If you could design your perfect running shoe, what features would you build into it?
Chances are, you’d choose plenty of energy return to maximize your running efficiency. They’d be nice and light so you don’t feel weighed down. And they’d still have enough support that you feel stable.
The good new is, these shoes exist, and for the last few years, they’ve been staging a not-so-quiet revolution in the running world. Nike kicked off the carbon plate trend with the VaporFly 4%. After a soft launch at the Rio Olympics saw the shoes take all three podium spots in the men’s marathon, Nike staged an attempt at a sub-2-hour marathon for the official debut.
The shoe promised huge gains in running efficiency and therefore speed, and as the Nike team shaved more than two and half minutes off the previous fastest marathon ever run, the shoe was an instant hit. A wave of world records fell on the road as elite athletes across the world adopted them. Nike’s competitors scrambled to develop their own carbon plate models.
So long story short, carbon plate shoes are fast, responsive, and light. The best carbon plate running shoes give runners exactly what they are looking for. If you’ve been looking for the shoe to push you ahead, supercharge your performance, ease the fatigue on your legs – and maybe even set a new PR – then this list is for you.
If you aren’t sure exactly what the big deal is with carbon plate shoes, head down to the FAQs to learn all about it!
Our top pick is Nike’s latest iteration, the Zoom Alphafly NEXT%. It has a lightweight, water-resistant AtomKnit upper, 2 Zoom Air Units for cushioning, and a full-length carbon plate for maximum energy return.
Keep reading to find your next record-breaking pair of running shoes!
Top 3 Best and Favourites
Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%
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1. Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%
This is the original blood line of carbon fiber shoes, the ones that started the revolution and the ones that are still at the bleeding edge of ultra-performance racing footwear. These may seem a bit like space shoes. In fact, their indulgent stack height is the subject of some controversy. World Athletics even revised their guidelines for competition-legal shoes based on how the Alphafly is pushing the boundaries. But every piece of their unique design serves a purpose, and performance-wise, they’re a great choice. (They’ve also landed on the “Legal” list. You can wear them without breaking the rules!)
Let’s start at the top! Nike’s new AtomKnit upper is lightweight and contoured, and breathes well while being water-resistant at the same time. The fabric is steamed and then stretched over the shoe, providing a contoured, hugging fit.
A ZoomX foam cushion midsole is padded and responsive, giving you the best of both bounce and impact protection. Add the 2 Zoom Air Units and you’ve got a luxuriously cushioned shoe.
But we’re really here to talk about carbon plates, and Nike’s is the world standard. It runs the full-length of the midsole, and creates one heck of a responsive, snappy shoe.
All that stuff takes up some room, and the Alphafly’s stack height is a bit unusual. The outsole also looks somewhat weird in addition to being huge, but it’s super effective for a powerful toe-off, thanks to its textured, ridged forefoot.
If you can get around the somewhat clunky look of these shoes, and the fact that they may feel a little unstable going around corners, they’d be worthwhile getting for their bouncy energy return. If you need convincing, watch Eliud Kipchoge cruise to his mind-bending 1:59:40 marathon in these shoes, and then watch any other professional marathon and see just how many runners are wearing them – even those sponsored by other shoe companies.
- Full-length carbon-fiber plate
- Lightweight AtomKnit upper
- 2 Zoom Air units in the sole
- ZoomX Foam
- The original, and still the best
- Feels slightly unstable when taking tight corners
- Keep these super-expensive shoes for the big races – they tend to last less than 200 miles.
Top Shoe for 5k
2. On Cloudflash
If you were to do a quick visual comparison between the Alphafly and On’s Cloudflash, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no way they are the same kind of shoe. But they are, and the Cloudflash shows that carbon plate shoes don’t have to look like moon boots to provide comfort and performance.
If you’re a 5k-er, this shoe is our choice for you. It’s designed for mild to mid-range overpronation, so it focuses on stability on the road.
This shoe is made for road running, and road running fast. Every bit of technology in the shoe is about improving performance and pushing you ahead to achieve goals you never thought you could!
An ultralight mesh upper maximizes airflow and is surprisingly water-resistant.
It’s nice and flexible, not restrictive, and has adequate space in the forefoot for the toes to rest comfortably without feeling cramped.
The Helion super foam cushioning is labeled “soft” and provides a shock-absorbing platform for your landing. It won’t lose its shape with heat or heavy wear.
