With carbon-plated, super-cushioned racing shoes now dominating distance running, we've decided to create a power index of sorts, much like how NFL or NBA teams are ranked on major sports sites, week to week, over the course of a season.
Our regular power rankings will be updated frequently as more races finally happen in 2021, and new shoe updates and models are released. We'll be maintaining this page and changing the rankings as they shift over time, so be sure to check back and see which shoes dominate, and which fall behind.
How The Ranking System Works
When a new model drops, we'll slot it into the next update to the rankings. We'll also remove dated models off the list when they are officially retired by a brand (as an example, the original Nike Vaporfly 4% doesn't appear on our inaugural list because it's no longer manufactured, even though some still race in it, and it's a great shoe). We'll make a note at the start of each new set of updated rankings with any additions and subtractions.
Lesser changes, such as colourway updates or minor tweaks that don't force its manufacturer to christen a new edition or name change will just be factored into the ranking of that current model.
We're weighting these rankings based on a few key factors:
- How the shoe performs in major competitions, particularly on the feet of the world's best runners
- The shoe's market saturation (i.e. how many pairs we see on feet at the start lines of races around the world)
- Studies that attempt to quantify a particular shoe's performance benefits
- Big technological advances in a particular model
- Public perception of the ability of the shoe to deliver enhanced performances at all levels
With future iterations of the shoe power rankings, we'll indicate if the model has moved up or down on the board with a little green or red arrow, as well as it's previous position.
We'll also provide a brief summary for why each model is in its current position, based on notable performances in the shoe and our overall read on how it is being perceived by the greater running community. Of course, these are subjective rankings, so if you disagree, by all means @ us on Twitter with your version of the leaderboard.
Our power rankings are overseen by The XC's Michael Doyle, who has tested and reviewed hundreds of running shoes for nearly a decade, and was one of the few North American journalists to cover Breaking2, Eliud Kipchoge's first attempt at cracking the two-hour barrier in the marathon and ground zero for this shoe revolution. He's also interviewed many of the designers who lead shoe design at all the major shoe brands, as well as third-party researchers who have studied the shoes, and stays in touch with them for updates on innovations. And, like everyone else who runs road races, pretty much every contributor at The XC wears these shoes at goal events, and has strong opinions about them.
Alright, let's get into ranking the top shoes, as of Dec. 9, 2020, which takes into account the recent performances at the Valencia Marathon/Half-Marathon, where Adidas had a big day, and New Balance made some minor gains with its carbon-plated racing shoe.
1. Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next%
The Next% has been the most trusted marathoning shoe in the world for over a year and a half now. As the successor to the Vaporfly 4%, it feels like the first really mature iteration of Nike's suite of extreme technological leaps. And while the Vaporfly 4% will go down in history as the first big game changer, the Next% is the shoe that gets every detail right. The Next%'s spiritual cousin would be the original iPhone 4 — it wasn’t the first iPhone, but it was, for its moment, the best and the biggest paradigm shift with how we use the device and it didn't look like a calculator.
The carbon plate gets all the love, but it's Nike's ZoomX foam that's delivering all the astonishing performances in 2020. Until other brands sort out their own foam compositions, we wonder how they will ever take the throne from this shoe (or whatever Nike builds upon ZoomX next).
This year saw the Next% become the go-to racing shoe for the majority of Nike's big stable of international calibre athletes. Many non-Nike elites also migrated away from middling shoe deals in order to wear the Next%. It also appears that the Next% is a little more user-friendly than its hyped-up sibling, the Alphafly (see more on that below).
