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Tested: Maximalist Shoes of 2014

There are few debates more polarized in the running world than the one between maximalists and minimalists. It seems everyone either subscribes to the super-cushioned cult or the minimal movement, and there’s not much common ground in between.

After the minimalist craze of the past few years, more top shoe brands are entering the maximalist fray. So we reviewed the latest beefed-up options to get to the bottom of the dispute. Or at least add more fuel to the flame.

Hoka One One Conquest ($170)

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Intended for: Road

This is the Cadillac of road runners. The Conquest—the latest edition from the brand known for its trademark giant foam—is Hoka’s first attempt at a road shoe. Perched on a 29mm stack, the Conquest has twice the cushion of most normal road trainers. This makes it a great option for runners who log a lot of miles and want some extra cush or for those returning from injury.

Noticeably narrower and slightly less cumbersome than Hoka’s trail-shoe options, the Conquest still has a boxy, stilt-like effect. With that said, it’s also astonishingly stable thanks to a new Rmat® midsole-suspended cradle system that cups your foot. This shoe is laterally stiff and so cushioned that there's very little ground-feel, which might turn off some runners.

I found the shoe to be quite comfortable thanks to a seamless upper. Take note: the collar and tongue are uncushioned, and although I didn't have any problems with this, it could chafe some runners. All the more reason to try before you buy. The Conquest's Race-Lace system (similar to Salomon's Speedlaces) did cut into the top of my foot, but this was easily fixed by swapping in a pair of normal laces (included with every pair of shoes).  

The Conquest’s 4mm drop and rockered forefoot accelerate your transition from ground-strike to push-off, delivering on the promised feeling of “weightlessness.” Hoka devotees will notice the new foam is less plush than that in other Hokas, but this shoe is still a great combination of cushion and responsiveness for the road. Alberto Salazar told us, ”The more you run, the more support your foot needs.” This is a big-mileage shoe for any road runner looking to extend their long run in search of racing glory.

Important note: Hokas run at least a half size larger than the number on the box, so be sure to try these on for sizing before you buy.

Weight: 11.8 oz.; Drop: 4mm; Geometry: 25/29mm

Brooks Transcend ($160)

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Intended for: Road

The Brooks Transcend, the company’s first foray into the maximalist market, looks a bit like it arrived on a spaceship from the future. The Brooks Super DNA midsole is 25 percent more cushioned than any of Brooks’ other offerings. Its rounded heel and 8mm drop helps you roll through your gait cycle and allows the shoe to maintain Brooks’ quick-footed lightweight feel. It’s a traditional road shoe that doesn’t compromise its midsole responsiveness for unnecessary cushion. 

For this shoe Brooks departed from a traditional shoe post—designed to keep you in proper biomechanical alignment—in favor of a new technology it calls “Guide Rails” to protect against pronation and supination. These rails are specialized plates along the upper on the outside of the shoe. The rails act like bumpers, so if your foot doesn't roll in or out, you won't notice them. If it does, they'll keep you from over-pronating or over-supinating.

The shoe’s plush upper feels downright luxurious, but I found the shoe could use a little more room in the toe-box. Runners with narrow feet shouldn't have any problem with the fit, but if you have wide feet, definitely try before you buy. The Transcend is a wonderful option for a focused road runner who wants a bit more cushion, but who isn't ready to make the jump to a Hoka One One.

Weight: 12.2 oz.; Drop: 8mm; Geometry: 22/30mm

Altra Olympus ($130)

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Intended for: Trail

Named after a peak on the edge of the Salt Lake valley, the Altra Olympus is the first maximally cushioned, zero-drop shoe. The heel is at the same height as your forefoot, as it would be if you were running barefoot. Altra believes this promotes proper biomechanics.

The wide toe box allows your toes to naturally splay, good for anyone with wide feet or runners who battle neuromas. The foot feel is soft and slipper-like, even without socks (if you choose to go that route). 

