Brainsport has six different makes of carbon shoes in store.

Everything you need to know about carbon-fibre shoes

I still remember the day I received my first pair of carbon-fibre running shoes.

It was March 31, 2020. Just hours earlier, the Saskatchewan Marathon announced its upcoming race weekend would be cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brainsport owner Brian Michasiw — who was then personally delivering shoes and running gear as the store pivoted to create new online and delivery systems — drove to my condo to drop off a pair of New Balance FuelCell TCs. I’d been trying to get my hand on a pair of carbon-fibre shoes for nearly three years ever since Eliud Kipchoge wore a pair in his first attempt at breaking the two-hour barrier in the marathon. Now that I had them, I had no idea when I would be able to race.

Back in 2020, the FuelCell TCs were among the first carbon-fibre shoes available to non-elite runners like me. Nike was first out of the gate with its Vaporflys, but the company’s initial slate of unisex offerings didn’t work for everyone including people like me with small feet.

Now, two years later, every major shoe brand has one or more carbon-fibre model in their lineups and they’ve become the racing and workout shoe of choice not only for elites, but many amateur runners — including me. I put hundreds of kilometres on my FuelCell TCs in hard solo training sessions during the height of the pandemic and now have a rotation of carbon-fibre shoes I use for workouts and racing. For me, the best part about running in the plush shoes is that my legs don’t hurt as much after long, hard efforts on the road.

For those who haven’t been dreaming about carbon-fibre shoes since the pre-pandemic days, the rapid advancements in shoe technology can be a lot to absorb. As you think about buying your spring racing shoes, here’s what you need to know about carbon-fibre shoes and whether they’re worth the investment.

How do carbon-fibre shoes work?

The shoes feature a stiff, curved carbon-fibre plate embedded in an unusually thick foam midsole.

The stiffness of the plate keeps the toe joints straight, resulting in saved energy, while the curve rocks the runner forward every time their foot strikes the ground. It reduces ankle flexion and improves ankle mechanics.

The thick foam midsole is designed to return a high proportion of energy back to the runner with each compression.

The New Balance Fuel Cell TC
The New Balance Fuel Cell TC

Do they actually make you faster?

Yes. Studies have shown that carbon-fibre shoes increase running efficiency when compared to non-carbon-fibre shoes, which results in quicker times.

So am I guaranteed a PB?

No. While the shoes improve running efficiency and reduce soreness, they don’t replace the hard work and training needed to run a personal best.

How are they different from other racing shoes?

Before carbon-fibre shoes took the road racing scene by storm in 2017, racing “flats” were lightweight and minimalist. “You would just save them for race day because they would totally trash your legs,” says Brainsport employee Brandi Venne, who last raced on the roads eight years ago. Carbon-fibre shoes, on the other hand, are designed to stop your legs from getting trashed.

The Hoka Bondi X
The Hoka Bondi X

How do carbon-fibre shoes stop your legs from getting trashed?

The combination of cushiony thick foam midsole and stiff plate reduces the pounding your legs take from a workout or run. “That vibration constantly over miles and miles will make your legs get more tired and sore. Having less vibration will help with that fatigue and soreness,” Venne says.

What do carbon-fibre shoes feel like?

Because of the thick foam midsole, the shoes are taller than typical trainers, which can be a funny feeling if you’re used to shoes with small soles and can cause some athletes to feel unstable.

The rocking sensation created by the curved carbon-fibre plate can feel off putting when you’re walking or running slowly; the shoes tend to feel more natural the faster you run.

For Venne, the first run in a pair of carbon-fibre shoes was nothing short of amazing. “I couldn’t believe how springy I felt. With the plate and that foam you rock forward, you push off and it’s like you’re running into air,” she says.

The Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%
The Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%

Aren’t carbon-fibre shoes only for elites?

No. While the shoes were initially only available to elite athletes they are now widely available to the public and can be beneficial for a wide spectrum of athletes.

“Anybody can wear them,” Venne says. “If your goal is to break four hours in the marathon it can be the shoe for that. And it’s a shoe that’s great for training. A lot of people wear them for their hard workouts because the shoe does help you recover quicker. So it’s not just a race shoe.”

How long do the shoes last?

The more the foam of the shoes compresses, the fewer benefits you will receive from the shoes. The lifespan for most carbon-fibre shoes is between 500 and 800 kilometres, though this varies based on the shoe and the runner.

It may not always be visibly obvious when it’s time to retire a pair of carbon-fibre shoes. Venne recommends people keep track of the mileage run in a given pair of shoes. Apps like Strava make this easy.

How do I choose between the different carbon-fibre options?

The best option is to try on several makes and models. Each will fit slightly differently. “They all have a different type of foam, a different type of fit,” Venne says. “It’s just whatever is going to feel the best on your foot.”

The On Cloudboom
The On Cloudboom

How much do they cost?

Carbon-fibre shoes typically cost more than non-carbon-fibre shoes. While an average pair of shoes at Brainsport sells for $180, the price range for carbon-fibre shoes in the store ranges from $220 to $365.

Are these shoes only for the marathon?

No. They are appropriate for any road race.

Who shouldn’t get a pair of carbon-fibre shoes?

If you have problems with overpronation and need ankle support in your shoes, carbon-fibre shoes may not be the right fit for you. “But it’s always good to come down and get fitted properly and we can help you make that assessment,” Venne says.

Is wearing carbon-fibre shoes “cheating”?

When carbon-fibre shoes came into the public spotlight in 2017 there was lots of talk about “shoe doping.” Since then, World Athletics has created rules for competition shoes that limit shoe stack height — essentially how high the cushiony midsole is. All of the carbon fibre shoes sold at Brainsport are competition legal.

If your goal is to challenge for the podium or an age-group place, know that your competitors may well be lacing up in carbon-fibre shoes. If your goal is to chase a PB, the shoes will not only help you get there, but allow you to suffer less fatigue and soreness along the way.

Some runners who struggle with the idea of landing a PB in carbon-fibre shoes like to distinguish between the running PBs they set before and after donning the shoes.

The Saucony Endorphin Pro 2
The Saucony Endorphin Pro 2

What carbon-fibre shoes does Brainsport carry?

The store has six different models of carbon-fibre shoes from Nike, Saucony, New Balance, Hoka and On. The best seller is the Saucony Endorphin Pro.

When should I buy my spring racing shoes?

Now. “It’s good to get a few workouts in before race day so you get the feel of them,” Venne says. “The worst thing to do is put them on for the first time on race day and, a few kilometres into the race, you have a problem.”

Plus, if you’re picking up a pair of carbon-fibre shoes, the more time you get to spend with them the better.

“These shoes are so fun to wear,” Venne says. “It’s to run in these and not smile.”