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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Balance Minimus Trail Review

When I first heard that New Balance would be making a line of minimalist shoes back in late 2010, I was stoked.  To me, New Balance is the first company outside of Vibram that made at least some early commitment to minimal design with the creation of the MT100 and MT101 lines.  I own a pair of MT100s, and enjoy them very much despite some more traditional (i.e. annoying) design elements. 

As I came to learn more about the shoes though, I got less and less excited.  First, I heard that the entire Minimus line would have a 4mm heel to toe drop rather than the zero drop profile of shoes like my Merrell Trail Gloves.  Next, I heard that the Road version of the shoe (which I was actually the most excited about, as a possible replacement for my Vibram Fivefingers) would have a rather thick sole, and would therefore be more of a "transitional" shoe than a true minimalist trainer.  Finally, I heard that the sole thickness of the Minimus Trail would be pretty comparable to the Road version of the shoe. 

After that, I pretty much lost interest in the shoe.  I have plenty of shoe options right now that every shoe company wants a review done by yours truely.  I didn't need one more mediocre trail shoe (unless of course it was free).  But at the same time, I had read pretty positive reviews coming from sources that I trust.  Now granted, The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy flies solo.  He listens to everyone, but trusts no one.  Still, the reviews peeked my interest a bit.  So when a friend contacted me wanting to get rid of a pair of these babies in my size, I seized the opportunity.  Just like a woman at a shoe sale, I too cannot resist the lure of discounted footwear.

Pre-review Rant

So first I want to start out with a tirade about a recent trend in popularity of minimalist shoes.  With all the new shoes flooding the market, I've heard about a lot of folks running out to buy things like the Merrell Trail Glove and the New Balance Minimus expecting them to be the best thing since Vibram Fivefingers.  Then about a week later, they post a thread on a barefoot running chat forum titled something like, "New Balance Minimus, size 11, for sale!"  In the thread, they are ranting and raving about how much the ground-feel sucks, or other such nonsense.  

Well folks, what did you expect.  You didn't buy a Vibram Fivefinger, or a Onefinger for that matter.  You bought a trail shoe.  There isn't a minimalist trail shoe on the market that doesn't sacrifice a little ground feel for protection.  In the case of the New Balance Minimus, I would argue that you didn't even buy a "minimalist" shoe. 

Let me explain by making a comparison to my MT100s.  The stats on my MT100s are as follows: 8mm sole thickness in front, 18 mm in back; 10mm heel to toe drop; overall weight 8oz (according to my super-duper accurate kitchen scale).  The stats on the Minimus are as follows: 11mm sole thickness in front, 16mm in back; 4mm heel to toe drop; overall weight 8oz.  

To put those numbers in perspective, let's look at the stats of a very hotly debated "minimalist" shoe: the Nike Free 3.0.  The stats there are quite similar: 10mm thickness in front, 17mm in back; 7mm heel to toe drop; overall weight 8.1 oz (size 9).  A lot of us barefoot folk wouldn't consider the Frees a minimalist shoe.  I certainly don't think of my MT100s as a "minimal" shoe.  So I think it's hard to argue that the Minimus Trail is one either. 

Of course the term "minimalist" isn't well-defined.  To each his own about what criteria you use to select what shoes fit into that category.  My point is that you shouldn't come crying to me when your brand new Minimus shoes aren't all you hoped they would be.  I warned you. 

Now on to the review.

Initial Impressions

I had seen teaser pictures of these shoes for several months leading up to its release in March, so I already knew that these things looked sharp.  The pair I received was the original orange and black color pallette.  I have a thing for flashy colored running shoes.  And in person, the shoes didn't disappoint.

Here's a side profile of the shoes.  The shoe upper is comprised of a webbed base layer with a very thin mesh overlay.  Then, over that are several black stability straps that provide lateral support for the heel, as well as across the top of the foot right under the laces.

