Will Carbon Fiber Plating Revolutionize Your Running Shoe?

by | Jul 17, 2020

It’s safe to say that carbon fiber plates have whipped up controversy in the world of running shoes. Some laud them as game-changers for improving times. Others don’t think they should exist at all. 

While cool tech and the promise of potential performance improvements will pique our interest every time, our main priority as podiatry and sports medicine experts is whether carbon fiber plates are ideal for your feet and ankles. What’s the real benefit of enhanced performance if it might cause you other problems, after all? 

Let’s first take a look at the relatively recent history of carbon fiber plates in running shoes to get a clearer picture of just what we’re looking at. Then, we can give our thoughts on what plates may mean for you.  

And if you ultimately have further questions about this technology or anything else regarding running shoes and your foot and ankle health, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re happy to help!

A Brief History of Carbon Fiber Plates 

Just after the turn of the millennium, a Canadian researcher working with Adidas introduced the concept of carbon fiber plates in the midsoles of running shoes. 

The theory was that the plate serves as a lever of sorts, keeping the big toe straighter during your stride and reducing the amount of energy that is lost the further that the toe bends. Saving energy, naturally, leads to better performance over the long run (pun intended). 

However, making a change to the biomechanics of one part of your stride often means changes will occur elsewhere, too. While these initial carbon fiber plates seemed to reduce energy lost at the toe, they also appeared to increase energy spent at the ankle. 

The way that running shoe designers have tried to get around this see-saw of energy expenditure is by making the plating much more curved. This type of shape is claimed to maintain energy savings at the big toe while mitigating the losses at the ankle, essentially giving a runner a net energy advantage. 

The big star of recent carbon fiber plating running shoes is arguably the Nike Vaporfly 4%, but there are now multiple models on the market from different brands. 

Does the Design Work? 

This is where a good portion of the debate lies. 

Nike has released data from a study that seems to corroborate their claims. They tested four models of Vaporfly shoe: one with no plate at all, one with a flat plate, one with a moderate plate, and one with the extremely curved plate they promote.  

(And it is very much worth noting here that this is a study of a relatively small sample size conducted by the creators of the shoe. So take that for what it’s worth.) 

In tests of energy lost at the metatarsophalangeal joint (the “big toe joint”), the extremely curved plate had the least energy loss. So far, so good for them. 

When testing amount of work exerted by the calf muscles during the moment the ankle pushes off, the data does show that the flat and moderate plates require more energy in this area than having no plate at all. However, the extremely curved plate shows an energy expenditure slightly below having no plate. 

Are the results encouraging? Yes. But it still doesn’t necessarily mean there is an overall better running economy using this type of shoe. There are more moving parts to our feet than the big toe and ankle, and those are not factored into the study. 

There are also other factors of the shoes themselves to consider. Hitting a carbon fiber plate is likely not going to feel good, so the shoes encase them in plenty of ZoomX foam. Other studies and opinions posit that the foam has more of an effect on runners’ performance and comfort than the plates.man in black shorts running on gray asphalt road during daytime

Are Carbon Fiber Plates Worth It? 

We are not trying to be pessimistic about the potential of running shoes featuring carbon fiber plates – just realistic. 

We see no fundamental problem if you are excited about the idea of these plates and wish to invest in a pair of your own – as long as the shoe is still an overall healthy match for your needs. 

Even the latest technology still has to work well for you as a general running shoe. That means considering factors beyond plates and foam, including heel-toe drop, motion control, and other factors that may pertain to your specific needs. 

Whatever running shoes you use, the most important thing is that they provide the support and stability you need to keep you running without pain or excess strainAn expensive pair of shoes is likely to become little more than two expensive paperweights if they make your feet miserable, and can cost you even more if you try to run through the discomfort! 

Let’s Keep You Running 

The more models of shoes there are with carbon fiber plating, the better the odds that one of them will fit you properly. Ultimately, though, it’s always best to see the forest (and not just the trees) when it comes to your shoe choices. Your best option might not contain plates at all! 

We’re always happy to help patients determine what they need most out of their running shoes as they pursue new personal goals, as well as provide expert treatment and care for any problems that may arise along the way. 

Call our Longmont office at (720) 600-3380 if you would like to schedule an appointment with us. If you prefer to contact us electronically instead, fill out our online contact form and a member of our staff will reach out to you during our standard office hours. 

 

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