Saturday, November 26, 2011

Shoe Review: Vibram Five Fingers Bikila

For those of you that have read CtB for a year now (wow, it's been that long? Seriously?), you probably have caught onto the indisputable fact that I'm a pretty opinionated guy. I hold a lot of things near and dear to my heart, and I won't let go of them, and I let them bleed through into my writing style.

However, my objectivity as a footwear fitter is another matter entirely; everybody has different running mechanics, different cushioning preferences, and different physiological factors that will only permit them to run in X way with Y shoe. (See, e.g., my What is Natural Running? post.)

Some would argue that, based on that positing and talking about how injuries have increased since the wave of natural running has started, that I'm ferociously against barefoot running.


Let me be clear, here: every runner should incorporate some type of barefoot work into their running repertoire. It's invaluable as a technique training tool, and to help build the mind-body connection that helps to reduce injuries later down the road; being able to recognize the difference between "sore" and "hurt" and "injured" is the only way you continue running for years upon years without interruption.

It is a matter of how much, and on what surfaces, you will be able to do barefoot work. I, for example, can do one short, slow run per week in my Five Fingers lasting no more than 40 minutes. I also then use them during the course of my strength training, and also wear them casually. How did I learn my limit? Via a stress fracture in my right foot when I tried to go for a second run a week in them.

But every body is different. Hell, Abebe Bikila won the Olympics barefoot. And it is for him that Vibram named their road running line after.

The Backstory

Vibram is not a footwear company by trade. Well, they are a footwear company in that they have made soles for shoes since 1934. But the FiveFingers line-up was their first foray into the actual full-scale production of a shoe from the ground up.

FiveFingers were originally introduced in 2005, following a six-year development process. (Remember last week's posting on the Wave Rider 15, and the bit on lead time? Well, just goes to show how long it takes to get something right...) The original line-up of the Classic, Sprint, KSO, and Flow were all developed for the outdoor world: rubber outsoles similar to boat shoes, no cushioning, machine washable, extremely flexible. They were perfect for camping, hiking, fjording the river on the Oregon Trail (watch out for the dysentery), and in casual environments.

Then two events took place that took the running world by storm.

First, Ted MacDonald (aka Barefoot Ted) began advocating for the use of FiveFingers as running shoes. Ted has made a wonderful career out of coaching barefoot technique, and smartly saw the potential for FiveFingers to grow.

The second, of course, is Born to Run. Forget about whether you think Chris McDougall is a certified nutjob, patron saint, or anything in between. It is undeniable that his book took off, and FiveFingers were along for the ride.

Although sales had exploded, Vibram also understood that there was going to be a need for a little bit more shoe for under people's feet on the road. After all, asphalt isn't exactly the surface that the human body is designed for. And with that, along came the Bikila.

The TechnoBabble

The Bikila features 3 millimeters of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) throughout the course of the midsole. EVA is the same material that almost every running shoe manufacturer utilizes today (with the grand exception of Ecco). To put the amount of cushioning in perspective, the Saucony Kinvara (a shoe that attempts to put you into a similar body positioning as being barefoot) features 19 millimeters of EVA. So we're talking over 6 times less cushioning, which, of course, is the point.

The outsole on the FiveFingers is a mixture of carbon and blown rubber. Carbon rubber is the more durable of the two materials, whereas blown rubber is carbon rubber with more air in the mixture. This helps give the shoe durability, while also making sure that it remains light. The outsole pattern looks a lot like the pattern from the old Brooks Ghost outsole, which is a good thing: it lasted, and that's what we're looking for in a shoe that doesn't really ever lose it's cushioning value.

Much like all FiveFingers, the Bikila's are machine washable. Air dry them, unless you care to ruin your dryer. The upper on these is synthetic, but does not feature a mesh like the KSO's. This proves pivotal a bit later on.

According to the scale, a size 42 (a rough translation for a size 9 foot, which is what most published men's shoe weights are) will tip the scales at 6 ounces.

The Run
First off: these are firm. Duh.

