The big question. One of the main subjects of conversation between runners. I now have more pairs of shoes in active use than I could ever have imagined. The strong Australian dollar coupled with the excellent supply in the UK, from whence shipping is quick and cheap, has enabled me to try a number of different options.
I now have 17, that’s SEVENTEEN pairs of shoes I run in, with varying regularity (although I am considering finally retiring a couple of pairs of my Hattoris) Update 09/06/14 – three new pairs have been added since original post, but happy to count at least three pairs retired, so numbers are stable. I will roughly approach this in the reverse order, starting with least worn shoes first:
Merrell Bare Access II
I only bought these because they were ridiculously cheap from Amazon UK. I think I paid a total of $45 AUD delivered. These are meant as a starter’s minimalist transition shoe. They have a zero drop but quite a lot of cushioning. I bought them after I’d already been running minimalist for over a year – for some reason I thought extra cushioning might bring speed. The opposite is true. I wear these as casual knock-arounds a fair bit but hardly ever run in them – if my legs are totally shot and I’m just wanting to trot out some low kms then they might get an outing.
Inov-8 F-Lite 195
By far the best looking shoes I own – people comment on them whenever I wear them. Unfortunately, that’s not often. I bought these as a more structured (slightly), cushioned (slightly) alternative to my other road shoes, when I was suffering badly from lower leg/ankle pain on my left side…which I still suffer from, but have simply given up trying to resolve. These do feel very nice to run in, initially – light, some ground feel, super comfortable, but I have become sensitive to the extent that the 6mm drop seems to mess with my form over any substantial distance. Still, these do get an outing from time-to-time, just to change things up a bit…and to look good on the streets!
(update 9/6/14 – now F-Lite 195s x20 pairs – Rebel Sports of all places had a rude, fluro green and yellow pair on clearance for $69. To then justify the purchase, I have since forced myself to wear them more often, and now find that I can maintain a good forefoot strike in them, despite the 6mm raise heel, which I’m still very aware of. Yet to run more than 15km in them, though)
Altra ‘The Instinct’
Well, it’s not often you get something for nothing, but when it’s a pair of pre-loved road shoes from your Osteopath, it makes it extra special! These were left over from a gait study, which I think formed part of someone’s thesis. Anyway, they have considerable stack height compared to other zero-drop shoes in my stable, but the relatively soft midsole, combined with the super-generous toebox, is a great platform for an easy, comfortable run, while maintaining good form. It proved excellent for allowing the increased midfoot pronation my Osteo was trying to get in my right foot, as I found my big toes were able to dig right into the extra cushioning and help the force come over the top of the toe. I will keep using these (despite the fact that they’re second-hand!). Only suitable for slow runs, though, as the increased stack height keeps my cadence and hence speed down somewhat, versus more minimal shoes.
Altra Lone Peak (original model)
On the strength of my appreciation for the Instinct, I thought I’d see how Altra approached trail shoes, especially as I tend to run a bit slower on trail runs and thought the extra stack height might be nice over longer (60km+) ultras, as the feet would be less sore. I found the older model Lone Peaks on sale ($80AUD delivered), so I went for these as some reviews implied the new 1.5s were quite similar anyway. So far, these have had one outing. They are heavier than my other trails shoes, which I fancied I noticed after a while (hard to say, as it was at the end of a big week of running, so the legs were heavy regardless).
I only ran 23kms on them, and was not going super-slow, so it’s hard to say yet whether they meet the need I bought them for. I found them very comfortable, although I think toesey (individually toed) socks might be required for these, as I found a couple of the toes of my right foot started cannabilising each other, an issue I don’t normally have these days, and I am now blistered between those toes. The extra bulk and stack height definitely made for less nimble running than, say, the Trail Gloves or X-Talons, but that was expected. The generous midsole meant foot placement was a non-issue, as stones and other irregularities can’t be felt, which does bode well for my intended use of shuffling along, half dead in 100km+ trail ultras. I guess I need to get more trail kms into these, preferably on even-more smashed legs than last weekend. Still not sure whether they will be my race shoe for Tarawera 100km in a couple of weeks, or not (favouring the X-Talons, otherwise). Maybe this weekend I’ll find the answer…
Inov-8 X-Talon 190 (x2)
I bought my first pair of these in England when I had just DNFed (overheated) at the inaugural 100km Race to the Stones, and I jumped in at the deep end by trying them out on a 45km run of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path in South Wales (beautiful!). They were instantly comfortable and ‘quick’. Since then they’ve mostly been a race shoe, having served for the Walhalla 50km trail, the Great Ocean Walk 100km and the Bogong2Hotham 64km mountain run (~3500 metres of climb!). I was saving them for races as they’re by far the most expensive shoes I’ve bought. But recently I have been using them in training – this is due to having since bought a ‘reserve’ pair on sale, to save for races.
I like the shoes. The mud handling is everything they say it is. They are pretty light for what is otherwise a relatively substantial shoe. There’s a 3mm drop, which is slightly noticeable, and because of the big lugs on the bottom they feel quite cushioned to me. No rock-plate, but again due to lugs and construction my feet seem pretty protected against stones etc – I don’t really think much about where I’m putting my feet (as opposed to outings in my Trail Gloves, where even tiny stones need attention). They’re pretty fast, but I think slower than what I can achieve in more minimalist shoes.
