Nike’s ‘non-mountain’ shoes: the Nike Free Hyperfeel

I have just returned from Chamonix in the heart of the Alps where I was racing the TNF UTMB CCC: that is The North Face Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc Courmeyeur-Champex-Chamonix race… think I might stick to the acronym!

My race was 100km, involved 6000m of vertical ascent and took me a shade over 24 hours to complete. Shoe choice was always going to be important.

So when it came to choosing what to wear on my feet, I decided to go maximal. This was going to be about comfort and under-foot protection. At the best of times I tend to steer clear of really minimalist footwear, but given the duration of the CCC and the fact that most of the route is studded with rocks (or is just rocks and nothing else!) I was going to stay far away from shoes that are light on protection.

Now that I am back in the urban sprawl, however, I am back in what I think is one of the heartlands of minimalist footwear… central London! This is where people seem to talk about, and run about in, minimalist footwear. I certainly didn’t see anyone in vibrams running in the Alps (although there were a few pairs on runners post-race as they loafed around the town).

Perfect place then, for me to read about the new Nike Free Hyperfeel, out today.

In essence the shoe looks to be a Flyknit upper (which I like – here is my review of the Flyknit racer and Lunar 1+ where I talk about the upper) on a really flat Lunarlon sole with a waffle-pattern outsole along with a super flexible optional sockliner. Basically there really isn’t much to the Hyperfeel.

And I think that there ‘not being much to it’ is the point. In the video I have posted below, Tony Bignell, VP of Nike Footwear Innovation, talks about the shoe being designed to allow the runner to feel as though there is a little as possible both on and under the foot. In the video the shoe certainly looks to be very flexible and the sole looks very thin.

http://youtu.be/HU_tqJAto5o

Nike Free Hyperfeel
Nike Free Hyperfeel

I have not had a chance to try the Nike Free Hyperfeel so I can’t pass judgment myself. But my feeling is that this is Nike widening its offering even further with the Free Hyperfeel. They have pretty much everything covered from trail shoes – which I will be reviewing in the next few days – to these very minimalist shoes which I think should only really be used on surfaces where there isn’t anything to tread on or kick. I think that with this shoe, Nike might be about to crack the code to the minimalist market… they might even convert me!

Nike Free 5.0+ review

The people at Nike recently sent me a pair of the new Nike Free 5.0+ to review. Having always had Nike Frees in my ‘collection’ of shoes, I was interested in trying them. But I must admit that I have bought Nike Frees in the past as a shoe for walking around town, rather than for running. However since hearing Mo Farah talk about how he incorporates natural running into his training to strengthen feet and ankles (and my ankle is my (ahem) Achilles heel when it comes to injuries) I was immediately interested in seeing how a minimalist shoe like the Nike Free 5.0+ could help me get back into running since the Virgin London Marathon. The short answer is that they are a pretty good first step as far as I am concerned. The 5.0 refers to the amount of cushioning and support that the shoe provides, with the Nike Free 4.0 and the Nike Free 3.0 offering decreasing levels of both. So if you are after a shoe that can help you take the first steps (sorry!) into minimalism, perhaps give these a go. And if you want to have a look at them, here is a short video review – bad hair and all!

ASICS Gel Lyte 33 review

A while ago, the good people at ASICS invited me to go to Berlin with them for the launch of the new Gel Lyte 33 shoe. Unfortunately work commitments meant that I couldn’t go, but my friend and collaborator Catherine Wilding was able to take my place and enjoy some Germanic hospitality. Her write up of the weekend is here.

The whole focus of the weekend was to promote the new Gel-Lyte 33 shoe, which is ASICS’ offering to the natural running sector of the market. Unashamedly targeted at the more serious runner, I was very excited to get my hands on a pair (at least that might make up for not getting to go to Berlin!)

Initial impressions

The Men's version of the ASICS Gel-Lyte 33. Hard to miss it in the dark!

This is actually quite a deceptive shoe. It looks very simple and feels very light, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

The main thing that impressed me from what the ASICS team have told me, is the way that the sole has been developed to take into account the way the foot moves. This is the antithesis of the shoes that are available which try to counteract pronation or supination. This is a shoe designed to go with the flow. There is a groove running all the way along the length of the out-sole which ASICS calls the FluidAxis, which means the shoe allows the subtalar joint to move in any way it wants.

