A year ago, running shoes, with carbon-fiber plates embedded in thick, cushy midsole foam, were still a hotly contested and polarizing topic. The rise of the so-called “super shoes” was disruptive to be sure. It was clear that shoes built with the design paradigm first seen in Nike’s Vaporfly 4% were producing faster times from 10K to the marathon, but a lot of runners considered it a form of cheating or mechanical doping. Plus, the new shoes were much more expensive than most other models — and sometimes double the price of other shoes — with price tags ranging from $180 to $275 per pair.
All of that runner angst was partly because only a few brands had released shoes with carbon-fiber levering plates and World Athletics had yet to present any regulations. But it was also because there wasn’t a complete understanding of what was creating the reported 4 to 7 percent performance enhancement. We’re still not quite sure which element is most important, with some studies crediting the rebound of the foam while others claim the magic is in the teeter-totter properties of the plate, but it’s clear the whole package works.
Now, with almost every major brand having released a model with a carbon-fiber plate and WA providing regulations to control design specs, the controversy has died down.
Love ’em or hate ’em, super shoes are here to stay. The only remaining question: Which pair should you buy? PodiumRunner Editor Jonathan Beverly, writer and shoe geek Adam Chase and I pooled our impressions here after putting considerable miles on each model and getting feedback from other runners.
High-Cushion/Stiff-Plate Marathon Shoes
adidas Adizero Adios Pro, $180
7.9 oz., 8.5mm heel-toe offset
Adidas was late to the game, but finally unveiled their top-tier shoe to consumers this summer. It’s not quite as light as some of its contemporaries in the high-tech marathon racing shoe genre, but it still manages to serve up a well-cushioned, bouncy, efficient ride. With the new, thick and bouncy Lightstrike midsole foam, the Adizero Pro is designed with a far-forward rocker that starts just past the ball and falls away quickly under the toes. As such, it creates an interesting interaction with the stride, seeming to maximize the rebound property of the foam under the ball before speeding the toe roll. It’s a true go-fast shoe that is impressive in its ability to help you turnover your gait, not just to the forefoot but specifically to the big toe for optimal efficiency and lift-off power. It feels best when staying forward-balanced over the foot and turning over quickly, but they are comfortable (just not as energetic) at slower paces. Upper is surprisingly generous for adidas, while holding the foot securely as befits a racer.
Brooks Hyperion Elite 2, $250
7.6 oz., 8mm heel-toe offset
Brooks released its initial carbon-fiber-plated Hyperion shoe in February, but this second version with a better, more durable foam was already in the works: Desi Linden wore a pair of Hyperion Elite 2 in the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon later that month and came oh-so-close to making the team finishing fourth in 2:29:03, 11 seconds out of the final qualifying spot.
This new version has a slightly different midsole foam and shape, giving it a noticeably springier feel than the original. Our wear-testers found that the nitrogen-infused DNA Flash cushioning dampens impact forces and smooths the ride without excessive squishing or bouncing. Plus, the shoe’s moderate, unobtrusive rocker speeds stride cadence along without rearranging it. Of all of the shoes we tested, these feel the most “normal” of the bunch, but still allowed us to run 10–15 seconds per mile faster with what seems like a similar effort. The upper is smooth, simple and effective, ensuring a snug, comfortable, true-to-size fit. We were concerned Brooks would mess up the best aspects of the original Hyperion — which had a semi-firm feel and a smooth and decidedly not bouncy ride — but they actually improved it.
HOKA Carbon X, $180
8.7 oz., 5mm heel-toe offset
Hoka was the second brand (after Nike) to release a shoe enhanced with carbon-fiber for long-distance running and racing when it released the Carbon X in early 2019. They’re wide enough to accommodate larger runners and runners with wider feet and are perfect for mid-pack runners or triathletes on tired legs, all of whom want to run as fast as possible while still feeling comfortable, stable and efficient. Not as squishy as some models, the Carbon X’s ride is semi-firm and very secure. The pronounced, very early rocker (before the ball of the foot) keeps you rolling forward constantly — you don’t really have a stance phase with these. As such, they feel best at higher speeds (at least sub-7-minute pace, but faster is better), where we found we could still push off at the high cadence required. At slower speeds, they felt as if they were forcing us into a pre-determined rhythm — an unnaturally fast cadence that tends to roll the foot to the toes prematurely.