Another interesting piece of tech in this shoe is CloudTec. These are the unusual-looking pods underneath the shoe, called “clouds.” They give softness during the landing and protect your joints from the force, but stiffen up with the movement to provide a firm toe-off.
Below the midsole and above the cloudy sole lugs, there’s the Cloudflash Speedboard. This is your carbon plate, and it’s not called Speedboard for nothing! It’s light and springy, giving a superb energy rebound when activated.
If you’re aiming to improve your 5k time, these shoes will (literally) push you forward to get you there!
- Carbon-fiber-infused Speedboard
- Helion superfoam cushioning
- CloudTec technology
- Lightweight, water-resistant upper
- The lugs may wear out faster than your average outsole
Best for 10k
3. ASICS MetaRacer
This is ASICS’ most advanced shoe, and it’s reputed to be both extremely comfortable and rather speedy. It’s designed to help runners shave wads of time off their pace, and to do so while reducing fatigue.
The MetaRacer is a neutral shoe with a fairly minimalistic design. It’s quite light too, which is a bonus for runners who are looking to run like the wind. The women’s shoe weighs around 5.4 ounces, while the men’s is ever so slightly heavier at 6.7 ounces.
It’s super soft, thanks to FlyteFoam midsole, which provides plush cushioning. Guidesole technology makes for a rigid forefoot, which powers the push-off and reduces fatigue in the legs.
The outsole features ASICS Grip rubber compound for durability and safety on a variety of surfaces. Wet Grip technology does exactly what it sounds like, and creates a stickiness even when it’s wet out.
Between the midsole and outsole is the all-important carbon-fiber plate. It’s integrated into the sole, with a much lower stack height than most, allowing for more control and feel.
The carbon plate provides an unmistakable feeling of bounciness and impressive energy return, spurring you on towards the finish line with greater efficiency and far less fatigue than usual.
Another unique feature we liked, which is small but effective, is the hole in the toe cap. This can make your toes a little freezing during winter, but it’s fantastic for ventilation in the heat.
- Carbon fiber plate in the midsole
- Guidesole technology
- FlyteFoam technology
- Wet Grip outsole
- The carbon plate may cause the shoe to feel too stiff for some runners
- The midfoot and tow box are narrow
Top For Half Marathons
4. Adidas Adizero Adios Pro
Before Nike crashed the marathon party with the Vaporfly, Adidas was the reigning heavyweight of record-setting distance shoes. Dennis Kimetto rode an early non-carbon version of the Adios to the world record in 2014, the last in a long line of Adidas athletes to set the mark. Adidas has been playing catch-up since then, but has now arrived. They are still working with some of the fastest runners in the world to create a shoe that is responsive and easy on the feet. This is their final product.
Their Celermesh upper is light, flexible, and breathable. It supports the foot without feeling restricting. But the big deal is the carbon-plated midsole.
Unlike other carbon plate shoes, this shoe doesn’t have a full-length carbon plate. A small plate in the heel adds stability and a springy push-off. But it’s the forefoot that’s interesting.
Here, there’s no solid carbon plate. Instead, Adidas uses EnergyRods: carbon-infused rods that are designed to replace the movement of the metatarsals, reduce impact, and increase support without increasing weight.
Between the heel plate and the Wolverine carbon claws in your midsole, your toe-off will be bouncy and your landings will be padded.
Lightstrike Pro is a super light foam that stores energy and gives a better, bouncier energy return. It’s soft and fairly thick, but not so much so that you lose that road-under-foot feeling.
The sole is super thin too, but grips like a monster. With the generous cushioning, spring-in-your-step carbon elements, breathable upper, and textured outsole, this shoe would be superb for 10k runs or longer.
- Carbon-infused energy rods
- Lightstrike Pro foam padding
- Breathable Celermesh upper
- Thin but grippy sole
- The outsole is less durable than others
Top Training Shoe
5. Nike Air Zoom Tempo Next% FlyEase
This shoe is quite funky and definitely eye-catching. But apart from its physical characteristics, it’s got a lot of great features that are both practical and highly useful if you’re aiming to increase your performance.
It’s quick and easy to get on and off, using a lock-and-release system to get a nice tight fit with a single pull.
This is another Nike shoe that features easy step-in technology, so you don’t even need to pick the shoe up or bend down to get your foot into it. Simply step on the heel, and once your foot has slid into the shoe, the heel will pop up again.
