From the mile to the marathon, running shoes with carbon-fiber plates have revolutionized the sport.
The boom of shoes with carbon-fiber plates came in the wake of the original Nike Vaporfly 4%, which promised a 4 percent improvement in running economy. Nike’s claim was initially backed up by independent lab tests, and it was bolstered by a steady stream of major marathon victories.
Soon, other brands began releasing their own models packed with ultra-responsive foam compositions and propulsive carbon-fiber plates. HOKA ONE ONE debuted the Carbon X at a special event in California, and New Balance unleashed the FuelCell 5280 for one of the premier mile events in the country.
By propelling athletes to new world records, surpassing the perceived limits of human performance and claiming podium spots around the world, this new generation of speedy shoes has proven its here to stay—and there are more on the way.
Here are the running shoes with carbon-fiber plates you need to know.
The Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% is Nike's latest marathon running shoe with a carbon-fiber plate, but this one gets a boost from Air as well.
Nestled into the bulbous ZoomX foam midsole is a pair of Zoom Air Pods. Working with the extremely responsive foam, Nike's Air Pods add another level of cushioning and energy return to help runners conserve every precious ounce of effort over 26.2 miles.
A single, full-length carbon-fiber plate provides stability on top of that big stack of foam, while also increasing the shoe's stiffness, creating a smooth transition and adding a sensation of propulsion.
Like the previous versions of Nike's NEXT% line, the Alphafly proved itself quickly when Eliud Kipchoge wore a prototype of the shoe in October 2019 to finally break the two-hour marathon barrier.
Sleek and fast, New Balance outfitted the FuelCell TC with its highest performing midsole yet.
The new FuelCell foam offers the highest energy return of any New Balance cushioning ever, and it delivers improved durability, so it will hold up for many miles at race pace. Designers complemented the new midsole foam with a full-length carbon-fiber plate, which provides a more propulsive, engaging ride.
New Balance capped the FuelCell TC with a minimalist, breathable upper and a suede collar accent for a premium look and feel.
The Hyperion Elite is the fastest ever racing shoe from Brooks.
Brooks built the Hyperion Elite around a unique carbon-fiber plate, and like the other carbon-fiber-plated shoes, this plate provides a more propulsive feel and quicker transition. But Brooks engineered their plate with a specialized spine that runs down the middle to help resist bending and improve support.
Packed around the plate, Brooks used a new, ultra-lightweight foam called DNA Zero. The feathery new DNA Zero foam is lighter and softer than Brooks’ standard BioMoGo DNA, which reduces the strain on your muscles to in turn hold off fatigue as long as possible.
Paired with a stretch woven upper, the Hyperion Elite is primed to compete on the world’s stage.
Building on the success of the Carbon X, HOKA released the Rocket X for top-end performance.
The HOKA Rocket X slips a carbon-fiber plate between two layers of a new, lightweight EVA foam. The 1 mm-thick plate increases the shoe’s stiffness and efficiency, and HOKA’s early stage Meta-Rocker creates a rolling feel.
Designers draped the Rocket X in an open mesh upper for breathability, while strategically placed outsole rubber adds traction and improves durability.
Saucony designed the Endorphin Pro as the race-day option in a three-shoe collection, which also includes the Endorphin Speed and Endorphin Shift.
Powering the Endorphin collection is what Saucony calls Speedroll technology. The new tech uses different shoe attributes, like shape, stiffness and weight, to influence your run in four areas: speed, hip alignment, stress reduction and efficiency. Wrapped up together, Speedroll reaches its apex in the Endorphin Pro.
Saucony says the Pro’s new PWRRUN foam is 40 percent lighter than PWRRUN+ while being more flexible and durable than EVA. The carbon-fiber plate inside improves how the shoe rolls from heel to toe and enhances the effects of the energetic foam.
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.
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.
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.