A lot of opinions regarding running gear have made their way to various blogs and social network chatter. This is no exception, and in all likelyhood is probably going to be more of the same. At any rate, I do hope that the few folks reading this will come away with a good idea of the gear that I use and ultimately help them in their pursuit of becoming a better runner/enjoy running more/make running more comfortable etc. I have been rotating about 8-10 pairs of shoes per year. It would seem like I've hopped on the bandwagon having used everything from Five Fingers to Hokas. Over the last few years I can thank The Sole Source running store for helping supply me with all the latest and greatest footwear, as well as Brooks Running. Without their support, I'd be spending thousands of dollars on shoes I may not even like.
I suppose the best place to start is to acknowledge what kind of runner I am, so you know where the background of my opinion comes from.
My speed: I am what I would consider a front middle of the packer. This is best described as being slightly faster than your average runner, but still significantly slower than the elites.
Body type: 5 ‘8” and 155 lbs. Sounds like an ideal size, but I’m actually built kind of “top heavy” in that a lot of my weight distribution is in the upper body, large torso, and shorter legs. Not that I look like some freak, but I look more like a wrestler than a runner. For smaller framed men and women, these reviews may not be as practical, and that goes for biggger athletes as well. If you're 6'4" and weigh 250, I would need to write another review to cover your needs. That's an idea!
Feet: Size 9.5. Right foot is about a half size larger than the left, and my big toe is not the one that sticks out farthest. This is important to know as far as how shoes fit on my particular feet. I am also about as flat footed as Fred Flintstone. Zero arch, no pronation, skinny heels, and efficient stride. I am most likely to blister and lose toenails on my big toe(not sure why).
Surfaces that I worn these shoes on: Treadmill, roads, indoor track, gravel trail, Massanutten rocks, smooth Leadville trails, Western States trails, snow, ice, smooth trails and river crossings. Wet and arid conditions.
Onto to the reviews!
In the last few years I have adapted to lighter weight shoes and shoes with a smaller heel to forefoot drop. This was a gradual process in which I built up my miles in a year span so that I could eventually log higher miles, as in 80+ miles per week, in shoes weighing less than 8 ounces. While I don’t run minimalist all the time, I do it enough to keep my feet strong and my stride efficient. It should be noted that I don’t wear just one specific type of shoe all the time. If you consider a work out plan like P90X, which focuses on muscle confusion, I would say your feet are no less different. Wearing one type of shoe, be it minimalist, or bulky, can cause the muscles/joints in your feet to weaken due to no variation in footwear. If you want your legs and feet to become stronger on multiple running surfaces, you wouldn’t only run on roads would you? No, you’d diversify your surfaces to include rocks, roots, smooth trails, and roads. Also, because races, especially in Virginia, have such varying terrain, it only makes sense that I run in multiple kinds of shoes when training on the trails specific to a race course.
Shoes are a lot like the food pyramid. You need a little of everything, but not always a ton of one thing. Minimalist shoes increase proprioception and the muscle memory needed for good foot strike form. However, they can't correct your entire body's form, which still requires effort on the runner to learn and practice. Bulkier shoes are great for the long haul and can prevent injuries sustained in long distance events. When the muscles break down, it can certainly help to have a shoe to support the body when it weakens over time and distance. Minimalist can help strengthen your feet, yet may simply not be enough to realistically protect you at all distances. Some bodies just aren't compatable with light footwear for long races.
Brooks Cascadia 4: The recent Cascadia 6 have had mixed reviews, and thus I have stuck with and oldie, but a goodie. These shoes have a medial post and great rock protection. While they are not minimalist, they are light enough to feel fast on smooth trails and even roads. The Cascadias keep your feet in good shape on technical rocky trails and rocky descents. Recommended for trail races 50 miles and longer. 12 ounces per shoe, 11mm drop. The Cascadias drain water well, but I wish they had a gusseted tongue to help keep debris out.