Pretty fancy, I must say. Downside is they’re not at all robust of construct – my first pair have done relatively few kilometres, compared to the rest of my fleet, but are about ready to be retired: after Bogong2Hotham they now have a toe-end coming away; some side-seam damage, which will soon come away from the sole; and three lugs busted on the bottom, which results in structural issues.
Merrell Flux Glove
After falling in love with my Merrell Trail Gloves, I really wanted the exact same shoe but for road use. In my mind, they should have made THE IDENTICAL SHOE, but without the rock plate, which you do feel if running on bitumen. I nearly impulse-purchased the Road Glove, but after reading a number of reviews where disappointment was voiced, I realised the Road Glove somehow departed from the Trail Glove, seeming to pinch people’s arches and give unwanted support. I really didn’t want that.
The Flux Glove was recommended as a great all rounder. Like the Trail Glove, it is lightweight, extremely well made and pretty minimal, with of course a zero drop from heel to toe. Like the Trail Glove, the upper is pretty much a mesh, meaning it dries very well and of course, lets water straight in – I prefer this to something that attempts to repel water and then gets heavy and never dries. Unlike the Trail Glove the sole is not all Vibram, it has patches that are a different kind of rubber. Still, the whole sole seems very durable.
I found these nice to run in, to begin with, but noticed that they seemed to have too much shaping going on through the arch, perhaps the same issue people had complained about with the Road Glove. To begin with, it was just slightly annoying, but then after running in them almost exclusively for a couple of weeks I wound up with a case of metatarsalgia, which is an inflammation complaint between the metatarsals (aka Morton’s Neuroma). I felt this had been caused by some sort of bias driving force down into my offside forefoot rather than forward over my big toe (not enough mid-foot pronation?). I thought I could feel the shoe doing this.
For a long time I only wore them as casual wear, but then found myself in Singapore on a business trip with no other option when I wanted to hit the trails around Macritchie Reservoir (a rare reserve of jungle not too far from the CBD). They performed well there, on fairly rocky trail, and since then I have occasionally used them for particular types of runs. I think perhaps they have softened in shape from being worn, and hence the issue I originally had is gone. Very light trail and/or soft sand training is a good excuse to wear these. And they’re also a nice choice when I’m running back-to-backs, or just at the height of training with extremely smashed legs and know I want a nice slow pace. I’m glad they’re back in my repertoir, as they’re my favourite shoe to look at and to admire, in terms of build quality and design.
Merrell Vapor Glove
Another Merrell in the stable – noticing a trend yet? This shoe is the absolute last word in minimalist road shoes. There’s nothing else anyone can do in that direction, without doing more, which of course for this objective would be less (they often say less is more). This shoes can be rolled up and slid into the pocket of your jeans. It can. There is nothing but a beautifully crafted lightweight upper, made of…some expensive and clever looking material, and a sole consisting of just the Vibram rubber, with really nothing in between. The toe-box is enormous, and when putting them on you do wonder if they’re actually going to fit your foot closely enough, as you can’t even tell they’re there. Going to these from my Saucony Hattoris, which are the next most minimalist shoes I own, was almost like when I originally went from traditional Asics to the Hattoris, the first time I went minimalist.
This is pretty much barefoot running. If you thought about 5 Fingers but aren’t into the toe separation, or found your toes just too weird in length, you’d be best served buying these. I have been gradually, somewhat cautiously introducing them into my training regime and find they have a massive impact on my form. I have to pay attention when I first head out in them, so as not to smash a heel or something, but after a little while running on concrete I feel like I’m suspended from a wire pedalling my legs in the air. Floating. The Merrell Vapor Gloves are the end of the story in minimalist running shoes and, for me, probably the beginning of my story in actual barefoot running, as they have shown me what it’s like.
Adidas Adizero XT3
It’s not clear whether these get more wear overall than my beloved Merrell Trail Gloves, but I think they might just pip them at the post these days, mainly because my most regular trail haunt is on the rocky, steep trails of Mount Dandenong’s “Rollercoaster” course (actually, those trails have been heavily improved through recent grading works, so perhaps I should head up there with my Trail Gloves and see how they treat me), and because after a spate of sore feet in the UK, where I only had the Trail Gloves for 2 months and hit some seriously bumpy, hard ground, I have been happy to be back and mixing these in of a weekend, to break up the week with some cushioning.
Real workhorse shoes, these. Despite the name they’re not actually zero-drop, in sporting a whole 6mms from heel to toe, and hence are the least minimal shoes I run in. They’re slightly heavy compared to most of my other shoes, though to someone picking them up they’re surprisingly light for their bulk and nothing to a traditional running shoe. They have lugs on the bottom made of sticky Continental rubber and hold up very well on loose surfaces. They’re extremely grippy on rock. Fairly handy in mud, but nothing like the magic of the Inov-8 X-Talons in that realm. These have the most protection of all the shoes in my fleet, with fairly serious toe guards, rock plates under those lugs and additional side and top protection toward the front, although apart from these tough plastic sections the upper is mostly mesh and quick to dry. I can wear these for intense and varied trails and not have to worry about what my feet are doing. They can stretch to a 50km where it suits me, but not my choice if there’s going to be a lot of smoothish running, such as an ultra with a lot of dirt road in it. These are for unrelenting trail.
