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Don’t get FOMO about the twinkle of carbon-fiber plates on the trails

While appreciating the technology and benefits, Brian Metzler says there's no reason to chase the carbon-fiber rainbow.

Brian Metzler

May 20th, 2022

6 min read


Quick: Think about a recent trail run you’ve really enjoyed…

What do you remember most? 

The challenge of the trails you ran? The scenery you drank in? The effort of summiting a local peak? Or, perhaps, was it that your run was greater than the sum of all of those parts? 

If you’re like me, you probably didn’t remember the shoes you wore as one of the seminal aspects of your run. And yes, I am a running shoe geek. Someone who, before every trail run, meticulously selects a particular shoe from my quiver based on the specific terrain I’ll be running.

Sure, you might be able to tell me which model you wore now that I have you thinking about it, but the point is that trail running isn’t about the shoes. 

Even when it comes to racing, it’s mostly about the effort, the terrain, the grind, the culture, the community. Reflect on your favorite races and you’ll remember what I mean. In almost every case, trail running is less about your specific shoes and more about what you’re able to experience in those shoes as you move through a wild environment. That’s why we love it.

Yes, there are better shoes than others, and shoes that are better suited for some trails than others. But mostly trail running shoes have to be sufficient on a wide variety of terrain features without any epic fails. 

What’s my point? There is no such thing as an ultimate shoe paradigm for off-road running. And for that reason, just as Gore-Tex shoes are only marginally useful in specific conditions, shoes with carbon-fiber plates embedded in the midsoles aren’t the be-all, end-all for trail running — even if they’ll soon appear to be for a lot of elite runners and your trail running buddies with deep pockets.

I say that knowing that Hoka’s new Tecton X and last year’s Speedland’s SL:PDX are two of the best and most interesting trail shoes I’ve ever run in. And knowing there are some mind-blowing developments happening in the world of carbon-fiber technology.

Let me explain.

If you want to run a fast marathon — or a fast anything — on the roads, you absolutely should be wearing a pair of shoes with carbon-fiber propulsion plates embedded in their midsoles. Yup, a pair of Nike Vapor Fly Next% 2 or ASICS MetaSpeed Sky or Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 2 or any of the other similar models are absolutely necessary equipment when it comes to running fast on the roads. The technology definitely works, for world-class runners and mid-packers alike.

On the roads, most workouts, and certainly every race, is about your pace. All runners are judged against the clock. So if you’re going to train for months to run 26.2 miles as fast as possible, $250 is a justifiable investment to help you reach that goal — even if that kind of necessary upsell has changed the cost of running.

But on the trails, there are dozens of factors that dictate how well you perform in a race, especially if it’s an ultra and especially if you’re not a podium-caliber runner. While it’s sometimes about running with rhythm, we know it’s never about running as fast as possible. It’s about moving effectively over the terrain while balancing a spiked heart-rate, fatigue, fueling, and hydration levels.

And yes, we all know a good pair of shoes is essential — and by good, I mean, a pair that fits your feet well, provides appropriate cushioning and protection and allows you to run over the trail surface without inhibiting your stride. But your training, hydration and fueling, the terrain, weather and your mental fortitude are arguably more important on any given trail run. And that’s especially true if you’re a middle-of-the-pack runner. 

So, will a pricey pair of futuristic shoes built with carbon-fiber help you run over the terrain features as effectively as possible? Most likely, yes. Will a shoe enhanced with carbon-fiber be exceptionally better than the most popular trail shoes available today, like the Hoka Speedgoat 5, Altra Timp 3, Salomon Speedcross 5 or Saucony Peregrine 12? Probably. 

But will a shoe enhanced with carbon-fiber technology make your early morning easy run easier or your weekend long run immeasurably better? Will it heighten the joy you feel after finishing a difficult 100k race? Or improve the vibe hanging out with your mates at the pub after an evening trail run? Can any of your shoes do that? No.

The author enjoying the alpenglow, shoes unknown.

None of this is to throw shade at any specific shoe or even the concept of carbon-fiber as a key element in modern trail running shoes. I’m just saying it won’t become the zeitgeist of trail running the way it has in road running. 

I applaud brands trying to innovate in the name of performance — that’s why we have much better trail shoes now than we did 10 years ago and why we have exceptional new innovations on the way.  

But hopefully every brand won’t go chasing the carbon-fiber rainbow just for the hope of finding a pot of gold under it. Because, as spiffy as they might be, a swanky pair of next-gen shoes won’t have any impact on the joy and warmth you feel seeing the sunrise on your morning trail run. 

