1) I am lazy.
2) I am easily distracted by other shiny blog posts.
3) I tend to buy my shoes on the cheap when they are being liquidated because a new model is about to be released or they are about to be discontinued, which makes reviewing them kind of a pointless exercise.
Knowing these things to be true, I am proceeding with this review anyway. If nothing else, maybe it will help me remember what I thought of this shoe in the future when I'm trying out a newer model or looking for a replacement. It looks like there will be a Universe 5 released in July, but technically, this shoe is still current. (Also the color schemes I have seen for that one are absolutely hideous. Seek them out if you want, but I can't bring myself to link to them here.)
I learned about this shoe from Becki's review at The Middle Miles (which, if you're into highly technical, very thorough reviews of LOTS of different shoes from the perspective of a very fast, very serious, very high mileage runner who knows a TON about running and shoes, you should check out). Over the past few years I have been ever-so-gradually trying to work my way into lighter, more flexible shoes, and made a lot of progress. For long, slow runs, I've gone from the super-cushy, super-stiff ASICS Kayano stability shoe at 11.2 ounces...
...to the neutral, solid-yet-semi-flexy Brooks Launch at 7.8.
(This is the shoe I wore for CIM '12 & for most of my long runs training for it.)
It was not until 2011 that I decided to get a lighter, flatter shoe for track speed work & shorter races, & when I did, I went with this one:
Mizuno Wave Musha 3
At the time, this was a CRAZY light, hard, thin-soled shoe for me & running a road 10K in it made my feet ache for days, but when I was running fast, it made me feel like I was flying. These days, I am loving this shoe for easy runs up to 8 miles or so and even longer tempo runs or racing half marathons, and it's still my first choice for racing a road 10K. It still makes me feel like I'm flying, but without the achey feet afterwards.
So you can kind of see where this progression is going. As I get more efficient & my feet get stronger, my long/easy run shoes get lighter, & shoes that I was once only comfortable in for short runs or on the track gradually become my mid-distance / road racing shoes.
So earlier this year I started looking for something even lighter and more flexy to wear on the track (and maybe, if I get really brave, for a road 5K). I read a lot of different reviews & came across lots of appealing candidates, including the Saucony Grid Type A5, the Brooks T7 Racer, the Brooks Mach 13, & the New Balance RC 5000, but it was Becki's review of the Universe that convinced me to give it a try. (The fact that I got them on clearance for less than half price didn't hurt either.)
Becki has done such a thorough job with the technical aspects of the shoe that I'll refer you to that for most of the details rather than re-hash them here. Mostly what I have to offer is my personal take on the shoe & how it compares to others I've run in.
To call the Universe a racing flat maybe overstating matters a bit. Yes, it is super light, totally flat, basically without any cushioning to speak of, and the upper is just soft fabric (you can see how it wrinkles in the picture), but most flats I've run in have had a harder sole and at least some measure of stability in terms of rocking left-to-right. There is none of that here.
"Whaaaaat??? Did she *seriously* just wad that shoe up into a freaking BALL???"
Yeah; that's right. I went there.
The heel is equally squishy, so don't look for stability there either:
You can see that it does have an actual sole on it a few millimeters thick. What it does not have is the Mizuno "Wave" (TM) cushion structure that their more traditional shoes have. There is also a real tread on the bottom, though the rubber is softer and more flexible than on traditional trainers (which might suggest wearing them on concrete regularly would shorten the lifespan? Totally speculating here).
One of my favorite features of this shoe is how the tongue is more vestigial than an actual, functional tongue, which makes it easier to go barefoot in. (And to be honest, the Universe really feels like it wants you to go barefoot in it. Wearing socks with this shoe feels a little like wearing underwear with tights or lined running shorts.)