An issue I've heard mentioned in prior reviews is the shoe's toe spring.  As you can see, the toe of these shoes points slightly upward as would a traditional trainer.  Makes them look a bit like orange elf shoes.  More on that later.

I found the tread on the bottom of these shoes very interesting.  I've never seen anything like it on a trail shoe.  Instead of a cleated bottom, this shoe has a series of circular lugs that stand out from the Vibram sole a few millemeters, similar to a Terra Plana.  However, these lugs are far more aggressive as they are fitted with tiny studs.  Swaths of sole material are also removed from around the lugs.  Just feeling the sole made me confident that these shoes would provide excellent traction. 

Here's a view from the top.  This view gives you a good view of the stability strap across the top of the foot.  Also, you'll notice that although the toe box is larger than the traditional trainer, it's not built to clown-shoe proportions.  The fabric of the tongue is less ventilated, but also more soft and pliable. 

The heel of these shoes is more built up than my Merrell Trail Gloves due to those stability straps.  It doesn't flex much at all.  Other than that heel collar of the shoe is very similar.  The inside of the shoe is smooth like the Trail Glove as well.  That, along with the soft tongue would allow you to go sockless easily if you're into that sort of thing.

Flexibility wise, I was a bit disappointed.  I had difficulty flexing the shoe into much more than a horseshoe shape.  I really struggled to keep the shoe flexed while taking this picture.  And I don't even want to talk about flexibility in other directions.  It really wasn't there.  Of course, I wasn't all that surprised that these shoes lacked flexibility due to the thickness of the sole.  Aside from my MT100s, I definitely award them the title of "least flexible shoe I own".  At least the MT100s have an excuse...it's called a rock plate. 

Comfort and Feel

As with every minimalist shoe I try, rarely do I find one where I don't locate some wonky fit issues.  This shoe seemed to have more fit issues at first.  For one, I found the shoe to fit fairly tightly through the midfoot and heel.  It was especially bad at the site of the stability strap for the top of the foot.  It almost pinched my pinky toe as I moved my feet from side to side.  Second, I found that I could feel the toe spring I mentioned earlier lifting my toes up slightly.  These issues were only a problem while standing, and disappeared as soon as I began walking or running. 

I noticed that the toe box in this shoe was not nearly as ample as in the Merrell Trail Glove.  I felt as though I had enough room for most of my toes.  However, as I moved around I occasionally felt my pinkie toe touch the end of the shoe.  This was not an issue while running. 

On the positive side, this shoe felt very nice underfoot, especially for a trail shoe.  One aspect of minimalist trail shoes I usually dislike is that the sole is so thin that you can feel all the cleats on the soles of your feet as you walk around.  Usually these feel issues are a big negative for me.  But since the lugs on the soles of these shoes were large and symetrical, my weight was distributed across the shoe so evenly that the sole felt almost completely flat.  What immediately came to mind was that these shoes felt as flat as my huaraches, just with thicker soling material.  Alfter I got past all the initial fit issues (which took all of five minutes) these became the most comfortable trail shoes I own.


Okay...rant #2.  I've gotten a lot of questions from readers about whether you can use the Minimus Trail or the Merrell Trail Gloves as a road shoe.  It's becoming almost as common of an issue as the classic, "Which Vibram Fivefingers should I get?".  Here's my response.  Listen up, because I think it's improtant.  

Of course you can use any shoe as a road shoe.  My question is, "Why would you want to?!"  Apart from the fact that all of the hardware on the bottom of a trail shoe will make running roads awkward, there are a ton of better options out there for road running.  If you want a road shoe, get a road shoe.  This is especially true in the case of the Minimus.  Now stripped down to just the numbers, the Minimus has stats like a low-profile, thin-soled racing flat.  Okay great.  But if you're really looking for a lightweight, minimal trainer with a low heel-to-toe drop, take a look at something like this


That my friends is a low-profile road shoe!  Behold the Mizuno Wave Universe!  Same sole thickness.  Same heel-toe drop.  3.5 oz.  That's lighter than any "barefoot" shoe on the market.  And with a sole you can actually use on the road without tripping and falling.  Of course, it's not marketed as a "barefoot" or "minimalist" shoe.  But just because it hasn't been blessed as such doesn't mean it's not a good running option. 