New Balance FuelCell RC Elite, $225
7.3 oz., 10mm heel-toe offset
New Balance was one of the first brands to delve into shoes with carbon-fiber plates, but it chose to start with the FuelCell 5280 middle-distance trainer/racer and, thus, was one of the last to release a marathon racer. It released the FuelCell TC in early 2020 as a cushy long-distance trainer, but it’s late-summer debut of the FuelCell Elite finally brings the brand into the speedy long-distance racing conversation. It’s built around a new, low-density, high-rebound FuelCell midsole compound made from a featherweight blend of EVA and TPU. It’s very light, very airy, very soft but, thanks to the curvy carbon-fiber plate, it is also very energetic.
When you first slip on the RC Elite and start running, you feel the softness immediately, but the thing you notice most on any up-tempo running effort is the bouncy resilience in each stride that seems to quickly crescendo from initial impact to the toe-off phase. The softness remains, but instead of a noticeable decompression of the midsole followed by a snappy engagement of the plate you feel at slower speeds, the sensation you get with the FuelCell TC at race pace is a very fluid, rolling motion. We found it to be among the lightest, smoothest and most stable shoes of the bunch, and certainly one of the most energetic. The airy mesh upper is simple, form-fitting and effective for a variety of foot shapes, while the array tiny rubber lugs on the outsole helps keep the weight down and provide exceptional traction on both wet and dry surfaces. Bottom line: the FuelCell RC Elite was worth the wait.
Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next%, $275
7.4 oz., 4mm heel-toe offset
The evolution of Nike’s original plated-shoed technology has led to this; a maximally cushioned shoe that induces efficient forward propulsion with the aid of a curvy plate and dual Air Zoom units in the forefoot. It has considerably more foam, but a lower heel-toe offset than the original Vaporfly 4% and Vaporfly Next% shoes. Unlike those first two shoes, that incorporated a plate with a uniform thickness, the Alphafly Next % has a full-length carbon-fiber plate with a thickness that is scaled for the specific size of the shoe. It’s more flexible for smaller shoe sizes and slightly stiffer for larger sizes, thus creating a more “tuned” ride for different shoe sizes and, to some extent, different sized runners. Still, it’s hard to believe a shoe with such height and girth can move so effortlessly. Although it is slightly heavier than the original two Vaporfly models, this shoe serves up noticeably more energy return and impact protection with a much smoother ride: you don’t feel the toe spring drop-off in the forefoot, but you do feel the liveliness. The Alphafly Next%, which Galen Rupp wore to win the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, is higher off the ground than previous Vaporflys, but it’s still the most stable carbon-plate shoe Nike has produced yet.
Nike Vaporfly Next%, $250
6.6 oz., 8mm heel-toe offset
The second shoe in Nike’s Vaporfly line is better — and bigger — than the first. While the Vaporfly 4% proved the new carbon-fiber design paradigm worked, the Vaporfly Next% is a much more cushy and stable shoe. It has 15 percent more ultra-light ZoomX midsole foam, a slightly lower heel-toe offset, a lighter, hydrophobic woven mesh upper and better traction to the outsole rubber. This shoe has dominated marathons and half marathons around the world since early 2018, accounting for several world records, major marathon victories and thousands of recreational runner PRs. Although fast and efficient, the Next% produces a somewhat awkward, bouncy ride (and a unique sound that goes with it) that takes some getting used to.
Saucony Endorphin Pro, $200
7.5 oz., 8mm heel-toe offset
The Endorphin Pro is Saucony’s top-tier marathon racing shoe and it helped Molly Seidel run a 2:27:31 in her marathon debut and earn a spot of the U.S. Olympic team. The special sauce of this shoe is the light, cushy and extremely responsive PWRRUN PB midsole foam, but the combo of the foam and carbon-fiber plate seems slightly finicky, only falling into place with a certain stride and pace; our wear-test team agreed the sweet spot was fast, perhaps in the sub-6:30 pace range. Of the shoes with an obvious, stride-altering rocker plate, we found Saucony’s rocker shape falls in the middle: just under the ball, where it starts to roll forward as soon as we could sense our weight moves forward from the stance phase. Although we liked this shoe, we liked Saucony’s more versatile, accommodating and comfortable Endorphin Speed even better.
Lower-Firmer/Stiff-Plate Racing Shoes
These models have the curved, stiff plate of the marathon super shoes, but not the high stack heights and generous layers of soft, bouncy foam. As such, they are more suited to shorter races — unless you are in elite shape.
