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Carbon-Fiber Plates, Bouncy Foams Usher in Next Generation of Running Shoes

A group of runners lines up at the start of a race

Modern running shoe technology is helping to push the boundaries of human performance.

Thanks to ultra-responsive new foams, propulsive carbon-fiber plates and lightweight materials, the new wave of running shoes might actually help you run faster by improving your efficiency. Researchers who spoke to Wired say the combination of foam and carbon-fiber plate in Nike’s premium marathon shoe might work by improving a runner’s ankle and foot mechanics, but the exact science isn’t definitive.

No matter how they work, we anticipate a future filled with many more carbon plates but, for now, three shoes lead the charge: the New Balance FuelCell 5280, the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% and the HOKA ONE ONE Carbon X.

Here’s our rundown of the fastest shoes on the market today:

The Miler: New Balance FuelCell 5280

A pair of New Balance FuelCell 5280 running shoes surrounded by prototypes

Running a road mile isn’t just about flatout speed (although you need plenty of that, too). So New Balance designed a fast shoe that lets you focus on your strategy.

Engineers developed the New Balance FuelCell 5280 with their top mile athletes in mind, like Jenny Simpson. Simpson holds top finishes and records in the 1500 and at major road miles around the country, so she proved the perfect test subject for a shoe that’s built like a track spike, but meant for the road.

A carbon-fiber plate adds propulsion and increased efficiency, while a grippy rubber outsole increases traction on pavement. The lightweight knit upper and bouncy FuelCell foam cushioning helps to maximize speed for short-distance races, like the road mile or 5K.

Simpson found an ideal mix of efficiency and power in the 5280 to keep her on top of her game.

The FuelCell 5280 is a specialized shoe for experienced runners who stick to short road races, up to the 5K. Its feathery weight and streamlined build make it ideal for carving up those quick stretches of pavement.

The Marathoner: Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%

A runner holds a pair of Nike Vaporfly NEXT% running shoes

Shortly after unleashing the original Vaporfly 4%, Nike put it to the ultimate test: an attempt to break the two-hour marathon.

Eliud Kipchoge, arguably the world’s best marathoner, wore a custom Vaporfly in his 2017 attempt to bust the barrier on a Formula One race track in Italy. But he came up seconds short. Although it’s not officially accepted as a world record, his 2:00:25 time put him within striking distance of 1:59:59.

So, Nike went to work on the next iteration.

The Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% hit the market in July 2019, and it’s better than the original in every way: There’s more bouncy ZoomX foam in the midsole, the heel-to-toe drop decreased from 11mm to 8mm, and it boasts a lighter, less absorbent upper material called VaporWeave.

The Vaporfly NEXT% is a light and fast racing shoe that’s ideal for anyone looking to improve their half and full marathon times.

The Ultramarathoner: HOKA ONE ONE Carbon X

The HOKA ONE ONE Carbon X running shoe

A pack of top ultramarathoners debuted the HOKA Carbon X in 2019 at a HOKA-sponsored event in Folsom, California. The goal that day was to break the world record for 100K.

No one broke the record for the full distance, but ultrarunner Jim Walmsley set a new 50-mile record before the sunny California heat rose in full force.

The shoe is an everyday trainer disguised as a racing flat. Built with a carbon-fiber plate smushed between layers of foam, the Carbon X delivers an ultra-smooth and fast-feeling ride.

If you’re looking for a versatile running shoe to take you from training to race day, the HOKA Carbon X is a good choice. The Profly X foam is HOKA’s lightest and most resilient yet, and the wide base makes it stable for lots and lots of miles.


By Evan Matsumoto. Evan played many sports growing up but didn’t go pro in any of them. Now, he’s the digital copywriter for fleetfeet.com and editor for the Fleet Feet blog where he writes about different foam densities and engineered mesh uppers.

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