When Nike debuted the carbon-plated Vaporfly 4% back in 2017, its winning combination of a high stack of lightweight foam, carbon plate and stripped back uppers, revolutionised performance running shoes. With these new super shoes, runners no longer needed to sacrifice cushioning for weight savings while racing and chasing peak performances.
The shoes that followed – the Nike Vaporfly Next% and the Alphafly Next% – set the bar so high that it led the World Athletics Association to change the regulations on what constitutes a race legal shoe, setting limits on the amount of foam you could have underfoot.
For a long time, Nike seemed to have the carbon market all to itself. But it was only a matter of time before the other big running brands joined the race. In 2020, we’ve seen a cascade of carbon shoes as Adidas, New Balance, Saucony, On and others play catch up, putting out their take on the carbon plate supershoes, to rival the Nikes.
Love them or hate them, super shoes are here to stay. And if you’ve decided to join the revolution, here are the best carbon plate running shoes you can buy right now.
If you’re looking for good regular training shoes, or you’re running on a tighter budget, you might also want to read our guides to the best running shoes. Plus we’ve tested and selected the best running watches.
What are the best carbon plate running shoes in 2020?
Despite the new competition, if you’re racing anything from a 10km to a marathon, the Nike Air ZoomX Alphafly Next% (£260) remain the best carbon plate running shoes you can lace up. That huge stack of responsive ZoomX foam, the foot-long carbon plate and those new forefoot AirPods pack the most punch at top speeds.
View the Alphafly Next% for £260 on Nike
Our pick for the budget-friendly carbon shoe, the Adios Pro (from £166) are by no means cheap but they’re significantly less than Nike’s flagship shoes. Ideal if you’re looking for a carbon shoe that’s a little more versatile, subtle and forgiving when your form starts to fade.
View the Adizero Adios Pro for £166 on Adidas
If you’re not keen on the in-your-face design and elevated ride of the chunkier carbon racers, the Elite 2 (£210) runs – and looks – more like a regular running shoe. It’s also more durable than most. And that makes it our recommendation for the best training-racing carbon shoe combo.
View the Brooks Hyperion Elite 2 for £210 on Amazon
Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next%
WIRED Recommends: The fastest marathon racing shoe in town
Heel drop: 4mm | Weight: 232g (UK size 9 mens) 210g (UK size 10 womens)
Simply put the Alphafly Next% (£260) is the shoe to beat. It was the shoe worn by Eliud Kipchoge to break the 2-hour marathon barrier and it was also the shoe that finally made the World Athletics Association review its regulations on runners’ footwear.
In pure performance terms, it’s a step on from the Vaporfly Next% (below). And though it has some similar characteristics it feels very different on the foot. It still comes with a familiar combination of that big stack of high-energy return ZOOM X foam cushioning and a foot-long carbon fibre plate but there’s now a pair of Air Zoom pods in the midsole at the back of the forefoot that provides additional firmness in the toe off, adding to the overall propulsive feel.
The uppers have been upgraded too with a new breathable featherweight AtomKnit weave. These hug the foot much closer than the Vaporfly upper and if you’ve got wide feet you might want to go up half a size.
The Alphafly is designed for out and out speed and even though it’s 40g heavier than the Vaporfly, it still feels faster. There’s no better shoe for chasing marathon personal bests when you’re fit, in form and running well. But be warned: when your form starts to fatigue, it’s much less forgiving than some other carbon shoes on this list.
Pros: Fast; efficient; lightweightCons: Expensive; lacks stability; hard to get hold of
Price: From £260 | Check price on Nike
Adidas Adizero Adios Pro
An excellent marathon racer with a seriously competitive price
Heel drop: 10mm | Weight: 246g
Not to be confused with the Adizero Pro that also launched this year, the Adios Pro (from £166) was a strong contender for our best marathon racing shoe. It finally puts Adidas back in the leading pack when it comes to top-end performance.
It packs a barely-race-legal 39.5mm high stack of Adidas’ lightest and most responsive midsole foam to date, Lightstrike Pro. Most of the 10mm drop comes under the toe, giving the Adios Pro a distinctly flatter profile and a more forgiving ride than you’ll get with the Vaporfly or Alphafly when tiredness rocks you back on your heels and your form fades.
Adidas’ carbon tech is different too. Rather than a foot-long plate, the Adios Pro features five splayed carbon EnergyRods embedded in the midsole – one under each toe – along with a separate nylon heel plate that sits above the midsole to provide added stability at the ankle joint. Where full length carbon plates tend to propel you forwards in one straight line, these split rods offer more control underfoot, particularly when you’re not moving perfectly on one plane.
