Saturday, 9 June 2012

My new trail shoes - minimalist and 'natural'

I've got some new shoes that I'm totally enjoying - and they're both quite different to my usual trail shoes (have been running my faithful Adidas Response TR and Hi-Tec Infinity).

The purple-yellow shoe is an Asics Gel Fuji Racer (trail) and the Ninja Turtle green shoe is the Newton Terra Momentus = Momentum (all terrain).

Let's have a quick chat about what is happening in shoes (road and trail).

So there's this whole barefoot craze. Indeed, I too have a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and I've run very happily in them over short distances - I haven't tried long distances and I'm not much interested to either.

Keep in mind that there is barefoot and there is barefoot-like. Vibrams are in the latter category. These shoes are pretty much just a protective covering to prevent your feet from getting cut by glass and stones. No padding, no cushioning. Buck-naked feet without shoes or sandals are barefoot for real. I don't even want to go here - hard and thick sole skin is not my idea of nice.

I'm in favour of walking around at home barefoot and doing drills and other activities on a field sans shoes or in barefoot-like footwear. I'm even comfortable with running sub-10km distances on trails in these shoes. Beautifully tactile. Running a marathon or gnarly long trails in barefoot-like shoes... I'm not really on board with this although I have a friend who runs distances absolutely beautifully in his Vibrams.

Then there are minimalist shoes, like the Asics pictured above. Many brands have brought them out including Inov8, Merrell, Saucony, Newton, Nike, Adidas, New Balance... Actually, minimalist shoes have always been around in the form of racing flats but now there's a Minimalist shoe category. Trendy. There are also trail versions that have outsoles with slightly bigger lugs and uppers that are a little more structured (as your foot moves this way and that on uneven terrain) than their road counterparts.

Minimalist shoes have a little cushioning, they're low profile and there's zero or very little heel lift. Heel lift (or heel drop or zero drop or zero pitch) is the buzz word and it is the difference between flat pumps, kitten heels, high heels and stillettos - by way of analogy. It's the difference between the heel height and the forefoot height with respect to each other; there will be a few millimetres between the foot and the ground, because of the sole. And this is where this barefoot word keeps coming in because, in marketing speak, flat shoes seem to equal barefoot shoes (these two words being an oxymoron).

A pic I found online... heel drop is the difference between where your forefoot sits (in this case, 9mm above the ground) and where the heel sits (in this case, 13mm above the ground) - that's a 4mm difference, which is considered to be a low heel drop. This is an image of Salomon's 'The Sense' shoe (on Salomon Japan website).
One of my favourite shoes was the original Salomon S-Labs, which were low profile, had fairly small heel lift and no toe protection. Very tactile and running in them improved my trail style purely because I had to focus more on my foot placements and to run with more grace. One rock kick and you lost toenails with these. They're trashed now but I've still got them as my paddling shoes.

Then you get 'natural running', which is related to the above. Similar to Pose, Chi and Evolution running styles / techniques. 'Natural running' is a term used by Newton. Like minimalist, these shoes have zero (or a very small) drop (probably up to 4mm) but they're certainly not minimalist in the sole (notably the Sir Isaac and Momentum models). They feel cushioned and very much like a normal trainer (the Racer model is more inline with minimalist).

What Newton has done with their shoes is to add a forefoot pad that cushions the forefoot and promotes midfoot/forefoot striking - a natural running form. At first it feels a bit odd when you're walking but when you run, you don't feel it after a while and I'm quite enjoying this shoe's very different geometry. I'm running these on road too.

Keep in mind that a 'natural' running style is not just about footwear and where and how your feet land; it is also about posture as well as leg and arm action.

The shoe market is very, very exciting at the moment and I'm giving these two shoes a try. I've been running road for 20 years and trail for 13 years so I'm well due to get closer to my original footwear roots - I was a barefoot track runner at school.

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