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Shoe Solutions: Case Study No. 1—Seeking Minimalism with Traction

New Balance Trail Minimus.

The New Balance Trail Minimus passes one runner’s test.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

I tried to return to serious training too quickly after running the 2009 Boston Marathon and developed a bad case of plantar fasciitis in my left heel. Then, with Ironman Arizona looming in November, I panicked and tried to train through the injury by replacing my natural, mild heel strike with a forefoot landing, and consequently developed a compensatory Achilles tendon injury that was even worse than the fascia problem.

In fact, that Achilles injury never fully healed. No amount of rest, rehabilitation, or therapy brought it around fully. However, after 18 months I was able to run a fair amount with a modified Groucho Marx stride that seemed to take some stress off the Achilles tendon. The only problem was that this way of running felt unnatural and wasn’t as much fun as running without thinking about my stride. The modified stride was also less efficient than my natural stride—this was proven to me in laboratory testing done at Eastern Michigan University.

So I decided to fiddle around some more. To my surprise, I discovered through this fiddling that running in very minimal shoes—specifically the Nike Free 3.0—and with a very moderate forefoot weighting—seemed to take as much stress off my battered Achilles as the Groucho Marx style of running and enabled me to relatively comfortably. Interestingly, it didn’t work in regular trainers. When I wore thick-heeled trainers and tried to weight the forefoot on landing, I could not seem to help but exaggerate the adjustment, which put too much strain on the tendon. But in the Frees I could make the modification more gently, almost without thinking about it, and the difference was felt. Go figure.

In May of this year I moved into a house located at the edge of a wilderness preserve with miles and miles of dirt trails snaking through it. When I wore my Frees on these trails I was annoyed by a lack of traction. My foot slipped with each toe-off, which wasted energy and stressed that balky Achilles. After just putting up with it for a few weeks I decided I need to find a new shoe that was as light and low to the ground as the Nike Free, allowing me to run on the balls of my feet without forcing it, but which also had an outsole with good grip, so I wouldn’t slip when running on dirt.

Enter the New Balance Trail Minimus. The Trail Minimus weighs only 7.1 ounces in men’s size 9—a little more than the Free 3.0—and drops just 4 mm from heel to toe, which is less than the Free. It lacks the flex grooves of the Nike and has a hard Vibram outsole and is therefore less flexible than the Free, but when I laced up the Trail Minimus for the first time I waselated to find that it had more or less the same barely-there feeling I love about the Free.

I started my testing of the Trail Minimus with an eight-mile run on my local trails. The first thing I noticed was that I was able to weight my forefoot on landing in the gentle, unforced way that is necessary to keep my Achilles from shredding. The second thing I noticed was that the shoe’s traction was remarkable—not only better than that of most road trainers but also better than that of most trail shoes I’ve tried. I attribute this performance characteristic to a combination of the Vibram outsole and the shoe’s low profile, which allows the foot to really feel the ground.

See Also: Beware of Counterfeit Vibram Five Fingers

The one negative of the Trail Minimus is that it allows the runner to feel the ground too much sometimes. There are some short rocky sections in the trail network I run on, and in that first run I felt some sharp edges poking into the soles of my feet as I tried gingerly to negotiate them. I wouldn’t wear the Trail Minimus on trails featuring long rocky stretches. Then again, I wouldn’t choose to run regularly on trails that featured long rocky stretches.

In summary, my shoe solution worked. I needed a shoe that allowed me to run on the balls of my feet without strain and to run on trails without slippage, and I found that shoe in the New Balance Trail Minimus.

Every runner needs shoes. Not every runner needs the same shoe. Each runner’s shoe needs may change over time and according to circumstances. It takes some mindfulness and experimentation to find the best shoe for one’s present needs. What’s your shoe solution?