Review: Sport Utility Sneakers

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

Review: Sport Utility Sneakers

Running Shoes stable enough for trial, cushy enough for pavement
By Andrew Tilin

Attribute it to our increasingly paved-over world: Most trail runners' internal odometers start spinning well before their knobby soles reach singletrack. Now there's a new generation of rugged running shoes built for those of us who log so many miles on fire roads, gravel-lined paths, and asphalt en route to the trailhead. Neither cumbersome trail shoes nor dainty road shoes, they're off-road shoes.

Yes, off-road shoes represent a compromise--one that should be greeted with absolute gratitude. They're meant to provide almost the same toughness and traction as trail runners and almost the same cushioning and spritely responsiveness as pavement pounders. Like their road-oriented brethren, off-roaders have midsoles made almost exclusively of EVA, a lightweight foam that's shock-absorbent but not especially durable. Inserts of air, gel, and whatnot add resilience, and strategically placed wedges of denser EVA keep the foot from wallowing.

Most of these hybrid shoes are built with other stability enhancements, such as a plastic heel counter, supportive straps on the upper, or a sheet of fiberboard laid atop some of the shoe's midsole (called a combination last) or all of it (a board last). Lugged outsoles formed entirely from hard, durable carbon rubber protect the midsole and prevent trail detritus from causing bruises (lighter runners may prefer models with outsoles of softer-grade solid or blown rubber). Upstairs, a nylon skin is typically supplemented with synthetic leather and/or a rubber bumper to extend the shoe's life and to prevent toe stubs. Unfortunately, more material means less ventilation, and indeed most of these shoes are hotter than road-going models.

What follows are reviews of nine shoes in order of toughness from light off-road models to shoes that won't shy from any trail. Weights listed are for an individual men's size nine and women's size seven.

Reebok Interval
The Interval (men's, 10.8 ounces; women's, 9.2 ounces; $70) is the sparest and softest of these shoes, so it's no surprise that it takes best to asphalt and smooth dirt roads. All that separates its fat EVA midsole from terra firma is two swatches of lugged outsole--carbon rubber under the heel and forgiving solid rubber under the forefoot. A honeycomb polyurethane heel cushion adds shock absorption, and the heel counter and an arch-side wedge of higher-density foam curb pronation for on-pavement stability. But with its mostly nylon-mesh upper the Interval is best for the lighter runner who's more interested in a 10k than a trail.

Avia 2099
Because of its particularly soft midsole, the 2099 (men's only, 12.2 ounces, $70) is a shoe you could run in all day over hilly fire roads--and of course on pavement. The synthetic-leather and mesh upper is plenty tough, and the firm, full-length outsole has lugs like shark teeth. But take the shoe over unruly terrain and you'll discover there isn't much arch-side support, and the heel counter is a tad soft. Better make those hilly fire roads smooth.

Mizuno Mondo Control
The Mondo Control (men's, 12.8 ounces; women's, 11.7 ounces; $80) isn't so much a Jeep as an all-wheel-drive Porsche, hugging the terrain with its tight suspension. It's designated a stability shoe--the plastic heel counter extends to midfoot, much of the midsole is of a denser type of EVA, and a solid rubber cross embedded in the outsole prevents your foot from twisting--but because the midsole is streamlined, the Control feels firm and fast as opposed to bulky. Rather than steamroll over rock-strewn terrain, the shallow-lugged Mizuno is quick enough to pick through it. The mesh and synthetic-leather upper is very breathable, although the toebox is snug, which may require bumping up a size.

Asics Gel-Moro
When you crank on the laces of the Moro (men's only, 11.5 ounces, $75), four plastic straps wrap around your foot for a snug fit--which is important in a shoe that moves nearly as fast as the Mizuno Control. A dual-density EVA midsole with a combination last provides a bit of stability (and a gel heel-insert absorbs shock), but the shoe makes a narrow footprint, a characteristic that typically suits only the biomechanically efficient runner. With its full-length carbon-rubber outsole and its healthy midsole, the Moro has kept us happy on rough trails, in off-road 5ks, and on pavement-only runs.

New Balance MT700
The MT700 (men's, 11.7 ounces; women's, 8.8 ounces; $70) comes in three widths for men and women, so it should fit almost anyone. But because of its considerably thick carbon-rubber outsole and straight profile, the MT700 is best for bigger runners or anyone looking for a solid landing. The tightly woven nylon upper and a dollop of gel in the heel contribute to the shoe's durability. But bulky it's not: The outsole is still trim enough to keep you from catching a lug on a stray root.

Brooks Vanguard
The tread on the Vanguard (men's, 13.8 ounces; women's, 11.5 ounces; $80) is the widest and most aggressive we encountered, and the traction is unparalleled. A step up from the others is the shoe's gusseted tongue, for keeping out sticks and stones. However, on extended stretches of harsh rock and root the rest of the shoe falls behind--the soft midsole is a little too plush, and the upper shifts around. But it's tough to find fault in a hybrid that you can live with over rough terrain in order to get good performance everywhere else.

Adidas Response Trail Plus
The Response Trail Plus (men's, 12.3 ounces, $80; women's, 10.8 ounces, $75) sells out in jock towns like Boulder, Colorado, and that's not just because of its good looks. A stretchy sleeve in lieu of a tongue promises an excellent fit and makes it impossible for grit to invade. The best feature, perhaps, is a roomy toebox, which feels spacious even after a long, pounding trail run. Cushioning comes via the chunky midsole--all that distinguishes the Adidas from a pure trail shoe--and stability comes from the stiff heel counter and wide outsole. The Trail Plus is slowed only by jagged terrain that exploits the soft, blown-rubber outsole.

Nike Air Terra Tor
With the ingredients of a pure trail shoe and then some, the Terra Tor (men's only, 15 ounces, $95) delivers in both durability and comfort: Its thin midsole (with air units fore and aft) provides moderate cushioning, the outsole boasts a mountain-bike-tire lug pattern, and the upper is made of a thick, coarse nylon and synthetic leather. Fit is great thanks to a lacing system with compression-like straps that anchor in the midsole. Plastic plates embedded in the forefoot prevent bruises on rough singletrack, but the Terra Tor is surprisingly pliable on smooth dirt. Without the cushy midsole, though, it's much less suited for pounding pavement.

One Sport TRS Competition
The TRS (men's, 20 ounces; women's, 16 ounces; $95) shows its hiking-boot roots: It incorporates a board last and is the only one of these shoes with a midsole of hard polyurethane instead of EVA, which cups the foot for unparalleled stability. Athletes of any size can strap on this heavy shoe and get a secure if somewhat slow ride over technical trails. The wide toebox never pinches the piggies, and the carbon-rubber outsole sheds mud and holds its own on scree. We hear that ultramarathoners snap up the TRS for training--no doubt because there's no better armor for the feet.

Andrew Tilin finished the 1996 Big Sur International Marathon in 3:39, thanks to miles logged while testing a closetful of shoes. He is a former senior editor of Outside.

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