That being said, having run in both the KSO and the Bikila, I can tell you that the cushioning makes a huge difference on firmer surfaces. Concrete still sucks something terrible, but asphalt is tamed to a fair degree. You definitely want to be light on your foot, and paying attention to what your body is telling you.

One of the bigger changes overall here is the flexibility in the outsole. Because it has all of these different pieces connected to a midsole, rather than the midsole and outsole being one and the same, you do lose some of the flexibility from the original models. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Think of why we build houses on concrete foundations: because they are firm. It helps give the foot a stable basis to stand on top of. In that spectrum, then, the Bikila is a slightly more stable platform compared to its' fellow FiveFingers.

The choice in upper material is equally compelling and infuriating. The compelling aspect of it is that it is slicker, and results in an interior that does not blister at the same rate as KSO's. It is infuriating because it is not elastic, and it is hot as hell. The lack of elasticity, coupled with a low strap, means that anybody with a higher in-step will not be able to wear this model. Instead, you'll be hunting out the Bikila LS, with the separate tongue and draw-style enclosure.

Overall, be careful with those first few strides. Don't be overzealous. Listen to your body. It will tell you what you're doing wrong. It'll also tell you if you're being too ambitious. It will give you the tools to know whether the amount of cushioning here is something that you prefer, or the body positioning is best for you. From there, perhaps you'll be a VFF wearer for all of your runs. Or perhaps not. And either is fine.

At the end of the day, the Bikila is a solid barefooting option that allows a foot that fits into it to run more surfaces in a barefoot-esque shoe. Whether that means it is a supplemental training tool, or your everyday runner, is up to you to find out.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Into the Wild...

Yes, an Eddie Vedder solo effort kick at the CtB offices.

Well, if you've been here before, you probably notice the new digs around the blog. New colors, new layout (more space for my relentless blathering), and perhaps a photo to the right of this posting.

Much like many announcement sessions here on CtB, I'll be hosting a question-and-answer session that will hopefully take care of the many things that are probably on your mind.

So, uh, what the hell happened?
This did:
Oh, cool! Errrrr...what does that do for you?
I am officially a member of Team Rev3. The more that I had put thought into the previous season, the more I realized how much Rev3 cared for their athletes and families. Each and every person was treated extremely well. Overall, it was such a rewarding experience. It was everything that I could have hoped for as an athlete. As such, I wanted to be able to share those experiences with my fellow athletes.

So, Rev3 had an open application process for the team. I applied, and for reasons that I can't even begin to explain, I got picked. It's still very surreal to me...and I don't think it'll fade. It's humbling.

So, what does that do for your coaching? You announced previously you'd hired a coach.
That all remains the same. Doug is my coach, and will be. Nothing changes there.

Does this change your racing schedule for 2012?
Yep, sure does! I'll be appearing at Rev3 races across the eastern U.S. My tentative schedule, pending approval from Team Rev3, and the Director of Social Engagements at Crashing the Boards (known as my lovely wife):

May 6: Knoxville, TN: Olympic distance
June 3: Middlebury, CT: HalfRev
August 26: Old Orchard Beach, ME: Olympic
September 9: Sandusky, Ohio: FullRev

Whoa Whoa Whoa!!! I thought you weren't racing a full before going faster at the half?
True. That's what Quassy is for. Also, if I feel like things just aren't coming together, I may wind up doing the half at OOB, and then simply going for team building out to Ohio. I want to be there to support my fellow team members, not just race. It's important to me to be the support system for other athletes, and not merely be the only one looking for support when I'm racing.

So, now that you have this, does this change what you do here at Crashing the Boards?
Negative. I will be continuing to put out my thoughts on training, racing, products, mechanics, and all around ramblings here for you to see.

So, what's next for you?
Well, time to pick up a ski pass, get out on the hill, and continue training my ass off. I have some serious work to do here.