It’s surprisingly and impressively cushioned, making use of three different technologies to achieve cloud-like padding. Zoom X foam offers pop in the forefoot and help to push off speedily.
The Zoom Air Unit, which is visible under the forefoot, absorbs shock and impact on every step, keeping your joints and bones protected.
In the heel, you’ll find Nike React. It offers good support and softness, preventing pain on the footstrike.
In the midst of all this great cushioning, there’s a super responsive carbon plate that may surprise you with its energy return.
- Carbon composite plate
- Easy, step-in entry
- ZoomX foam in the forefoot, React foam in the heel
- Flyknit upper
- Some runners may not like the bulky design of this shoe
Best for Intervals and Tempo Runs
6. Brooks Hyperion Elite 2
Interval training is a great way to improve your endurance and enhance your cardiovascular strength. And using the right kind of shoe can make all the difference in your training efficiency.
The Brooks Hyperion Elite 2 is known to have a great mix of stability and bounce, which is perfect for intervals. Looking at the shoe, it has a bit of a chunky build to it, but all that chunkiness is put to good use to produce results.
One of the most notable features of this shoe is the unusual DNA Flash midsole. This is a foam that’s been infused with nitrogen, to provide energetic cushioning with less weight than usual. Less weight on your feet means more speed!
It’s said to maintain its responsiveness for 200 to 400 miles. The midsole stack height is also increased, which offers more cushioning and more durability.
A carbon fiber propulsion plate feels stiff underfoot but provides delightfully smooth and energetic transitions, pushing you forward into an effective toe-off.
- Carbon fiber propulsion plate
- DNA Flash midsole
- Rapid Roll technology
- Mechanical stretch woven upper
- The heel may fit too loosely on some, especially the women’s shoe
7. Saucony Endorphin Pro 2
One knock on some of these super-cushioned carbon plate shoes is that they don’t last terribly long. And given the prices being asked, that can be a big problem for the average runner with no sponsorship deal. The Saucony Endorphin Pro 2 stands apart by showing impressive durability, so if you’re after a long-lasting shoe, consider this one.
A neutral shoe, it’s feather-light and won’t weigh you down. The FORMFIT engineered upper surrounds the foot with a locked-in sensation that’s not restricting, but rather supportive and sturdy.
A PWRRUN PB midsole provides all the comfort, while the S-curved carbon-fiber plate gives the lively bounce. Along with those two bits of tech, Saucony’s SPEEDROLL rocker technology assists even more with forward momentum.
You can remove the insole to add an orthotic if you wish. The only thing that could be an issue for some runners is the lack of a heel counter, which offers slightly less stability and could cause heel slippage.
The latest version features a snugger fit, especially around the heel. Plus some anti-slipping laces to really lock you in.
- Signature S-Curve Carbon Plate
- PWRRUN PB midsole
- SPEEDROLL technology
- FORMFIT engineered knit upper
- Not made for flat or wide feet
8. Hoka One One Rocket X
When you’re looking for cushioning, Hoka One One is the shoe to look at. They’re well-known for their padding, and their thiccccc outsole, which Hoka does a good job of hiding in their shoe designs and patterns.
Rocket X is a unisex shoe. It’s a great idea in principle, but may mean that some ladies struggle with sizing. In particular, the shoe may feel too wide in certain areas of the foot where women have naturally narrower feet.
Because of its superior cushioning, the carbon-fiber plate doesn’t provide as energetic a return as other shoes. But it’s still a noticeable difference if you aren’t used to the carbon plate, and the cushioning can be a foot-saver on long runs.
The CMEVA (compression-molded EVA) midsole absorbs shock at strategic points to prevent foot fatigue and reduce the chance of injury. Interestingly, the foam is quite firm and not very spongy.
But it’s still a soft ride. The midsole is where the thickness really is, providing impressive cloudiness and stability on your feet.
In addition to the propulsive carbon-fiber plate, this shoe contains an early-stage meta rocker to help push you forward with every step.
- Early stage Meta-Rocker
- CMEVA midsole
- Carbon fiber plate
- Rubberized foam outsole
- Due to its unisex sizing, some women may find it to be too wide
9. Skechers GOrun Speed Elite
A large part of being fast is having little to weigh you down. If you’re wearing a big, chunky, heavy shoe, you can be sure you’re not going to end up going as fast as you could be!
