Saturday, December 21, 2013

In Search of the Perfect Shoe

(Or, the one where I solicit recommendations.)

Remember the days when you didn't know that much about running shoes, and didn't run all that many miles anyway, & weren't yet convinced that some shoes were actually trying to hurt you?

I remember those days. I remember my uncle taking me & my sisters to the Reebok outlet the week before cross country practice started, & telling the saleswoman, "I am a cross country runner, please give me the BEST shoes for running!" and she was like, "No problem!" And she'd give me a pair, which did indeed look just like a stock photo of running shoes (see left). I'd jog around the store in them or a few minutes & then be like, "Sure do feel like running shoes!"

When there wasn't money for new shoes, I remember happily accepting & running in used shoes of dubious origins without giving it a second thought. (One year my next-door-neighbor was like, "Hey, I found these in my mom's pile of stuff from the seventies she didn't want. They look like they might be your size. They are called 'New Balance,' which I hear is the new hotness. Want 'em?" So for one season I ran in a pair of 20-year-old New Balance something-or-rathers.)

WOW, have things gotten complicated since then. In the last ten years or so I've been through heavy shoes and light shoes and thick-soled shoes and thin-soled shoes and shoes with stability posts and external actuator lugs and shoes with lots of cushioning or no cushioning, 12mm drop or 0mm drop, generic orthotics, semi-custom orthotics, prescription orthotics, and God. Dammit. Sometimes I really understand why people are like, "Just go barefoot already!"

I have it easier than most people. For the most part I'm able to run in just about whatever shoe I want, and it's pretty rare that something is so terrible that I can't wear it long enough to at least get my money's worth. (The 1st version of the PureConnect was the exception--those really were so narrow it hurt.) But "Eh, I can in run in this" is different than finding a shoe you really, really adore & just want to run every mile in. That's what I still haven't found. Many have come close--I have several pairs that I'm quite happy running in--but I'm still looking for my "forever" shoe.

What's Come Close?

Brooks Launch. This is the shoe I ran my last two marathons in. It's definitely the most traditional of the shoes I run in regularly, as well as the bulkiest & heaviest. That said, it really isn't particularly bulky & heavy as more traditional shoes go. Brooks markets it as a performance shoe suitable for races & tempo runs, & indeed, it's the lightest of their good ol' trainer, non-PureProject offerings.

I like it for marathons & long runs because for all that I am not a fan of extra cushioning, sometimes going on hour three of pounding pavement it's nice to have a little more of it. The 9.5mm drop also made the Launch a good choice for me when I was just moving away from shoes with more of a 12mm drop & didn't yet have the calf/Achilles flexibility to do longer runs in 4mm shoes. They aren't super responsive (I wouldn't run a 5K in them or anything), but past the 15 mile mark, that isn't much of a concern for me. I also like to run in these shoes when my feet hurt.

Saucony Kinvara. Right now this is kind of my "work horse" shoe. I have an older pair that I use for shorter runs and a newer pair that I've been wearing for medium/longer runs, and they work admirably for both. The Kinvaras are a little lighter and more responsive than the Launches, and also have a 4mm drop. (Saucony markets them as a "transitional" performance shoe.) Plus, they fit my foot super well.

Kinvara 3

Kinvara 4

I haven't run a marathon in this shoe, but I've worked up to being able to do longer runs comfortably with the 4mm drop, so I think at this point I'm sure I totally could--they certainly have plenty of cushioning. On the other hand, the one thing I don't love about these shoes is the stack height. For a performance shoe, they sure do have a LOT of midsole going on there.

This is also why I'm not a fan of the Altras & Hokas all the kids are wearing now: Too. Much. Foam. (The stack height on the Hokas in particular terrifies me. They are like the platform stripper heels of running shoes. I put a pair on once and seriously felt like I was going to tip over.)

For all that the Kinvaras are more responsive than the Launches, I really, really wish they had maybe *half* the stack height & cushioning & a bit more ground feel. Still, there are a lot of things I love about this shoe, and until I find something that fits & rides as well but has a lower profile, Kinvaras will probably still be my shoe of choice for most of my everyday runs & half marathons.

Mizuno Wave Musha. Sadly, this was the pair that got stolen with my duffel bag. Which is a real bummer because the Musha probably came the closest to perfect of any shoe I have. I liked them because they were light, 4mm drop, and *incredibly* responsive--there was no shoe better for a 5K/10K. I never got brave enough to wear them for a half, but I'm sure they would have worked fine.