What about the blog?
You'll be seeing a couple of fresh posts this week: a review of my new cycling shoes, a review of the Vibram Five Fingers Bikila, and a recap of some of the feedback that I received after the "What is Natural Running?" post that I had posted a few weeks back.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Shoe Review: Mizuno Wave Rider 15

Fellow runners, how many times has this scene played out for you:

You have worn a shoe consistently for years, always buying the updated model as it comes around. The brand knows that they have a successful formula on their hands, and so the new models come and go without you really ever noticing any changes with the shoe. The only thing you ever seem to notice is that the price every couple of years inches further and further upward, but you gladly pay for it. Hey, if it ain't broke?

Then it happens.

You stroll into your local specialty running store (*cough* like this one *cough*). You bring in your well-loved shoe. You come to find out that your shoe has been updated, but no worries. Then you step into it.

It's all wrong.

The fit isn't the same; the platform is different; the cushioning doesn't feel right. It finally happened: they messed it up, and now you must go to another brand. You feel violated; for years in your running group you've been known as "X brand" guy/gal, and now you've been forced to switch your allegiance, all the while wondering if your brand will get back on the wagon someday.


Stories, such as the one above, lead many to wonder: why on Earth do shoe companies change things? And why so often?

In general, shoe styles are updated approximately every 12 to 18 months. Case in point, for example, is the Brooks Adrenaline, which is updated every January 1st. (Specialty running stores, like the one linked to above, typically get to see it 60 days before anybody else.) This is when the new style will come out, any new technology that has been developed, and if there will be a price increase.

Now, there are two different types of shoe updates: evolutionary versus revolutionary updates. Again, I'll use Brooks as an example here. Let's take the recent development of the Brooks Adrenaline from the 11th model to the 12th, versus another shoe in the line-up, the Glycerin.

Brooks Adrenaline 11
Brooks Adrenaline 12
Looking at the two shoes, you see that the medial post is almost identical. The midfoot is wrapped in much the same fashion. The forefoot capture window is very similar. Overall, this would be an evolutionary update: some very minor tinkering, but very little change between the two shoes.

Now, as for the Glycerin:

Brooks Glycerin 7
Brooks Glycerin 8
Whoa! These are completely different, eh? The midsole has been changed to feature separate segments. The upper is nowhere near as tall. The wrap on the foot is different. This is what we'd call a revolutionary update; the manufacturer drew a whole new shoe from the ground up. The only thing remaining the same is the name.

As to the question: why change? A lot of this is due to feedback from runners, to try and continually improve the shoe. A lot of it is also to ensure that the shoes in your hands aren't stale. Remember: shoes have a shelf life of approximately one year. Whether you used them or not, they start to lose their cushioning in the box, losing elasticity and the ability to compress properly. By updating every year, you make sure that there is proper rotation of stock. It's also to help protect retailers; if the shoe was the same for 3-4 years, would you continue to pay full price at your local running store, or would you turn to save some cash by purchasing online? As much as we'd all like to say, "Buy local," when it comes to putting our dollars where our mouths are...I think we're all guilty of trying to stretch a buck every once in a while.


What does any of this have to do with the Mizuno Wave Rider 15? A whole heck of a lot.

For starters, the Wave Rider has had a fiercely loyal following for years. I would argue that it, along with the Adidas Supernova Cushion and the Asics GT-2000 series have the most number of repeat customers, year after year after year. They are established shoes, that rarely if ever get modified beyond recognition. Mizuno has a hallmark feel, due to the wave plate in the shoe (more on that in a minute). People just eat these things up.

And then the Wave Rider 14 came out.

To defend Mizuno for a minute, I can understand why the shoe got updated the way that it did. Mizuno had two shoes that, for all intents and purposes, were doing much the same thing. The Precision and the Rider were supposed to be in separate categories: one in the performance trainer silo, and the other in the responsive neutral category. But the Precision was a little more shoe than some others, whereas the Rider was a little less shoe than others in its silo. In other words, they were sitting directly on top of one another, competing for the same share of customers.

So Mizuno did what any logical business would do: it tried to separate the Rider and the Precision product lines. They did this by taking the Precision back down a half-step on the cushioning and weight front, and built the Rider up a little bit more than it's previous version. The brand also tried to get away a little bit from the traditional Mizuno fit by opening up the forefoot a bit more, and putting a higher collar on the shoe.

