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New Balance Minimus Trail Review

Posted by on Nov 17, 2010 | 13 Comments

New Balance’s new Minimus line has created quite a stir within the barefoot/minimalist shoe running community.  Pictures have leaks.  Sketchy details have surfaced.  Rumors have been rampant. The buzz has reached a fevor pitch.

Finally, some answers… A Minimus Trail review!

I managed to persuade the powers that be to write the first comprehensive review of the elusive Minimus Trails.  Keep in mind, this review is written by a barefoot trail runner for other barefoot runners.

A few months ago, New Balance contacted me about testing their new Minimus Trails.  I was happy to oblige.  I see shoes as tools; something we can use when conditions are not favorable for barefoot running.  For me, I am always looking for shoes that would allow me to run ultras, specifically 100 milers.  That is my ultimate test; that was the standard the Minimus Trails had to satisfy.

I don’t recall anticipating a shoe as much as these shoes.  To date, the only shoes I would confidently use for 100 milers were Vibram’s KSOs, and they would be inadequate for the rugged mountain trails I plan on tackling in the near future.

These shoes, designed with input from ultrarunning stud Anton Krupicka, had the potential to be the shoes the minimalist community has been waiting for.

When they arrived, I immediately removed them from the box and thoroughly inspected them.  The orange and black color scheme was a little funky, but cool.  The toe box was noticeably wider than most.

The sole was relatively thin and flexible.  The tread consisted of several circular interconnected knobs.  The tread wasn’t terribly aggressive, but the Vibram soles looked as if they would provide better traction than Vibram’s own Treks.

The shoe itself was light.  My size 12.5 (sizing may be adjusted for production models) weighed 8.7 ounces.

The shoe did not have an insole, which was another positive sign.  This probably indicated the shoe was designed to be worn sockless.  BTW- I hate socks.

I unlaced the shoes and slipped them on.  My first reaction was surprise.  The fit was… weird.  The back of the shoe was fairly snug around the heel ala Terra Plana’s EVOs.  The area on top of the foot at the base of the toes felt somewhat constricted, which caused immediate worry.  In previous experiences, tightness over the top of the foot caused serious top of the foot pain (like overtightened VFFs).  The toe box was wide enough to allow complete freedom of all toes.

The shoe does not have a zero-dropped heel.  The 4mm heel lift was noticeable standing in my kitchen.  This would be another worrisome characteristic.  I still do not understand the logic of a raised heel, especially on a shoe marketed to our demographic.  I would hold off judgment until I actually ran in the shoe.

The other odd feature was the excessive toe spring (upward curve of the toes).  In normal foot coffins, toe spring facilitates the rolling of the foot after a severe overstriding and heel strike.  For a barefoot/minimalist/midfoot runner, the only thing toe spring accomplishes is placing the toes in a perpetual state of hyperextension.  Again, I would wait to judge.

I went for a short run on a gravel road that afternoon.  Much to my surprise, the constriction at the top of the foot actually seemed to help keep the shoe in place.  It felt somewhat like the laces on huaraches.  Over the course of several hundred miles, I never experienced any top of the foot pain.  That was a relief.

The raised heel was noticeable on the hard gravel road.  After a few miles, my patellar tendons were aching.  I will discuss this in more detail later.

The toe spring was barely noticeable when running.  It did not alter my gait, nor did it cause any sort of discomfort.

Overall, the shoe felt better than I had hoped.  It was light, allowed for natural foot movement within the shoe, and had a good combination of ground feel versus protection.

Over the next five weeks, I tested the shoe in every terrain and environmental condition I had at my disposal.  After about 250 miles, this is what I found:

