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Nike Vaporfly: Reviews Of Every Generation And What Makes The Running Shoe So Special

Three generations of the Nike Vaporfly: The 4%, NEXT% and NEXT% 2
Three generations of the Nike Vaporfly: The 4% (red), NEXT% (green) and NEXT% 2 (white) (Image credit: Nick Harris-Fry / Future)

Given that almost all new running shoes launch amid hyperbole, it’s easy to assume the claims made about the Nike Vaporfly line have been similarly exaggerated. However, as world records tumbled and runners of all levels used them to chalk up startling PBs, it became impossible to ignore that the Vaporfly was an upgrade on what came before.

Since the Vaporfly features on every best running shoes list, most running brands have now jumped on the bandwagon, and Nike itself has launched another carbon plate running shoe – the Alphafly – along with updates to the Vaporfly. 

We’ve tested and reviewed every Nike Vaporfly and used it for hundreds of miles of running, setting PBs at every distance. So consider us well placed to provide everything you need to know about it.

Nike Vaporfly: Price And Availability

The current version of the Vaporfly is the Nike Vaporfly NEXT% 2, and it generally costs £224.95 – though it launched at £209.95 and there are colourways that cost more. 

The original Vaporfly 4% (now discontinued) cost £209.95, before the price increased to £239.95 for the Vaporfly NEXT%. All models cost less than Nike’s other carbon super-shoe, the Alphafly, which is £259.95.

Nike Vaporfly: Key Design Features

Nike Vaporfly NEXT% 2 components

The Nike Vaporfly NEXT% 2 next to its component parts (Image credit: Nike)

The upper on the Vaporfly has changed several times between generations, but the principle has always been to be as light as possible. The outsole follows that lead by providing a minimal covering of rubber on the forefoot, plus two strips at the back of the shoe – just enough to provide grip without adding too much weight.

Where the magic happens is in the midsole. Every version of the Vaporfly has had a full-length carbon plate sandwiched by a chunky stack of Nike’s ZoomX foam. This is a PEBA-based foam that is lightweight, and exceptionally soft and bouncy. When combined with the plate it produces a propulsive-yet-comfortable ride that’s great for road races.

What Are The Benefits Of Using The Nike Vaporfly?

Nick Harris-Fry racing in Nike Vaporfly NEXT% 2

The author Nick Harris-Fry (wearing a trademark headband) racing in Nike Vaporfly NEXT% 2 (Image credit: Nick Harris-Fry)

The 4% in the original Vaporfly’s name represented how much the shoe improved running economy according to Nike’s testing. It’s a claim backed by independent research, as well as millions of runners, though how much the shoe improves your economy varies between individuals.

This improvement comes from the design of the carbon plate and midsole foam, and means that it costs you less energy to run at a certain pace. You’re left with more in the tank late in races so you can finish strong or hold your pace to the finish line. 

Another area where the Vaporfly broke the mould was in having a high stack of foam in the midsole while still being light. Previous racing shoes were lightweight but offered little protection, so your legs would take a pasting and potentially break down in races, whereas the Vaporfly provides a high level of protection while still being light and fast. 

The benefits of the Vaporfly became greater with the arrival of the NEXT%, which increased the stack height further. The NEXT% 2 largely stuck to the same formula as the NEXT%, only tweaking the upper of the shoe. Whatever version you go for, the Vaporfly is not going to run your race for you, or act as a substitute for putting in the hours in training, but it can help you perform at your very best.

Another benefit of the Vaporfly is that if you use it in training as well, it can keep your legs fresher after hard sessions. This makes recovery faster and can allow you to log more tough workouts, though this advantage may be one that only runners with deep pockets will enjoy because most will save the expensive shoe for racing.

There is little doubt that using a super-shoe like the Vaporfly improves performance – to the point where the governing body, World Athletics, stepped in (opens in new tab) to set a 40mm limit on the stack height of shoes used in road races. It also banned shoes with stacks more than 25mm high from track events.

What Are The Downsides Of Using The Nike Vaporfly?

All of the above sounds great, but before you rush out to pick up a pair there are downsides to consider. There is the expense, plus the fact the Vaporfly is not as durable as other running shoes. While reports suggesting it falls apart after 200km may be wide of the mark – we have one set that was in use past 400km – we found you do lose some bounce from the midsole after 250km-300km. They’ll still be great shoes at that point, just not as great as box-fresh Vaporflys, so it’s best to reserve them for key races.

Another downside is that the high stack of soft foam makes for an unstable ride. The carbon plate counters this, to a degree, and for most neutral runners it won’t be a concern, but if you overpronate, the Vaporfly may be too wobbly.

One final concern – though the issue has died down in recent years with other brands releasing carbon shoes – is that using the Vaporfly is “cheating” because the carbon plate acts like a spring. The arguments on this have raged for years, but the world seems to have made its peace with a new era of racing shoes and records, and carbon plates seem here to stay.

Nike Vaporfly Reviews

Nike Vaporfly Flyknit

(Image credit: Unknown)
Released: July 2017

The original Vaporfly had a lower stack, being around 33mm high at the heel (Nike don’t seem to give definitive stack heights for the Vaporfly and Alphafly). It also had a higher drop, at 11m from heel to toe, compared with 8mm for the NEXT%. The first edition of the 4% had a mesh upper, which was then updated to a Flyknit one that had a more locked-down fit.

It’s hard to get hold of the Vaporfly 4% these days – even if you can, the NEXT% is an upgrade in terms of performance – but it remains an excellent racing shoe for any distance and the higher drop and lower stack does suit some runners.

Nike Vaporfly NEXT%

(Image credit: Nike)
Released: April 2019

The Vaporfly NEXT% improved on the 4% by increasing the stack height to close to the 40mm limit, lowering the drop to 8mm and increasing the traction of the outsole. The extra ZoomX foam in the middle makes the NEXT% bouncier and more protective over long distances than its predecessor, and extra padding around the heel increases the comfort of the shoe. The upper was also changed to a lightweight material called Vaporweave, which absorbs less water than Flyknit, and the laces were offset, something that is now standard on Nike racing shoes.

Nike Vaporfly NEXT% 2

(Image credit: Nike)
Released: February 2021

While there is continuing speculation over whether Nike made the midsole firmer in the NEXT% 2, we found that the ride felt the same, and an impressive one it is too. The NEXT% 2 has a knit upper, rather than the Vaporweave material used for the original NEXT%, and this creates a better fit in the toe box. The best change came when Nike lowered the price of the NEXT% 2. It was £210 at launch, and even though it has increased to £225 for the standard Vaporfly NEXT% 2, that is still a saving on the £240 price of the original NEXT%.

Nike Vaporfly vs Nike Alphafly

Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%

(Image credit: Nike)
Released: February 2020

For a long time picking the best shoe for your race was easy: it was the Vaporfly. Now, many brands have released excellent carbon racing shoes and Nike also has the Alphafly. 

The Alphafly has more cushioning than the Vaporfly, and under the forefoot there’s an air Zoom pod to provide more oomph to your toe-off. We have found the chunkier Alphafly a better racing shoe than the Vaporfly over half marathon and marathon distances, but prefer the nimbler, lighter Vaporfly for shorter events. 

It’s close, though, and both shoes are terrific racers at any distance, so the fact the Vaporfly is cheaper than the Alphafly, which costs £259.95, may decide matters.

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.