The Olympus forefoot rocker—like a early-rise ski tip—helps initiate your stride. And the Olympus’ wide platform makes it a very stable ride despite its relatively high stack height. If you charge downhill, or hope to, the Olympus will gobble up terrain like no other. The price for that, however, is less return of energy from the midsole. At times this shoe feels like riding uphill on your big travel freeride bike: the shock absorption is great until you have to climb. That means it can have a wet-shoe feel on the flats.

Our major gripe? The Olympus' tread looks more like what you'd expect on a road shoe. It wasn’t tacky enough for rock, and it wasn’t toothy enough for steep dirt trails. Finally, I found its tongue needed to be a bit longer and wider, or it needed an offset loop, to keep debris out. On long runs, I inevitably got rocks in the shoe.

Weight: 11 oz.; Drop: 0mm; Geometry: 32mm

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 ($110)

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Intended for: Road

Of all the new maximal shoes this year, the Fresh Foam 980 doesn’t feel like it belongs in the super-cush category. It has the slimmest profile of the crop and really doesn’t comply with it’s marketing copy of “soft, pillowy, and cloudlike.” What this shoe lacks in “pillowy” however, it makes up for in proprioception. That means it provides superior ground-feel than its competitors. Combine that with how light this shoe is, and you have a fast, lightly cushioned racer. 

Fresh Foam 980’s 4mm drop encourages a mid-foot strike and a quick cadence. A comfortable fit with a thick cushioned tongue, it features an elegant single-piece midsole and outsole that provide long-term durability (a technique made possible by new 3D-printing technology). The breathable upper uses welded overlays to eliminate seams and possible hot spots for blisters. It has a narrow forefoot, and sizes a little small—you should probably size up at least a half size when you buy.

The Fresh Foam 980 is the fleetest maximal shoe on the market today. It’s super responsive, light, cushioned, and wonderfully flexible for a maximal shoe with a lot of midsole. When your training volume increases and your long runs get really long, this is the high-mileage workhorse you’ll be happy to own. 

Weight: 8.8 oz.; Drop: 4mm; Geometry: 22/26mm

Vasque Ultra ShapeShifter ($170)

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Intended for: Trail

The “Ultra” in the name denotes who this shoe was made for—ultrarunners. The super-cushioned ShapeShifter subverts the traditional construction methods (and associated construction waste) by attaching the shoe’s upper directly to a one-piece injection-molded EVA outsole. This method eliminates the midsole and the insole entirely. Take note: that also means this shoe won't work for those who run with orthotics.

The Ultra ShapeShifter features a roomy stretch mesh sock upper and the Boa L5 lacing system. The latter is brilliant for on-the-run customization, and anyone who prefers their shoes loose for uphills and tight for downhills. Simply bend down and twist the mechanism to tighten your shoe to your preferred snugness. Because the laces are thin (about the size of fishing wire), they can cut into the top of your foot if they're too tight. 

The one-piece sole is malleable and conforms to the trail, and I found it gave me great traction even on loose kitty litter. It’s also a fantastic buffer between you and the hard ground, which increased my downhill running speed. Eliminating the layering comes with the added benefit of giving the ShapeShifter good trail feel for a shoe that lifts you 28mm off the ground. 

The biggest downside: I found the fit to be quite odd. The front of the arch/midfoot was much narrower than any other shoe I've worn. I couldn't run more than a few miles in this shoe, and if you have wide feet, either consider another option or definitely try before you buy. 

Weight: 10.6 oz.; Drop: 6mm; Geometry: 22/28mm

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Fact-Checking Outside’s Altitude Training Tips

No matter what I read about tackling a high-altitude race, I wasn’t convinced that minor training tweaks could actually affect my result. And as a fact checker for Outside magazine, I couldn’t resist the chance to test our online team’s fitness advice when I ran a 26.2-mile race in Leadville, Colorado, last month.