AAAAAAAANYWAY....despite my rant I bet you want to know how the Minimus performs on both road and trail.  Well fear not...I tested it on both.

As I mentioned before, as I began to move any fit issues I had with these shoes dissappeared.  Another thing that I didn't notice was the 4mm drop.  Try as I might, I could not tell that my heel was slightly raised as I ran.  It certainly didn't affect my form in the least.   

On the road, the shoes behaved as I would expect a trail shoe to behave on the road.  They provided noticably less ground feel than my other minimalist shoe options, including my Trail Gloves.  They also lacked the flexibility of my other minimalist shoe options.  If it's ground feel that you seek people, you'll be very disappointed with these shoes.  Once again, other than my MT100s, these get the award for "least ground feel". 

In case some of you still insist on putting a square peg in a round hole, you're probably wondering which trail shoe I like best on roads.  Although I think it's kind of an awkward favorite to have, if I had to pick my favorite trail shoe as used on the road I would pick these.  This is because the lugs on the bottom are so evently distributed that for the most part you feel like you're running on a flat, 11mm sole.  The Trail Gloves on the other hand have a lot of fit issues that are really noticeable on the road.    

On trails, I can't say that I fell in love with these shoes like I did the Trail Gloves.  That's not because these are bad trail shoes.  On the contrary, these are great trail shoes.  The traction is fantastic, and the sole provides sufficient protection.  I could probably run just about any trail proficiently in these things. 

I just prefer a few options in the Trail Glove more.  For one, I was a little uncomfortable with the toe protection in the Minimus.  On my Trail Gloves, the sole material wraps most of the way around the toe to provide protection from things you might kick out on the trail.  In the Minimus, the sole only goes half way up my toes.

I also prefer the configuration of the cleats on my Trail Gloves compared to the Minimus.  Whereas the lugs on the Minimus are symetrical along the entire length of the sole, my Trail Gloves put most of the cleat on the front-end of the shoe.  Of course, you're meant to forefoot strike in the Trail Gloves.  On the other hand, I suspect that the slightly raised heel in the Minimus will cause some people to heel strike.  In their case, lugs on the heel are probably important.  For me, they are just added weight and bulkiness.  

Taking all of that together, these shoes do one thing very, very well.  They are remarkably consistent regardless of the surface.  They are very comfortable shoes, and that comfort doesn't abate regardless of what surface you are running on.  But at the same time, they don't have spectacular performance.  High quality, but not spectacular.  It's kind of the Toyota Camry of trail shoes....the pre-1996 Camry...not the one that blows up and has unintended acceleration.   

I can see a market for these shoes for a person who wants a more low-profile shoe that performs well on any surface.  Minimalist runners are nothing if not cheap.  And every other minimalist shoe on the market performs well on roads and not trails, or vice versa.  Someone could conceivably buy this as your all-around trainer.  Of course, that person would have to like vanilla ice cream, and consider watching HGTV to be an exciting evening.  But if that person exists, they now have the perfect shoe.   


I'm a fan of the New Balance Minimus in the same way I'm a fan of the MT100.  They are a fantastic light-weight, low-profile trail shoe.  In fact, I think they are an improvement on the MT100 in that they have a lower profile and provide more ground feel without sacrificing protection.  On the other hand, are they a "minimalist" trail shoe?  I think it's debatable.  That title, at least for me, remains exclusively with the Merrell Trail Glove. 

Whether or not you will enjoy the Minimus as a light-weight trail shoe depends largely on your personal preference.  They certainly have enough features to be adequate on even very technical trails. 
I probably won't use them much for trail running.  Maybe really, really technical trails or routes where I need lots and lots of protection.  More likely, because they are equally comfortable on both road and trail, I will use them as my go-to shoe for runs where I mix road and trail. 