I'm not afraid to say it: this was disastrous. Mizuno lost a lot of business with this generation Wave Rider, particularly with men. This isn't surprising, given the trend of men towards the minimalism category. The Wave Rider had consistently provided a firmer shoe than its' competitors, and it gave that up. Meanwhile, Brooks took the Ghost series, and placed it right next door with a relatively close fit to how the Wave Rider had traditionally sat. For those looking in the responsive neutral category, there was no question: the Ghost was the class leader.

Mizuno had a tall order on its hands: how do you get those customers back? To radically change the Wave Rider again would be to admit failure, something that is very rare in the footwear industry. Yet they did.

The Techno-Babble

The Wave Rider is, again, what we'd call a responsive neutral shoe. This category will feature no medial posting, making it ideal for neutral pronators or supinators. Overpronators would instead be served by the Rider's brother, the Inspire (which also gets updated at the same time.) Responsive neutral shoes are different from more structured options by featuring a slightly firmer feel underfoot; a bit more flexibility; and a lower to the ground platform (typically, 2-3 mm less shoe underfoot than the structured neutral category options.)

This is a big category, particularly on the women's side: women generally are going to benefit from a shoe with a little more flexibility through the forefoot, as the load forces generated will be smaller due to body weight and frame. Competitors include the aforementioned Brooks Ghost, the Saucony Ride, the Adidas Supernova Glide (formerly the Cushion), the Asics Cumulus, the Nike Air Pegasus, the New Balance 880...and this doesn't include the performance neutral trainer options that crossover into the category.

Mizuno differentiates itself based on the Wave plate in their shoes. The Wave plate is a hytrel (read: plastic) piece that extends from the heel to at least the midfoot in all of their shoes. On their upper-level options, such as the structured neutral Wave Enigma, it extends all the way to the forefoot. The Wave plate helps transfer impact energy, and move it into kinetic motion. The idea is that the less time that the foot is in contact with the ground, the less impact energy that will travel up into the body. This seems to follow the same logic used to conclude the Harvard and Hasegawa study's on running form.

With the Rider 15, Mizuno lowered the collar on the shoe, to not impinge on the ankle joint in the same way that the 14 did. They also changed the seaming on the shoe, to provide a closer-to-the-foot feel overall throughout the shoe. In other words, it was going back to the Rider formula.

Enough Babble. How's it feel?
The best thing that I can say about the new Wave Rider is that it feels like a Wave Rider.

Let me explain: I've worn the Wave Rider before, since the Rider 10. I know how this shoe has felt underfoot, and it reminds me of the Rider 10, 11, 12, and 13. This is a good thing.

There's an awful lot to like here: when initially slipping your foot into the shoe, you immediately notice that the shoe fits onto your foot like an old, familiar friend. There's no point of the shoe digging into your foot. As you start to lace it down, you get a slightly racier feel over the previous model. It's slender, but not snug. It's comfortable, but not boxy. The heel collar is comfortable. There's little arch to speak of underfoot from the insole, but that's OK.

However, I personally don't enjoy the feel of it out on the run. The Wave Rider, for me, has always suffered from in-between-itis: it feels a bit too firm for the amount of shoe underfoot, and it's a bit too heavy and soft to really race in. I find that the Rider works best at either a recovery run pace, or full anaerobic threshold workouts, but that it clomps on the ground when you're trying to run, say, aerobic pace workouts.

Let me be clear, here, though: this shoe may not be for me. But I think that it's going to be a great update for Mizuno.

Why? There's a lot of people who want a firmer shoe, but still want a relatively "traditional" heel-toe offset. They want something to take them in-between say, a Saucony Triumph and going to the New Balance Minimus Road. This is a great way to get there. It's got a great deal of flexibility through the toe-off, making it a good racing shoe for some larger framed athletes, and a wonderful trainer for lighter weight runners.

The Wave Rider, thankfully, is back where it belongs. Mizuno fans, rejoice.