How do they feel on the run?

Catherine and I met up once my shoes had arrived for a run around the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park. It was a really beautiful morning and being a weekday, not too busy.

Catherine was looking elegant and very sporty in her new ASICS gear (lovely jacket for any of you looking for a new one for running this winter) and she said immediately that her Gel-Lyte 33s felt great. I must say that mine did too, but at that stage I had only walked in them.

As we headed off on the run, we started chatting about all the things we had to catch up on. It was probably only after a mile or so that we both thought we should probably think about the shoes we were wearing. And here is the rather pleasing thing for me…

Why I really like the ASICS Gel-Lyte 33s

… I hadn’t really noticed the shoes at all. They are really lightweight so there was no feeling of clumpiness that I often feel with more traditional built-up running shoes. The upper is very light and open, so there was no hot-feet feeling. There is no heel-counter (the rigid plastic bit that sits around the heel in most running shoes) so nothing to irritate the Achilles tendon.

 

A cool-looking diagram showing the Fluid Axis groove... groovy, baby!

And the FluidAxis groove in the sole meant that there really was no interference with my foot strike. The shoe is cushioned so I didn’t feel like my feet were being hammered by the tarmac we were running on, but not so cushioned that I couldn’t feel the ground.

So my review is this, really: the ASICS Gel-Lyte 33 is one of the few shoes I have run in that does nothing to interfere with my natural gait.

To compare it to other shoes I have run in: the Saucony Kinvara (especially the most recent third version) has a very similar feel to the Gel-Lyte 33 and I love the Kinvara. The Nike Free always felt to squishy underfoot to me and has been relegated to a shoe that I wear when I’m out and about, but not when I am running. The inov-8 Road-X 233 is really hard underfoot – almost too hard for anything longer than 45 minutes for me.  And racing flats? Well I think they are something different.

The ASICS Gel-Lyte 33 is going to become a staple of my running shoe collection – a shoe that might not be for beginners or heavier runners, but for those of us looking for a light shoe with some cushioning but not too much, this might be the shoe for you.

But don’t take my word for it, what does Catherine think…?

Asics Gel Lyte 33 Review by Catherine Wilding

With the trend for lightweight minimalist running shoes it’s no surprise that all the running brands are competing with each other to launch a revolutionary shoe with the most innovative technology.

The Asics Gel Lyte 33 is the latest of these minimalist shoes from Asics and they are promising a revolution in natural running with the launch of their Fluidaxis.

To find out more I was privileged to be asked to test the shoes ahead of their launch this month.  I considered myself the ideal person.  Firstly, in my eight or so years of running I have been loyal to only one shoe brand.  I have tried different types of shoe but they have all been Nike.  I stuck with what I knew, liked and looked good.  Secondly, having had many foot and ankle injuries – all on the same foot –  I was interested so see if Asics technology could be the solution to an undiagnosed problem.

The women's version of the ASICS Gel-Lyte 33

The one thing the Gel Lyte 33 (and other minimalist shoes) does is allow the foot to move in every direction and therefore pronate.  The Fluidaxis that Asics have developed and introduced with this shoe is based on the natural movement of the foot.  Most running shoes allow the ankle joint to move only in an “up and down”  movement,  however the foot also rotates around different angles and the subtalar joint in the foot controls the side to side movement.  When both these movements are combined the ankle and the foot are allowed to move completely naturally.  The Fluidasxis is designed around a deep groove in the sole of the shoe which is aligned directly with the subtalar joint axis.  This allows the foot to pronate naturally and give the runner a more natural movement in the foot.  The design of the Fluidaxis is also based around the re-design of the mid and outsole, where the deep grooves fan out allowing the foot to strike the ground more naturally.

So with the technical stuff out of the way, I was keen to try the shoes – especially as I was easily convinced that there was some intuitive sense to allowing the subtalar joint to move.

The shoe immediately felt nice and light on the foot and the lower heel drop of just 6mm was instantly noticeable.  The foot felt much lower to the ground and even just walking around there was a feeling that the foot was moving more naturally.  Being a lightweight shoe with no support, I was sensible enough to test the shoe with an easy, recovery run.  My running mate (aka: Simon Freeman) and I went for a jog around the Serpentine in Hyde Park.  At an easy conversational pace we were able to compare notes.

