change; perhaps a different shoe or lower mileage,” says Dewey.

When an athlete runs exclusively in super shoes and then switches back to regular trainers, it could introduce new stressors and take time to regain strength in those areas. But this isn’t unique to super shoes. The same experience can be had when switching between standard trainers and minimalist shoes. As with many things, a solution can often be found in practicing moderation.

How to prevent injury

Our experts emphasized the importance of not doing too much too soon (i.e.: increasing distance or speed) as well as having a well-rounded training plan that incorporates strength for the intrinsic muscles, mobility, balance and massage to ensure the feet, ankles and calves are happy and healthy. “It’s key to introduce gradual progression for mileage, speed and anything that works intrinsic muscles,” says Dewey. “Don’t just jump in and do 100 of anything right away. Ease into it.”

Not only should your training plan be well-rounded, but a well-rounded shoe rotation can also reduce the risk of injury, according to one study.

Of course, we know that functional, specific training isn’t the only way to avoid injury. Based on her own experience as a runner, Hebert-Losier says, “Nutrition, sleep, understanding your life capacity for training and enjoying the run are equally important factors to support healthy running.”

A woman smiles into the sunlight wearing a yellow Tshirt that reads "RUN"

Final thoughts

Ultimately, there’s a lot we won’t know yet about the effects of running too much in carbon-plated shoes. If you’re interested in checking them out, there are proven performance benefits that come with racing in carbon-plated shoes. Plus, multiple brands offer their own models to choose between. Dewey says it’s important to run in them when you try them on because walking and running in super shoes feels distinctly different. If you do end up trying them, hopefully you’ll earn a shiny, new PR!

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