Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sam Winebaum's 2017 Run Tech Recap and Best Running Shoes and Gear of the Year

Article by Sam Winebaum, Editor

A Recap of 2017 and a Look Ahead to 2018

2017 saw incremental changes to many stalwart running shoes as engineered mesh or knit uppers and yet fewer overlays and stitching became de rigueur. I rarely have issues with any of these modern uppers unless they are to unstructured at mid foot. Upper comfort became a priority as brands now can design support, breathability, and structure into the mesh itself while reducing waste and labor costs. While uppers dramatically improved, the big news was in midsole materials and overall outsole construction and integration. 

New midsole constructions and materials emerged in 2017 after several years where adidas Boost was really the only truly different midsole material as it is a TPU based midsole, with claims of higher energy return instead of the usual EVA. Saucony followed adidas with its similar TPU based Everun, first as inserts and top soles over the last few year and then as a full midsole in shoes such as the Freedom and Triumph ISO 4 in 2017, with more to come.


Midsoles really started to move away from conventional EVA and EVA blends in 2017 seeking greater energy return while providing more shock reducing cushion.

Most notable of these new approaches is Nike's Zoom X Pebax foam and carbon plate in the Vapor Fly 4%.
 The Pebax foam is far lighter than EVA and carbon weighs almost nothing. The Pebax midsole has a silky, springy responsive feel with great shock attenuation. The down side of Pebax and the carbon plate which stabilizes and directs forward energy is cost of construction and materials, $250 for the Vapor Fly. We expect costs to drop and more accessible models to appear.

Underfoot brands are now looking to offer more dynamic rides beginning to lead to an "arms race" as to how much "energy return", response, and leg friendlier cushion can be claimed through the use of new midsole materials and construction methods. adidas started this trend several years ago with its Boost midsoles, which for me were most effective when well encased and controlled by EVA layers and plastic stabilizing elements. Sadly in 2017 most new adidas, with one exception covered below lean more more "pure" Boost which for my taste is overly soft and uncontrolled.
Reebok's Float Ride series joined the Pebax party with a more conventional midsole construction with some EVA side walls to provide structure instead of the embedded carbon plate as in the Vapor Fly. The Run Fast Pro I am just starting to test weighs an incredible 6.2 oz/179 g for a shoe with a very substantial almost training stack of 25.5mm/17.5mm forefoot. The Pebax ride is amazingly responsive cushioned and lively.

Brooks started to move to its DNA AMP PU midsole with an outer layer of TPU to control lateral forces in the new Levitate and soon other models.
DNA AMP PU  is considerably heavier than Pebax but provides a distinct well controlled piston like cushion and rebound.

361 Degrees intrigued with its QuikFoam layer, a very bouncy rubber EVA blend "wrapped" in a painted skin to control lateral forces.
Under Armour will be taking a similar approach in its upcoming HOVR (preview article) embedding a soft Olefin core in a surrounding firmer collar while Salomon uses a soft vibration attenuating insert in its new Running Avenue road line and sometrail shoes such as the Sense Ride as well. These very soft layers and inserts, well controlled by an outer firm layer promise both soft shock reducing cushion and responsive ride characteristics.

Skechers Performance is taking a slightly different tack with their just launching FlightGEN based midsoles going with dramatic weight reductions across the line with not quite the lively ride of some of the other new materials and construction, but still more energetic than conventional EVA.

Strangely the earliest high energy return material adidas Boost didn't see any changes with the expected Boost Light in the Sub 2 race shoe not appearing beyond a few pairs for elites. adidas while growing rapidly in overall sales of Boost only really updated one shoe that could ebe called performance during the year the fine Tempo 9, a Boost lighter stability trainer with copious amounts of EVA and Torsion plastic to go with the Boost

Beyond the Vapor Fly many fine but fairly conventional road shoes with "normal midsoles" seemed to run one into the other in terms of true differentiation on the run.
Exceptions include the ultra light, super cushioned Altra Running Duo, a January 2018 shoe I tested (review soon, preview here) and the very light and lively FlightGEN midsoles in all the just launching Skechers Performance shoes.

The fabric and comfort revolution continued in race vests such as Salomon S-Lab Ultra vests (RTR review) and cooling non cling fabrics such as CoolCore (RTR review). Running shorts got increasingly clever with plenty of no bounce well hidden pockets such as in the Nike Trail Short and very light, breathable light compression support in the Salomon modular short system  support shorts with very deep hip pockets built in as a bonus.