The Gel Lyte 33 has enough cushioning to enable runners to feel that they have adequate protection and also a little bit of support for the foot, whilst still being able to feel the ground.  This gave me more confidence for running in the shoes.  Having already been schooled in the motion of the subtalar joint by Asics, I was aware that there was noticeably more movement in the foot and ankle. Rather than being scared by this, I actually liked the more free movement.  On a 30 minute run I felt no twinges from any muscles that may have been activated by a change in running gait.  However, I would caution any runner and certainly a less conditioned runner to be wary of using these shoes for distance.  As with any minimalist shoe with a low heal drop, there is a risk of aggravating the Achilles.

These seem to be a good shoe for training perhaps once a week to transition to a more natural running style.  I certainly liked the feel of them and having felt no adverse affects in my foot or ankle following the run, I would be inclined to think that allowing the movement of the subtalar joint is a positive thing.  I would happily add these as an additional pair of shoes to my collection.  Interestingly, or unsurprisingly, my running companion drew the same conclusions.

My only other minimalist shoe is the Nike Free which I consciously choose not to run in.  However, I definitely feel comfortable running in the Gel-Lyte 33.  For long training runs, I wouldn’t be tempted to veer from my heavy stability shoe – certainly not yet, but maybe it’s a process of adaptation.

Finally, we compared notes on appearance.  There was no debate. The light silver-grey and blue of the women’s shoe definitely scores more highly than the men’s for aesthetic appeal.  But when it comes to aesthetics, the Nike Free wins hands-down.

 

 

Running Naturally In Berlin by Catherine Wilding

Be Careful What You Wish For

There is a well known saying be careful what you wish for because it might just come true.  I have said many times that I would like to visit Berlin for a weekend.  It’s a city known for its incredible history and culture, but for a runner it is best known for its world record Marathon course and the opportunity to set a PB.  After a chequered couple of years of running, my PB moment hasn’t arisen and my trip to Berlin has slipped further down my travel agenda.

So, when I received an invitation from Asics to visit Berlin it was as if the genie had just popped out of the lamp and my wish had been granted. It wasn’t to run the Marathon but to discover Asics interpretation of natural running and get a sneak preview of their new Gel-Lyte 33 shoe to be launched later this year [ please check back in a couple of weeks for a review] It also happily coincided with the Asics Grand 10K.

Natural Running

The big topic for discussion in running circles in the last couple of years has been barefoot running and natural running.  Natural running – as distinct from barefoot running – enables the body to move in the most efficient way enabling the runner to move in a motion that most accurately mimics how one would naturally run barefoot, whilst protecting the feet by way of running shoes.  It’s entirely reasonable of running brands to assume that most of us do need to wear shoes when we run.  The majority of people live in an urban environment and therefore barefoot running simply isn’t practical. What we need therefore is a shoe that allows natural movement whilst providing adequate protection from the hazards of urban living.

If you look carefully you can spot Catherine in this shot!

The clever people at Asics have recognised that the trend for natural running is gathering apace and have therefore tried to open it up to all levels of runners by developing a range of shoes that help the runner transition from running in heavily cushioned stability shoes to a minimalist shoe.

Asics have worked with Dr Matthias Marqaurdt to develop a range of shoes to enable the runner to best experience a natural running technique.  Dr Matthias is – by his own admission – Germany’s leading expert in all matters relating to natural running.  He has dedicated his entire working life to researching ways of making the runner more efficient and able to run injury free.  He has developed his theories by studying movement analysis and performance diagnostics of both athletes and regular runners. And by studying how man runs barefoot.

Doctor’s Orders

On a sunny Saturday in Berlin we are privileged to have the man himself explain what natural running is.  He begins by telling us a series of facts including that between 30-50% of runners will be injured every year.  As a Doctor and serious runner himself, his goal is injury prevention and he believes that by perfecting our running technique we can minimise injury.  So his aim is that we achieve the most effective running gait – and that is one that closely approximates the natural human motion sequence.

