Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Review- New Balance 980 Fresh Foam: Supportive Cushioned Lightweight Product of Computer Aided Design

The New Balance 980 Fresh Foam, a 8.8 oz men's size 9, 7.3 oz women's size 7, 4mm heel/toe drop lightweight trainer is now on sale ($110 MSRP).

Note 4/11/14: New Balance sent me another pair of 980 in size 9, up half a size from my normal 8.5. It turns out the firmness in the midsole I felt in the first pair reviewed here was not to spec, too stiff. The new pair is more cushioned especially in the forefoot, roomy, and has better flex.

The New Balance 980 Fresh Foam is not made up of innovative materials (a la adidas Boost) or for that matter has a radical design ( a la Hoka).  The 980 is innovative as for the first time New Balance is leveraging parametric modeling software often used by architects to micro design and shape the data characteristics of loading and biomechanics into what is essentially a very simple single material EVA midsole and single material rubber outsole. New Balance has used this approach before  to custom design 3D spike plates for elite athletes based on their form and foot shape. I saw the Fresh Foam introduced at OR last summer and wrote about them then.

How does this innovative approach translate to the shoe's design? 
The outer sidewalls have hexagonal "relief" based on the data modeling, which depending on location, either provide additional support via convex bulging shapes or deform, absorb shock and cushion through concave shapes.
New Balance 980 Fresh Foam Medial Side
The medial (inside of foot)  heel area is firmer and more supportive due to convex hexagons on the  sidewall. The forefoot is more cushioned and deforms more due to concave hexagons.
New Balance 980 Fresh Foam Lateral

The lateral (outside of foot)  heel is concave and deforms and absorbs on landing on the decoupled heel, while the lateral forefoot is more supportive allowing the foot to roll inwards for toe off

Does it work? Yes. Not only does my informal finger "durometer" test indicate that convex areas are firmer and concave areas deform more but running in the shoes one gets a sensation of consistent smooth support from heel to toe.

Marketing materials from New Balance say that the 980 has "ultra-plush" cushioning. Well it all depends on what one means by ultra plush. They feel quite a bit firmer than Hokas or Skechers Ultra but less firm than the sometimes harshly firm Pearl Izumi EM line.  They are fairly close in cushion for me to the adidas Energy Boost although quite a bit firmer but more stable with less of the Energy's rebound effect. Running Warehouse has the stack heights at 25mm heel, 21mm forefoot.  They have a thick insole which I believe RW includes. The forefoot certainly feels nicely cushioned similar to an Altra Torin. The overall sensation is by no means unpleasant. One feels very well cushioned, well supported with good road feel. They feel particularly stable, yet cushioned, on downhills.  The bumps in the road have been smoothed out but it still there. Think of the difference between a big Audi and an old school luxury sedan. 980 is the Audi.

Upper and Fit
They fit true to my size 8.5, just, due to a somewhat narrow front of the toe box. I would size up half a size if I was running a marathon in the Fresh Foam and since this review New Balance sent me a half size up which fits far better.  Not really as roomy as the very roomy, almost too roomy, Skechers show below. There a 5 eyelets plus 2 further back to dial in the upper. Tongue is big and thick I think to help cushion use of far back 2 lace holes.  Laced and stayed comfortable without adjustment on the first try. A very modern seamless upper. The only stitching is at the very bottom of the lacing system. Rest is all modern overlays over a soft open mesh.
Skechers Go Run Ride 3 compared to New Balance 980 Fresh Foam 
Outsole is completely covered in rubber with a bit of a decoupled heel. The computer aided design informed the size and placement of the outsole's hexagons and it is here New Balance may have gone a bit too far.  The shoe flexes far back near the middle of the area of small hexagons under the instep. Fairly stiff in the forefoot especially in the cold and I am pretty sure it is mostly the outsole and not midsole that causes the stiffness but it is gradually "breaking in" ( with 22 miles on the shoe). Unusual flex and not sure it matches my form as I have a roll forward and toe off near the front. I might have opened the forefoot outsole up to the midsole with grooves to get a more gradual flex. As the shoe does not have a "rocker" as a Hoka does or an air gap far back as the Pearl Izumi does, and they are stiff, it is fairly hard for me to roll forward and off at jogging pace. With more miles they may flex more.  I have not yet tried them at speed but soon will. Often shoes feel and function far differently at speed, particularly stiff ones.
Road Feel and Ride
Apart from the stiff forefoot and flex point far back they run very smoothly with great firm cushion and support. No leg soreness at all the next day. While a 4mm drop shoe, I did not have the sensation I sometimes to that the "heel isn't there". If I was making the decisions I might have gone with a bit softer foam. I say "road feel" as the midsole outsole (lack of lugs aside) could also make this a fine trail shoe in my opinion. I tried them off the side of the road and found them very stable. Unusual, as I often look for trail shoes that can run the road but this one feels starting from a road focus it could easily handle many trails. And New Balance knows this, as a trail version I saw at Outdoor Retailer is coming later this year. It essentially looked like a beefier deep tread on pretty much the same shoe.
Who might like the New Balance 980 Fresh Foam?
The 980 is a well cushioned and light trainer for those seeking a smooth, supportive ride. I might hazard a guess that heavier runners looking for a light sub 9oz shoe will find the Fresh Foam a good option due to its supportive nature. There are support/stability features designed into the hexagons so this could also be a good shoe for mild over-pronators without causing issue for neutral runners.  As long as not muddy or too steep (the stiff forefoot a bit of a concern on steep climbs without a rocker)  the Fresh Foam should also give a stable ride on easier trails. If they feel comfortable at speed I will consider them for my Boston shoe.

See my review of the New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail here. A very fine trail shoe for rugged terrain as well as a smooth runner on the road, a versatile hybrid for varied terrain.

For another review of the New Balance 980 Fresh Foam see Holip Soekawan's super review here.

Disclosure: The New Balance 980 Fresh Foam were provided to me free of charge for this review. The opinions herein are entirely my own.

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