2012. This will be the year of the minimalist shoe. I guarantee it. Several manufacturers are developing minimalist shoes, which I would define as any shoe that allows you to run with the same form you’d use if barefoot, that satisfy our needs. Long gone are the days of hacking up a pair of water shoes to retrofit something that would offer a little protection.
So why is 2012 going to be the year of the minimalist shoe? Because niches are being filled with quality products. Manufacturers have finally started honing in on the qualities that make a great minimalist shoe and are applying those principles to develop a wide range of shoes that meet a variety of needs. Need a trail shoe? Companies like New Balance, Merrell, Vibram, and VivoBarefoot are offering a legitimate option. A few more manufacturers are offering trail shoes that are close to minimal. As consumers, we have choices. Finally!
This does affect the reviewing process. In the days of yore, we used to review shoes based on the degree of minimalism the shoe achieved. Simply having a zero drop sole was enough. Now that the companies have raised the bar, reviewers have to follow. There are two criteria that should be used to choose a minimalist shoe:
1) Where will I use the shoe, and
2) Does the shoe fit my foot?
For my reviews from this point forward, I will discuss number one in some detail. Number two, however, will require you to actually try the shoe. I cannot adequately describe a shoe that will allow you to determine if it will fit your foot.
So… about this Minimus Trail Zero.
New Balance’s Minimus line, which debuted last year, featured a great shoe (Trail) and a terrible shoe (Road). If forums are any indication, New Balance received A LOT of feedback. The result is the 2012 Minimus Zero line. The Trail (MT) has been significantly redesigned, as has the Road. Both are radical departures from their older siblings. Both have been significantly improved. This review will focus on the Trail; a Minimus Zero Road review will follow.
The changes from 2011 to 2012 involve making the MT lighter and more minimal. The sole has been zero-dropped, meaning the height of the sole at the forefoot and heel are now the same. The original Minimus Trail had a 4mm heel drop. For most people, this wasn’t a significant issue. For me, it changed my posture enough to cause knee pain when using the Trails for road running. The zero-dropped sole is a welcome change.
Not only has the sole been zero-dropped, it’s been carved up. In an effort to shave weight, the designers removed a significant amount of rubber from the Vibram sole. The circular “pods” on the sole are strategically placed based on wear data from the original Minimus Trail wear tests. This really does significantly reduce the weight of the shoe. It also increases the flexibility. Both are desired minimalist shoe qualities.
Unfortunately, there is a drawback to this weight savings- the holes that were carved out leave your foot susceptible to small sharp objects poking your mostly unprotected sole. Normally this would be serious deal breaker because it eliminates this shoe as an option for technical trail running.
That’s okay. New Balance still produces the MT10 (and MT20, an updated version of the original MT10) which has a heartier (though heavier) sole for situations where more protection is needed. If you’re planning on running REALLY technical trails, take a look at the MT110.
The weight/protection tradeoff was a good call. It creates a niche that allows us to choose the shoe based on our precise needs. This is a good thing, and the reason I think 2012 is the year the minimalist shoe has truly arrived. Need to run fast on non-technical trails? Choose the Minimus Zero. Need a little more protection? Choose the MT10/20. Need a lot more protection? Choose the MT110.
The traction provided by the sole is pretty good for most trail situations. The pods do not provide as much traction as a lugged sole, but the layout of the pods offers more traction than the original Minimus Trail. The rubber feels “stickier” than the previous generation, which would make this shoe a good choice on hard rock. The sole is flat enough to provide a decent base for road running, though it would not be my choice as a minimalist road shoe.
The shoe does have other changes as well. The upper is radically different. The former model had a thinner mesh-like upper that ventilated well but still remained comfortable. The Minimus Zero Trail goes even more minimal. You can clearly see your foot through the mesh of the new upper. This produces even more weight savings and awesome ventilation.
There’s a tradeoff in the upper design. While it’s lighter and more ventilated, it’s also not as comfortable as the original Minimus Trail. I always go sockless, which means the upper directly contacts my skin. There are no exposed seams inside the shoe, but the mesh feels slightly abrasive. This may cause problems on very long runs. I’m more than happy to make the sole weight/protection tradeoff, but this one is more difficult. I wish New Balance would have used the same upper design on the Zero Trail as they used on the Zero Road. The Zero Road has a mesh upper with a fabric liner, which dramatically enhances comfort.
The lacing system works well. On a minimalist trail shoe, I want the ability to tighten the shoe in specific locations while leaving it loose in others. You can’t do that with a Velcro closure. The lacing isn’t nearly as precise as the Merrell Trail Glove lacing, but it’s good enough to serve the purpose.
The overall design of the shoe is good, but the minimal qualities may affect durability. Without a long-term test, this is impossible to determine. I haven’t had an opportunity to run hundreds of miles in the shoes yet, so I cannot comment on their likely lifespan. I do think the shoes will be far more durable than many racing flats which seem to disintegrate after 100 miles or so. I would be surprised if they last as long as something like a Vibram KSO, though. Time will tell.
The 2012 Minimus Zero Trail is a good shoe that will fill a very specific niche. It’s not an all-purpose shoe that can be used in any situation. It’s a trail shoe that would be at home on a mildly technical trail that may involve some road running. This would have been an excellent shoe on the dirt trails of Michigan… if I still lived there. Given this shoe’s light weight, I would expect to see it as a fixture in short trail races.
For road running, the Minimus Zero Road, Merrell Road Glove, or the Vibram SeeYa would be a better choice. For technical trail running, the Minimus MT10/20, MT110, Merrell Trail Glove, or several of the new Inov-8 products would work better. It’s a moot point, however, we’re at the point where specific shoes can fill well-defined niches.
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