MY YEAR IN RUNNING

I had a fabulous year of mostly road running. I reduced my mileage somewhat to just over 30 miles per week from about 37 on average and will total about 1650. Thankfully I stayed entirely injury free.  I did not run a marathon in 2017 but did run a total of 13 races: a 25K trail race, six half marathons including one trail, three 10K and three 5K-5 milers. I ran comparatively few trail miles this year as I spent less in Utah than in the past.

Helped along by a wiser race schedule, almost zero interval work, and close monitoring of my sleep and cardiac status and especially the incredible Nike Vapor Fly 4% I set or was within seconds of 8-9 year personal bests at 5K, 10K, and the half marathon (1:35.24)  as I turned 60. I placed or won my new age group in all races but two.  There is something to be said for training easy and racing hard... and in a great pair of shoes!

ROADTRAIL RUN 2017 RECAP
I ran in and reviewed about 50 different shoes in 2017  either solo or jointly with others on the RoadTrailRun team. Sometimes I must say they blended together... but some for sure stood out,
In total RoadTrailRun published about 160 articles in 2017 ranging from shoe and gear reviews  (here) and 2018 previews (here), to articles in our new Racer Stories Series here. I am very grateful for our growing readership at the site and across Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. Please follow us at the links at the bottom of the article I will work on my video and photo skills in 2018 with my new iPhone X!

LOOKING FORWARD TO 2018
I hope for good health and many fun miles of training and racing. I am reconsidering my marathon "retirement" given how effective the Vapor Fly have been for me in terms of in race leg soreness, my usual issue in later marathon miles.

On the gear front I am looking forward to innovative midsole outsole constructions which balance plenty of responsive dynamic cushion with light weights and flexibility! These include Brooks DNA AMP in more performance oriented shoes such as the upcoming Ricochet (preview here), UA HOVR (preview here)  and Reebok Float Foam (preview here) that we are already testing. LaSportiva will join Brooks in the PU midsole game with a premium trail runner the Unika while Salomon will use PU as a forefoot insert in its upcoming top of the line S/Lab Ultra both with a focus on long haul durable consistent cushion on trail.

I am eager to run the latest from Nike as they expand Zoom X to more models. I am always curious to see what innovations rapidly growing Altra will come up with next I look forward to adidas getting back in the energy return game they created with Boost or with something else, enough of the soft and mushy.

I will continue to follow Salomon as their new Running Avenue road line (review soon, preview here) with effective VIBE vibration reduction technology hits the market.

I wonder when brands such as Mizuno and ASICS will re emerge with truly exciting innovative shoes.

On the wearable tech front I am looking forward to yet more readable screen layouts on the run and the first brand to completely pull together a 24/7 view of training, cardiac effort and daily stress, muscle fatigue, and sleep. 

2017 BEST OVERALL RUNNING SHOE AND BEST ROAD SHOE
Nike Zoom Vapor Fly 4% (RTR review)
No question in my 45 years of racing the Vapor Fly is the most protective and at the same time fastest shoe I have ever run in, even thinking back to when I was actually fast and young!

The Vapor Fly was key to my fast racing times in 2017, maybe more than my smarter training and race scheduling. I have never run in a shoe that was so easy on the legs, so light, and despite its softness so responsive due to its carbon plate and the magic Zoom X foam.  I never faded late in races, had plenty of kick and was incredibly well recovered the day after each race with minimal soreness.  The Vapor Fly took me to an 8 year PB at age 60 along with similar PB at 5K and 10K.

While it is almost identical to the Breaking 2 shoe worn for the 2 hour attempt and has been the winning shoe at most all major marathons since it first appeared, committed racers and especially older racers who need some cushion and bounce should consider this marvel for any race distance. I call it the Breaking 4 shoe!