ASICS MetaRacer, $200
6.6 oz., 9mm heel-toe offset
With a geometry and design similar to more traditional racing flats — remember those? — the MetaRacer has a familiar feeling with a decidedly energetic modern pop of energy. Lacking a high stack height, the MetaRacer almost feels minimalist in how it provides proprioceptive “feel” for the road, corners with amazing agility and makes the ground slip by smoothly and naturally. There’s still plenty of soft but dense cushioning to keep your feet from getting beat up, while the nicely rounded rocker plate (rather than those with an abrupt drop-off) rolls you quickly smoothly forward, adding a boost to your toe-off as it flexes slightly and bounces back. Surprisingly comfortable while holding the foot securely, the MetaRacer can be proficient as a daily trainer — particularly on up-tempo days and track workouts — as well as a good choice for racing 5K to half marathon. It can also ably handle a fast-paced marathon for young, fit, fleet runners who don’t need or prefer as much cushioning under foot.
HOKA Rocket X, $180
7.4 oz., 5mm heel-toe offset
The third shoe HOKA has developed with a carbon-fiber plate, the Rocket X falls between the burly Carbon X and the low-to-the-ground Carbon Rocket. Compared to the Carbon X (and other marathon shoes included in this review), the Rocket X’s plate is far straighter. As such, it feels like it lifts you onto your toes more than it rolls off the toes. That produces a powerful lever to propel you forward, but requires a strong stride: up on your toes and forward-balanced, driving with calves and posterior chain. Settling into a less aggressive stride the shoe feels like you have to work against it some, rolling over up and over the rigid plate. The Rocket X is lighter, softer and more breathable than the Carbon X shoe and could double as a performance trainer. (Some of our wear-testers thought it felt Like HOKA’s Rincon shoe with much more energetic pop.) Three of the top eight women in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon wore these shoes (before they were released), including winner Aliphine Tuliamuk of Team NAZ Elite.
Skechers GOrun Speed Elite Hyper, $190
5.7 oz., 4mm heel-toe offset
Skechers Performance has paid a lot of time and attention to the evolution of its line of racing shoes and the GOrun Speed Elite Hyper certainly feels like a marquee model. The featherweright Hyperburst foam provides a unique cushioning that molds and cradles without deflecting much — thus it feels soft on the foot bones while still being stable and firm enough for the push-off phase. The combination of that midsole foam, a moderate rocker shape and a firm, polymer plate (it’s technically a plastic plate infused with carbon-fiber as opposed to a plate made entirely of carbon-fiber) allow it to serve up an efficient ride that still gives the shoe noticeably “pop” in the forefoot. The moderate thickness of the midsole and the low heel-toe offset give it a sense of inherent stability and enhanced agility for turning and cornering. We really liked it as a workout and short-distance road racing shoe (1 mile to 5K for most, maybe a half when fit and flying) because it’s a fun, energetic shoe that favors high-cadence running and provides a pronounced connection with the ground.
Cushioned Flexible-Plate Training Shoes
These models use a plate to enhance turn-over and propulsion, but one that isn’t as rigid and curved. They are more forgiving and versatile and feel fast, but don’t necessarily promise the energy-savings of the full super shoes.
Saucony Endorphin Speed, $160
7.8 oz., 8mm heel-toe offset
The middle model of the trio of shoes in the Saucony Endorphin line, the Endorphin Speed has a semi-flexible nylon plate embedded in a similar midsole as the Endorphin Pro — made from the same responsive PWRRUN PB. While the Endorphin Pro is a sharp, race-day shoe, the Endorphin Speed was designed as a performance trainer, but we found it also plays well as a high-mileage, everyday trainer. With a slightly less curvy plate, the Speed lacks the snap of the Pro but instead has a soft, smooth, and slightly bouncy ride that is versatile enough for effective running at faster paces for tempo workouts, fartleks and intervals as well as moderate paces for long runs. If you aren’t going to be spending all your time up on your toes with a race-fast turnover, these might well be a better bet than the rigid-plate racers.
On Cloudboom, $200
7.9 oz., 9mm heel-toe offset
On’s carbon-fibre-infused “speedboard” boosts propulsion as it flexes and rebounds, and provides a proprioceptive platform between two layers of independent Cloud pods of semif-firm, bouncy Helion foam that have variable densities and rebound characteristics based on where they are positioned under the foot. The fit is exceptional, hugging the heel and midfoot while leaving slightly more room in the forefoot. The ride feels low to the ground, connected, smooth and speedy, while limited segments of outsole rubber optimizes traction while keeping the weight down. The upper gives off an airy, “barely there” sensation, making the Cloudboom feel lighter than it is. Our wear-testers reported it rides like a surprisingly comfortable track spike for road racing.