15 thoughts on "Don’t get FOMO about the twinkle of carbon-fiber plates on the trails"

  1. cycloman says:

    good article – thanks for the reminder – #truth

  2. Buzz says:

    All good and agreed up to a point. A stiff plate returns energy, so if partially stepping on a rock on a trail, it returns it back to your ankle. The natural flex of your foot absorbs energy, giving up some propulsive force on pavement, but protecting your ankles and knees from excessive twisting while on rocky terrain. Shoe designers are trying to amend that with forked or split carbon plates, which intend to maintain longitudinal stiffness while allowing lateral flexibility. Furthermore, the rebound effect works best while moving straight ahead with the normal ball-of-the foot footstrike, while one’s footstrike varies widely on a technical trail. So my guess is the ‘super-shoe’ technology would still be advantageous on butter-track, somewhat dangerous on very technical trails, and somewhere in between on everything else.

  3. Brian Metzler says:

    Agreed Buzz. It’s just a different thing on the trails. I love how HOKA, Saucony, TNF and Speedland are trying to push the envelope of design and functionality (and Carbitex too!) but to me trail running is about the inspiring vibe that fires my soul!

  4. Adam says:

    Carbon fiber in super shoes for the road serves the purpose of stabilizing the mega amount of foam (39mm to keep within legal bounds), which, when paired with a rocker, provides the “superness” of spring, bounce and propulsion. It has yet to be determined what carbon fiber in a trail shoe serves, other than rigidity, underfoot protection, lightness in weight, expense and the cool factor. And, damn, the shoes using it are, indeed, cool.

  5. Tim says:

    This article came at the perfect time for me. I saw an Instagram post yesterday which had me pondering a significantly more expensive carbon fiber shoe. This is a great reminder that the experience is so much more important, and not necessarily dependent on the exact make and model of footwear. I feel that we need more voices encouraging runners to focus on what trail running provides for us to experience. Thank you for this!

  6. I have found the plate in the NF to be both life changing and not great. for different reasons I’ve found the plate on the trail be neither enhancing nor detracting from stability…that’s the rest of the shoe doing that in my experience. The plate for me (a back mid packer) has helped in recovery for my planter when it acts up or my bursitis. It has been the best cushioned shoe that got me as close to barefoot feel (weird right?) when it comes to body mechanics. In other words the plate has helped me return to good form and mechanics on the trail rather than make me faster. unfortunately other parts of the shoe construction sucked like the outsole and width of the forefoot. heel lock sucked to but I don’t care about that. I’ve also found plated shoes to generally get rid of the maladaptive support structures other shoes have. I’m wondering if half of the success of plates is the deletion of crap constructions that had infiltrated our shoes.

  7. Ken says:

    I can’t imagine putting a piece of carbon fiber between my foot and the trail. How would I feel the earth? How would I feel the uneven terrain, the gentle/moderate/extreme slopes? The rocks that stick out just far enough to throw my balance? The eroded divots and trenches doing the same? I would run every trail barefoot if the skin on my feet was thick enough. Maybe if I was an elite runner I would understand but all this tech seems like the antithesis of why I run, which is to connect with myself, my dog, and the world around me.

    1. Brian Metzler says:

      HOKA is one of the brands doing it with dual plates that allow for articulation under the foot. Speedland’s Carbitex plate is is both flexible (for dorsiflexion) and stiff in the opposite direction for power transfer and protection.

  8. buenobob says:

    I’m not a light runner. (I look emaciated at 6′ and 178lbs), but I miss the minimal shoes. I have 3 pair of Takumi Sen’s left, one pair of Mizuno Ekiden’s. Mizuno took their flats back to Japan, Adidas Takumi’s are now with 30mm of cush. I My last refuge is Altra for minimal drop flats. : ( No idea what I’m going to do once I refresh my shoe stable.

  9. Brian Peterson says:

    “but to me trail running is about the inspiring vibe that fires my soul!” Brian if this is your authentic sentiment you need to introduce yourself to Norda, who is in my opinion pushing the trail shoe experience further than carbon plate brands looking to copy-cat the road marathon market into trail. Norda has an innovative upper and lockdown built on a foundation who’s reputation is the gold standard for trail midsole and outsole grip and feel. Vibram need I say more? Reduce your carbon impact, pun intended, Norda run is your answer.

  10. Dirk Renner says:

    I was carbon curious. So I tried the North Face Vectiv Flights, with the carbon plate. I absolutely freaking love them! Now they are not for everyone, but they work amazing for me. I ran the Old Cascadia 50/50, TRT100, and Castle Peak 100k in the same pair last year and I just retired them from quiver rotation at 530 miles. I have another pair for training and another for racing this year. They take some time to break in, but once you put 20-30 miles on them they keep getting better into the 300s. Maybe the carbon plate is helpful, maybe it is the foam and the rocker, I don’t know. I guess I could try one TNFs non-carbon models, but I’m afraid I won’t like them as much. I went a half size up, since they toe is narrow, but the Matrix upper really locks my foot in place. On the mild to mid gradient downhills the shoe just cruises. I also like that they give amazing energy return, foot/arch support, and feel more protective than max cushion shoes with out the max stack height.

    I am super curious about the Speedlands, but at $400 my curiosity fades.

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