Long used in sports equipment like bike frames, golf clubs and tennis racquets, and long loved by gearheads all over, carbon fiber is now finding its way to your feet. While shoe manufacturers like Nike, Hoka One One and Brooks are adding it to the soles of the shoes they design for elite athletes, those sneakers have some upsides, as well as a few downsides.
The Basics ---
- Carbon fiber plates and insoles for marathon runners, ultra runners, competitive runners and distance trail runners have become prevalent. But how well do they work?
- Runners who want durable, rigid, lightweight arch support should look for carbon fiber running insoles that match the contours of their feet and have a deep heel cup.
- Carbon fiber arch support insoles can help serious runners prevent injury while optimizing their biomechanics and promoting proper foot alignment.
- We recommend the ultra firm support from Tread Labs Dash insoles. The 100% carbon fiber arch supports make them the perfect insole for runners who are looking to improve their performance.
What You Need To Know ---
While researchers are still studying the effects of carbon fiber plates on running performance to determine the exact impact, you don't have to be a scientist to figure out these pros and cons.
The Pros and Cons of Carbon Fiber Plates For Runners
First, the pros. Running requires a lot of bending of your toes, and there are a lot of running injuries that are aggravated by that bending including plantar plate sprains, sesamoiditis, and morton’s neuroma. A rigid plate that runs the full length of your shoe will reduce that toe bending motion, helping your injury to heal.
Additionally, a full-length carbon fiber insole in your running shoes helps with energy return, that is, the motion of your foot pushing off the ground. According to the findings of a study on the effectiveness of carbon plate inserts for elite runners, the carbon plate helps to “improve runners’ ankle mechanics by stabilizing the joint and reducing the load on calves” while “its’ stiffness helps keep runners toes nice and straight, allowing them to preserve the energy they would otherwise spend flexing them.”
Now, the cons. These carbon fiber plate running sneakers come with a hefty price tag, as high as $250. Second, because the carbon fiber is built-in to the shoe, you get the benefits from it only when you’re wearing those shoes. And we’re pretty sure you own multiple pairs of shoes. Finally, those shoes feature a carbon fiber plate, a flat piece of carbon fiber embedded in the sole of the shoe. If you’re looking for carbon fiber arch support, you won’t find it there.
So, what should you be looking for in a running shoe insole? And why are the ones that come in standard running shoes not enough? Great questions.
Why Runners Need Over-The-Counter Insoles
As Mark Plaatjes, world champion marathoner, physical therapist and running shoe store owner will tell you, the insoles that come in running shoes can be flimsy and break down easily. According to Plaatjes, “An over-the-counter insole will typically last through two or three pairs of shoes and provide a lot of support and/or cushion, depending on what kind of insole you buy. Plus they can make a shoe function better and last longer.”
More life out of your running shoes sounds great, right? Adding a pair of over-the-counter insoles is easy, but as you start to shop around, you’ll find there are a ton of options. From the materials they’re made with to levels of firmness, you have to spend time sorting through the details to figure out what’s best for your feet. Here’s your explainer.
What Runners Should Look For In Insoles
“You want to look for materials that are semi-resistant, materials that actually provide support,” says podiatrist Ernest L. Isaacson, DPM PC. He recommends looking for an insert that will contour the arch and bring the ground up in essence, even for flat feet.
A structured insole that provides firm, rigid support is just half the battle. To win the war you need to couple that support with the right arch height. Most insoles for running are a one-size-fits-all arch height, which just isn’t going to be effective. Insoles that have an arch height that most closely matches yours are going to:
- Promote proper foot alignment and optimize your biomechanics – Misalignment can lead to overuse injuries.
- Prevent running injuries including shin splits and stress fractures
- Reduce foot pain from ailments like plantar fasciitis and posterior tibial tendinitis
- Reduce kinetic chain pain including knee, hip and lower back pain – Proper arch support helps redistribute pressure throughout the foot and realign structures, which helps to decrease pain. Structures that are out of alignment can lead to foot, knee and back pain.
Another major feature of insoles over a carbon plate is their deep heel cup. By centering your heel, it optimizes the natural shock absorber in your foot (the fatty pad beneath your heel) helping your body feel less worked after the repetitive force you place on your body during a run.
Generally, there are two different major components to supportive over-the-counter insoles – the foam overlay your foot rests on and below it, the structured piece that provides arch support. While materials used in comfort layers can range from gel to poron to cork, the two main types of foam you’ll find in the comfort layer of over-the-counter insoles are open-cell polyurethane and EVA. Open-cell polyurethane is preferable as it keeps its cushioning 5x longer than EVA and breathes better.
The structured arch support piece can be constructed from various materials. The most common ones are:
- Carbon fiber
- Medical-grade plastic like polypropylene, which is often blended with other materials to create a stiffer, more durable support
With all the choices of materials available in running insoles, which ones should serious runners choose?
Why Carbon Fiber Orthotics Work For Serious Runners
For serious runners like marathoners, ultra-runners, distance trail runners, competitive runners and runners who want to perform at their peak while reducing risk of injury, the benefits of carbon fiber insoles are huge and wide-ranging.
- Carbon fiber arch supports are super lightweight so you don’t have to worry about adding a serious amount of weight to your running sneakers just to get the support you need. Here’s a comparison – the 100% carbon fiber arch supports used in Tread Labs Dash are half the weight of the polypro supports used in our Ramble and Pace insoles.
- Carbon fiber arch supports are ultra-thin so you don’t have to worry about adding bulk to your running shoes. The arch supports used in Tread Labs Dash insoles are 1.25mm thick while still offering ultra-firm, nearly rigid support. As you’re comparing carbon fiber insoles for runners, you’ll notice different brands using the carbon fiber in various ways. Some embed carbon fibers into other materials, while others use 100% carbon fiber. Take notice to make sure you get exactly what you want.
- Carbon fiber arch supports are incredibly durable. Some insoles for marathoners and ultra-runners just can’t stand up to what you put them through. Carbon fiber arch supports can take a ton of abuse so you won’t have to replace them like you might have to replace insoles made with less durable materials.
- Carbon fiber are supports are rigid. You know how much force your foot strikes the ground with, which means you need an arch support that can hold up under the pressure. Insoles that flex can buckle under the massive amounts of force so common in running, defeating the purpose of wearing arch support insoles. Because carbon fiber is so strong and rigid, you don’t have to worry about buckling or not getting enough structured support.
The Finish Line
If you’re a competitive runner or a runner who packs on the miles, any edge you can get to optimize your biomechanics, improve your energy transfer and prevent running injuries is worth its weight in gold.
Carbon fiber arch support insoles deliver on all fronts, but only if they properly support your arch. With insoles that accurately fit the contours of your feet and a rigid, lightweight, durable material like carbon fiber, serious runners finally have a great piece of game-changing gear.
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