Altra – The Superior (added 09/06/14)
After reading a review on ultra168.com, and having recently had some experience with their cousins, the Lone Peaks, I bought these after a quick check online revealed the older model was selling for practically nothing, through local distribution. On first wear these immediately confirmed the exact proposition I had hoped for. Like the Lone Peaks they have a much more generous midsole than I’m used to, which does sacrifice ground feel a little, but protects well from rocks etc. Like the Lone Peaks they are zero-drop, and extremely roomy in the toebox (again making the use of toed-socks a bit of a must for me, as my toes tend to travel a bit). But wear the Lone Peaks feel a bit like wearing two boats, that must be dragged along for the journey, the Superiors are a lot more responsive and agile. They hug the foot much better, are lighter enough for the difference to be obvious, and seem to have a bit more flexibility. I have worn these for every trail run since first wearing them (only about three or four runs ago).
Merrell Trail Glove (x 2)
I should keep this one short as I’ve referenced these shoes so much already. My first pair of these got their first outing when I ran the Marysville Ultramarathon, a 50km trail run with plenty of climb but mostly easy surface underfoot. I ran a lot faster than I thought I could, although spent the last hour and a half in significant discomfort due to bruised feet. A tough Vibram sole with a rock plate under the forefoot, topped by a light, mesh upper that really does fit like a glove. These are brilliant for gracefully skipping your way along soft or light trails and especially up seemingly endless hills. Unfortunately, if a lot of small or sharp rocks lie in the way they can be hard work after awhile, in terms of the extra effort you have to put in to avoid the obstacles, because it only takes one misplaced strike with your full weight to bruise your forefoot and turn the rest of the run into a bit of a nightmare, which manifests itself especially when descending. I have had great runs in these and I’ve had issues in these. When I’m relatively fresh and energised I would pick these for most average trail scenarios, relying on staying alert and nimble-footed to keep me out of trouble. However, that’s not always where things are at, which is why my Adizeros and my X-Talons are in the picture.
Saucony Hattori (x4)
These see a hell of a lot of action. I use four pairs, including the first pair I ever bought when I first tried out minimalist shoes. I have mended that pair twice and run over 1200kms in them. The four pairs are all in various states of disrepair, ranging downwards from my blue ones, that I keep pristine and have only really worn once, in a road marathon. These are zero-drop, naturally, and have the feel of a snugly fitting slipper. The stretchy, EXTREMELY light upper comes right down to the sole over the end of your toes, and this can take a bit of getting used to (possibly also the main reason for each of my toenails at any stage being either black or missing). That said, they’re really comfortable to run in, and the layer of EVA that represents the sole has just enough cushion to make them a great transition from traditional shoes, if you build up the kms slowly. The downside of that is a slight lack of flexibility.
I mostly run on road in these, but have also been known to hit light trails and soft sand in them. They lend themselves very well to a super-efficient flat running style, a sort of hungry trot. The only downside is that for me the EVA tends to wear down to a hole under the right toe, always the same spot. Multiple applications of Shoe-Goo keep them recycling and so far I haven’t had to give up a pair, but wish they were tougher. A fantastic all-round performer.
Altra Adam (x2)
This is a very recent addition (last week), and the reason I already have two pairs is because after running in them three times – a 20km, a 30km and then a shorter run – I knew they were a keeper and wanted to take advantage of the cheap price while it was still on offer ($50AUD delivered!), and so I put a spare pair in the shoe bank for the future. For me, these represent a perfect cross between Hattoris and Vapor Gloves. They have almost the same adherence to minimalist principles as do the Vapor Gloves, but with just a little more protection from the ground, and an inner sole (optional) that takes the edge off just enough, without compromising flexibility or pronation. Here they have the advantage over the Hattoris, and in a roomier toe-box plus slightly more protection over the toes themselves.
It’s early days, but I also get the sense these will be more durable than my frequently patched Hattoris, the soles of which are straight-to-EVA, wearing right through to pavement at the big toe. Other reviewers have noted that the Adams look like an aqua-shoe, and they are bang on correct, but I wasn’t planning on wearing them out to dinner any time soon, so who cares what they look like?
Altra Samsons (added 09/06/14)
These shoes are an evolution from the Adams, with the addition of laces and a more shoe-like upper. A big move away from the ‘just hopped out of a kayak’ look the Adams were going for. In theory that’s the only difference, but I swear I can detect a little more protection on the heel. Whatever is going on, it works for me. Whereas a long outing in the Adams can leave me feeling weak in the calves for a few days, these are a slight dial-back from such constant ‘barefoot’ action, meaning they can be a good option to fall back on when the legs are a bit burned out but the kilometres still need to be clocked. They look great, too!
Do I have a shoe problem?