How Carbon Plates and Super Foam Are Changing Running Shoes
Men’s Health/Eric Rosati
A version of this story appears in the Tech Guide section of the December 2019 issue of Men’s Health.
The first run I went on in a pair of Nike’s Zoom Fly 3s felt different.
I planted my foot, pushed off, and was propelled forward, as if I had stepped on
a hidden power block in a video game. The energy came from a stiff carbon-fiber plate in the midsole, which flexes and drives you along the track, and springy energy-return foam. Feeling fast makes me run even faster. Shoe companies are leaning into this mind-body connection more than ever.
In 2017, Nike dropped the $250 Zoom Vapor Fly 4%, which it said improved running economy over its previous marathon shoe by 4 percent. (Independent tests confirmed it.) Then, this past October, Eliud Kipchoge ran a sub-two-hour marathon in custom Nikes rumored to improve performance by 7 percent. This tech is trickling down to less expensive shoes, and rival companies are also looking to carbon for an edge.
New Balance’s FuelCell 5280 ($200), designed for mile racers, has a carbon plate that uses unidirectional fibers, so it can twist and bend side to side but is rigid from heel to toe. Hoka One One’s Carbon X ($180) is more workhorse than speed demon, and the carbon-fiber plate acts as “a lever, rather than a spring,” says Gretchen Weimer, Hoka’s vice-president of product. When I took on my first 20-mile training session in the Carbon X, I felt as if I only had to establish a consistent pace, then let the shoes do the rest.
Not all companies are all in on carbon fiber, at least not yet. Asics skips out on the carbon fiber plate entirely, instead morphing the shape of its MetaRide ($250) and GlideRide ($150) models into a funky-looking rocker-shaped sole to focus on running efficiency and energy savings, according to Global Director of Performance Running Footwear AJ Andrassy. The company claims the latter shoe is scientifically proven to save energy loss at the ankle joint—and on my runs wearing them, I really think my stride is more efficient than in other pairs.
But how much is in my head, and how much is on my feet? “Wearing something that you think will make you faster will give you a mental boost,”says Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D., author of Endure. “When you think you’re going to be successful, that changes your actions in a subtle way that makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Works for me, and maybe you, too.
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