It’s been nearly five years since Nike launched its breakthrough Vaporfly series—a high-performance, ultra-lightweight shoe fitted with running technology’s latest secret weapon: a full-length carbon-fiber plate tucked between all that foam to boost spring in every step, amp energy return, and shave off precious seconds. No surprise that carbon-plated running shoes are everywhere now—roads, trails, and track—with every major footwear brand trumpeting its latest flagship pair.
Rigorous testing and a new wave of shattered world records has confirmed the benefit of carbon plates, which can provide a whopping 4 percent boost in running economy. For elite runners, that’s the difference between a gold medal and not making the Olympic team—or winning a race versus smashing a world record.
There’s proof the plate really works: In the last three years, both the men’s and women’s record times for 10K, half-marathon, and marathon have dropped significantly (and repeatedly), along with countless fastest times being logged by enthusiasts.
While all of this record setting may have fueled a new “mechanical doping” debate (is carbon-plated running cheating if it helps you shave three minutes off a record marathon time?), there are no bans in effect—and carbon shoes are now predictably popular with runners of all levels and PBs to pound past. So, which new carbon kicks do you need to know about?
There are two new pairs that launched summer/fall 2021: Hoka One One Bondi X and The North Face Flight Vectiv. We took them both for many test runs and, after 100-plus miles on the pavement and trails, we’re sufficiently impressed. Here’s the breakdown for both pairs.
The North Face Flight VECTIV: A Light and Fast Trail Shoe Made for Long Days Out
Remember that brief era when the collective running community reveled in no-drop minimalist shoes—like those weird rubber-toe-sock-shoe hybrids?
Those never made lasting inroads with core trail runners seeking a more responsive, supportive, and comfortable fit for high mileage and big vert over rough, technical terrain, But it did lead The North Face to respond with a trail shoe that goes the distance: Flight VECTIV.
Using a 3D-molded heel, rockered midsole, 6mm heel-to-toe drop, and dual-density foams, VECTIV adds rebound while reducing impact caused by rocks, roots, and steep descents. Add in a durable upper, reinforced toe cap, and large lugs for better grip and this shoe checks all the boxes of a top-tier trail runner.
Obviously, the VECTIV’s standout feature is its carbon fiber plate, which adds both stability and noticeable propulsion. Marketing this new release as its fastest trail runner yet is no small claim by The North Face, with its elite athletic team appearing to have a competitive edge from recent results.
For the rest of us, the VECTIV feels lively and responsive, keeping legs fresher, longer. The extra pop in each step adds speed, while the burly tread and snug fit provide added security on loose, technical singletrack.
Hoka One One Bondi X—A Maximally Cushioned Road Shoe Designed for Long Runs
The Bondi X doesn’t launch until this fall, but we’ve been testing a prototype pair all summer over many (many) miles.
The new “X” model incorporates several existing design features from Hoka One One’s Bondi line, most notably the cushioning and balanced ride.
The biggest difference performance-wise comes from the added carbon fiber plate—as well as a slightly altered geometry. The extended rocker lends more acceleration with each springy step.
The X is stiffer than most road shoes, adding rebound speed and improved propulsion off the pavement. The extra pop is obvious, yet the feel of the shoe is still smooth and comfortable, which we can’t say about all the other carbon-plated running shoes we’ve tested.
While a potential downside with this shoe is more force bouncing back (creating the possibility of overuse injuries), the Bondi X is now a staple in our closet for fast road runs, races, and time trials. I’m calling it my favorite carbon road shoe—and awaiting its inevitable rivalry with the Vaporfly as the fastest shoe on the market.
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