At just 6 ounces, this is a light and airy shoe that still features both good cushioning for longer exercise sessions and a carbon plate to boost energy return.
The HYPER BURST midsole is durable and long-lasting, providing great responsiveness and helping you stay light on your feet.
As well as their lovely cushioning, the carbon-infused forefoot “winglet” gives it a stiffness that adds lightweight stability and an excitable energy return.
The Goodyear rubber outsole is grippy and adds extra safety on any surface, as well as being long-lasting.
- Carbon fiber infused plate
- Ripstop mesh upper
- Hyper Burst cushioned midsole
- Very lightweight at 6 ounces
- The shoes run on the narrow side
Not sure about the best carbon plate running shoes? Here are some answers that could help you make your decision.
What Are Carbon Plate Running Shoes?
This is a racing shoe that has a stiff carbon fiber plate built into the midsole. Why is this a great thing in a running shoe?
The reason why it’s a great thing to have in a running shoe is that the carbon plate returns more energy to the runner. Typically, shoes rely on springy foam to return energy, but as a material, foam has its limitations. The carbon fiber plate gives the energy return a boost by snapping back to shape before the foam can. The carbon plate adds to the stability of the shoe and reduces rotational force. It also greatly improves running efficiency. That is, you spend less energy to run the same pace.
By running in a pair of running shoes that have a carbon plate, runners are able to conserve energy, as the calves don’t have to work as hard. This helps to keep legs fresh, and runners can run for longer with shorter recovery times after running an ultra or marathon.
Why Are Carbon Plate Running Shoes More Expensive?
Shoe brands are using the latest technology to help reduce injury to runners while taking great strides to increase a runner’s overall performance. When they produce the shoes, they are manufactured in smaller numbers.
The brands then use the feedback that they receive from runners to improve on the next generation of shoes, like Nike Air. There is more than one shoe that has Nike Air technology, but it’s very different from when the first Nike Air shoe was released in 1987.
This technology helps to create better shoes for all runners. This is why carbon plate running shoes are more expensive. You’re paying for the technology to help you improve your running performance while reducing muscle fatigue and injury.
Can Anyone Run In Them?
Yes and no. Technically, there is no reason you couldn’t run in carbon plate shoes. But if you need significant help with your gait because of overpronation, flat feet, or other issues, you might struggle to find a good option.
Another question is should you run in them? Again, why not? They are great shoes, and might help you run your best. That being said, research suggests that the effect of the carbon plate is greatest for light, fast runners. Average runners have been shown to see less gains. Given how expensive these shoes are, that’s something to consider. And because there are fewer models available, fit may be an issue. Some runners may feel that the shoe is a perfect fit and that it helps them with their running. Other runners may find that the shoe feels unstable to them when they run.
Why Are Some Models Not Available Or Sold Out?
Months of research and development go into making a new shoe, not to mention a whole new type of shoe. Brands wait on runners’ feedback to see where improvements may need to be made. Meanwhile, companies like Nike stoke interest by staging events like Breaking2 and the Ineos 1:59 Challenge. Runners everywhere then dream of crushing their own barriers using the same shoes.
Brands may still have to make adjustments to the shoes or to the production process before they release a particular running shoe into mass production. While there may be a huge demand from elite or advanced runners, there might not be enough supply for the general running population.
At one point or another, we’ve all had a specific favorite running shoe. When the successor comes out, there are usually mixed feelings about the shoe. As technology keeps advancing and analytics help to create better running shoes, you’ll find that brands keep the technology that works and that it filters down into other running shoes.
One final reason is that these shoes are niche shoes, and not yet mainstream. Shoe companies know this and don’t produce them in mass quantities like their best-selling shoes. But if they underestimate demand, models will be hard to find.
How Many Miles Can They Last?
This is the big asterisk next to these shoes. Durability varies widely. The original Vaporfly shoes were notoriously fragile (it was actually the foam that broke down too quickly, not the carbon). But improvements have already been made, and just like other running shoes, the carbon plated shoes can last anywhere from 200 to 600 miles. But it all depends on certain factors like the distance you run, how often you run, the type of surface you’re running on, and how hard you are on your shoes.
The carbon plate will help to maintain its responsiveness and cushioning, but the focus on also including ultra-light foams can be a liability. The shoes will still experience wear and tear on the outsole and to the upper.