The buzz in the running industry these days is about energy return. When your foot compresses foam, the foam sucks up energy, which slows you down. While companies may try to convince buyers that their foam is springier than the next guy’s—or that the stuff can actually return energy to your body (a dubious claim)—there’s one thing savvy marketing can’t change: physics.
The thinner and firmer the foam, the more energy efficient; the softer and thicker, the more comfortable but energy sapping. (Think running on sand versus cement.) The best shoes strike a balance between comfort and efficiency, but only the rarest—like New Balance’s Gear of the Year–winning 1260v3—excel at both.
Saucony Kinvara TR2
BEST FOR: Efficient trail racers.
THE TEST: "This shoe is built for speed," one tester noted, and that pretty much says it all. Thin, low, narrow lasted, and snug, Saucony's second-generation trail Kinvara ($100) is made for quickstepping down technical trails and hauling ass on the flats. It's noticeably more secure than its predecessor and thus more confidence inspiring on downhills and loose turf. Overall protection is low, but a rock plate in the thin (13 millimeters) forefoot prevented stone bruising.
THE VERDICT: Just enough traction and protection for most terrain. 7.8 oz; 4 mm drop
BEST FOR: Most dry terrain.
THE TEST: On pavement, the FluidFlex's ($90) recessed lugs and foamy midsole felt refreshingly smooth. On steep trails, the upper's asymmetrical laces delivered a locked-down, no-slosh fit. "I wore them on everything, and I never regretted it," one tester said. The secret may be how amazingly light all that mushy foam is (the shoe is less than eight ounces), which keeps the FluidFlex nimble enough to dance through tricky obstacles. The only weak spot: the low-profile lugs didn't shine in mud or slush.
THE VERDICT: The ultimate utility shoe. 7.6 oz; 4 mm drop; montrail.com
BEST FOR: Mud, snow, gravel, and steeps.
THE TEST: The new Fellraiser ($110) is a hog for gravel and slop. Oversize, sticky lugs provide big bite on loose terrain, and the lowered heel reduces tippiness on obstacle-strewn trails. Stout overlays on the upper and a narrow last combine for impressive security on downhills and off-kilter foot plants. "It's like a carbon-fiber tank," one tester said, "light, supportive, and perfect for technical terrain." And it does all that while being soft and supple throughout.
THE VERDICT: The gnarlier the terrain, the better. 10.2 oz
Brooks Glycerin 11
BEST FOR: Moderate heel strikers.
THE TEST: Most neutral trainers with a thick midsole can feel mushy and slow. The Glycerin 11 ($150) is the rare exception, with a firm chassis and excellent energy return. And while the shoe feels heavier than it probably needs to, snug overlays across the midfoot make for a secure ride. Bonus: the outsole is five millimeters thick—twice as much rubber as on svelter shoes—and will endure heavy mileage.
THE VERDICT: A sturdy, fuel-efficient cruiser. 11.8 oz; 10mm drop
Mizuno Wave Sayonara
BEST FOR: Speed training.
THE TEST: Light, low, and fast, the Wave Sayonara ($120) is perfect for marathon racing, tempo runs, and even 5K PRs for all but the fastest amateurs. Secure in the midfoot and low in the heel (19 millimeters), it received the most praise from midfoot-striking testers. Mizuno's springy, rigid Wave plate underfoot provides a fair amount of shock absorption, but marathon-oriented heel strikers will want more padding on long training runs.
THE VERDICT: Our favorite light trainer and racer of the year. 8.1 oz; 10 mm drop
Nike Free 3.0 V5
BEST FOR: Wince-free barefoot running.
THE TEST: The minimally padded Free 3.0 ($110) has a hyperflexible midsole, no heel counter, and no tongue—just a stretchy bootie that envelops your foot like a wetsuit. The result is great ground feel and pop-off-the-pavement responsiveness, with just enough cushion that testers didn't feel a need to be vigilant about form on longer runs. Our only gripe: it's still weirdly hard to get on. One tester had to use a shoehorn.
THE VERDICT: Exceptionally comfy. The Free 3.0 feels like a sock with a sole. 7.1 oz; 4 mm drop
Next Up: The Best Women's Running Shoes of 2014