We run the rule over two new shoes that feature carbon plates for extra bounce.
Two shoes that have hit the headline in 2019 for their carbon plates – the Nike Zoomx Vaporfly Next% and the Hoka Carbon X. But how are they different and which is worth investing in? To help you decide, we’ve tested both shoes, which feature carbon plates for extra bounce.
Nike Zoomx Vaporfly Next%
- Large-profile heel
- Carbon fibre plate in midsole
- Tough-but-featherweight upper
- 8mm heel drop
- Asymmetric lacing
Price: $320, nike.com
How they tested: Eliud Kipchoge wore these shoes when he set a course record at the London Marathon in April. The Next% is seen as the update to the Vaporfly 4% that Nike launched to such acclaim last year. The shoe is so named because the brand claims it improves your running economy even more, by five per cent.
It’s an unusual-looking shoe, with asymmetric lacing to reduce pressure on the top of the foot and improve fit, and it has a large, extremely cushioned heel section that tapers to a point. Nike has added 15 per cent more of its premium ZoomX midsole foam, which is durable and light. This, along with the carbon plate that runs the length of the shoe, gave a ride of such bounce and energy return that at first we struggled to control it, rather like a Formula One car being driven by a learner.
With every step we could feel our feet being pushed back off the ground a bit quicker, which meant an increase in cadence on long runs from 156 steps per minute to 172. Average heart rate was consistently down, up to 10 beats per minute, depending on the type of run. Both outcomes suggest an increase in performance with less effort.
Despite the chunky look, those who prefer a lower heel drop will be pleased to hear that it’s been reduced from 11mm in the Vaporfly 4% to 8mm here, something we found added to the ability of the shoe to perform well across every type of run. The feel of the carbon plate is so pronounced that even at walking pace the feeling is akin to bouncing along on tiny pogo sticks – cornering at tight angles can be a little tricky, so we quickly got used to taking a wider curve. Despite the addition of more midsole foam, the weight has remained the same thanks to the addition of a fantastic new upper design. It’s so thin and light that you can see daylight shining through it when you hold the shoe up. Because it’s made from a blend of TPU and TPE (rubber and plastic polymers), it’s tough, and it dries and drains in no time; this means that while it offers little-to-no splash protection, any moisture will be removed quickly. Nike claims 75 per cent less moisture retention than a standard mesh upper, and while we can’t confirm this figure, we would agree it performs noticeably better in this area.
RW verdict: There isn’t a part of this shoe that Nike hasn’t engineered down to the nth degree but, crucially, everything the company has done has improved the ride. It’s unheard of in our experience for a shoe to be equally adept at track work and marathons (plus everything in between), yet the Next% pulls it off with aplomb. The only thing we were unable to test was the durability over a normal lifespan of 500-ish miles, but in every other way this is a shoe that is genuinely worth the hype and – dare we say it – the price.
Hoka Carbon X
- Lightly curved outsole shape
- Carbon fibre plate in the midsole
- Injected rubberised foam outsole
- 5mm heel-to-toe drop
How they tested: At the launch of this shoe in California, ultrarunner Jim Walmsley christened his pair by breaking a 50-mile world record that had stood for 36 years. He knocked 43 seconds off the time, to finish in 4:50:08. So it’s safe to say this is a shoe that certainly will not harm your performance.
Let’s get straight to the main tech talking point: Hoka has used a carbon fibre plate throughout the midsole. Its purpose, says the company, is not so much to provide energy return as it is to maintain the integrity of the Metarocker, a curved outsole that creates a fulcrum effect. Hoka says that with a traditional foam midsole, the rocker will eventually sag and lose its shape, but that the plate substantially delays this and provides an extra layer of stability. All Hoka shoes have this rocker, but in the Carbon X its geometry is particularly pronounced, and on the first run we found it unsettling – like you might topple head over heels at any moment – but after a couple of acclimatising runs, its effectiveness shines through; it encourages a smooth, rolling gait cycle regardless of where your foot strikes the ground. This rolling motion is less pronounced on inclines and declines, meaning – unusually – that you feel faster and more effortless on the flat than you do on a downhill.
Fans of the brand will be pleased to hear there’s still plenty of that trademark cushioning – 32mm in the heel and 27mm in the forefoot – although it’s slightly denser than in previous Hoka models due to the use of a more resilient rubberised foam. At 241g, the Carbon X is impressively light considering the amount of material used, but the addition of that carbon fibre plate is tempered by a barely noticeable mesh upper that we also found to be breathable and fast draining, so that it won’t gain weight by retaining water.
RW verdict: For a brand that was in on the ground floor of the maximal-cushioning movement, the Carbon X is a clear and confident attempt to broaden Hoka’s appeal by offering not only its customary level of comfort but also a sensation of out-and-out speed. The result is impressive; for £160, of course, you’d expect it to be. Because of the still-ample cushioning, it won’t be a shoe that old-school speed demons or track runners will necessarily feel comfortable with, but for those looking for a multipurpose shoe in which they can easily pick up the pace on race day – while not being asked to compromise between comfort and flying feet – there’s plenty to enjoy here.