Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My First Shoe Review!

So, this is kind of a review, and kind of a summary of what I've been trying out as far as running shoes go. I'll try to keep it short, unlike probably most of my blog posts.

First, let's just talk about my feet. They're pretty. They're dainty, narrow, have a lovely high arch; but I think that like most of my body, they would be a detriment to me if my survival depended even remotely upon my rank in the infamous classification of "The Fittest." They're bony with no padding, cramp in the arches all the time (which is borderline grotesque to witness), and my toes are way too small to be useful for something I have little of called balance. You know you have unusually small toes when the Asian ladies giving you pedicures (nine times out of ten) giggle, "Your toes so tiny!" as they dot nail polish onto your toenails. But on to shoes...

Barefoot/Minimalist Leanings
I first just picked out shoes because they felt good on my feet. Then I learned about RunTex, where someone would watch me walk and jog around the room and suggest a shoe. Like with anything else, I've now started doing more research into what else is out there before making new shoe purchases. In doing that, I've stumbled upon the school of thought that running shoes as we know it are babying us, even doing harm. All the padding and stride correction are there because our bodies have different weaknesses (including tightnesses). Instead of correcting them with strengthening, we just work around them with shoes. So I thought I would try to return to my natural, homo-sapien roots with some shoes that let my toes grip, my arches flex, and my Achilles tendons reach their full potential.

I read (and learned firsthand) that switching from your baby shoes to big-girl shoes will do a number on you if you rush into it. I had seen the weird "toe shoes" (Vibram FFs) around, and wanted to try them out. They were too dramatic, so the next best-seeming thing several years ago was the Nike Free. I owned two pair of Frees, one 5.0, and one 3.0 (which I briefly discussed here). I ran my first (and so far only) half marathon in my 3.0's, which were slightly beyond the age of replacement; but the New Balance Minimus that I bought toward the end of my training were too new (as I painfully learned in my first 8-miler in them) to do "the half" in.

Finally -- I'll get into the actual review part of this rambly shoe post.

The NB Minimus Trail
These are my first non-Free "barefoot" shoe. I read about them on-line and happened to stumble across them at a Nordstrom, of all places. This is evidence that the barefoot phenom has swept the nation. When I was looking for my Frees years ago I was told by every store that they didn't carry them, and by RunTex that they had gotten too many complaints of injuries so they pulled them because they didn't want to get in trouble for selling shoes that people weren't using correctly.

At Nordstrom, I was able to try on the NB Minimus as well as the Merrel Barefoot Trail Glove. At first the salesperson tried to talk me out of them. She kept telling me that this type of shoe is not for normal running and that I would hurt myself. Annoyed, I finally told her I'd done the research and was at least coming from a somewhat low-profile shoe (though, now, those Free 3.0s seem crazy padded). Her tune changed and she let me try on some shoes in peace. The Merrel had a wider toe box, but it just didn't fit my foot right, so I went with the NB.

I was in the middle of the half-marathon program at this point, so I started with a short run in them. My calves weren't sore, so I alternated them with my Frees for short runs, then did a longer one or two. They were better than I'd expected. I didn't feel like I was pounding the pavement, and my feet felt happy. I wasn't using the blister patches that I'd had to use with the Nike Frees to prevent giant blisters all over both feet. It was almost miraculous. I decided it was okay to take them on a long run to see if I would be able to run the half in them. Horrible idea. Around mile 7 my calves and Achilles tendons hurt so much they were more than screaming. I limped the last mile, and paid for it for the next week. So there was truth to the warnings.

As for the shoe itself, here are some shots.

I love the colors and the reflective bits on these. The toe dots and the side Ns are reflective.

The side profile shots will show you how low profile these are. They're not zero-drop, like my next shoe here, but they're very close (4mm). They have some arch support. which, actually, isn't so "minimus" of them, but there it is. You can see also how thin the sole is.

There's no insole and it is really the Vibram sole that absorbs all your impact. There's a thin layer of material in there over it, but not much. I don't run without socks, but they're so well sewn, it's an option.

The sole is also very pliable -- just as much as the Nike Free 3.0 -- but it doesn't have the deep slits that love to collect rocks. If you are running somewhere with lots of large, sharp rocks, you're going to feel them. If they're sharp, they will hurt. I run in my neighborhood, which has roads that are "paved" by pouring down some tar, then spreading out lots of little black rocks and allowing everyone's car to really flatten them into place (which takes weeks). I did catch a sharp one occasionally when the neighborhood roads were recently resurfaced, but it wasn't painful. Maybe once I stepped on a rock that did hurt, but it didn't leave a bruise and the pain was gone in seconds. I think it would take serious rocks to deter someone from wearing these shoes, though they are "trail" shoes. I'm not so much a "trial" runner, so I'm making a disclaimer here that I really have no idea what it would be like to attempt trails other than the hike and bike trail around Ladybird Lake with these.

I replaced the laces (boring black) with some fun blue ones, in case you're wondering. The black ones were very long.

Altra Intuition
After the half-marathon (run with the Nike Free 3.0v2s), I realized I was in need of a shoe with some padding if I was going to run that far. The NBs were probably not enough. Not long after, Austin Monthly did a feature on running shoes. I poured over the reviews and did some research. I decided to try these and the Newton MV2. I love Luke's Locker, btw. They had both these shoes and I fell in love with the Altras. One of the guys working that day said that these were his current favorite shoes.

They come with two pair of insoles, one thicker than the other, to ease you into the "zero drop." I thought I would go with the blue ones (less padding) first since I'd been fine with the NB Minimus. 

In the side-profile shots you can see how flat they are. No arch support and zero-drop. I'm not so crazy about the color but as this was the company's first shoe, they were very limited in their options.

I couldn't wait to try them out. I'd been recuperating after the half (thanks to a bum knee, most likely because the padding in my Frees had given out the week before the race). I was back in good shape, so I went out for a 4 miler with the new shoes. I didn't like the flexibility and was sad when I got back from my run. I felt like I was running in a piece of tire tread. I had also re-tweaked my knee, and from the research I did it sound like it was due to a stability issue, and the fact that I hadn't been running but went out for 4 miles (in new shoes). I picked back up  in my NB, but alternated with the Altras because I had bought them. I concluded (after consulting the Interwebs) that part of my stability problem might also be the extra padding, so I removed the insoles altogether, and was amazed and the great ride I was still getting. After a while, I was mainly running in the Altras.


Here's a shot of the inside. The bottom is a smooth rubbery type material that is squishy but not like your typical padding.

After a handful of runs in them, they were perfectly bendy. Even better, the super wide toe box gave my little piggies so much room! They could grip and splay. I was in love again.

One gripe I do have is that the heel is also pretty wide at the top. They don't slip around but if I'm not wearing socks with a tab at the heel, my socks slip down. By a mile into a run my socks are over the front half of my foot only. It's pretty silly, but I just have to buy more socks with tabs.

So these are now my favorite. It's been a few months of running in them (little bits at a time) and my calves are still adjusting. I can really tell a difference in that 4mm vs 0. I'll have to keep gradually adding mileage until I'm comfortable.

Here are some side-by-sides for comparison:

This one shows the wider toe box of the Altra. Genius.
This one shows the wider top of the heel in the Altras that's letting my socks get down off of my heel. The base of them is also a little more flat than the NBs.

So that's it! My first "shoe review."

Just a note: Since I've been running in (both) these shoes, my arches don't cramp!

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