* Updated 12/6/11
Hoka One One Bondi B: 11 ounces, 4mm drop. These are the complete opposite of minimalist. The Bond B sits high off the ground, has tons of cushion, yet still feels light weight for it's girth. The 4mm drop promotes a pleasant forefoot strike regardless of the 1 inch+ of foamy heel. This giant buffer, however, has a good and dark side, like the force. The bad thing is that I believe all the sponginess will weaken your joints, which are designed to stabilize the body on impact and push off. The plus side is that if you are running on tired joints and muscles after, lets say 50 miles, the Hokas would probably give them a welcome break. The "rocker" motion is supposed to take stress of the quads and transfer to the glutes. I would not recommend running all your miles in these shoes, but perhaps 50%, and another 40% in traditional shoes, and the remaining 10% in minimalist footwear. Minimalist shoes are like practicing boxing on a punching bag with bare hands. They promote good form and muscle memory while building up natural strength. Chunky shoes like Hokas are similar to training with 16 ounce boxing gloves on. They help protect your hands, aka feet, so you can go the distance AFTER you have learned to strike correctly. Hokas tend to run about a half size small. Still not sold on the idea any running shoe is worth $170 (that goes for Newtons as well). I paid $100 for my new Bondis.
Vibram Five Fingers Bikila: 6.8 ounces and a true zero drop. I don’t wear these often, but every few weeks I will put 10-15 miles on them. I have owned the Bikilas for over a year now. I keep my runs under 10 miles. These are a good shoe for recovery runs and tapering because they force a short, efficient, and low impact stride. They are enough shoe for smooth trails, but they won’t protect your feet from sharp jabs caused by even small pebbles. The uppers also won’t protect your feet from much. I run mostly on crushed gravel, or paved roads. Use these kind of shoes wisely! I’ve seen too many overzealous runners get injured from thinking they can go from zero miles to a 50k in a couple months wearing these. A couple months is not even close to enough time for your feet (plantar fascia), Achilles, and legs to compensate for a lifetime of running in high drop shoes.
Brooks Green Silence: 7.2 ounces, 8mm drop. Not really minimalist shoe as far as the heel drop. These are, however, a very light shoe that didn’t feel like they needed to be broken in. I had this pair for about 16 months, and they still feel good. Scott Jurek set the American 24 hour record, running 165 miles wearing only these. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend that, I can support the idea that these could get most people to a 50 mile finish in good shape. Most people won’t find it to be enough for more than a marathon. Though ok on non-technical trails, I’d keep it on pavement. The foamy heel, which cut the weight down, gets roughed up very easy on rocks. Some might find the lack of lateral support and protection hard on the feet, but again there’s always a trade off for lighter shoes.
La Sportiva Wildcat: 13 ounces, 12mm drop. These are the heaviest shoes I run in, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. These sit much higher than any other shoe I have, other than the Hokas, and probably have close to a 1 inch heel. Initially I worried the high heel would be unstable and lead to rolling my ankles, but the mid height ankle supports the foot very well. These excel on rocky trails and offer some of the best rock protection of any shoe. That said, they are not the fastest feeling shoes, nor the best for roads, though I’ve done 10+ mile runs on pavement just fine in them. The Wildcats sport an under the lace “gaitor” that is an improvement over previous lacing systems where the laces were under the “gaitor”. The mesh upper breaths very well, but it also invites water and can be rather cold in winter weather. Most will find the toe box a bit on the wide side, and the shoe runs about a half size too small. Recommend , and designed for long technical ultras, including 100 milers.
New Balance Minimus: 7.1 ounces, 4mm drop. Well, to put it plainly these are like water shoes with a little more cushion. The Minimus has enough protection to venture onto some rocks, but I would not consider doing a technical ultra in them. Though they are more shoe than the Five Fingers, they still require a solid build up before regular high mile use, if any. Just because the commercials show Tony Krupicka dancing on boulders doesn’t mean you should automatically run 30-100 miles in them. The shoe drains well, but the upper provides little protection. Recommend for shorter non technical trail runs, and possibly “smoother” trail ultras like Way Too Cool, Holiday Lake, etc. I also found the toe box felt quite cramped and uncomfortable after a few miles. Wearing socks, especially thick socks only adds to this. Some people opt for running sockless, or at least a very thin sock.
New Balance MT100: 7.8 ounces, 10mm drop. The soft material provides just enough protection from the rocks to get away with running an ultra in them. I still wouldn’t want to kick any rocks too hard in them. The mesh upper drains well, and the lack of any real material for the tongue means getting the shoes wet doesn’t add much weight. On highly varying surfaces, there is some lacking lateral support, and you could find yourself feeling a little uneasy. The shoe rides low and provides a good sense of where the ground is, and offsets the risk of ankle roll. The MT100 can be worn as a cross country flat, or for a 50 mile ultra. For the right people, it could even be used for a 100 mile race, though not suggested. The only real weakness of the MT100 is the traction, which I felt to be somewhat poor with the minimal cross shaped grips. Built for speed, but not necessarily rocks.