Maybe it was an altruistic pursuit, but it’s more likely that I needed an outlet for my growing nerves. Because Leadville is high (in at least one way I could confirm). The town is wedged between Rocky Mountain 14ers at 10,152 feet, and the course starts climbing right away.

Us mere mortals were resigned to hiking the inclines as the trail weaved toward the halfway point at Mosquito Pass (13,185 feet) where wind speeds hovered around 30 mph. To put it in perspective, climbers launch most Mount Rainier (14,409 feet) summit bids from Camp Muir, which sits at 10,080 feet. You know, the same height at which pilots used to tell you it was okay to turn on approved electronic devices. High.

So how does Outside recommend tackling the highest marathon in the United States? And more importantly, does our advice work?

“Avoid racing between 24 to 72 hours at altitude and instead head up the night or morning before.”

To avoid the ill effects of altitude on race day, we recommend heading up one to three weeks ahead of time to get acclimated. If that’s not doable, then avoid the window where symptoms typically set in: between 24-72 hours of exposure.

Since hanging out in Colorado for a week wasn’t something I could pull off, I got to Leadville 12 hours before the gun. Surprisingly, I felt no effects of the altitude (trust me, I was looking for it), but it definitely took a mental toll because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Aim to spend four or more hours at 5,000-plus feet a few times in the month leading up to the race.”

Having experience training at altitude helps. When I moved to Santa Fe (7,000 feet), I was aware of the thin air the second I got out of the car. But three months of training here gave me a huge advantage over my fellow Midwestern competitors. On the course I met a guy from Oklahoma (as we were walking one of the ascents), and he mentioned that the tallest “mountain” he could find topped out at 1,400 feet. He’d never breathed air so thin, much less tried to run in it.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Be sure to prepare mentally, as your race pace will be slower and dehydration sets in quicker.”

I’m pretty good at drinking water. I even nixed my usual night-before beer because Outside (for once) doesn’t recommend drinking booze. Starting the race hydrated is easy enough, but staying that way is a bit tougher. I took a few sips of water every 10 minutes or so, but it wasn’t sufficient to keep headaches at bay. As pressure built at the nape of my neck and temples, however, a quick chug of water reversed the advancing pain and allowed me to keep trudging on.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Rather than trying to maintain your typical pace, consciously slow yourself down to avoid blowing up.” 

Unlike a sea-level marathon where a wall is expected late in the race (if ever), at altitude you might not know you’re bonking until you’re delirious and puking in the trees. For many, myself included, a finish at high altitude is as good as a win. I overheard the following advice on the course:

1. Don't do anything stupid. 
2. Just finish. 

One guy said this to another shortly after we passed a runner dry heaving around the two-mile mark. The altitude combined with the gnarly terrain (think snow, loose rock, mud) was responsible for a few bloody knees and faces as runners navigated the steep slopes. No need to do anything crazy, just keep it moving. 

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

And if all else fails?

“If you still end up feeling like crap the whole race, don’t sweat it. It’s not you—it’s genetics.”

I managed to finish on two feet, arms sticky with electrolyte water and a new tan line resembling a capped-sleeved wrestler's singlet. But I finished. I was waiting for symptoms of altitude to hit, but they never did.

The Bottom Line:

So after completing this 6.5-hour investigation, my fact check found that we’ve offered sage advice on executing a high-altitude jaunt, sans hypoxia and with enough stamina left to Instagram post-race. No noses growing here: it turns out (surprise!) that Outside's experts know their stuff.

Read More

The Rise of Run Commuters

Pam Walker doesn’t take the easy way to work.

Two days a week, the 46-year-old clinical emergency medicine pharmacist runs 15.6 miles over hilly dirt roads to her job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After work, she laces up her shoes again and spends another 2.5 hours running home to suburban South Lyon.

Walker recognizes that most commuters consider her distance runs to and from work a little insane, but she insists that the sunrise runs past farms and horses mentally prepare her for the long workday ahead.