  • The raised heel was problematic on any flat, very hard surface.  On trails, it did not cause any problems.  The inherent nature of technical trail running (lots of hopping around) negated the ill effects of the raised heel.  I wanted to test these shoes in their natural state, so I left the heel intact for the entire testing period.  I hope New balance’s design team decides to zero drop the second generation of this shoe.  If so, it would immediately be one of the best minimalist shoes I’ve ever tested.
  • The shoe performed brilliantly as a trail shoe for both technical and non-technical trails.  Traction was significantly better than VFF Treks, and better than Terra Plana’s EVOs.  If I were running a trail ultra, I would trust this shoe as one of my two choices.
  • The toe spring was a non-issue.  It was annoying when standing around, but did not affect running.
  • The weight was adequate.  The Minimus Trail is far lighter than a boat anchor like Brooks Cascadias, but not as light as Inov-8s X-Talon 190.  The Vibram sole is definitely the heaviest part of the shoe.  If the New Balance design team hacked off that heel, the weight savings would be noticeable.
  • The interior was exceedingly comfortable.  It was designed to be worn sockless, and New Balance hit the mark.  Unlike the MT 100s and their Frankenstein-like seam-filled interior, the Minimus Trail was smooth and soft.  Being able to go sockless, in my opinion, greatly enhances the shoe’s “feel” in regards to working with your body.  The shoe feels like a natural extension of your foot, thus good form is easily maintained.
  • The upper was very comfortable.  It allowed good foot movement and was well-ventilated.  In very hot weather, it had a tendency to become soaked with sweat, but this is a problem with pretty much any shoe.
  • The lacing was not a problem.  I was a little perplexed by the lace closure system given so few minimalist shoes utilize it.  I prefer my shoes to be quite loose, so I never utilize the laces.  I let my friend and nearing-Krupicka’s-status-as-ultra-stud Jesse Scott borrow the shoes for the Woodstock 50 Miler in Pinckney, MI (which he won by over an hour).  I noticed he ties the shoes very tightly using what appeared to be a locking method to keep the shoes from moving on the foot.   Apparently the lacing DOES serve a utilitarian purpose. ;-)
  • The protection offered by the Minimus Trails was better than VFF Treks and EVOs.  If my measurements are correct, the sole is 11mm thick at the forefoot and 15mm at the heel.  The shoe does not have a rock plate like the MT100s, but still offers significant protection.  This shoe is about as much protection as I’d like in a shoe as ground feel is sacrificed.  Accordingly, ground feel is not as good as the other minimalist shoes.  For me, this shoe would be used for extremely rugged trails, long races, or both.  These types of runs necessitate a tool that provides more protection than ground feel.
  • Performance in slippery conditions was pretty good.  The lugs provided great traction in dry conditions, even in loose soil.  In muddy trails of trails covered in wet leaves, the shoes were good but not great.  They were definitely better than VFF KSOs, and slightly better than VFF Treks and Terra Plana’s EVO.  In really slippery conditions, I will rely on my Inov-8 X-Talon 190s.
  • This shoe should perform well as a winter shoe, though it will be released at the end of the winter season.  It will be a better option than VFFs and should allow for the use of traction devices.
  • I liked the aesthetics of the shoe.  It is a unique design and unique color combination.
  • The shoe, like every other shoe on the market, is not a close approximation of running barefoot.   It does allow for good form, but could be better without that heel.

Conclusion

This is an excellent shoe.  As soon as it is released (in March 2011), I will buy a pair.  I will immediately take a belt-sander to the heel, which will make this shoe the ideal minimalist trail shoe. This is a shoe that will fit nicely in my toolbox of shoes for various tasks.

New Balance hit a solid double with this shoe.  They could even stretch it to a triple with a good slide.  It is an excellent trail shoe that allows for natural foot movement and does not significantly interfere with gait.  New Balance clearly understands most of the principles of a true minimalist shoe. It has been rumored the second generation of this shoe will be zero-dropped, which would immediately vault the Minimus Trail to the front of the pack.

Me holding the Minimus Trails while testing another shoe

This shoe will face some very solid competition in the coming months, especially from the next generation of Vibrams, the new line of shoes from Merrell, and Inov-8’s BareGrip 200.  When all shoes are released, I will do a side-by-side comparison.

Of the shoes currently on the market, this is a clear favorite.  The shoe’s positive qualities and overall performance after hundreds of miles easily negates the 4mm heel drop.  I would highly recommend this shoe to barefoot or minimalist shoe runners looking for a trail shoe that will provide protection from rugged terrain while still allowing natural running form.