They’re fantastically comfy from first lace-up with a breathable, flexible mesh upper that locks the foot down well but also has plenty of room in the toe box. Throw in a really snappy design that’s more traditional than the chunky Alphafly – and a more competitive price – and you’ve got the most enticing fast-miles shoe Adidas has produced in years.
Pros: Cushioned; comfortable uppers; keenly pricedCons: Not as punchy
Price: From £166 | Check price on Adidas
Brooks Hyperion Elite 2
The stable carbon racer
Heel drop: 8mm | Weight: 215g
The first edition of the Hyperion Elite had serious faults. It was too firm and lacked durability, making it an overly expensive option for the £200+ price tag. Thankfully Brooks worked surprisingly fast to remedy those mistakes, launching an unexpected upgrade just months later. We’re glad they did because the follow up, the Elite 2 (£210), is one of the best carbon racers going.
The good bits remain including a lightweight stretch-weave upper and a wonderfully spacious toe box. The main upgrade comes in the midsole which now features a much more springy and responsive nitrogen-infused DNA Flash foam. It now works seamlessly with the full length carbon plate to create a shoe that’s fast and comfortable. It strikes a really happy balance between cushioned protection and a firmness that still provides good ground contact underfoot.
Of all the carbon shoes, the Elite 2 feels and runs most like a traditional running shoe. You’re much less aware that you’re lacing into a super shoe than you might be with the Alphafly Next% – but in a good way. There’s also greater stability thanks to a wider than usual forefoot base. Add a level of durability that’s more akin to a regular training shoe and Brooks have created a versatile shoe that you’d be happy to use on training runs and chasing marathon PBs.
Pros: Natural ride; good durability; great versatilityCons: Very few to speak of
Price: £210 | Check price on Amazon | Brooks | Runner’s Need
A track-friendly lightweight racer for speed sessions and fast 5kms
Heel drop: 9mm | Weight: 190g
There are two types of carbon shoes, those you’d trust to keep your legs feeling ‘fresh’ over a marathon and the more minimal racers you really only want to lace up for shorter speedwork sessions. The Metaracer (from £155), with its more traditional racer design, is firmly in the second camp and it’s excellent for cracking out track reps or racing fast 5kms.
Another carbon shoe that foregoes the full-length plate, the Metaracer’s spring is loaded into the forefoot. Unlike other carbon shoes it’s also under the midsole rather than wedged in the middle. It’s designed this way to work with ASICS efficiency-boosting GuideSole form and delivers a rolling motion that packs some real punch on toe off.
The Metaracer’s smaller stack of FlyteFoam midsole foam also creates a firmer ride that’s much lower to the ground. The 24mm (heel) and 15mm (toe) stack mean it’s also the only carbon shoe low enough to be race-legal for track races over 800m.
At 190g it’s significantly lighter than the Alphafly and Adios Pro but unless you’re an elite runner with near-perfect form, you’ll definitely trade weight for range with these shoes. The WetGrip outsole is another standout feature, providing traction on tight corners that you just won’t really find on any of the other straight-line-running carbon shoes out there.
Pros: Excellent grip; lightweight; excellent responsivenessCons: Suitable for short distances only
Mens: From £155 | Check price on Amazon | ASICS | Sports ShoesWomens: From £180 | Check price on Amazon | ASICS | Sports Shoes
Nike Vaporfly Next%
Former king of the superfast marathon racers
Heel drop: 8mm | Weight: 190g
The Alphafly Next% (above) might offer more efficiency and be an all-round faster shoe, but opinion is divided on whether they’re as comfortable as the Vaporfly Next% (from £240). And if you don’t fancy trading optimum comfort for a little extra speed, then these are still one of the best carbon racers.
The Vaporfly’s VaporWeave upper, with its wider toe box, is much roomier. The Alphafly’s knitted uppers hug tighter and can be harder to get on and off. At 190g (UK size 9 mens), the Vaporfly is lighter than its successor too, making it a much more versatile shoe, for races from 5K up to the marathon distance.
You get a smaller wedge of Nike’s ZOOM X midsole foam (though it’s still huge) along with that all-important foot-long carbon fibre plate. This combination provides explosive push off, that’s more noticeable than some of the newer shoes like the Adios Pro. The high stack of ZOOM X foam also offers excellent protection over longer distances.
However, that speed and comfort comes at a price. The first trade off is that the ZOOM X foam isn’t the most durable, it starts to wear down after around 120 miles. And at £240, the shoes aren’t cheap. So unless you’ve got deep pockets, the Vaporflys are really a race day shoe only.
Pros: Great comfort and speed; lightweightCons: Expensive; not very durable, hard to get hold of
Price: From £240 | Check price on Amazon | Sports Shoes
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