Battle of the Vibram-soled Trail Runners


Left: Brand new New Balance Minimus MO10, 11.5. Right: Merrell Trail Gloves size 10.5 with 135 miles on them.

One of my New Years’ resolutions for 2011 was to run a 5K. (I didn’t know how important this goal was until the spring, when my doctor gave me some news that basically meant I had to take running more seriously, make it a regular and lifelong habit.)

On my second day of training in January, I sprained my left ankle, and quite badly, too. It took months to recover, and on bad days I still feel the pain. When I suffered the sprain, I was wearing $50 Adidas Kanadia trail shoes I had purchased with a Kohl’s gift card, by mail order, since they didn’t have any in stock at the store. I’m never buying shoes at Kohl’s again… The shoes were were apparently way too small for me. It wasn’t until later when I started visiting the specialty running shoe shops that I learned I need to order my shoes a full size up. I never wore those shoes again since the sprain, and went back to my trusty old Inov-8 Terroc 330s (which were still too small) for my recovery. And ended up losing a couple toenails.

After the sprain, I started doing research on avoiding running injuries. Much of it had to do with footwear. I read Chris MacDougall’s epic, Born to Run, and was sold on everything but the sandals (and the Vibram FiveFingers monkey-toe shoes). I bought a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves, but as I had only visited the outdoor/sporting goods stores and hadn’t yet consulted a specialist from a running shoe store, I still didn’t get the right size. I still got some blisters from some toe rub. As I increased my mileage and spent some time doing hill fartleks, I developed Achilles tendonitis. Not good. So I avoided the hills for a while, and also the minimalist shoes. My physical therapist told me I needed good arch support. I went and bought a pair of Saucony Kinvara 2s and some inserts (here’s the story on that). I thought I had found the answer. But this was actually a pendulum swing in the wrong direction. The Kinvaras don’t even fit me. They squeeze my toes inward because the toe box is pointy shaped, and my fifth metatarsal bone hangs over the side of the sole because they’re not wide enough. They are marketed for those trying to ease into minimalist running, but they do not really promote a forefoot strike. I got 275 miles out of them, though, and got over my tendonitis. Another good thing about the experience was that I learned the importance of seeing the experts at the specialty running shoe store (Fleet Feet in Chico). But after going through two seasons with those shoes I also learned something else: I need to combine that with my own research, and what I can learn from my own body. We moved to Paradise this fall. The terrain is much more hilly than Chico, even on the roads. While I was adjusting to the hills, I learned wearing my Trail Gloves actually hurt my legs less than wearing the Kinvaras. This was because the Kinvaras’ extra cushioning lull you into a sort of heel-strike laziness, especially on the downhills. You succumb to the draw of the cushioned heel and end up actually in more pain. Perhaps this has a little to do with the fact that the shoes have 275 miles on them, but I’ve come to think they aren’t really suited to a minimalist foot strike at all.

I spent a lot of time doing research on the other low-drop shoes out there. The only ones that actually have a foot-shaped toe box are the Altra Instinct (not carried locally), and the New Balance Minimus line. I also looked at the new Brooks Pure line, which seemed promising, though many reviews indicated they were too narrow.

Finally I went in to Fleet Feet to try on the New Balance Minimus Trail and Minimus Road. They are like heaven for my feet, I swear! I also tried on the Brooks Pure Grit, and it was almost the best shoe ever, if it weren’t for the fact that they were still too narrow and my fifth metatarsal bone hang over the edge of the sole, just like in the Kinvaras. Other than that, they’d be the perfect shoe for a trail marathon and training on the long mountain logging roads. Maybe after another season or two, they’ll have multiple widths available.

I picked up the Multi-Sport MO10s today (they’re the waterproof winter edition of the MT10s), and the MR10s are on order. I hope to have the MO10s broken in, in time for the Jack Frost 10K in Chico on December 17. I also brought in my Trail Gloves to have someone explain where I went wrong with the sizing, so that if, God forbid, I were to go ahead and purchase shoes somewhere other than Fleet Feet, I’d be able to get the right size. They said I needed to go up just a half-size in the Merrells. Though when I turned them over I saw the outsole was already worn through, even though I hadn’t put much mileage on them. So, as a question of durability, I don’t think a new pair of those would be a wise purchase. I checked my notes when I got home later and it looks like I’ve put only 135 miles on them. They shouldn’t be worn through already. But the left foot is the one that I sprained. I think as I was recovering last spring, my gait was slightly altered as a result, so I was landing a lot on the outside of my foot.

We’ll see how the MO10s hold up. I’m training for a half marathon next spring, so they’ll get a lot of miles put on them.

Update: See my follow-up post on the Kinvaras. I’m giving them a second chance (for the short remainder of their life) with the original insoles.

Update 2: Be sure to wear black socks with the MO10s, as the colors run and will stain your brand-new white Balegas.

Update 3 (4/10/12): Last weekend I went trail running in my size-12 MT10s (the spring/summer version of the MO10). Previously I had done trail running in the MO10s on soft mountain paths, but this run was on rocky lowland creekside trails, with lots and lots of little sharp rocks. And I could feel every single one of them through the EVA gaps all over the bottom of the outsole. And it hurt! I am going to go back to recommending the Trail Glove for rocky trails, because of their awesome rock plate, with the caveat that you need to get one properly sized. My pair were a half-size too small. As for the wear you see in the picture above, I’ll blame that on a slightly altered stance due to last year’s sprain on my left foot. And it could also be from running on roads. I’d shoot for the new Road Glove for the road runs.


One thought on “Battle of the Vibram-soled Trail Runners

  1. Pingback: Merrell Trail Glove – Leidensgenossen « Running Spots

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