2. Adidas Adizero Adios Pro
After living in carbon-plate denial for nearly four years, has Adidas entirely closed the gap on Nike with its first counter to the Vaporfly? Well no, but the Adios is close, and its wearers are bringing Nike's technological advantage into question with their performances in 2020. At the World Athletics Half-Marathon Championships in October, Peres Jepchirchir won Adidas a global title in their new flagship shoe, breaking her own women's-only world record in the process (which she'd set earlier in the fall, also in the Adios Pro). Consider this state from World Halfs: the Adios Pro was on the feet of just 14 athletes, compared to 75 athletes rockin' either Nike's Next% (50) or Alphafly (25). Yet, Adidas split the six podium spots with Nike (and the Next% specifically). That's suggests that Adidas has both very good talent at the top end of the sport, and also damn good tech in the Adios Pro.
Last weekend at the Valencia Marathon/Half-Marathon, Jepchirchir closed out her stellar 2020 by popping off a 2:17, for the win. Her brand teammate Joyciline Jepkosgei was hot on her heels (also in a pair of Adios Pro) in 2:18. Evans Chebet ran 2:03 flat in the Adios Pro, which is seventh fastest all time (and the best men's performance of this pandemic-altered year). It was the first time in a long while that Adidas split the podium spots with Nike at a significant marathon. From an elite athlete perspective, Adidas may have had a better year on the roads than the Swoosh, after getting dominated since the Vaporfly showed up on the scene.
Oh yeah, and Kibiwott Kandie obliterated the half-marathon world record (57:32) in the Adidas Adios Pro.
This recent string of results coupled with Adidas hitting a pricing sweet spot with the Adios Pro should have the shoe contending with Nike's offerings in 2021. We're excited to see what the Adios Pro 2 might look (and perform) like.
3. Saucony Endorphin Pro
Saucony surprised us when they were second out of the gate behind Nike with a legitimately competitive carbon-plated maximalist racer.
Shortly after rolling out the Endorphin Pro, Saucony scored big when marathon first-timer Molly Seidel nailed the U.S. Olympic Trials, securing a spot in Tokyo in this impressive new shoe.
The Endorphin Pro could be seen as a stealth Vaporfly assassin because it's in many ways the antithesis of the Next% or Alphafly. It looks and runs more like a traditional shoe — and you don’t look like a jackass in it on the start line, but it still has the tech. The key here is in its Pebax midsole, which is the same base material allegedly used to construct Nike's ZoomX foam. The Endorphin Pro is also cheaper, so more people will presumably be wearing it in 2021.
Also of note is an admittedly anecdotal lab analysis done by Canadian marathon record holder Malindi Elmore, who found that the Endorphin Pro actually out-performed the Next%. Check out our interview with her above. Her findings are compelling.
4. Nike Zoom Alphafly
Now, let's get into the moon boots. This is going to be a controversial ranking for arguably the most advanced piece of running technology ever created.
We know what you're yelling at your screen as you read this: "the Alphafly delivered Eliud Kipchoge to the only sub-two-hour marathon in human history, so how the heck is it a crummy fourth on your power rankings?"
Hear us out on this one.
The Alphafly had a stellar, if brief, 2019 run. The Kipper rolled in Vienna on this weird, gigantic platform shoe. It was so divisive that World Athletics, the governing body of the sport, was forced to analyze it and make a ruling on its legality moving forward (the Alphafly is basically the technology bar at the moment, based on WA's rule clarifications).
And Nike continued to hype up the shoe early on in 2020. The company showed up in Atlanta in at the U.S. Olympic Trials and pulled the ultimate running industry coup (or dick move, according to other shoe brand folks we spoke with at the time): the Swoosh had a pair of Alphaflys at the ready for every single Trials entrant, if they wanted a taste of what it would be like to have that Kipchoge magic for the biggest race of their life.
Some, like Jake Riley, bit on Nike's "first time's free, then you gotta pay" offer, and qualified for Tokyo in the process. Nike's big stud, Galen Rupp, looked a bit wobbly in the Alphafly's high stack height going down the Atlanta course's steep downhill turns, but crushed the competition handily, and will presumably rock some version of the Alphafly at the Olympics.
