Widening the Running Paradigm

Looking back at the evolutionary development of humans, our physiology and subsequent bipedalism has become a characteristic trait. The whole idea of “persistence hunting” enabled humans to develop a respectable degree of endurance and efficiency. While we as humans are far from the fastest, we’d rank as one the animal kingdom’s finest for covering long distances. Yet, the act of running itself was largely an oversight among the non-athletic elite up and until the 1970s. Thanks largely in part to the 1972 Olympic Marathon win by American Frank Shorter, this event effectively set the wheels in motion for a movement that would later claim 25 million participants within a span of two decades.

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WIDENING THE RUNNING PARADIGM
Looking back at the evolutionary development of humans, our physiology and subsequent bipedalism has become a characteristic trait for our species.
Text by Eugene Kan

Looking back at the evolutionary development of humans, our physiology and subsequent bipedalism has become a characteristic trait. The whole idea of “persistence hunting” enabled humans to develop a respectable degree of endurance and efficiency. While we as humans are far from the fastest, we’d rank as one the animal kingdom’s finest for covering long distances. Yet, the act of running itself was largely an oversight among the non-athletic elite up and until the 1970s. Thanks largely in part to the 1972 Olympic Marathon win by American Frank Shorter, this event effectively set the wheels in motion for a movement that would later claim 25 million participants within a span of two decades.

Aside from Shorter’s historic win, the work of Nike-affiliated personalities Bill Bowerman and Steve Prefontaine cannot be overlooked – They were major catalysts in the development of running which trickle down to the masses. Since then, running has come to represent a substantial slice of the sporting pie, garnering sales of roughly $3.35 billion USD in 2009.

In recent times, industry running groups from the creative community have been popping up as a sort of social gathering. This has been an awesome development in a time where past meetings

saw themselves perennially linked to major booze fests as the unifying theme. Once again, I have to tip my hat to Nike for helping promote the sport into a greater lifestyle context through its crossover initiatives such as the highly respected fashion meets performance GYAKUSOU collection with UNDERCOVER. Without straying too far off the path of this feature, an increasingly serious obesity pandemic is taking over many parts of the Western world. Our ability to remain healthy through our youth and old age is not something people or myself should take lightly.

As a sport, running is as simple as they come. It’s something that the human body has largely been able to achieve without any outside instruction. It is at the root of almost all sport and something innate in our evolution. Yet we’ve seen running offerings diversify itself immensely in recent times. Despite the fact we’ve been able to run equipment-less, there has been a rather notable integration of outside influence in the form of running shoes. Most of what you see in the retail landscape follows the idea of cushioning, motion control and stability – under the assumption the human foot cannot oversee these biomechanical elements on its own – with extraneous technologies built in.Given the general diversity of the human species, there may be some basis for these extra touches.

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However as we’ll see soon, there may be more to designing running shoes than piling on the cushioning and motion control/stability features.

The big trend of the last few seasons has been the development of a more minimalist running shoe. However, minimalist is an extremely vague term that much like defining streetwear, has its own connotations among different crowds. The general scope of minimalist footwear is something that leans towards a barefoot experience. This means less cushioning & support, a lesser or zero heel to toe drop, flexible sole and a lightweight design. There are varying degrees of this but this is an accurate checklist few should argue against.

It has been said that more minimalist footwear often promotes changed foot strikes towards midfoot and forefoot strikes – which goes against the conventional form associated with a 30-some year old running shoe formula – and can offer greater running economy and less injurious runs. Studies show that upwards of 30% of runners each year experience some sort of pain or injury through running. As of mid-2010, minimalist running shoes represented only 2% of total footwear sales suggesting something is up with traditional footwear design or the heel striking running form it promotes. Prior to the tackling of the minimalist trend by big running brands, shoes once made for outdoor water sports such as Vibram’s 5 Fingers were a good option. Vibram went on to embrace their popularity to create running-specific models of its popular toe shoes. This had lead other big companies such as adidas to launch their own competitor – albeit designated as a workout shoe – the adiPure Trainer as

well as FILA and their Skele-Toes.

Despite the increased cushioning that has been the norm for so many running shoes, this seems to have a paradoxical effect on mitigating impact forces when running. These thick and robust midsoles reduce the human body’s own proprioceptive abilities – that means the ability for the body to adjust the level of cushioning via sense – and in doing may actually increase impact relative to more minimal or barefoot running. Simply put, if your foot has less cushioning at its disposal, it will take the proper preventative measures to ensure that you aren’t running an in injurious manner. At times, all that extra cushioning may led your body to turn off its stress signals leading to trouble down the road.

As for increased performance, a study back in 2001 discussed that the body uses 4% less energy when running barefoot relative to traditional footwear. We can’t extrapolate the findings but I’d like to see a study that tackles this idea of running economy based on foot strikes rather than mid/forefoot-striking barefooted runners vs. heel striking shod runners. The trouble lies not so much in footwear itself, but rather the technique it seemingly promotes through heel striking. Whether or not heel strikes are the basis of injury are debatable, but from a performance perspective there seems to be evidence that midfoot and forefoot strikes can lead to increased performance.

