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In Search of the Perfect Running Shoe

  • Tuesday, November 09 2010 @ 07:13 AM UTC
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Running and Fitness

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The worst thing about trying to choose new running shoes is that it is almost impossible to know how they will perform without testing them in the wild on a few runs (or 10 - 20 miles).

Six months ago I decided that I was going to start running regularly again (after about an 8-year hiatus) so I could drop some pounds and maybe even feel fit again. Over this past half-year I have tried running in a variety of shoes and running in no shoes at all. After a false start with "marshmallow" shoes, I was introduced to Barefoot Running and minimalist shoes. Thus began my journey away from the heel striking towards a more natural midfoot strike. I agree with the notion that the human foot, at least for most of us, is not defective by default. I choose to run in the least amount of shoe possible.

I omitted a picture of my bare feet, but just to compare with the shoes mentioned below, I have run 88 miles barefoot out of a total 390+ miles. Barefoot running is great and I feel very strongly that it has helped improve my technique and form. I already wrote about my early Barefoot Running experiences. However, there are times when I want to be able to run in a shoe. It is getting colder. This time of year the trails are "crunchy" with pointy tree debris. I frequently have to run after dark, especially during the work week. I live in a college town and for some reason when school is in session my favorite sidewalk running routes become littered with broken beer bottles.

It is the first week of November, 2010. All of the exciting new minimalist running shoes from New Balance, Altra Running, Skora Running, Merrell, and others will not be available until February or March of 2011. Until then, these are the shoes that I have tried over the last 6 months in the search of the "perfect" running shoe (aka: a shoe that helps keep me injury-free so I am able to run more miles):

Nike Free Run+ (147 miles). These worked great for me for a while. I discussed them previously in Nike Free Run Plus. Then they started giving me knee pain. Now I find them uncomfortable due to the raised heel. If I had a trusted cobbler in my area, I might try to have them zero-dropped. I still sometimes use them for hill workouts.

Soft Star Shoes RunAmoc running moccasin (5 miles). I do not run in these anymore due to uncomfortable pressure on my big toenail. I discussed the RunAmocs previously. I do like to wear them at the playground to chase the kids. I have heard that Soft Star is designing a whole new running moccasin.
EDIT: My opinion of the RunAmocs has changed a bit. See update here.

Invisible Shoes Huarache Sandals (9 miles). I discussed them previously in Huarache Sandals. I do not run in them because they take too long for me to get tied "just right" and because the strap between the toes tends to rub and be uncomfortable. However, they are nice on hot summer days where I want something under my feet.
EDIT: My change in running stride has improved my opinion of huaraches. See update here.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila (74 miles). I discussed these previously in Vibram FiveFingers Bikila. I still have a love/hate relationship with my VFF. When I run in them I have no issues with injury pains above the foot. However, I do occasionally still get Top of Foot Pain (TOFP) which I believe has to do with my foot not liking the particular toe spread caused by the firm toe pockets. On longer runs I also get some soreness on the bottom of my feet, especially near the toe pockets. I have run all of my recent 5k road races in VFF and they do make good racing shoes. When they wear out I might try a minimalist shoe such as the Terra Plana Evo II.

Adidas Kanadia 3 (20 miles). These are my "plow through tough terrain" shoes. I bought these as a knee-jerk reaction to the pain and suffering to which I subjected myself when running the John Holmes 16 mile trail run barefoot. On my first few runs these shoes triggered some pain in the bottoms of my feet as well as upper hamstring / lower gluteus region. I believe this was due to lingering issues from the trail race and also form issues. My most recent run in these where I ran slower and concentrated on form they did just fine. The traction lugs are impressive. The Kanadias are firm and do not really qualify as minimalist shoes, but the design of the shoe allows easy forefoot/midfoot/wholefoot landing. It is fun to bomb down steep hills and chomp through the rooty trail sections. The Kanadias will be my shoe of choice on the trails this winter.

GoLite Flash Lite trail running shoe (returned to store). The stiff raised arch support is the only reason I decide to return these. I still had my hopes up for the "Tara Lite" from GoLite, which was reported be a much more minimalist shoe... until I read this post from GoLite Footwear on Facebook:

"The Tara Lite will be available by the end of February. The Tara Lite is not a minimalist shoe, it is 10.5oz real shoe with a thong fit system, and zero drop last. It has the same foot bed as the Flash Lite, but as in the Flash Lite it is removable for those who want no arch support. Cheers, Team Go Lite Footwear."

I am still curious about the Tara Lite because it looks like an interesting shoe, but GoLite seems to have disdain for the term "minimalist". I have read quotes from GoLite spokespeople who say that feet need arch support features. If GoLite continues to put arch support features into their shoes then I will likely not be owning any GoLite shoes.

Saucony Kinvara lightweight trainer (returned to store). If anyone is looking at the Nike Free, I would suggest trying the Kinvara as well. The Kinvara has less of a raised heel than the Nike Free. The Kinvara felt very cushioned but I did not like the way the arch support felt against the bottom of my foot. I returned these because they are a little more shoe than I am looking for at this time.

Brooks Mach 12 spikeless racing flat (returned to store). Saying that this shoe has a "substantial" toe spring would be an understatement. The magnitude of the toe spring made it nearly impossible for me to bend the shoe flat by pulling down on the spring. The pair I ordered from Zappos turned out to be too small so I could not really try jogging in them. There is no arch support (which is good) and the shoe is otherwise flexible so it might work for some people. The other downside I noticed besides the toe spring was the very high collar at the achilles area of the shoe. I believe this could cause rubbing issues for some people.

New Balance RX507 spikeless racing flat (returned to store). Horribly stiff due to a plastic plate that seems to run the entire length of the shoe. No arch support which is good but the firmness made them uncomfortable to me. I could not walk without causing a double "clack" sound. I have trouble seeing how anyone could run in these.

Mizuno Wave Universe 3 racing flat (34 miles). These are my new favorite running shoes! I wore these for the Tom Walker Memorial Half Marathon which was my first race ever at that distance. MWU3 are super lightweight running shoes. They have no arch support, near zero-drop from heel to mid, and flat insoles. They seem just a little narrow in the toebox (not nearly so much as other racing flats though), but because the shoe is so flexible this has not caused any issues, rubbing, or blisters. It is too early for me to call them the perfect shoes, but they are certainly working well for me for both training and racing. They should work great for anyone wishing to run with a forefoot or midfoot strike.

So... why not shoes from Newton Running or Terra Plana (such as the Evo)? They are too expensive! I might fall in love and become a lifelong customer if someone were to send me a pair to try (hint hint), but at this point I feel like my shoes should be close to $100 or less.
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