Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Barefoot Deathmatch

Who would have thought a few years ago that Christopher McDougall's book "Born to Run" would usher in a new wave of running footwear?  The trend in the running footwear industry is one that desires less. Less cushioning.  Less differiential between the heel and toe. Less stability.  Less weight.  Vibram's Five Finger shoes were the best option for those seeking to fulfill the gospel of McDougall, but 2011 offers the barefoot-crazed maniacs some new options in which to strengthen their feet, improve their running form, and potentially tear their achilles tendon.

The Players:
New Balance and Merrell lead the charge with  their new lines of barefoot running footwear.  The two shoes to keep an eye on will be the Minimus Trail by New Balance and the Trail Glove (Pace Glove for women) by Merrell. There are already about five million reviews and comparisons of each, so I decided to make the count five million and one.

The burning question of the year is going to be, "do I go with the Minimus or the Trail Glove?"  A quick look at the technology won't really solve anything. Both have a vibram undersole. Both are narrow in the midfoot and wide in the toe. The Minimus, unlike the Trail Glove, doesn't have a zero drop between the heel and the toe, it's set at 4 millimeters.  That's not much, but it's enough to give the achilles tendon a little rest.

The Skinny:
The major telling factor comes with the run. I took both shoes out on Carbondale's Red Hill trail, where there is a generous helping of everything, especially rocks. The Merrell Trail Glove felt very comfortable and secure on my foot, but I had to run much slower than my normal pace because there was nothing under my foot. The first 1.5 miles is all uphill, and my achilles and fascia started to burn about halfway up. Then I stepped on a sharp rock, which didn't feel very good. My knees and shins felt achy after coming downhill for 1.5 miles as well. The Trail Glove felt better on pavement that on the trail, so this shoe lacked versatility.

It was the New Balance Minimus' turn. While I did have to slow my pace down, it wasn't nearly as much as in the case of  the Trail Glove. This shoe felt a little more like a bared-down racing flat.  My achilles never burned on the uphill, although my arches cramped.  My foot didn't feel as secure in the Minimus as in the Trail Glove, but I did feel more comfident moving quickly in the Minimus and I did feel better on the trail. The Minimus was definitely more versatile. They both retail at about $100 US.

I'm not convinced about this whole barefoot running thing. I typically run in the La Sportiva Crosslite, a shoe with only a 10 millimeter drop from the heel. The shoe is minimal, but you can run at full speed up, down, and over anything.  I think that these new barefoot running shoes may be great training tools to help learn a midfoot running strike, but mostly they are to satisfy the demands of the barefoot running trend.  The New Balance Minimus was designed, in part, by ultra-runner Anton Krupicka, so there is some thought behind the shoe, and it was definitely the more comfortable and runnable of the two shoes. So between the two, the New Balance Minimus wins the fight.

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