Add the word “carbon” to any running shoe nowadays and two things are likely to happen: the price tag will double and everyone will want it. (Heck, you’re probably reading this article because it’s about a carbon-fiber shoe.) The hype machine really got rolling two years ago, when Nike’s Vaporfly 4% gained celebrity-level popularity with its embedded carbon-fiber plate, prompting other brands to rush their own carbon-fiber shoes to market.
Funny thing is, Nike wasn’t the first to enhance a running shoe with carbon fiber; in the early 2000s, Adidas added a carbon-fiber plate to the racing-focused AdiStar, dubbing it the AdiStar ProPlate. So why aren’t we talking about that shoe today?
Well, Nike’s marketing team did a fantastic job promoting the Vaporfly 4%’s benefits through its staged attempt to break the two-hour marathon barrier, “Breaking 2”; the shoe was almost as big a star as marathoner Eliud Kipchoge, the 2016 Olympic champ and official world-record holder (with a 2:01:39 set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon) who was striving to accomplish the feat.
On top of that, an independent team of University of Colorado researchers confirmed the shoe’s time-shaving benefits. Not surprisingly, serious runners began believing it would propel them toward quicker times.
Fast-forward two years, both Hoka and New Balance have released carbon-plated running shoes as well. However, comparing the 4% to the Hoka Carbon X or New Balance 5280 because they all have carbon-fiber plates is like comparing a car, motorcycle and speedboat because they all have engines. So what’s the difference and which one is best for you? Short answer: it depends.
Shoes like these are typically designed for very specific purposes. The New Balance 5280, for example, is intended for mile road races — hence the name 5280, the number of feet in a mile. Fittingly, it’s the shoe that eight-time Fifth Avenue Mile champ Jenny Simpson has worn while winning the prestigious race down that famous stretch of Manhattan pavement the past two years.
The Nike Vaporfly 4%, despite the promise of immediately cutting four percent off a marathon time, is better-suited to elite speedsters, as its geometry favors efficient runners with a mid-to-forefoot strike pattern. The studies confirming its four percent efficiency gains have largely been done on front-of-the-pack racers with near-flawless form, leaving it unclear whether the average runner would actually see the same improvements.
Then there’s the Hoka One One Carbon X, a maximum-cushioned runner with a carbon-fiber plate sandwiched in the midsole. Unlike the others, this shoe is inherently stable, while mimicking the quick-footed feeling of a racing sneaker.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on being a brand that includes as many people as possible,” says Matthew Head, the brand’s director of design. “If you go to a marathon, quite often you start to see Hoka towards the back of the pack,” he adds.
Those back-of-the-pack runners often resort to the heavyweight trainers they use daily come race time, but every ounce counts. Studies show lighter shoes can mean faster times, with one quantifying a 0.78 percent improvement in finishing time per 100 grams (3.53 ounces) cut over 3,000 meters. At under nine ounces, the Carbon X is considerably lighter than your normal everyday training shoe, while still delivering that all-important stable ride.
But how does that carbon-fiber plate increase efficiency? When Adidas was developing the ProPlate, lead researcher Darren Stefanyshyn hypothesized that, as your toes bend when hitting the ground and pushing off again, you lose a small amount of energy. The carbon-fiber plate supports your toes, keeping them straight — thus saving that otherwise-lost juice.
Asked if Hoka had done any lab studies to test efficiency gains on the Carbon X, Head demurs. “We’ve done independent lab testing, but we don’t look specifically for efficiency gains,” he says. “We want to make sure it’s performing as a Hoka, ensuring we are getting the characteristics we want.”
Those characteristics are achieved via Hoka’s classic rocker geometry — a curvature of the outsole that acts like the rails of a rocking chair to propel you forward and help you move smoothly through the gait cycle.
“When touching down on the heel, it minimizes deceleration, or that jolt through the body,” Head says. “And when you take off, it maximizes acceleration.” The curved carbon plate amplifies this feeling, an unseen force gently nudging you forward with each stride.
Bottom line: don’t try to compare the Nike to the Hoka — or four percent gains versus unclaimed ones — just because these shoes both boast a carbon-fiber plate. One shoe is not better than the other. It’s more about what you need in a running shoe, and what you plan to do with it.
And the beauty of the Carbon X is that it isn’t designed for elites on race day; it’s an all-inclusive, everyday shoe that’s bouncy and fun and probably the brand’s best iteration of rocker tech yet. In other words, it just might be the most democratic high-performance running shoe ever made.
Heel-Toe Drop: 5mm
Weight: 8.7 ounces
Use Case: Road running and racing
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