Note- I have tried both the Wellness and Road versions of the Minimus line.  The Wellness, despite the squishy sole, is the single most comfortable shoe I have ever worn.  I have not tested it extensively, but would like to in the near future.  Jesse Scoot Scott was wearing this shoe when he had the dramatic photo finish at this years’ North Country Trail 50 miler.  The Minimus Road, which I just received, appears to be a bit of a disappointment.  It has a very thick sole, the heel lift is very apparent, and it has limited flexibility.  I will be posting a full review after testing, but the Trail and Wellness appear to be the clear favorites of the Minimus line.

Disclosure- This shoe was provided by the manufacturer.

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13 Comments

  1. thinnmann
    November 23, 2010

    I have the Merrell Barefoot “Trail Glove”. Feels like zero heel lift. First impression and a photo at my Daily Mile page.

  2. Julie
    November 22, 2010

    Hmm I’m not sure how this is better than the Saucony A4 from a minimalist perspective. Just by the numbers, since I’ve never tried the minimus, it looks like the A4 is lighter, has the same 4mm drop, but has a thinner sole. It doesn’t have “tread” but I’ve never had any traction issues and I only run trails (mostly very technical). Now, a 0mm drop version would be a different story, like you said…

  3. Papafoster
    November 20, 2010

    Any idea how much these are gonna cost?
    (they’re using less material, shouldn’t we get a break on the price? Charge the mindless heel strikers thebig bucks for all that EVA padding!!)

  4. Rick
    November 20, 2010

    Jason,

    How would these work on rocky trails? I have found that with the light sole shoes, my bottom of feet are really sore from hitting so many rocks?

  5. New Balance Minimus Trail: First Look Review | Road Runner Shoes
    November 19, 2010

    […] the biggest point of complaint from truly minimalist and barefoot runners (for more on this, read Jason Robillard’s very detailed review of the Minimus Trail), and my hope is that we will see a zero-drop version of the Minimus Trail […]

  6. Andy
    November 19, 2010

    I received these shoes for testing a few days ago. The upper is the same, however the sole is completely different. Looks like the shoes are evolving all the time and we’ll all have to wait and see what comes out in March.

  7. Bracarunning.blogspot.com
    November 18, 2010

    I can’t wait to get my own pair! My Branca Libres (brancarunning.blogspot.com)are getting too cold this time of year. I like the Orange on the Minimus. I like the name too. Cool, thanks for that review.

  8. Christina
    November 17, 2010

    Hey, saw this link from Runner’s World. How does the heel compared to the NB 101s? It definitely looks even less built overall than those, but the 101s I believe have less of a heel. How many miles do you think they’re good for, too?

  9. Joseph Thee Best
    November 17, 2010

    Sounds good!!
    Hurry up with the review of the “Road”, and if you have a steady line of contact with New Balance could you please tell that that minimalist runner’s dont want to have minimalist color options haha..

  10. adam
    November 17, 2010

    I agree just from looks the Minimus road looks pretty terrible. Very interested in the wellness though. I need something to wear to work since barefoot and Smartwool Classics aren’t really acceptable.

    I wish these were coming out sooner than March!

  11. Russ Taylor
    November 17, 2010

    I love the way it looks, and I think New Balance made a very good shoe for people either transitioning down or for people that can’t do Five Fingers based on aesthetics. But I cannot get down with the heel lift, I just don’t get it. So for now, and the foreseeable future I’ll be sticking with my KSO’s when I need a shoe. I do like the looks of that Inov-8 Baregrip 200 though and have high hopes for an Inov-8 minimal road shoe. Have to keep my fingers crossed!

  12. Viper
    November 17, 2010

    I was reading elsewhere about taking shoes to a cobbler to zero-out the heel drop. Do you have any experience with that? Thanks for the review. I’m looking forward to trying these out. Too bad the release will be too late for a Xmas gift. Cheers!

  13. Ben S
    November 17, 2010

    Thanks for the review! I’ve been looking forward to this shoe with nervous excitement – nervous about the heel drop and excited about everything else. I’m so hooked on barefoot/minimalist running I’d rather not deal with any heel drop. It sounds like I shouldn’t be overly concerned about a drop of 4mm or less. I’m looking forward to the Minimus Road review.