As for ratings, for purely road runs I give the shoe a 5.  They have less issues on roads than the Trail Glove, but still aren't meant for that purpose.  For trails I give them a 7.  They perform well, but I have better options for a majority of my trail runs.  As for combo road and trail, I give them an 8.  They are the only shoe I've found that performs well throughout these runs.  If it had any kind of "wow factor" and was a little lighter, I'd give it a 10 there.   

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  1. To answer the question of 'why wear a trail shoe on the road?', my answer would be shoe size. My size 14/15 feet do not fit ANY of the racing flats manufactured today (most stop at 13). It seems that shoe companies assume that if you have feet my size, you need to be in a Brooks Beast or equivalent. The only minimalist shoes that fit me are the Vibram KSO and Merrell Trail Glove. I'm running Boston in 3 weeks, and am seriously considering wearing my Trail Gloves, as I've never gone more than 15 miles in the KSO's, and I think I can run faster in the Trail Gloves.

    Hmmm... I wonder if I can parlay a Clydesdale's sub-3hr finish into free shoes...? Nah, only bloggers are getting free shoes these days.

  2. David...may I suggest the Terra Plana EVO or Neo. They are a very wide minimalist shoe, and would probably work well for you. The only issue you might have would be weight. If you are used to KSOs the TPs might be a bit on the heavy side.

    As for free stuff, I don't think a sub-3hr does anything to get sponsorships anymore. It's hard to get free stuff running a sub-2:10 nowadays! Better get blogging!

  3. Thanks for the EVO/Neo tip! Neo's come in a 48/49, but are out of stock - probably way to late to think about using these as a race shoe this time anyways.

    Ya, I know I'm almost an hour too slow for any kind of sponsorship, outside of a T-shirt from my running club. Even champions like Meb are not even getting invitations to the Boston Marathon. Boo on the BAA.

  4. Try the shopping results on Google. I heard from TP that although they are sold out of a lot of sizes, most of those have gone to online retailers. They are the same price and a lot of them have free shipping...which makes it cheaper to order the shoes there then on the TP website.

  5. Hey Maple Grove Barefoot Guy, I love your super hero cape. If you want to try out another barefoot-plus product- Invisible shoes- (for free) to review on your site that's target audience is everyone from super athletes to kilted paleo superheros blogging for their own entertainment, email me back at Angelina@Invisibleshoe.com. Our website is www.invisibleshoe.com and if you want to read up a little more about our product, check out our media press kit:

    Intrigued yet? If so, let me know--email me-- and we'll send you a free review pair, customized to your individual foot shape and foot size =)

    Director of Communications, Feel the World Inc

  6. I accept all bribes Angelina. I am familiar with your product and I will contact you shortly.

  7. Im so glad I stumbled onto your blog. My bro is dead set on the trail glove, BUT like you said were cheap people and he is going to use it as a multiple surface shoe. I was pleading with him not to buy the trail glove and give the minimus a shot. You have backed up my main argument that the trail glove would make a bad choice for multiple surfaces and for that I thank you.

  8. Thanks for reading Kalin! Also, if your brother runs more road than trail, I suggest something like the Vivobarefoot Neo (I have a review of that too). Great for roads, and just enough tread for most trail applications (nothing great though).

  9. Just wanted to say, thank you for writing down to earth reviews. So many people are so hyped-up that they write these fantastic reviews, when these shoes are still flawed. Minimalism will get better as time goes on, but it's not perfect. So thank you. I wish I had gotten on board a year ago so that I could be getting free stuff and doing product testing. I have a weird obession with running shoes and my closet has filled with more "minimalist" shoes lately.

  10. Thanks for that great post, I wrote a German post about these shoes. That for the inspiration.

    What a great shoe: Here for all the German folks http://www.joggen-online.de/blog/new-balance-minimus-trail.html

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