He helpfully explains the difference between a heel strike; a mid-foot strike and a forefoot strike.  If we all ran barefoot as we did for the first 180,000 years of mankind then we would all be forefoot strikers.  However with the advent of shoes and latterly cushioned running shoes, the majority of us have become heel strikers.  Mid-foot strikers are the least likely to become injured and ideally we can learn to become efficient mid-foot strikers and (re)-learn how to run efficiently.   This involves activating and strengthening the right muscles; paying attention to technique and of course wearing the right shoes.

Dr Matthias (as he likes to be known) does however add that natural running isn’t for everyone and requires a fairly high level of conditioning of the body. The average over-weight runner who may have experienced Achilles issues is probably not ready for natural running and is better sticking with their cushioned stability shoes.  He also stresses that natural running should not be practised on all training runs and natural running shoes should be an addition to regular training shoes.

So – in summary – a serious runner who is well conditioned should have a second pair of training shoes to help achieve a natural running technique on shorter training runs.  And this is the shoe that Asics has developed with the Gel-Lyte 33.

Dr Matthias is certainly a fine specimen of German engineering and if we all had bodies as highly conditioned as his we would all be perfect mid-foot strikers running with the prescribed natural running technique, in perfect unison, and all running injuries would be eradicated. However, a conditioned body like his takes weeks, months and years of dedication and the average obese German – which he keeps referring to –  will probably never achieve it.

Testing The Techniques

However some of us keener runners can aspire to a natural running technique and we are therefore kitted out in some rather fabulous new kit and a pair of the new Gel-Lyte 33 shoes to test our aptitude for natural running.

Our master class in natural running involves some fairly simple calf muscle activation exercises; bench step ups to activate the gluteus maximus muscles and some side plank leg raises to activate the gluteus medius.  We are then encouraged to try some exaggerated poor running techniques to emphasise what the correct technique looks and feels like. We finish with some arm exercises and a group exercise to get a feel for running cadence.

It certainly made me pay attention to technique and get a feel for how one can improve efficiency and speed through small adjustments in form.  The natural running shoes definitely felt different to my usual heavy stability shoes.  The obvious but only word I can think of to describe the experience:  natural.

Berlin Asics Grand 10

After a late Saturday night I woke up on a Sunny Sunday morning in Berlin ready to run the 10K.

This was the icing on the cake or the cherry on top of a weekend dedicated to running.  Conditions were perfect and for anyone in PB shape it was a dream come true.  With little time to prepare for my 10K and well off PB shape I was only here to have fun.  But it was a great opportunity to try out the techniques I had learned the day before.

The race was started with Germanic precision by Jan Frodeno –the 2008 Gold medal winning triathlete.  Sadly, he was also well off PB shape having fractured his fibula head after a spectacular fall in a race.  Still wearing his natural running shoes, he hobbled on crutches.

The Berlin Asics Grand 10 should definitely be on the racing calendar for anyone aiming for a PB. The loop course consists of wide, flat roads with only a couple of very minor inclines and a short cobbled stretch to hinder the pace.  The only drawback is the lack of timing along the course.  I was running without a watch and the only split I got was at 5K.  However I somehow managed a metronomic pace. I ran a perfectly even split, keeping what felt like a steady pace.

I was clearly enjoying myself and having a little bit too much fun.  At the 7K mark I decided it was time to implement the arm movements I had learned under Dr Matthias’ tutelage and see how long I could maintain the action.  I also observed my push off and noted that as I extended my back leg I did seem to increase my speed.  However I quickly reverted to just running which is what I think I do best.  I also took a moment to think about what I think about when I am running in a race which appeared to be nothing more than whether I think I can realistically go any faster.  I observed my thoughts to see how much of racing is in the mind and how what we tell ourselves affects our performance.  Once I saw the 9K mark I decided it was time to stop thinking about my arm movements and observing my thoughts and just start trying to run a bit faster.

I was a long way off the leaders. At the front of the field was Leonard Komon in a very fast time of 27.46.  He holds the current course record of 27.12 set in 2010 and his time is the 10th fastest recorded for the 10K this year.  The womens race was won by the 22 year old German Anna Hahner in a very respectable 33.50 only one week after running 2.30.37 in the Chicago marathon.