Running Shoes for the Happy Median

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Review, July 1997
Running Shoes for the Happy Median

Do-it-all trainers that don't skimp on performance
By Roseann Hanson

Aside from a few delusional moments, perhaps, the average runner isn't training for the Eco-Challenge or intending to give Michael Johnson a run for his money in the 400 meters. No, the average runner is tending toward 40 and is more apt to be focusing on a run in the park. Fortunately, somewhere between armored trail-running shoes and slipperlike racing flats exists a shoe for the rest of us.

What most of us require are shoes that are well cushioned, moderately light, and durable enough to handle serious mileage in the pursuit of fitness — call them middle-of-the-road runners. They're stable, not stiff; resilient, not squishy. The soles grip a variety of surfaces and are quick enough for an occasional race. In truth, if you're only going to buy one pair of trainers, these are the ones.

Ideally, the shape of such shoes from heel to toe — the last — should be designated semicurved, providing a balance of stability and speed. The shoes we tested feature one of two last constructions: a piece of fiberboard running from heel to arch atop the midsole (a combination last) for added support, or no board at all (a slip last) for more flexibility. Midsoles are typically of EVA foam, not polyurethane, and often use inserts of air, gel, denser foam, or whatnot to boost resilience. As for the uppers, look for adjustable lacing, supportive straps, and breathable mesh.

But by all means, try on any prospective purchases and be sure they're snug yet allow ample room in the toebox. We've narrowed the field for you, down to nine of the best mainstream models available. Weights listed are for a men's size nine and a women's size seven.

Judge the Adidas Equipment Salvation (men's, 11.8 ounces; women's, 10.8 ounces; $110) by its odd looks if you will, but don't rate its performance while walking around the store: The bumpy sole feels like you're treading on golf balls. On the run, however, you'll appreciate the way the sole's peculiar pods coax your feet into a naturally correct, stable stride. A nub at the rear outside of the sole, raised higher than the rest, all but forces your foot to roll forward and to the inside when your heel strikes. Add to that a low-to-the-ground profile, and the moderately cushioned Salvation is fast and agile, yet none too squirrelly, thanks to a stiff plastic rod in the midsole that inhibits twisting of the foot.

If you prefer vanilla to raspberry swirl, you'll appreciate the Asics Gel-126 (men's, 12 ounces; women's, 10.5 ounces; $70): a dependable and simple running shoe. With a slip last and a dual-density foam midsole, the breezy Gel-126 is stable yet flexible and ready right out of the box. The forefoot misses a little more cushioning on long sessions, but a gel pad in the heel helps mitigate pounding. Blown-rubber lugs along both sides of the shoe provide the sole with grippy traction. Runners with broad feet will appreciate the Gel-126 because its sizing goes from standard widths to men's EE and women's D. One thing that's perhaps too plain is the straight line of lacing holes — not so accommodating for odd foot shapes.

The Brooks Radius SC has evolved over the last few years into a near-perfect all-around, midweight trainer. Light but supportive, durable but fast, the SC (men's, 11.3 ounces; women's, 9.6 ounces; $80) eschews a conventionally smooth sole in favor of one made up of nine separate blown-rubber pods that let the foot flex easily through its natural stride. A cupped cushion and "crumple zone" in the heel provide notable shock-absorption and some stability, while the forefoot is protected by silicon-fluid cushioning. Although the SC uses a foam wedge for arch support, those who need serious motion control should steer clear of this shoe because of its enhanced flexibility.

If you have a clean stride and choose speed over cushioning, the lightweight Etonic Elite (men's, 11 ounces; women's, 10 ounces; $80) will prove to be a good partner for many miles. A slip last encourages speed, and although it's not as flexible as the Radius SC, its spare design makes it more of a roadster. Solidly constructed with plenty of synthetic-leather straps on the upper, it's nonetheless relatively breathable. The tongue could be softer, but the fit is among the finest of this group, with three men's and two women's widths. A carbon-rubber sole with shallow lugs offers durability but less traction on dirt-dusted blacktop — your stride better be confident and efficient.

Narrow-footed runners will love Fila's Silva Trainer (men's, 13.7 ounces; women's, 11.2 ounces; $90), with its slender forefoot and long-tongued lacing system that allows you to cinch the upper from toes to ankle. You'll want it snug, since the Silva Trainer likes to move right along. Its toyish-looking outsole is divided into five separate cells that provide good flexibility and keep the foot striding naturally, although it has an unintended tendency to pick up pebbles. And the cells that take the most abuse are cushioned with springy air-filled thermoplastic-rubber pockets. The forefoot offers the best flexibility of any we reviewed, yet the Silva Trainer is none too floppy, thanks to a combination last.

It takes time to befriend the seemingly brutish New Balance 851 (men's, 13.3 ounces; women's, 10.9 ounces; $90), but once you break it in, this solidly built trainer will be with you for the long haul. The combination last, along with a graphite bridge embedded in the heel of the midsole and a medial-side thermoplastic heel counter, keep even the most noodle-footed runners in line. Of course, all that motion-control hardware adds up to more weight, but the sculpted, semicurved last and a few dollops of gel fore and aft keep this shoe from being sluggish. Big runners will love the 851, which comes in a full range of widths for men and women, including a whopping men's 15 EEEE.

Nike's Air Equilibrium (men's, 12.3 ounces; women's, 10.8 ounces; $125) looks like a straightjacket of a shoe with all its motion-control hardware, yet it's impressively comfortable right out of the box. A split heel gets your stride started off right, sending the initial shock into an air pocket that provides pillowy padding — springy, even — before a similar pocket in the forefoot cushions your foot's forward motion. It has a massive external support on the inside edge that looks something like the Golden Gate Bridge, but it remains sprightly. Even after many miles this structure caused not a whit of fatigue. The uppers are moderately breathable, and the lacing system will suit most any foot.

Reebok's DMX Run (men's, 12.6 ounces; women's, 11 ounces; $110) will catch your attention with its innovative sole design, which comprises ten connected air chambers. The theory is that when you land on your heel, you get full cushioning from the appropriate chamber, but then as you roll forward, the air follows underfoot, providing cushioning in each consecutive chamber. Runners who pronate or supinate will especially like this soft but stable trainer because its midsole wraps up around the sides of the shoe to help correct their strides. The uppers aren't as breathable as they appear — a few runs ended rather soggily — and the lacing could be better to fine-tune fit, but those are minor issues regarding a very fine shoe.

The Saucony GRID Dual (men's, 13.1 ounces; women's, 10.4 ounces; $90) is a workhorse that won't shy away from sessions of any length or any conditions. A pillowy midsole with air chambers fore and aft softens the ride, yet the slip-lasted Dual is far from mushy, thanks to a carbon-rubber midfoot stiffener, a thermoplastic heel counter, and a carbon-rubber outsole with prominent lugs. The result? The airy Dual is perfect for those who plan to venture off pavement fairly often and therefore don't mind a little extra heft — the price of durability. The shape is excellent for those with a wide forefoot, and if it fits, the Dual will prove quite a versatile running companion.

Where To Find It
Adidas, 800-448-1796; Asics, 800-678-9435; Brooks, 800-227-6657; Etonic, 800-334-0008; Fila, 800-787-3452; New Balance, 800-622-1218; Nike, 800-344-6453; Reebok, 800-843-4444; Saucony, 800-365-7282

Roseann Hanson runs and lives in Arizona.

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