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!

Three is the magic number…

Three generations of Kinvaras... in a bowl

There is only one running shoe that I have ever owned every iteration of: Saucony’s Kinvara. I was given a very, very bright pair of the first release of the Kinvara to try out – they were my first foray into a more minimalist shoe. I then bought a pair of the Kinvara 2s, based on the fact that I really did like the original Kinvara. And then three weeks ago I received a very special box in the post – one of only 100 pairs of Kinvara 3s in the world (though don’t worry, they go on general release in the UK in May!)

2% of worldwide Kinvara 3s in Vilamora, Portugal

I was very lucky to get the shoes two days before I went to Portugal for a two week training camp, so I really was in a position to give them a thorough road-test. As it turns out, one of the other two pairs in the UK were also in Portugal at the same time adorning the feet of the incredible Ben Moreau, who is undoubtedly more worthy of testing shoes (he ran a 143 mile week while I was out there with him!) so I can incorporate some of his thoughts here.

The main thing about the Kinvaras for me, is that they are part of Saucony’s minimalist range. The shoe has a 4mm heel-to-toe off-set which means they have a pretty similar profile to a racing flat. However every version of the Kinvara has been aimed firmly at the runner who either wants to begin the transition from ‘normal’ shoes with a 12mm or 15mm heel-drop or runners who are biomechanically efficient and are looking for a shoe that is a little more cushioned then their out-and-out racing flats. The Kinvara is the latter for me.

First impressions

The first thing I noticed about the Kinvara 3 when I slid open the very, very cool looking box and removed the (rather large) Kinvara 3 t-shirt and USB stick that had been sent with the shoes, was the look. These shoes are very consciously stylish. There is undoubtedly performance benefits in the FlexFilm material that covers the upper of the shoe (which I’ll come on to in a minute) but from a purely aesthetic point of view, it is stunning. A big departure from the original Kinvara and the Kinvara 2.

The shoes felt typically light in my hand – Saucony say that they weigh 218g and that is what my scales at home read – but the FlexFilm gives them quite a robust feel. The sole is flared as with all the previous versions, but there are changes to the sole which are supposed to improve durability (I can’t comment on that yet and the shoes feel no different from the point of view of the sole material as far as I can tell).

The differences

There are differences from the first and second generation of the Kinvaras that I could feel however.

Snugger but not sweaty-er

The first is the development of the Hydramax lining. When I was out in Portugal it was warm (I suppose that is the point of a warm-weather camp!) and yet the Kinvara 3s felt cool and dry even on the longest runs in the hottest part of the day. The new lining seems to make the shoe snugger, which is a real bonus as far as I’m concerned in a shoe with such a flexible upper, without making the shoe hotter or restrictive.

This combines with the FlexFilm, whose introduction has mean that the upper can be thinner than the mesh material that the first two Kinvaras were made out of and at the same time feel more robust. This all adds to the feel that this is a fast shoe, more like a racer-trainer then before.

The second noticeable difference is one that Ben and I both commented on – the sole feels firmer. I think that the Kinvara 2, whilst a really great shoe, suffered somewhat from being a bit squishy. I even felt that its usefulness as a racer was compromised by the softness of the sole. The new Kinvara deals with that perfectly. The sole is still flared and there is still plenty of cushioning to ensure that my legs don’t feel wrecked after a long run in them, but the shoe feels more accurate and punchy than earlier versions.

So there you have it. The Kinvara 3 from Saucony is still a shoe that I love. It is light-weight, low-profile and minimalist with the benefit of some cushioning and it looks great. I think that Saucony have done a good job of improving the responsiveness of the sole and the snugness of the upper whilst retaining the good things that all of the Kinvaras have shared so far. It will be my tempo session and long-run-with-faster-bits shoe for the foreseeable future.

Meeting Caballo Blanco

It is commonly said that the opening of a book is the most crucial thing that the author will write. I have found that to be true; in every great book I have read the opening lines have been captivating and exciting. That is absolutely true of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run which I have now read twice and started again last night. Why have I started it for the third time? Well, last night I met the hero of the book, Caballo Blanco, at an event set up by Saucony to promote their range of minimalist footwear. The opeining paragraphs of McDougall’s book describe him meeting Caballo Blanco for the first time like this;

“For days, I’d been searching Mexico’s Sierra Madre for the phantom known as Caballo Blanco – the White Horse. I’d finally arrived at the end of the trail, in the last place I expected to find him – not deep in the wilderness he was said to haunt, but in the dim lobby of an old hotel on the edge of a dusty desert town”

My meeting with this mysterious man was much less dramatic and lacked the poetry that Chris weaves into his tale. But it was nevertheless quite an experience.

Saucony minimalist footwear

The event that Saucony invited me to was one of the best product launches I have had the opportunity to attend. Everyone from Saucony was friendly, knowledgeable and clearly enthusiastic. The products that were on show make up the range that Saucony have developed to appeal to those runners looking for minimalist shoes; the Kinvara2 and Mirage, with 4mm heel drop, flexible yet cushioned soles, unstructured heel-counters and minimalist uppers. And the Hattori, a sock-like shoe with zero heel drop (i.e. no more material under the heel than under the ball of the foot). I’ll write about these in a future post.

Meeting Caballo Blanco

So after an introduction to the science behind the minimalist range with Spencer White, the director of the Saucony Human Performance & Innovation Lab in Boston, I found myself momentarily alone, looking at a display of the shoes I had just learned about. I glanced to my right and there was a tall, upright, lithe gentleman, dressed in Saucony gear but wearing a bright green pair of Hattoris, standing all alone, seemingly lost in thought and sipping a glass of water. “That can’t be…” I thought. But it was – the man who started out as Mike Hickman, became Micah True and ended up as Caballo Blanco running with the Raramuri Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico’s Sierra Madre. So I pulled myself up tall (Caballo Blanco is well over 6 feet tall) and strode over to introduce myself and then I said something stupid:

“So what are your thoughts on the trend for barefoot running” I said…

Caballo Blanco thought for a moment and said “I don’t know anything about a trend, man. I just do what I do” That pretty much sums up what I now know about his philosophy and his approach to running.

Running and philosophy

I won’t spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read Chris McDougall’s book, but suffice to say that Caballo Blanco ended up in the Copper Canyons living with the Raramuri and adopting their approach to running. No training, no warm-up, no fancy gadgets or technical gear. Just go out and run. The Raramuri run for survival, for honour and for the sheer hell of racing for dozens or even hundreds of miles in footwear made from cut-up tyres and leather thongs. I got the impression that Caballo Blanco was less than impressed with the glass and steel building that we were meeting in, the busy PR people, the DJ spinning cool tunes for the assembled journalists and writers. He seemed out of place and I don’t doubt that what he really wanted was to go for a run, probably back home in the canyons that he loves. But he didn’t betray any of that; he was engaging and happy to answer questions and signed a copy of Born to Run for me (despite then telling me that he hasn’t had any contact from Chris McDougall for a very long time, which I thought was rather sad). Ultimately I doubt that Caballo Blanco worries about whether he has a message for someone like me, but he did have an effect. I left the event and rushed home along busy, concrete streets through London traffic thinking that it is very, very easy to forget that at the very core running is something totally natural for human beings and something that we should love doing, whether that is in minimalist shoes or not, in the Copper Canyons of Mexico or on the streets of a major city, for 2 miles or 200 miles. That brief meeting has reminded me to focus on the running and forget all the other stuff… a very important lesson delivered without pomp or pretence. Just get out there and run. Run Free!