September 26, 2022

Worn by Eliud Kipchoge when he broke the two-hour marathon barrier in 2019, these lightweight, ultra-cushioned carbon-plate shoes have been taking the running world by storm.
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When it comes to shoes, runners don’t like change. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude is part of running culture, boosted by numerous stories of injuries suddenly appearing after an abrupt change in footwear.

But there are exceptions, the most obvious of which is the increasingly large number of recreational runners who have been showing up to the starting line of races in the new so-called “super shoes.” Worn by Eliud Kipchoge when he broke the two-hour marathon barrier in 2019, these lightweight, ultra-cushioned carbon-plate shoes have been taking the running world by storm.

Claiming to improve running economy by four per cent, the original version of the super shoe was debuted by Nike and quickly copied by its competitors, sold for anywhere from $225 to $300. The promise of running faster while using less energy was clearly the perfect marketing pitch to get runners to switch out their old footwear in favour of an upgrade.  

But how much of that ballyhooed four per cent boost can the average runner reap from their $225-plus investment? Most of the lab and field tests featured elite athletes running in well-controlled conditions — and even then, improvements in running economy varied considerably. And while running times have dropped quite a bit since the distinctly designed high-stack carbon-plate shoes infiltrated the running community, little is known about whether those improvements are the same at the back of the pack as they are at the front.

A team of German researchers decided to put the super-shoe technology to the test, to see if the promises of running faster or longer held true for the average Joe and Jill. Using data compiled from another study, they evaluated the running economy of 32 average pace, average training distance Danish recreational runners wearing three types of shoes: lightweight racing flats with minimal cushioning, the new high-stack (29 mm at the forefoot and 39 mm at the rearfoot) carbon-plate super shoes, and their own regular shoes, which varied by runner and were all heavier than the other two styles.

Weight is an important feature in a running shoe, with running economy increasing about one per cent with every 100-gram reduction in weight. But shoes can only be stripped down so much, especially when used by endurance runners who log lots of training hours. Cushioning is important, and the super shoe has it in abundance. And thanks to new materials, all that extra cushioning doesn’t come with extra weight.

Also important to design is the energy return of the super shoe, optimized by the stiff curved carbon plate that runs through the insole. The plate acts like a lever, moving the foot through the stride quickly and efficiently and enhancing the push-off phase. When combined with the lightweight and well-cushioned midsole, its potential to improve running performance is what the excitement is all about.

Now we just need to find out whether all this technology benefits all runners equally, regardless of their speed, ability and technique — a task taken on by the German researchers in the name of better transparency.

“Since systematic improvements in running economy across the population seem to require individual optimization of shoe features, for a single athlete/customer it should be at least clear how likely it is to benefit from it before purchasing,” said the researchers.

Putting the shoes to the test, the recreational runners performed six trials of six minutes on the treadmill at a self-selected comfortable pace, leaving plenty of rest between trials to recover and change shoes. This protocol was repeated during a second visit. Running economy was calculated for each participant and each pair of shoes. 

Using their own shoes as a benchmark, only 53 per cent of the participants improved their running economy wearing a racing flat. The average metabolic savings in the super shoe was three per cent, with only 25 per cent of participants realizing the four per cent boost in running economy promised by the manufacturer.

For runners considering a switch, it’s clear the super shoe has the potential to help you run faster and farther while expending less energy — nirvana for most marathoners and half marathoners. But there are a few details worth noting.

Running economy in the super shoe improved during the second day of trials, which suggests there’s a learning curve to maximizing the shoe’s potential. And the benefits of the study were all relative to the runners’ initial choice of footwear — the heavier a runner’s own shoe, the greater the potential for improvement with the lightweight super shoe. And as the researchers pointed out, the trials were done indoors on a treadmill, which isn’t the same as running through the streets of your neighbourhood or at a race.

Still, the study offers interesting insights into how super shoes perform on the feet of the average runner, and whether or not the investment is worth it.

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