Nike Free 5.0 $85 nikefree.com
For decades, world-class athletes have conditioned their feetand upped the speed at which they shift from one foot to the nextby leaving their shoes at home. Nike gets barefoot-running religion with the Free, which distills the training shoe to its very essence. For an ultra-minimalist platform, this year's Gear of the Year winner is an astonishing performer.
1. Try out the Nike Free sans socks. Even sockless, there's no chafe: Soft synthetic suede covers a seamless elastic-mesh upper. On both longish runs and quick neighborhood trots my feet felt solidly encasedyet were free to move where they pleased.
2. Most running shoes are designed to flex underfoot in front of the laces. The Free, scored on the underside like a chocolate bar, can be squished down to the size of a mango, and the shoe moves and bends every direction your foot would naturally.
3. Forget rock-solid heel plates locking your dogs in place. The Free instead offers a millimeter of elastic mesh. Thus liberated, my feet found a neutral, ultra-comfortable zoneinstead of one dictated by multiple layers of material.
4. Acknowledging that every foot has its own idiosyncrasies, Nike sells the Free with two sculpted inserts. Start with the thicker one and, as you strengthen the muscles in your feet, move on to its thinner counterpart.
5. The midsole and arch support are much thinner and softer than those in conventional shoes, but there's still enough lift and protection to guarantee some stability without compromising freedom of movement.
Montrail Hardrock Wide $93 montrail.com
When we finally terraform Mars, the first colonists will doubtless be issued Montrail Hardrock Wideskicks perfectly suited to the dusty slopes of 78,740-foot-high Olympus Mons. OK, admittedly, we're reaching, but our 2005 Gear of the Year trail runners have more than proved their worth on this planet, moving effortlessly from scree to sandstone to the blacktop that took us there.
1. The Hardrock Wide's firm and deeply sculpted heel cup fits as if it's been bone-grafted onto your foot. Superstellar. It's impossible to fumble your stride with your heel so locked in place.
2. Size-EE feet feel at home in the Wides yet never go unsupportedthanks to a full-length polyurethane plate that wraps up, taco style, around the midfoot for torsional control. (There's a standard width available for skinnier feet.) Overpronation is regulated with the authority of a strict school nun.
3. Montrail embraces chaos theory on the outsoleit's bristling with triangles, bars, and dotsand the result is traction uphill, downhill, and sideways in dirt. On rock, the rubber lugs are shallow and stiff enough to grip tightly.
4. A midsole of dual-density EVA and a gel insert in the forefoot lend perfect plumpnessenough for forays on asphalt (not always the case with trail shoes) without the foot/trail disconnect that gives you that whoa! feeling on steep switchbacks.
5. Nylon mesh in the uppers ensures good ventilation, and copious synthetic leather embellished with raised rubber bumpers fends off rock scrapes and debris collisions.
Nike Free 5.0 $85 nikefree.com