Thursday, December 22, 2011

Minimalism Take Two - My Minimalist Shoe Criteria and Shoe Selection for 2012

After re-reading my post from last year about minimalism and my shoe selection for the year, it is clear that I was inexperienced in the world of running long distances, especially on more technical trail and that I also had an ambition to try to include too many shoes in my rotation. However, after a year of heavy experimentation I think I've figured a few things out. I seriously cringe to admit this, but I probably tried 25+ different pairs of shoes...hey I did sell most of them on eBay this fall and got some of my money back, but still :) a problem on a few levels.

My shoe closet early this summer. If your shoe closet looks like this you have a problem...thankfully I'm down to about 1/3 of this amount and hopefully can cut it back more this next year.

The first problem is having so many shoes really does go against a minimalist ideal which is still the purest part of running to me...stripping down the excess and focusing simply on moving efficiently through the mountain environment.  Second, it presents a major physical problem of not letting your body adapt to any one shoe, platform, or consistent feel from run to run.  I had many races this year where I didn't have a clear favorite from a shoe standpoint and this had me running races in shoes that I hadn't put a ton of miles in prior to...never a great choice.

Part of my issues this year centered around what was appropriate for running more volume and most of that on much more technical terrain than the previous year.  I nearly doubled both my hours and mileage running and increased my vertical gain by 4 times.  This affected what kind of shoe ended up working best.  On top of that, since last January my feet have grown at least a half to a full size in length and have significantly widened to the point where most of the shoes in the picture above were simply too narrow by the time Fall rolled around.  For example, in Dec. 2010 I wore a NB MT101 in size 13 and now a size 14 MT101 is too narrow.

I moved from running North Face 50K last Dec. in the New Balance MT101s (size 13, a 9-10mm heel to toe drop shoe) to running my next 4 ultras in Inov-8 F-Lite 230s (4mm drop), zeroed MT101s (size 14)/NB M700 xc flats (2mm drops), and my last 2 ultras (only 4 weeks apart) were in the Merrell Trail Glove (0mm drop and practically no midsole).  So, I was going down the ladder to more minimal shoes as the season went on all the while I was gaining more mileage...probably not the most advisable scenario, but I had my reasons...mostly by the end of the season the Trail Gloves were one of the few shoes wide enough to comfortably fit my feet.

Summiting Sun Top approx mi 38 at the White River 50 - wearing 2E width NB M700 xc flats. Photo - Glenn Tachiyama

Approx. Mile 18 at the Foothills 50K Frenzy in Boise, ID this October in the Merrell Trail Gloves.

The end effect of this year is that my feet now fit in a small selection of shoes.  I've also found that, while running in a shoe like the Trail Glove is nice and super minimal, for that reason, it may not work for my main ultra shoe until I can get some more years of running under my belt and even then, I would probably only use them for non-technical trail under 50 miles.  My legs took a while to recover from my last ultra and I think that this was in part from moving the majority of my running in the last two months of my year to running in Trail Gloves, which were, by far, the least substantial shoe I had used all year for trails.

So, where does that put me this year?  I've settled on some main features that I'd like my shoes to have and listed them below.  Keep in mind this is looking at things from my perspective of wanting to run quite a bit (8-15 hrs/week), race ultra marathons and run a lot of technical trail in the high country this summer.  If your goals or tastes are different the criteria would change.

1. Appropriately shaped and wide toe box/last.

This is a deal breaker for me.  If the shoe doesn't allow room for my feet to move freely, I'm not interesting in using it. There are enough options, even for a guy with wider feet like me, this next year that I should be able to honor this first rule.

2. Adequate protection for technical trails.

This includes having a rock plate, enough midsole to absorb some of the gnarliness (this is where the Trail Gloves fall a little short), good traction with some lug to the sole, and security in the mid-foot to keep the shoe from moving around on the steep stuff (this often, as with Inov-8 this last year, comes in conflict with rule #1 so the balance can be tough sometimes).

3. Light.

Simple...It's not as fun for me to run in a shoe if it is much over 300 grams (10.5 oz) for my size 14 (which would be more like 7.5-8 oz or 220 grams for a standard mens size 9) plus I can be more efficient and stable on technical terrain the lighter and less bulk the shoe has.

4. Low heel-to-toe drop.

I prefer zero drop, but am open the reality that a little more might be advisable for running high mileage and ultramarathons.  I think there is plenty of room for discussion to be had along these lines (that I won't go into here) and I'm still trying to figure out the sweet spot for me too.  That said, anything over 6mm drop just feels super strange for me and most shoes over that are, are either too narrow, heavy or just aren't any fun to run in anyway; so I most likely won't be going over 6mm (only one shoe I'm looking forward to even falls in this category...the adizero Hagio) this year and will probably do most of my running at 4mm or less with a preference toward 0mm starting out.