I've never run in Five Fingers or anything comparable, but besides the sole on the Universe it is hard to imagine anything closer to actually running barefoot. If you're not used to it, the "skin-to-skin" -like contact you get with the track / ground is at once exhilarating and a little unnerving (imagine running on hard ground in, say, bedroom slippers). If you are more accustomed to running with your feet an inch or so removed from whatever surface you're running on & never given much thought to how far off the ground you actually are, this one will get you thinking about it. (Seriously -- in my last two track workouts where I was running 4 x 1200m, I only wore the Universes for the first three just because that's what my feet & legs can handle in them right now, and switching back into Kinvaras or Musha 3's for the last intervals felt SOOO weird and wrong. Like my legs just completely forgot how to run fast, or running fast got significantly harder, as soon as I couldn't feel the track through the soles anymore.)
Before the Universe, the next most minimalist shoe I'd run in was the Brooks Pure Connect, but for me there were two big issues with that shoe that I just could not work around. 1) they are *extremely* narrow, & 2) the sole is kind of over-engineered in my opinion & you can't feel the ground through them at all, which makes it not all that responsive for fast running. (Though I do still like them for easy or tempo runs on the roads up to 8-10 miles, & they'd probably be fine for racing a half as well.) The sole on the Universe, on the other hand, is clearly designed to protect your foot from sharp things and that is about it -- you can feel just about everything else in minute detail. What this means is that if you like a lot of cushioning or run on a lot of gravel or uneven ground, this is probably not the shoe for you, but if you like a more responsive one that gives you a good solid feel for the ground, it might be right up your alley. (Not that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive.)
One of my biggest complaints with many so-called "minimalist" or "natural" running shoes is the narrowness of the toe box (coughcough*PureConnect*coughcough). If you're selling your shoe as "minimalist," it seems logical to me that there should be space in said shoe for toes to splay out. (I look for this even in ordinary trainers because I think it helps with my PF/shin splints issues.) Happily, the toe box in the Universe is wide and roomy. (I kind of wonder if this is because it comes in men's sizes only. Maybe I should be trying on men's versions of my other favorite shoes too for a wider toe box? There's a thought...) On the other hand, if you are looking for an authentic, glove-like racing flat fit and have narrower feet, you may not find it here.
You might like this shoe if....
- You have strong feet & an efficient stride & want a SUPER stripped down shoe for track work or short road racing.
- You are looking for something for smooth, predictable surfaces.
- You are all up into minimalism & want something of that ilk for basically all of your running. (To quote Becki, "This is as close as you get to huaraches without looking like a caveman.")
You will probably not like this shoe if...
- You like a pretty traditional shoe.
- You need / want some extra stability.
- You like a bit of cushioning.
- You are looking for a shoe for rocky / muddy / uneven / unpredictable surfaces.
- You have unresolved foot / lower leg issues. (In very, very small amounts, it might ultimately help build foot / lower leg strength, but otherwise because of the lack of support & cushioning I have a hunch they're just going to magnify any form / strength / biomechanical issues you're already dealing with & make them worse.)
Things I intend to use this shoe for:
- Speed work
- Small numbers of easy miles on the track (for the purposes of strengthening my feet)
- *Maybe* a road 5K if I get really comfy in them
Things I will not be using this shoe for:
- Trail running
- Slow / easy runs on concrete
- Fast runs on concrete over ~5K
Like most flats this is a unisex shoe sold using men's sizes. For women that means ordering usually 1.5 sizes down from your usual size. Becki noted that the Universe ran just a touch smaller than other Mizunos, and I would agree with that. Typically I can wear a 7.5 or 8 comfortably but have been doing really well in 7.5's all around lately, so I ordered a 6. (Also because they were sold out of 6.5's.) In my left foot I think it's maybe just a smidge short, but because the upper is just soft fabric rather than stiff plastic or leather, I think it will probably be alright given that we're talking about pretty small amounts of miles in them at a time. If I end up ordering another pair at any point, though, I will probably go with a 6.5.
- Do you / have you ever run in flats?
- Do you have a strong opinion re: minimalist / stripped down / "natural" running shoes & the marketing thereof?
- Have you begun obsessively stalking ultra-light shoes & photographing them on a digital scale yet?