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Many major companies have taken different approaches to tackling the minimalist movement. Each has their own particular philosophy and we wanted to explore some of the current offerings out on the market. While there are some models reviewed that have a strong minimalist flavor, others follow a more traditional route. Many people can and have gotten away just fine with traditional footwear styles and as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

But increasingly, the whole notion that the foot needs corrective measures in footwear design is being called into question. Even Nike’s own Alberto Salazar has gone on the record to say that the technologies created to mitigate the natural rolling of the foot through the gait cycle (known as pronation) are without scientific merit. The vilification of pronation is losing steam as people begin to understand that pronation is naturally needed as part of the running process. Your body takes into account several factors including speed and surface, and together they all work in unison to carefully control impact when running. The educational basis of footwear design is seemingly set for a rocky shake-up.

Moving onto the next culprit aside from pronation has been the way in which runners foot strike. Despite heel striking being denounced, the act of heel striking is quickly being dismissed as the sole reason behind injuries. The complex nature of running and the breakdown of its biomechanics have brought to light proprioceptive heel strikes that allow those to continue running injury-free despite going against the physiological grain.

That means your body is smart enough to adjust for impact through each step. The attention now turns to the angle of the shin and the bend of the knee upon impact.

With a heads-up regarding two important notes in the design and implication of footwear design in running health, we can move further into what some people have constituted as proper running technique. Midfoot striking involves landing relatively simultaneously on your forefoot and heel while forefoot striking involves no impact at the heel. A positive aspect of midfoot and forefoot striking by experts has been its ability to prevent overstriding which often involves an extended knee. With forefoot and midfoot running, since your center of gravity is over your feet, the impact to the joints is considerably less.

So there’s a bit of a primer before we move forward into the shoe reviews. I personally never ran as a primary form of exercise or competition, but it has always been a fundamental part of all sports I’ve played. Lucky to never have suffered any sort of serious running ailments, I’m a born-again midfoot striker who like many followed a heel striking approach.

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CONTENTS
1 // ADIDAS
2 // ASICS
3 // BROOKS
4 // MIZUNO
5 // NEW BALANCE
6 // NIKE
7 // SAUCONY
8 // VIVOBAREFOOT
9 // CONCLUSION

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Among the heavyweights of the sporting world, adidas has the most pedigree and history. The Three Stripes have been crowned champion at every which level in the world. This success can be based on its ability to work with top class athletes to engineer great product innovations. adidas has rightly understood that running is the absolute basis of many of our favorite sports and have developed a product line to work with this philosophy. The adiZero franchise has been their most important sporting development of the last few seasons as it spans all of adidas’ major sports disciplines. The emphasis on lightweight product is both a great marketing point, a psychological boost to the athlete and of course the hopeful increase in actual performance. Earlier this year, they launched the adiZero Feather which was announced as the lightest shoe in its class at 6.7 oz.

-adidas adiZero FeatherRating: 7 / 10

Price: $100 USD
Weight: 6.7oz
Features: SPRINTFRAME, adiPRENE+, SPRINTWEB, adiWEAR

To start off, of course I’ll bring the shoe’s weight into the spotlight. It truly does feel extremely light given its stance and coupled with the dynamic color and design, it isn’t a shoe that will pass by without a few stares. The overall fit was quite good and the SPRINTWEB offered the necessary support and breathability required. The breathability is an important feature for the Hong Kong runner especially given the climate, heat and humidity levels. The by-product of weight shaving is greater moisture control, so no qualms about that as they both complement one another nicely. I felt the SPRINTFRAME did it’s part to offer a bit more explosiveness off the push but it’s something I could also do without. For those with experience running in adidas running shoes, the adiPRENE+ is no surprise and provides a suitable amount of cushioning for all but the heavier runners without an overly mushy and unresponsive feel. Overall the fit is meant more so for narrow feet and I when it comes to the weight game, a narrow last will obviously make the weight numbers a bit more attractive rather than a wide and more accommodating last. The fitting was probably one of the biggest detractors for me and factored into my personal rating, but the microscopic weight will have many people interested if they want a well-cushioned and lightweight trainer.

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ASICS has long been a respected brand amongst runners and athletes alike becoming a dependable option for footwear under the traditional scope of running shoes. While smaller and running-concentrated brands have entertained the thought of moving down the ladder of support and cushioning, ASICS has been a little more reluctant. ASICS’ head researcher Simon Barthold has some choice words regarding the minimalist approach. Earlier this summer, Barthold claimed there was no substantiated studies to back-up current minimalist running claims and that the current paradigm of “rear-foot strike pattern design” is not broken. This may be true for many runners out there, but the science is slowly weighing in the opposite direction. With this in mind, ASICS introduced its 33 by ASICS collection this past summer. Under the umbrella were two models, the Gel-Blur33 reviewed here and a more affordable Rush33. The nomenclature was inspired by the 33 joints that form the feet and create one of the most complex pieces of human engineering on the body.