I am now tempted to run a 2018 marathon as a result!  If I didn't have so many shoes to test , and due to their cost, although they are wearing very well,  I likely would run all of my non easy runs in them. In 2018 I can't wait to see how Nike will further apply Zoom X Pebax foam and the lessons learned for shoe design from the Breaking 2 project they were first created for, 
Shop for the VaporFly at Running Warehouse (limited sizes) here

BEST OVERALL TRAIL SHOE
Salomon XA Elevate (RTR review)
Joining Jeff Valliere (see his Bests of Article here), the Salomon XA Elevate, just coming out as the year ends, was by far the best all around trail shoe I ran in. And Salomon itself had 3 other fabulous new, but for me more specialized to conditions and terrain shoes: Sense Ride, Pro Max, and Slab Sense Ultra. Elevate is stable, roomy and secure with a new internal approach to Salomon SensiFit and EndoFit support . Not overly heavy for the amount of shoe, with a beefy undercarriage, rock protection, super gripping 5mm lugs it can conquer any mountain or trail conditions and terrain. Very surprisingly, it has a smooth way about it on dirt roads and even pavement, that all of our testers including me noted, the smoothest of any 2017 trail shoe on easier terrain for me.
Shop for the XA Elevate at REI exclusively into early 2018


BEST PERFORMANCE TRAINER/RACER
Salomon S-Lab Sonic 2 (RTR review)

If I wasn't so crazy about the Vapor Fly the Sonic 2 would be my shoe for fast tempo and races 5K to half marathon. A surprisingly roomy and incredibly comfortable upper for a racer tops off a firm, dynamic ride with tibial shock well dampened by Salomon's Vibe heel insert. Copious amounts of slip resistant  Contragrip rubber make this as durable a racer or light trainer as you will find but it all the quality, versatility and dynamic ride  comes at a high sticker price of $180.  I prefer it to shoes such as the Nike Zoom Elite, Saucony Kinvara, or adidas Boston for its sure footed wide platform and versatility.
Shop for the S/Lab Sonic 2 at Running Warehouse here

BEST LIGHT WEIGHT PERFORMANCE TRAINER

Top Gear: Skechers GORun Ultra R2 (RTR review)

I participated in many rounds of wear testing for this light (only 8.6 oz) for very well cushioned trainer with over 30mm of stack front and back which is also priced very fairly. The knit upper is incredibly comfortable and the foot well held on the high platform. I only wish and believe me I tried, and Skechers did dramatically improve over iterations, for a bit longer softer flex. I am already wear testing the next version.,,
Shop for the Skechers Ultra Road R2 at Running Warehouse here

Honorable Mentions:
Saucony Zealot ISO 3 (RTR review)
The Zealot sits between the Kinvara and the Ride just where I like it to be. Decently cushioned for daily use for my tastes, it is a snappy performer with a secure and relatively unstructured  upper
Shop for the Zealot at Running Warehouse here

adidas adizero Tempo 9 (RTR review)

The light stability Tempo is my kind of stability shoe. I am not one for firm posts, the Tempo only has a thin, film stiffener over the Boost at medial mid foot but I do need some forefoot stability and the Tempo has plenty from the EVA layer and Torsion plastic strips under the outsole.  Up front it reminds me in some ways of my 2015 shoe of the year, the light stability Altra Impulse. It's a great option for hard miles where you want a touch of support. It's upper is definitely not the most modern or comfortable but is has a secure performance fit. Why is it on my bests list? Well fix the upper and remove a touch of the stability and I it would be the ideal Boost racer trainer reminding me of the great early Energy Boost 1.
Shop for the Tempo 9 at Running Warehouse here

Hoka Mach (RTR review)
Mach is a 2018 shoe but I did run it and we reviewed it here in 2017. The predecessor Clayton was a fine shoe but stiff with an awkward upper and tended to irritate and blister the arch for many.  All those issues are resolved in the upcoming Mach. A lot of dynamic well cushioned shoe for its sub 8 oz weight and it is even a road trail hybrid as my fellow reviewer Dominick Layfield ran the 100 mile Rio Del Lago in them. It should be high on my 2018 list but who knows what surprises the year will bring.

BEST DAILY TRAINER
Given my relatively low miles and preferences for some snap, the classic daily trainer such as these is rarely what I prefer to run but these shoes all have strong points.  I pick three to account for difference preferences in this broad and important category for most runners.  