“Those running endorphins help with my creativity for projects,” Walker says.

Walker is one of a growing number of people who are maximizing their exercise time by running to work. The Run Commuter (TRC), which launched in April 2011, is a website devoted to tips and stories about run commuting, including backpack reviews, advice on how to get started, and regular blog posts from site users.

It all suggests that run commuting is becoming increasingly popular, says Kyle Torok, one of TRC’s founders. In the past year, TRC has seen its number of users—60 percent of whom are American—increase 191 percent.

“We hear from people all over the world who have started run commuting in recent years,” Torok says.

The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t break out statistics on people running to work but tracks that about 3 percent walk, which could include runners. In major cities, that number is typically much higher. In Boston, for instance, 15 percent walk to work.

Most of the runners sharing stories on the site cover three to seven miles each way during their commutes, Torok says. The site plans to send out a survey in late summer to collect more information on run commuters' demographics and motivations. Torok says more women than men share stories on the site, but that might just be indicative of a woman’s inclination to engage in social online activity.

Most run commuters take it up to avoid traffic and transportation costs and to put themselves in a better mood for the workday. Running to work isn’t as fast or efficient as bicycle commuting, but it allows for a harder workout.

For commuters with nonstop work and family lives, run commuting is often the only chance they have to exercise. TRC’s other founder, Josh Woiderski, has two young children and a third on the way and finds his commute time the best way to log his miles.

There is one considerable hurdle—every run commuter has to figure out how to clean up when they reach the office. “We hear from a lot of women that they have to be more presentable at the office,” Torok says. “Men typically feel they can be more scruffy.”

Torok, who works for the government and has no office shower, goes into a locking bathroom and uses wipes to mop up the sweat. He keeps a large pack of Huggies baby wipes in his desk drawer, along with deodorant, soap, comb, and towel. Other showerless run commuters get even more creative. If they belong to a nearby gym, they use the locker rooms there. A German wrote to TRC about his practice of keeping a small washtub at his desk. He fills it with water in a private restroom, stands in it, does a sort of sponge bath to rinse himself off, and then empties the tub in the sink.

Then there are the logistics of transporting clothing and gear to and from the office. This often involves more planning than bike commuting, as runners don’t have the luxury of strapping panniers on a bike and filling them with daily supplies.

Torok uses the days he bike commutes to carry heavier loads and haul extra work clothes to the office, where he keeps a supply of five pairs of pants, six shirts, and two pairs of dress shoes. Even if run commuters don’t want to leave a full wardrobe at the office, Torok recommends they always keep the most critical clothing items in their desk drawers. “The most important thing is an emergency pair of underwear and socks at your desk, because they are so easy to forget,” Torok says.

Investing in the right running backpack is also key to a comfortable and successful run commute. The search term “running backpack” brings the most people to TRC, suggesting it’s a priority for those considering running to work. TRC’s running backpack roundup includes price and size details for 24 different packs, from brands like UltrAspire, CamelBak, and Black Diamond. Some of the packs also link to lengthier blog reviews on the site.

Torok relies on a snug hip belt and chest strap to keep his pack from swaying as he runs; side compression straps distribute the weight. The wide availability of both gender-neutral and women-specific running packs makes it easier for commuters to find a backpack that fits.

Many run commuters prioritize gear that can withstand a variety of weather. Blog posts on TRC tackle running through subzero temperatures in Ottawa winters, waterproofing packs with plastic grocery bags for rainy runs, and enduring the heat and humidity of sweaty East Coast summers.

Though the stories on TRC vary from Walker’s monster rural commute to quick city jaunts, Torok believes all run commutes are inherently interesting.

“You smell the honeysuckle, the lemon pie factory, or the smoky barbecue,” Torok says of his run commute through Atlanta. “You sometimes get that on a bike, but you never get that in a car.”

Read More

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