Choosing a Lightweight Running Shoe

Moving Towards Moderation: Functional Minimalism

This year’s summer Outdoor Retailer show in August debuted the newest in road and trail running shoes which will be hitting the market between November and the summer months of 2014.

Those watching noticed a trend in the new designs and found that most shoe companies were moving further away from the minimalist shoe offerings of the past several years and providing shoes with additional cushioning while maintaining some of the principles of minimalism such as increased flexibility and lightweight materials.

With polarization in any design schema we see shoes designed for principle rather than functionality, and I think that this pendulum swing back to the middle is creating some very exciting models for the coming season.

I’ve fielded hundreds of questions since the book “Born to Run“, by Christopher McDougal, was published in 2009, and most of those questions revolved around what type of footwear was best for beginning runners or those who are starting to train with intent for the first time. Most of these runners feel inspired by the idea that they can run further, and with less pain, in minimal shoes and want to know which models to buy.

McDougal strikes a compelling argument in his book, but most experienced runners know that only the most blessed can survive with very minimal shoes for all of their training. We can trace the minimalist movement back to pioneering marathon runners of the 1960s and 70s, but minimalism gained mass popularity after this book was released, and new runners are still introduced to these principles for the first time every day.

I remember back in 2007 when I first started reading the blog of a young world class ultra runner named Anton Krupicka. At the time, this post discussed how he would use very minimalist street shoes or reissues of 1970s trainers, as well as modifying trail shoes that were on the market for a lower drop and lighter weight feel. In my memory, he was really at the forefront of the minimalist movement in the US, especially among trail runners.

What I hope to provide in this article is some sound perspective gained from following the running shoe industry closely over the last ten years, as well as my own experience in many minimal designs that were based more on a fad than actual function.

I think that more than anything, it is important for runners to find footwear that works for them, whether it be the Brooks Beast or Vibram FiveFingers, and gradually transition into the most minimal shoe they can wear for the bulk of their training without coming home with sore feet and achilles tendonitis.

Probably, less than 1% of runners can successfully run high mileage in minimalist shoes, and if you’ve been paying attention to the runners at the front of races, most of them have some protection in the form of at least a small amount of cushioning.

Frankly, that cushioning is exactly what some minimalist shoes released over the past three years lacked, and many runners found that they returned from runs with sore feet or that the transition into these barefoot feeling shoes too too much of a toll on them.

So, with the new year approaching, I give you my picks for those of you hoping to improve your form, transition into less shoe, or just experiment a bit. I refer to this category of shoes as lightweight performance, or functional minimalism if you will. These shoes incorporate minimalist principals while allowing you to run high mileage without overtaxing your feet.

1. Saucony Kinvara 4 (MSRP $100)The Kinvara has long time been a favorite with the minimalist crowd due to its absolute simplicity and the fact that it was one of the first road shoes to be released with a lower (4mm) heel drop. At 7.9 ounces the Kinvara 4 offers enough pillowy soft foam cushioning to manage the marathon distance while retaining the lightweight and flexible feel of barefoot running.

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2. Brooks PureConnect 3 (MSRP $100)Brooks released its PureConnect line in 2011 to a great deal of buzz, incorporating a low profile and flexible feel with a split toe design that allows the toes to move more independently but is completely unnoticeable. Runners who prefer an arch hugging, barely there feel with enough soft cushioning to handle hig mileage will appreciate this shoe.

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3. New Balance MR1400 V2 (MSRP $100)The 1400 gained a loyal following amongst road and trail runners with its first version, and its more traditional 9mm heel drop offers a gentler transition into the lightweight and flexible category. Combined with New Balance’s Revlite EVA foam, one of the lightest foams on the market, the 1400 ends up weighing only 6.4 oz while being able to offer enough protection for any type of running.

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4. Nike Free 3.0 v5 (MSRP $110)The Free was one of the first shoes on the market to offer a barefoot like running experience, and Nike was well ahead of their peers. One of the best decisions they’ve made is to keep the Free a relatively unchanged shoe since its release. With incredible flexibility the Free 3.0 strengthens your feet and can help you improve your form to a mid foot/ forefoot strike, but the ample cushioning provides enough protection for many miles.

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5. Pearl Izumi EM Road N1 (MSRP $115)Pearl Izumi released their E:Motion line in 2013 with enough choices to confuse most runners. The N1 offers one of the best heel to toe transitions on the market and is an incredibly smooth riding shoe. At 8.1 oz with a 7mm drop, the Road N1 has plenty of cushioning and protection along with a very natural fit and a feel that deserves a trip to the running store for a test drive.

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6. Newton Distance (MSRP $155)Newton is a great choice for a runner trying to improve their foot strike and form. Well cushioned lugs are placed on the forefoot of the shoe which aim at helping runners transition to a more natural running form. Combine this cushioning technology with a lightweight and nimble feel (8.5 oz) as well as a natural last with a wide forefoot, and you get a great lightweight trainer.

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7. Adidas Adios 2 (MSRP $115)Originally designed for the former marathon world record holder, the Adios 2 provides a responsive but firm cushioning feel with a more traditional 9mm heel drop. Adios converts are just as likely to wear these shoes on the road as they are at the race or on the trail, and this is one durable racing flat that can take a beating.

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8. Nike Lunaracer +3 (MSRP $110)Another shoe originally designed to race the marathon distance, the Lunaracer features an incredible amount of soft and flexible cushioning in a 6.4 oz package. A flexible but locked down upper aids in faster paced training and racing, and the remarkable Lunar foam cushioning retains its resiliency after several hundred miles of training.

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