Also, they are being discontinued. :(

My only complaints about the Musha were that it was on the heavy side for a mid-distance performance shoe, and that the sole was a bit hard & inflexible, so I'm interested in trying out some of Mizuno's other low-profile offerings to see if any of them might be a suitable replacement.

Mizuno Wave Universe. On the track, I love this shoe SO. MUCH. I usually warm up in whatever road shoe I'm wearing, then put on the Universes for my intervals; after that, putting the road shoes back on just feels weird & wrong. My dream is to someday have the foot strength to wear a shoe like this for all my runs because it's just so incredibly comfortable, but alas I fear that day is a long way off yet.

Can you beat a shoe you can pretty much wad up in a ball? No; not really.

Newton Distance. Originally my Newton of choice was the Motion/"Motus", but once I was told I didn't need to wear stability shoes anymore I switched to the Distance. Both are comfortable and reasonably light, and have the lower 4mm drop I prefer.

To be honest, though, I think I am getting close to done with Newtons at this point. They went through a period of being the hot new thing where everybody seemed to love them so much that I figured I'd give them a shot, plus I really liked the fact that the company adheres to ILO conventions in the manufacturing of the shoes, and uses some green manufacturing practices (100% recycled yarn shoe laces, webbing, insole topcover, 10% recycled outersole rubber, making boxes on-site from green materials). But given that they cost *at least* 50% more than my other favorite shoes (I have only ever bought them on sale & *still* never paid less than $120) and certainly don't provide me with 50% more value (I've yet to have a pair last past 250 miles), it's hard to see why I would continue to buy them.

If I really felt like they were my *perfect* shoe, I might be willing to continue ponying up. But they're not. Like the Kinvara, they suffer from the too-much-cushioning disease. For all that they're marketed as promoting a 'natural' running style, they are awfully hard and inflexible. Also, the website claims that "Newtons allow your foot to feel the ground as if you were running barefoot." No. Not even close. What Newtons allow your foot to feel are the giant slabs of rubber between your foot and the ground.

I know there is the argument about how the lugs help you land on your midfoot, but since that's not a problem I have (and these days I am scrutinized on the treadmill just about monthly), I can't see why I should pay extra for it. Also, if you were wearing truly "natural" shoes without an inch of foam under your foot to begin with, believe me, you would have no problem finding your midfoot. The toughening-up process might not be as pleasant, but there is nothing magical about the lugs. You just can't argue that running in Newtons lets you feel the ground as if you were running barefoot. In these bad boys, the ground is a distant dream.

What Now?

Like I said, I'm happy enough with all of these shoes that I'll most likely finish out the pairs I have. But I'm also curious to try a few new things. I was super excited about Altras until I realized how thick & cushy the soles were--the wide toe box with lots of splaying room seemed promising. (Toe box width is another thing I don't love about any of the shoes I'm currently running in.) Thinking about what I don't like in a running shoe has helped me codify better what I'm actually looking for:

  • Needs to last *at least* 300 miles (preferably 400+), unless it's built like a racing flat; in that case, I can deal with a shorter lifespan as long as it's priced accordingly.
  • Under 7.5 ounces (preferably under 7)
  • Wide toe box for foot-splaying
  • Low drop (say, 6mm or less)
  • Responsive, not too cushy
  • Reasonably flexible
  • Low stack height (I don't have an exact number in mind here, but half an inch of visible foam or less would be a good start).
  • Some little bit of cushioning (I feel like there is a sweet spot somewhere in between the Musha & Kinvara).

With that in mind, here are a few shoes that seem to pop up again & again in terms of recommendations & strong reviews:

Newton MV3. If I get another pair of Newtons, it will probably be this one. The MV3 is marketed as a racing flat, but at 5+ oz, it sounds a bit heavy to me for that. BUT, perhaps that will make it a really nice road shoe for me. I'm encouraged by all the positive reviews; on the other hand, the racing flat build makes me wonder about the longevity of the shoe, and while $125 is peanuts for a pair of Newtons, it's kind of pricey for something that's only going to last ~200 miles. I would totally try them if I could get a discount or find them on a good sale, though.

