The Rise of Super Shoes (Carbon-Fiber Plated) & The Fall of World Records

-By Maxx Antush

Technological advances in running equipment are not a new concept. Throughout modern Olympic history, track & field and marathon running has gone through advancements in track surfaces, training methodologies, clothing, and footwear construction and materials. The latest development that has been taking the running world by storm the last couple years, and will be on display at the Tokyo Olympics, has been carbon-fiber plated racing shoes.

What’s the deal with these carbon-fiber plated racing shoes?

Carbon-fiber racing shoes, sometimes referred to as “super shoes”, combine bouncy lightweight midsole foams with a carbon-fiber plate to create a light and springy shoe that improves running economy by reducing the amount of work a runner must do while running at a given speed. In other words, the same race effort that a runner gives in a normal running shoe will result in a faster pace when running in a “super shoe”. The result of this has been numerous world records in a variety of road racing and distance running events as well a sharp increase in personal best times. For example, at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (before “super shoes” were available to the masses), there were 457 qualifiers (211 men and 246 women) compared to 711 qualifiers in 2020 (260 men and 511 women). 

While Nike, as the innovator of the technology, has the most widely known carbon-plated racing shoes with the Vaporfly Next% 2 and Alphafly Next% for the road and Dragonfly and Zoom Victory for the track, other prominent running shoe brands like Hoka, Brooks, Saucony, Asics, New Balance, On, Adidas, and Puma have all developed their own comparable racing shoe. At Fairhaven Runners & Walkers, you can currently find the Nike Vaporfly Next% 2, Nike Alphafly Next%, Nike Dragonfly, Nike Zoom Victory, Brooks Hyperion Elite 2, Hoka Carbon X2, and Hoka Rocket X.

Fast racing times are not the only potential benefit from “super shoes”, there may also be benefits to training in them. If you are able to run your goal times in workouts with less effort, the recovery time after the workout would also be reduced. This would allow you to do hard workouts more often. 

Are “super shoes” fair?

Much of the criticism that carbon-plated racing shoes have received has been centered around fairness. In head-to-head competition, professional athletes sponsored by various brands typically have access to “super shoes” from their respective brands, so there is not a true advantage from that perspective. For the general population of runners, there are numerous brands with carbon-plated racing shoes and models that range in price from $180 to $275. 

When comparing race times run in “super shoes” to race times in normal racing flats, there is an understandable concern. The qualifying standards for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials did not change from 2016 to 2020 and there was a 55% increase in the number of qualifiers! Just like switching from cinder tracks to rubberized tracks and from bulky leather running shoes to lightweight racing shoes, technological advances in athletics require us to reframe our perspective on what times mean. Similar to all types of progress, it may take some time for all of us to adjust to it, but “super shoes” are here to stay and our perspectives on what that means for the incredible feats runners of all levels are accomplishing in them will calibrate with time.

Editor’s Note: We are so excited for Maxx and his next chapter as he is headed off to University of Idaho to earn his PhD in Exercise Science.

 

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