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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. Oscar Oscar Delgado says:

    I just ordered a pair of Craft Ultra Carbon 2s and csnt wait to run my 2 100s on soft packed limestone rail trail. I feel that these will be ideal for this type of trail.

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  4. Steve says:

    Never tried carbon plate footwear but I’ve always liked a shoe w some torsional integrity like the La Sportiva ultra raptors. When I go off trail I like something that will bite into the hillside. Any idea if the carbon plates will give me that bite I like for side hilling?

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