Mizuno Wave Ekiden. Another racing flat-esque shoe whose rave reviews seem promising. From the Runner's World Review: "Our testers said it brought them back to when shoes were 'just what you needed and nothing you don't, for a fast, lightly cushioned ride that gently wraps your foot. Feels like 1980 again!' All the testers found it especially accessible for such a light racing flat and said they used it for more than track work and racing. They did shorter training runs and even half marathons in it." Sold!

Mizuno Hitogami. The Hitogami is the shoe with which Mizuno is replacing both the Musha & Ronin, & slots in between the two in terms of weight & heel drop. (So in terms of weight/support, the Mizuno lightweight family will go Universe, Ekiden, Hitogami.) It's supposed to be available on Jan. 4; I'll be curious to compare the Ekiden & Hitogami & see which one feels closer to what I'm looking for.

Saucony Type A5. This shoe has piqued my interest because of all the reviews that a) rave about it & b) describe it as fairly similar to the Kinvara in terms of fit. Like some of these others, it's billed as a racing flat, but many runners seem to like it just as well for training runs & describe it as totally practical for even a half marathon.

What am I missing? What other neutral, lightweight, thin-soled options are out there that I should try?


  1. They're dcing the musha?! That's the shoe that has fit my foot the best of any shoe - and I have awful feet with bunions. I swear the musha was made for my foot. However, not a lot of shoe - and I'm leaning towards a tad more shoe than before, since I keep getting injured.
    I used to adore the Karhu fulcrum fast, but the newer models don't fit me as well as the old ones before they were popular. I loved, and still love, the Kinvara, but I'm afraid I need more stability. My gait and feet have changed over the years, and my injuries have me questioning my shoe choices (including the choice about wearing Kinvaras for over 1000 miles, which I have done more than once).
    What about the Saucony Spectrum? I've been wondering about this shoe. It looks like the kinvara, but it's cheaper!

    1. Argh, I know. Huge bummer. I'm really hoping the Hitogami will work out. (It does sound like it might have a bit more cushioning than the Musha, but maybe less stability.)

      Hmm, Saucony Spectrum is intriguing--how have I never heard of this shoe??

  2. My friend M loves the Merrell Mix Master - though maybe more for trail than for road.

    As for Altras -- which models did you try? I have two pairs -- the Superiors and the Lone Peak, and both are thick-ish but still quite responsive (and hence, why I got them). They are marketed for trail running, but I wear the Superior all the time for roads -- they are my favorite easy-to-moderate run comfy shoes! Stack height (ref: Running Warehouse) is 12mm, which is thick but not unreasonable. It comes with a removable rock plate and insoles, so I'm thinking you could get it down to 9mm. Anyway, I'm a fan of the wide toe box -- I'll never go back to narrow footbeds ever again.

    1. Interesting, I haven't seen the Superiors before -- that sole does definitely look thinner than the ones I've seen. That, I might be be open to trying it, because yeah, the not-quite-wide-enough toe box on most of my shoes is a real bummer.

  3. What about the Saucony Fastwitch? I like being able to feel the ground. They're light, 4mm drop, and responsive, although the toe box may not be as wide as you'd like. They're my go-to shoe for anything up to 10k but I've done 16mile training runs in them.

  4. They don't meet all your specs but I really wonder what you would think of the On Cloud(racers|surfers). They look gimmicky but I am totally in love and have never looked back. The toe box is the roomiest I've had, too.

  5. Not sure if this would exactly meet your list - but I use Vivo Barefoot shoes. For shorter distances, the road version (3 - 4 mm sole, zero drop), but when I was training for a marathon I used a trail version (even though running on the road). The lugs bring the sole thickness to 6 - 7 mm, and without having any real "foam" components at all. It was more laziness on my part, not wanting to find another shoes with a slightly thicker sole, but still the toe box and zero drop that I was used to, but it seemed to work out reasonably well!

  6. This is pretty much my problem. The Kinvaras were ok, but eh. Then, I went in search of something else and now I have a huge collection of shoes, but none I love. The Nike Lunar Racers were the BEST race shoes, love them, but they happen to aggravate my bone spur now, so I've been trying to figure out what other shoes to use. Oddly, I like the Ons -- have you tried those? Though they can be sort of tough on your arches. I'm running in the Mizuno Inspire right now. They're ok, but a little more CLASSIC shoe than I'm used to. I used to love the Adizeros, but I haven't tried the new Boost material yet. That may be what I try next?