Thursday, September 13, 2012

Barefoot Running Shoes On Gravel: VFF TrekSport vs SoftStar Shoes Dash vs. NB Minimus Trail Zero

The bane of barefoot and nearly barefoot runners. Gravel!! If gravel is a common obstacle you face, but you want to run barefoot or nearly barefoot there are basically two options available.

1. Toughen up.
2. Find shoes that give you enough of a shield against the gravel.

As I am a nearly barefoot runner and not a true barefoot runner I have gone with a bit of a combination of the two. When I was training for my first trail race I had two pairs of shoes I ran on trails with, Vibram FiveFingers Treksport, and Soft Star Shoes Runamoc Dash (5mm sole option). Recently I added the New Balance Minimus Zero Trail to my trail running. 

Time for the standard disclaimer, none of these compaines have provided me anything to talk about their shoes, I bought them all myself.

When I first started running off road in minimal shoes, I learned quickly that gravel hurts. So I started going out of my way on trails to run on the gravel while wearing my VFF Treksports to toughen up my feet. The Treksports protect from gravel with a 4mm Vibram rubber sole and an 4mm EVA midsole. The sole is still rather flexible (obviously less so than a VFF classic, sprint, or KSO would be) and I could definitely feel the gravel. I felt that they offered enough protection to make running on brief intervals of gravel manageable from the start of my toughening up of my feet. Occasionally I would have a rock or stick poke at my arch where there is no rubber, but this shoe has a tough leather area there that provided me enough protection. 

Runamoc Dash
As the weather cooled, I started wearing the Soft Star Shoes Runamoc Dash. I got the non-perforated version because it was going to be my cold weather running shoes. I also got the 5mm sole for two reasons, 5mm would take longer to wear down than 2mm, and, as I said before, gravel hurts.

Well worn Runamoc Dash
The Dash has that 5mm sole, and an insole that appears to be as thick. It is the least flexible of my minimalist shoes, but still gives good ground feel. Maybe someday I'll pull the insole out which would improve ground feel and flexibility while reducing the protection from gravel and other hazards. The Vibram rubber sole covers the entire bottom of the shoe which gives ample protection for the entire foot including the arch area. The Dash gave me more protection from trail hazards, kept my foot warm on cold days, was extremely comfortable with or without socks, and is mono-toed, so I can wear whatever socks I want with it. The tread is less aggressive, so I did find myself sliding a bit more in sloppy trail conditions.

My new NB Minimus Trail Zero shoes got their first big tryout recently. My wife and I went trail running at Mammoth Cave National Park. I recently got the Zeroes because I decided to shine up my Runamocs and use them as a dress/casual shoe. I decided to try them out on the trail. NB has a completely different approach to the sole of this shoe than my others. It is a highly segmented sole with these little rubber pods connected by rubber. The high contact/wear areas also have a more durable rubber on top. Hard to describe, just check out the picture. 

The rubber sole appears to actually be thicker than my Runamocs, but thanks to the segmentation it is more flexible. I feel that my foot moves more naturally in these than the Runamocs, while I feel the ground less in them. Sometimes that lowered groundfeel is a curse, and sometimes it is a blessing. 

So which is my favorite trail shoe? 

Well, it depends. In ideal conditions such as mild weather and dry trails with few hazards I always prefer The FiveFingers they give me the most natural foot function. My TrekSports, however, do nothing to keep my feet warm, and when they get wet I have soggy material between my toes which I can not stand at all.

The Runamocs are the warmest of the three, and are even warm enough in the rare snow we have in Kentucky without socks. They do a good job of protecting against gravel. The downsides are they are the least flexible of the three, and they just look to good to ruin on trails. (downside or upside?)

The NB Zeroes are the best for wet conditions as they shed water like a well oiled duck, they are more flexible than the Runamocs, but have less ground feel. They have excellent flexibility thanks to the segmented sole, but sometimes acorns and things get stuck between the pods.

If you are looking for a minimal shoe for running on trails that include a lot of gravel or other hazards you have options available. You can toughen up your feet. You can get a shoe that has a thicker sole, losing some of the flexibility and barefoot feel, but adding protection under foot. You can choose one of the many shoes with a segmented sole that allows more flexibility, but has the chance of debris getting between the sole sections.