Brooks Levitate (RTR review)
Yes it is heavy at over 11 oz and thus a bit ponderous but the piston like smooth compression and then energy return of the AMP DNA midsole is a special new midsole feel. I enjoy my easy miles in the Levitate which struggles a bit at moderate paces then feels somewhat better at speed when the AMP DNA really kicks in and kicks back!
Shop for the Levitate at Running Warehouse here

New Balance Fresh Foam 1080v8  (RTR review)
The first Fresh Foam I have actually enjoyed, the premium 1080 is heavy duty and well cushioned. It has a roomy upper with the most toe box room and softest fit there of the three here, The upper is not overbuilt as some in the class and the combination of Fresh Foam midsole and decently soft and flexible outsole with a distinct flex point near the toe, unlike many of its competitors, allows this heavier shoe to run decently fast. I  would like to see the flex longer. It is a  great choice for faster runners seeking a very well cushioned trainer for heavy mileage.
Shop for the 1080 at Running Warehouse here

361 Degrees Meraki (RTR review)

My first shoe from 361, the 10 oz Meraki was a big surprise. The Quik Foam layer took the edge off the firmer midsole making the shoe comfortably cushioned, distinctly bouncy yet at the same time responsive and controlled. It is a great choice if you want a lighter responsive, faster daily trainer without the firmer lumpier edge of say a Nike Pegasus or the slower feel of say the Brooks Ghost
Shop for the Meraki at Running Warehouse here

BEST GO FAST TRAIL SHOE
New Balance Vazee Summit Trail V2 (RTR review)
This narrow on the ground, nimble shoe with widely spaced lugs and a solidly supportive relatively snug upper is a go fast trail shoe. While I find New Balance's RevLite to firm in road shoes for me it is exactly what is required in such a trail shoe. It won't get many through an Ultra, I did race it up to 25K with some leg soreness towards the end in them, but for going all out on moderate terrain with confidence it is a great choice. I can't wait to try the upcoming Unknown Summit (preview) which essentially replaces the Vazee Summit. 
Shop for the Vazee Summit Trail at Running Warehouse here

BEST HEAVY DUTY TRAIL RUNNERS
As with the daily road trainers each of these choices was best suited to certain conditions and terrains for me in 2017.

La Sportiva Uragano GTX (RTR review)
If conditions are bad be it snow, wet or rough terrain the Gore-Tex lower upper, stretch gaiter top Uragano was my go to. More protective up top than the more airy Elevate XA it is not quite the smooth any terrain speedster as the Elevate XA While it is very flexible for such a big shoe front it is not quite as protective of the toes as the Elevate. It is my best and safe choice for bad weather conditions.

Merrell Agility Peak Flex (RTR review)
The Merrell is the shoe for rough terrain where running and hiking can get blurred,not surprising given Merrell's hiking heritage. But don't think of it as only for hiking, it runs well enough. This is not a recycled hiker in run shoe livery. It has a fantastic rear of the shoe hold and stability and has very good toe area flex yet with rock protection. Shoes in this class are either thin up front underfoot while flexible (Uragano) or very stiff. Here the two are well blended. Not exactly an agile shoe it will get you through rough terrain with confidence at moderate paces. 
Shop for the Agility Peak Flex at Running Warehouse here

Altra Running Timp (RTR review)
Not the shoe I would take where I take the Uragano or Merrell, for example my home mountains of New Hampshire with its boulders and wet roots, but the shoe I  take for long, long easy miles on smooth trails in Utah where Altra is from. It is not a fast shoe but one that makes me smile. The heel hold is a bit loose and combined with the super commodious front toe box their stability suffers when trails get dicey.  The Timp due to its massive "flipper like" on the ground front foot print is a super climber despite its weight.
Shop for the Timp at Running Warehouse here

WEARABLE TECH AND MUSIC
As part of my freelance writing for the now sadly gone Competitor Magazine and now for Motiv Running ,I was fortunate to test dozens of GPS watches, earphones, and other run oriented run sensors in 2017. My Best of article for Wearable Tech covers products for many uses, prices, and preferences and is here. Below are my top personal picks for GPS watch and music listening.

