It all started with a singular discovery. Following the 2018 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), the 106-mile race that winds through the Alps, a research team from The North Face tested finishers and identified a 40 percent reduction in lower-leg muscle strength. That finding created a question that would become all-consuming for the Alameda, CA-based brand, one itching to make deeper inroads into trail running.
“How can we make athletes finish with a bit more tick in their legs and improve performance?” recalls Michael Thompson, senior product director of footwear at The North Face.
That simple question unleashed a multi-year product development endeavor at The North Face to create a trail shoe blending stability for technical terrain with forward propulsion. “We shot big out of the gate,” Thompson says.
Over 2.5 years, almost 30 prototypes and near-constant dialogue with its core athlete team, The North Face chased a pioneering effort: To bring a carbon-plated running shoe something that had only recently begun stirring interest in the performance run marketplace to the trails.
“At that point, plated technology was geared toward predictable road surfaces, not unpredictable trail surfaces,” Thompson reminds. “There was no playbook here.”
When The North Face launched its Flight Vectiv trail shoe in January, that singular question Thompson and his colleagues confronted in late 2018 celebrated a most glorious answer.
Welcome to Super Shoes 2.0.
Until recently, propulsive “super shoes” have overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, been limited to race-oriented road models featuring carbon fiber plates. Now, however, footwear brands are pushing far beyond the performance PR silo. In bringing carbon fiber into trail shoes and everyday trainers while also experimenting with alternatives to carbon fiber plates, distinct underfoot feels and varied price points are quickly filling and redefining the super shoe category.
Carbon Fiber’s Mainstream Ascent
Truth be told, carbon fiber isn’t new to running footwear. In the 1990s, in fact, Reebok and Adidas integrated carbon fiber into select models, though neither brand could gain market share traction. Into the early 2000s, carbon fiber remained an intriguing ingredient in footwear design, though cost and rigidity concerns largely plagued development.
Fast forward to May 2017, however, and carbon fiber entered with a bang. The buzz around Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two-hour marathon attempt and the Nike footwear he wore in that quest the ZoomX Vaporfly 4% ignited interest in carbon fiber-plated super shoes. Message boards filled with chatter about these propulsive, futuristic-looking shoes that could improve performance, while talk of banning the footwear from competition further boosted intrigue, particularly among the fast crowd.
“This became like [Roger] Bannister breaking the four-minute mile,” says Ben Sigle, of the Manhattan Running Company in Kansas. “Nike pushed the doors open and gave us a tech advancement in footwear that really changed the game.”
When Hoka One One introduced the original Carbon X to the world in May 2019 and did so with its own ballyhooed record-breaking effort tied to ultra runner Jim Walmsley the floodgates opened. Within a year, New Balance, Saucony, Brooks, On, Skechers and others unveiled their own carbon-plated kicks.
Despite rather hefty price points most carbon-plated footwear models reach or exceed $200 and no direct application for the speedy shoes as COVID-19 cancelled races across the American landscape in 2020 and into 2021, carbon-plated models nevertheless generated buzz and sales at run specialty stores.
“Though a big price to swallow for both the retailer and the consumer, this footwear has been a positive for us,” says Joe Lourenco, of A Snail’s Pace, a four-store running shop chain in southern California that carries super shoe models from Saucony, Hoka, Brooks and The North Face. “This footwear has helped us capture younger customers and, thanks to rather tight distribution, differentiate our stores from the competition.”
And the flood of carbon fiber product keeps coming.
When Puma re-entered the performance running market earlier this year, it did so with a carbon-plated racing shoe called the Deviate Nitro Elite. This spring, ASICS unveiled two new shoes with a full carbon plate in the Metaspeed Sky and Metaspeed Edge while 361 Degrees recently launched the carbon-plated Flame. The Flame’s $160 price tag, more accessible than most of its full-length carbon-plated peers, brings an interesting new wrinkle to the super shoe category.
(And not surprisingly, the super shoe technology has moved into “super spikes,” such as New Balance’s FuelCell MD-X and SD-X. Both new track models pair New Balance’s bouncy FuelCell cushioning with carbon fiber plates.)
Beyond the Race
Here in 2021, so-called super shoes continue rushing into a new era, moving beyond racers while also experimenting with new propulsive materials underfoot. It’s a natural evolution, says Tony Post, the founder of Topo Athletics and a longtime footwear industry executive.
“Much like cars, things start in Formula 1 and then work their way into the cars we drive as the tech becomes more relevant to the marketplace,” Post says.