5. Well constructed, breathable, minimal upper with soft enough interior to go sock less.

The upper should function to keep the shoe on your foot in a secure way, but after that, it needs to get out of the way. This means good breathability, good draining of water, soft interior, and minimal protection in the toe area (toe bumper/rand) from hitting rocks, roots, etc. all the while being durable enough to last around 500 small task. As far as the sock less part, that is personal preference; I hate wearing socks and feel like I have better proprioception without them (plus more room in my shoes). If I have to wear socks, I wear thin Drymax socks and then only for super wet, longer runs.

I don't know that I've found any shoes yet that accomplish every single one of these tasked perfectly, but I've got a few that come close and a few that I'm looking forward to trying in the next couple months.  Below are my main shoes going into this year:


My go to shoes: VFF Bikila with the Altra Instinct coming in very close behind.  I like the light and quick feel of the Bikila, but the fit of the Altra is better.  If the altras were lighter and had half the midsole they currently do, that would work well for me.

Some shoes I'm looking forward to in this category:

-Altra Provision, a racier version of the Instinct with less midsole...should be good UPDATE 1/31/12: Apparently the Provision is not a lighter racier version of the Instinct, but a firmer update that includes the ability to add or remove pronation control from the shoe...I'll still try them, but not what I was expecting them to be.
-NB Minimus Zero Road (if the wider widths fit good), they look light and durable. a good combination.
-Merrell Road Glove, like the Trail Glove, but for roads.
-VFF SeeYa, super light five finger
-Merrell Bare Access, zero drop, but with some cushion

Non-Technical trail up to 50k and shorter technical trail (sub ultra):

Go to shoe: Merrell Trail Glove for sure.  Best fit of any shoe I've run in.  Does really well on many different surfaces and rock protection is much better than you would think, but maybe a tad light for ultras, we'll see.

Some shoes I'm looking forward to in this category:
-Merrell Trail Glove in wide version
-Adidas Adizero Hagio (if wide enough; might use for long road runs too), successor to the adizero Rocket.
-NB Minimus Zero Trail (in 2E or 4E width) crazy light, super stripped down; great concept.
-VFF Spryidon, more substantial Fivefinger.

My trail glove after about 200 miles on them.  Super durable...they hardly look used.  I'll get 600+ miles out of them for sure.

Technical trail and 50 mi+:

Go to shoe: Right now it is the Altra Lone Peak.  Although heavier than criteria #3 above, it fits many of the other criteria rather well.  Most importantly it has a great toe box that gives me plenty of room...all in all it is working well for me this winter, but I think will be too much shoe and too heavy for me come summer.  Just got the Merrell Mix Master in and, although I haven't run in it yet, the fit is very good initially and it has nearly all of the qualities that I list above.  I anticipate it will work well for me...between it and the NB MT110 I hope I can find my technical trail shoe.

Shoes I'm most looking forward to in this category:
-NB MT110 (in 2E width)
-Altra, new version of the Lone Peak with less midsole (i.e. lighter and more responsive...unsure on the details of this shoe yet, but know they are making one)
-NB MT1010, 4mm drop, minimus last, but looks like a little more shoe than I usually prefer

Altra Lone Peak after 50 miles.  Zero drop with great width, good outsole and protection.
Merrell Mix Master.  Light and simple.  4mm drop, sleek, super breathable upper, good lugged outsole and rock plate.  These should be a strong competitor for the MT110.  I'm looking forward to some miles in them soon.
Loose/Soft/Muddy terrain:

Go to shoe: Not much in this category for me that fits good...hoping the Mix Master or NB MT110 will do ok for this type of running but haven't tested them.  Walsh PB Ultras have good traction, but I likely won't use for longer than a 2 hr run just because the fit is a little off for me.  However they are probably my best super loose option.

Shoes I'm most looking forward to in this category: Nothing that I know of.  I'd love to try the Salomon Fellcross, but Salomon doesn't make it in a 14 and it would probably be too narrow if they did.

This has turned into quite the post in length (sorry about that), however, I suppose that I wrote it more to summarize some of my own thoughts than for any other reason.  Hope it helps some of you and feel free to ask any questions you might have about some of the shoes I've tried.  I'm sure the list will shift and change throughout the year and a post like this next year might look a little different, but that's the fun of it and being able to look back and see where you were at a certain point in time.

I'm planning on posting a summary of the year and a look at next year in week or so. Also, I'd like to give a quick shout out to Joe Grant for fielding my shoe questions during the year.  He's been influential in forming some of the criteria above for me and I'm sure will continue to do so.  Also to Aaron Harrell for geeking out with me about running stuff when I'm sure I wore my wife and parents out long ago on shoe info (thanks for putting up with me guys :) ).


brider (aka David) said...

Awesome write-up. I feel your pain when it. Comes to fitting shoes (tthough I'm only a 10.5). Shoe geeks of the world, unite!

David Henry said...

Thanks for checking out the blog!