BEST GPS WATCH
Garmin Forerunner 935 (RTR review)
Very light with a 24 hour battery life and accurate GPS and wrist heart rate,the 935 was on my wrist for every race and as a benchmark on my other wrist as I tested others as I could always count on it to tell me where things stood.  I appreciated its various training insights including VO2 Max, Training Status, and Effect. While I don't "multi-sport" beyond hiking and nordic skiing the 935 is also the Tri athlete's ultimate tool. 
Shop for the 935 at Running Warehouse here

Best Music Earphones
Bose Sound Sport Free (RTR review)

Hands down, far and away, the best sound of any of the many earphones I tested in 2017. Not surprising as Bose is a long time audiophile speaker and earphone expert. Truly like being in a concert hall, with deep rich immersive sound that hits all the notes, high and low. Completely wire free they were very comfortable despite their size and secure enough when well fitted. To not lose these $250 beauties the Bose Connect app has an effective find my buds both by map and by sounding a tone in the buds. 

APPAREL & GEAR OF THE YEAR
CoolCore (RTR review)
Using a chemical free entirely mechanical approach to cooling, drying, and the all important wet cling the CoolCore T was outstanding in its comfort and true cooling and drying power in all conditions. Not slick when wet the shirt just does not cling. I wore it in very warm and also cool wet conditions and stayed as dry as I ever have in any shirt.

Salomon S/Lab Support Half Tight, Speed Bob Hat, Sense Ultra Vest
Of course Salomon is know for shoes but I think where they uniquely shine is in their athlete driven apparel, accessories, and race vests created in the S/Lab. I wore a lot of Salomon kit this year on both road and trail.

Salomon has gone way high tech with its modular short system. I gradually assembled the whole system of Support Half Tight, unlined super light over short and carry belt. The star of the system and the essential piece are the support tights. A very thin compression short of a stretchy dense fabric, the inside is backed by very thin strips of what almost looks like K-Tape. Almost invisible, these strips and the rest of the short provide very comfortable and effective support. In a huge bonus, each hip has a snug very deep mesh pocket which easily swallows a whole iPhone 7 with zero bounce. I wore them for every race this fall under other shorts and along with the Vapor Fly 4% and Zensah Featherweight sleeves give them credit for no cramps and minimal leg fatigue and fast times!

The Speed Bob hat is a wide brimmed boonie style hat made of 37.5 moisture wicking and evaporating fabric and even has a reflective top which sends the rays back and provides some structure This odd for running looking hat is highly effective in all kinds of heat and sun. The wide brim protects the face and maybe a bit the neck and serves as an evaporative surface.I am fussy about hats and it is the best single hat I have ever worn, at least as of 2017!

My go to run vest was the Sense Ultra 5L. Super comfortable with a surprisingly large capacity when full loaded I find it amazing that such a minimal fabric based vest works so effectively. To make it perfect Salomon needs to make the sternum straps more practical and less minimal.

Shop for S/Lab Support Tight, Speed Bob, Sense Ultra Vest at Running Warehouse here

Naked Running Band (RTR review)

All of us at RoadTrailRun had the Naked Running Band on our Best list for 2017. Practical, comfortable and with flexible carrying capacity for everything from phones, to soft flasks, to some nutrition, hats, gloves sunglasses for most runs they are all you need. More to come from Naked in 2018 including vests following the same body conforming stretch approach. See review above.
Shop for Naked Running Band here

adidas Terrex Agravic Alpha Hoodie (RTR review)

A jacket we reviewed in 2016 and my best of 2016 the Alpha has remained my goto for cool to cold , drier, windy conditions. Super light Pertex Quantum fabric with a whisper of military grade Polartec Alpha insulation up front with a decently roomy fit and hood it is the ultimate windbreaker.
Columbia Caldorado Outdry Extreme Jacket (RTR review)

I join Jeff in calling out the Caldorado as one of my best of 2017. It arrives in 2018 but I put it through its paces in all kinds of conditions. When the going gets wet and windy this barely 6 oz shell with no fabric to wet through shines. I have also found it highly effective in cold windy conditions as well.
To read Jeff Valliere's Trail focused Gear of the Year click here
To read Peter Stuart Road focused Gear of the Year click here

Wishing Everyone Fun and Fast Roads and Trails in 2018! 
Thanks for Following RoadTrailRun!

For Sam's bio see our Reviewers Bio Page here
Disclosure: Some products mentioned were provided free of charge, others were personal purchases. The opinions herein are entirely the author's. 

Watch our YouTube Channel for 2018 Run Previews and Wearable Tech Reviews HERE
Visit our Index Page HERE for over 80 in depth 2017 shoe and gear reviews
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