Plates, plates, plates, EVERYBODY!
*Not me being a true millennial and making a Lil’ Jon music reference*
Carbon and nylon plates are being utilized more and more in running shoes, both for performance enhancement and improved feeling underfoot. The majority of runners report that they love the “springy” feeling produced by the energy return of the carbon plate, and the perception of running faster. Of course, this is not all anecdotal - carbon plated shoes have been extensively studied and have been found to improve running economy between 2% and 6%, depending on the speed, size, and ability of the runner. This is where the name of one of the first super shoes on the market - the Nike Vaporfly 4% - came from.
I’ll spare you the in-depth biomechanics and physics, but the “boost” that we feel while running in super shoes comes from energy return. When we run and the foot hits the ground, there is a certain amount of force that is created. You may remember Newton’s second law: force equals mass times acceleration. Therefore, that force depends upon our weight and how quickly we are moving at the time of impact. Then, there is an equal and opposite force that is returned to our bodies, according to Newton’s third law. In the case of running, this is called ground reaction force. However, this energy return isn’t perfect: some energy is lost through the ground and potential inefficiencies of our tendons and muscles. The carbon plate increases the force that is returned to our bodies, therefore aiding our forward motion.
Because of this increase in energy return, our tendons, muscles, bones, and biomechanics all have to be able to accommodate for the increased force absorbed and recoiled with each step. If our tissues aren’t strong or resilient enough, injury could occur. There is limited research on injury related to carbon plated shoes, but the early speculation that there is increased strain placed on the lower leg and foot - which could mean increased incidence of Achilles, plantar fascia, posterior tibialis, anterior tibialis, peroneal, or tibial pain.
Additionally, the carbon plate is rigid and shaped in such a way that it changes the fulcrum of movement through the foot, and for some foot types and runners with certain injury histories, can be a big problem and place stress on vulnerable tissues.
After many years of being utilized exclusively in racing shoes for an extra boost on race day, we’re seeing more and more “daily trainers” with carbon plates bounce into the conversation and into runner’s hearts. This is where the debate comes in - should shoes with carbon plates be used on a daily basis, given what we know about biomechanics and energy return? As is typically the case, there is no black and white answer here and how I answer this question largely depends on the runner it’s referenced to. I will say, in my professional opinion, that I’m nervous about how increased use of these shoes might affect the injuries I see in the clinic.
In general, I recommend that people use carbon plated shoes sparingly, once a week or up to twice during peak weeks prior to a goal race. I think it’s important to run a significant amount at race pace in them, as well as a distance close to race distance, so that your feet and ankles have the opportunity to build resilience over time. So, for the marathon, that means doing some of your longest runs in them, of course assuming that you’ve had no issues at shorter distances.
Okay, hold on to your Vaporfly’s, I’m going to teach you how to successfully use your carbon plated shoes as the awesome tool they are meant to be.
First, we need to make sure you’re strong enough to run in carbon plated shoes. This means including foot, ankle, balance, and plyometric exercises in your typical routine. Before you roll your eyes at me and say “Not ANOTHER thing I have to do!”, these are all things that should be incorporated into a strength routine regardless of what shoes you wear. It’s just a little more important if you’re using plated shoes.
My checklist for carbon shoe readiness is as follows:
2x30 single leg heel raises on the ground with full range of motion
Balance on one leg 90 seconds with minimal loss of balance
30 single leg hops with good elastic recoil and pronation control
Toe coordination/dexterity (toe yoga)
So, what are the best exercises to make sure that your shiny new shoes help you and don’t hurt you?
Heel raise on step
Banded Ankle inversion
Single leg deadlift
And last but not least, double and single leg hopping
An easy way to incorporate this is to add jump roping (or just double leg hopping in place) pre and post run. Complete two sets of 50, focusing on quick feet, “popping” off the ground, and landing softly.
Doing these exercises two to three times a week is sufficient to help work toward checking all of the boxes above. You can even re-test yourself to see how you’ve improved!
Another easy option is to add jump roping (or just double leg hopping in place) pre and post run. Complete two sets of 50, focusing on quick feet, “popping” off the ground, and landing softly.
To recap: carbon plated shoes are tools that can help enhance your running, but they come with a cost on the body that we have to make a deposit for. Be intentional in how you use them, and you will be rewarded on race day!
Keep going, you got this!
Dr. Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT, OCS