To wit, the New Balance Lerato, a more traditional training shoe featuring a carbon fiber plate, recently began arriving in U.S. run shops. Billing the Lerato as the first-ever training product to feature a carbon fiber plate, New Balance paired the Lerato’s release with a telling tagline: “Because, not every day is a race day.”
When The North Face brought carbon fiber to the trails earlier this year with the Flight Vectiv, a model akin to many trainers with its men’s 10-ounce weight (just a tick lower than the Brooks Adrenaline, by way of comparison), it also unveiled the Vectiv Infinite, which features a 3D Pebax plate underfoot for multi-directional stability and forward propulsion.
Others have incorporated carbon fiber substitutes as well.
Saucony, for example, found a hit with the Endorphin Speed, which features a responsive nylon plate, while Mizuno is readying the release of a peppy new shoe that utilizes a glass fiber reinforced nylon plate evaluated to be 1,141 percent snappier than the traditional Pebax material found in its signature Wave Rider plate.
In early 2020, just as the carbon fiber-plated racers were getting their legs, Under Armour spun the tables when it launched the Machina training shoe. To propel runners, the Machina used a Pebax speed plate inspired by sprint spikes. Doug Smiley, Under Armour senior product line manager for high-performance run footwear, says the Machina’s goal was to be “faster, softer, lighter.”
“Our insight was that many highly cushioned shoes were lacking efficiency and runners wanted a high-mileage, ultra-cushioned trainer that had a propulsive effect, especially at toe-off,” Smiley says.
As compelling as carbon fiber is, Smiley notes that the material is more expensive and sometimes comes with a shortened lifespan. That, he says, will almost certainly spur more alternative plates and unique solutions as footwear brands look to innovate in and evolve the super shoe category.
“It can be a balancing act between finding the optimal material and resultant experience while still making it accessible to the widest range of runners possible,” Smiley says, adding that Under Armour’s goal is “not to predetermine a technology” but to rather “test and learn for the optimized experience.”
Similarly, as Post’s team at Topo continues exploring different ways to use propulsive plates, improving the user experience stands top of mind.
“Most people just want to be able to get up and run again tomorrow,” Post says. “Ultimately, footwear is a tool to improve the user experience and we can’t forget that.”
The Impact At Run Shops
At the St. Pete Running Company in Florida, owner Cody Angell is amped about the super shoe category’s continued evolution. He says customers notice the difference in the footwear when they start running and some are open to the idea of purchasing a traditional trainer alongside a second shoe that makes training a more fun, light and lively experience.
“We’re finding customers purchasing the footwear and using it interchangeably with their more traditional training shoes because they want it, not necessarily because they need it,” Angell says.
The influx of super shoes from different footwear players, he continues, present talking points with customers, especially newcomers to the sport who favor a “fun experience” over racing. Even better, it helps push traffic into run specialty.
“If someone is getting their tenth pair of the Brooks Ghost, they’re likely getting it online,” he says. “But if we can give them a shoe that’s unlike anything else they’ve ever tried on before, that’s a good thing for our shops.”
While Sigle acknowledges that customers “feel the difference” when trialing many super shoe models and reports that the footwear sells well at the Manhattan Running Company, he still sees super shoes as a niche category.
“The majority of the people are not pushing the limits, but are out there for a good sweat,” he says. “Now, there are obviously people trying to advance and go faster and when we start this conversation with them, they’re interested.”
Sigle is most interested in giving consumers choices Ñ and that’s where the continued development of super shoes into different running shoe categories and with alternative plates holds particular appeal.
“Not everybody needs the Ferrari race car, so we hope to continue seeing alternative solutions and different price points,” he says.
That’s what so many brands are now angling to provide, mixing propulsive plates and midsoles to deliver responsiveness, cushioning and unique underfoot feels distinctive from more traditional training shoe models.
“The more innovation that delivers more solutions to the runner, the better,” Under Armour’s Smiley says. “We’ve seen big inflection points in the industry based on innovation-driven trends like minimalism and the expansion of plated footwear into new spaces is creating excitement, interest and differentiated experiences that might not have ever been created otherwise.”
Adds The North Face’s Thompson: “There’s a lot of horsepower around footwear innovation right now and, in the end, it’s consumers who are going to win.”
And that is what has run shops like A Snail’s Pace excited for themselves and the run specialty channel at large.
“This footwear has given us something new to talk about and given people a reason to come into run specialty,” Lourenco says. “My hope is that brands continue to push the envelope and provide specialized product that we can get our hands on to offer something truly unique to our customers.”