But others opted for the Next%, and discussion grew around the stability (or lack thereof) of the Alphafly, particularly around corners.
Then came the London Marathon.
First, Keninisa Bekele said he would be racing in the Next%, as the Alphafly gave him issues in training. Then he didn't even start the race after he had a last-minute leg issue. Insert "strokes chin and goes hmm..." emoji.
Then Kipchoge shit the bed for the first time in his career.
The Alphafly may have had nothing to do with Eliud Kipchoge's very bad day in London, but it heated up the debate about the Alphafly vs. the Next%.
Is the Alphafly an improvement on the Next%? Hard to say. It doesn't help that it's impossibly hard to get your hands on a pair. Actually, that probably helps its power ranking.
5. Asics Unnamed Prototype
Let's take a moment to rewatch Sara Hall absolutely crush the final mile at the London Marathon:
At first, we were like, "Hey, that's one impressive race in a pair of Asics' rather meh Metaracer, which only has half a carbon plate and isn't very cushiony." Then we took a closer look at the shoe and realized that it looked like a Metaracer on monster truck tires.
Sure enough, Hall's extraordinary London performance was aided by a "development shoe" that has yet to be named or released by Asics.
Here's a better look than our rather sad Photoshopped screengrab:
Once we get a name for this speedy Asics shoe, we'll update the rankings. We're curious to see how other athletes with the brand do, particularly at the 2021 Olympics.
Asics: please, pretty please, call it the "Meta MetaRacer." That would be so... meta.
6. Hoka Evo Carbon Rocket X
The Rocket X is more of a classic racing flat with a carbon plate. Aliphine Tuliamuk controlled much of the U.S. Olympic Trials in this shoe. Other top Hoka athletes are relying on the Rocket X to help them make an Olympic team in 2021.
The Marathon Project, an elite-only race in Arizona on Dec. 20, will be hosted by NAZ Elite, a training group funded by Hoka, so expect to see multiple fast marathons run in this shoe, and perhaps an ascent on our shoe leaderboard in January. Canadians take note: both Cam Levins and Rory Linkletter will be wearing the Rocket X.
7. New Balance FuelCell RC Elite
American Emily Sisson came very close (one second, to be exact) to breaking the American half-marathon record in Valencia last weekend. She ran in the Fuel Cell RC Elite.
New Balance doesn't sponsor dozens of East African runners, as is Nike and Adidas' strategy, so its ability to have an impact in the shoe wars in this COVID-truncated year has been deeply hindered.
But NB had a sneaky-good weekend at the London Marathon, where two Brits, Jonny Mellor and Ben Connor (in his debut), both qualified for the UK Olympic squad in this shoe.
Those who have run in the RC Elite rave about the FuelCell foam, so there is a solid foundation from which to continue to evolve a competitive shoe.
8. Brooks Hyperion Elite 2
Brooks' first attempt at a carbon-plated shoe didn't go over well. The Hyperion Elite 1 was unwearable for the marathon distance, according to some. It was so bad, that Brooks apparently began developing this shoe before it even released version one.
The Hyperion isn't going to contend for a top slot in our rankings, but it's a fine shoe. Des Linden seems to like it, and nearly made her third Olympic team in a pair.
9. On Cloudboom
The Swiss brand On (not amazing name for SEO purposes, guys) must have recently grabbed a bunch of venture capital money and decided to get serious about being a global running shoe brand, because they have really upped their game in the past couple of years. They make nice looking products. The trick with running shoes — and especially performance-oriented racing shoes — is to also make them so the runner can, you know, run faster in them.
On slapped the carbon plate onto the top of their little "Cloud" midsole modules (and by "clouds" they mean nothing, because there is literally nothing but holes there — think the 80's Nike Air windows, minus the sack holding air in and keeping rocks and mud out).
It's no surprise that On's elite athletes quietly wear Nike Vaporflys for key races.
10. Skechers GOrun Speed Elite Hyper
Sketchy at best.