-ASICS Gel-Blur33Rating: 6 / 10

Price: $85 USD
Weight: 9.9oz
Features: Impact Guidance System (I.G.S.), GEL: ASICS’ signature cushioning system, Solyte Midsole, ComforDry Sockliner

When I say that minimalism comes in many shapes and forms, the Gel-Blur33 from the 33 by ASICS line is indicative of that. The shoe from first glance looks far from minimalist given the height of the tooling and a noticeable difference between the heel and forefoot. But aside from that, the shoe feels very good on the foot. The most minimalist part of the shoe is probably the tooling which hopes to offer greater flexibility while maintaining a thorough amount of cushioning. The toebox is very accommodating for my wider feet yet the The GEL cushioning felt great and was pretty soft and plushy when walking around, but as a midfoot striker, you will find it easier to clear the heel with a lower drop shoe. I’ve never really felt the need for a great heel fit in runners due to the uni-directional nature of the sport but the heel fit was the best of any tested. The ventilation and ComforDry sockliner made for a pleasurable experience on otherwise hot and sticky runs. To call this a minimalist running shoe is perhaps a bit of stretch, but for those looking to transition, I think it could work. If you’re not a personal fan of softer cushioning, the Gel-Blur33 may not be the best option but the overall fit was my one of the greatest strengths of the shoe.

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Brooks is a brand that has largely resided within the running market. Drawing more familiarity among enthusiasts, the American brand based in Washington has dedicated itself to helping further running experiences with design that encourages longer, faster, farther and happier runs. Their eclectic range covers a variety of biomechanical styles and gaits with some of its own ground-breaking innovations on both a performance and environmental level including BrooksDNA, BioMoGo, Progressive Diagonal Rollbar and HPR Green. A particular model from Brooks, the Beast has often garnered a lot of mention for its copious amounts of stability and motion control but this has now been contrasted by a new lighter weight neutral model known as the PureConnect which is a nod to the increasing diversification of the running brand.

-Brooks Glycerin 9Rating: 5 / 10

Price: $130 USD
Weight: 12.6oz
Features: BrooksDNA, Omega Flex Grooves, Tuned Density Midsole

The Brooks Glyercin was a shoe that would probably be best fitted for heavier set runners wanting greater amounts of cushioning. It was a bit too bulky for my personal taste. Perhaps it was a fitting issue and I should have sized up but the restrictive overlay on the toecap was something I wasn’t a huge fan of. Overall, the tooling was designed with an interesting rocking motion that I assume helps with the gait cycle. If you’re on your tippy toes and lean forward, you’ll almost be propelled forward after hitting a certain threshold. Despite the Omega Flex Grooves, I found the outsole overly stiff and it didn’t really break in as desired following several wearings. Despite all my negative notes, the shoe sits as a neutral cushioning shoe that has been one of Brooks’ marquee products over the last few iterations.

Brooks GhostRating: 5 / 10-

Price: $100 USD
Weight: 11.1oz
Features: BrooksDNA, Omega Flex Grooves

Much like its brethren the Glycerin, the Ghost has some of the same performance sensibilities. It is however positioned as Brooks’ most universal neutral cushioning shoe. The key tech, the BrooksDNA is an interesting concept to me as it has the ability to adjust cushioning based on the necessary surfaces, speeds, weights and gait. I didn’t vary too much from surfaces given the lack of greenery around my areas but it does provide a bit of a difference when I took into account speed. At a time where there’s been a degree of specificity with every which need, it’s nice to have a shoe that can perform in a more versatile manner. For me personally, there’s simply too much midsole, however that’s not to say heavyset runners will benefit and appreciate the cushioning brought on by both the Ghost and the Glycerin.

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Mizuno has been plying its trade in the athletic world for over 100 years. Since its inception in Osaka back in 1906, the brand has been multi-disciplinary in its pursuit of athletic perfection including running, track & field, golf, baseball and softball. The brand’s commitment can best be summed up in its brand ethos: “Contributing to society through the advancement of sporting goods and the promotion of sports.” We unfortunately didn’t have the chance to test it, but Mizuno made waves this summer with the release of its new marquee foamless model, the Wave Prophecy. The innovation came thanks to a full length Infinity Wave plate which served as the main driver behind cushioning and comfort.

-Mizuno Wave EnigmaRating: 5 / 10

Price: $130 USD
Weight: 12.4oz
Features: Mizuno Wave Technology, SmoothRide Engineering, Dynamotion Fit

Mizuno’s Wave Engima enters the Japanese brand’s roster as an amply cushioned neutral shoe. Right off the bat, you definitely feel a firm sense of cushioning. It was a far cry from the cushy rides that marked some of the other models tested but this firmness to some might be construed as a lack of overall cushioning. Following a decent amount of break-in, the shoes felt like they came into their own as the AP+ cushioning seemingly became more responsive and a bit softer. The use of Mizuno’s Wave Technology enjoys proper force dissipation with each footstrike, while the Smoothride tech ensures a proper and smooth transition as your foot goes through the gait cycle. Despite the desire for many midfoot strikers to maintain form throughout their runs, towards the end there are times when a lack of fitness may result in your form breaking down, making a shoe like the Wave Enigma a suitable choice. However given the price point, I would say there are quite a few options out there to also potentially consider before purchasing the Wave Enigma.