I say "trail" as I am finding the Fresh Foam Trail is also a fine road shoe.
|New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail
Fresh Foam is the marketing slogan and with this shoe it starts to ring true, although I would not characterize the ride as "super soft and bouncy" as New Balance does. More a tuning of cushion and support to provide a smooth, well cushioned, stable and comfortable ride on trail and road.
After 2 runs they are already more flexible than my still somewhat stiff 980 Road that have 30 plus miles on them. My first trail run in them was on muddy, steep, rooty NH trails and they were equally adept on the trail as on the road, I guess no surprise for this trail shoe! Good grip, good stability on moderately uneven steep terrain with smooth striding on the flats.
|Outsole: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail
First, what is special about the midsole outsole design?
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. 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.
So what did New Balance do to make this such a fine shoe, and an improvement in my view over the initial 980 Road? Well they tuned the midsole and outsole using their software, common sense, and I am sure some feedback from runners.
The view below is of the lateral (outside) of the forefoot with Trail top and Road bottom.
|Forefoot Lateral Side: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail top, 980 Road bottom
New Balance swapped convex hexagons for concave ones upfront. Result for me a somewhat softer forefoot than the Road as concave shapes deflect a bit more than concave ones. Finger push test shows as much. I believe the midsole material is, or should be, despite my early experience with the Road of the same firmness in both shoes and the differences in feel are due to tuning of the hexagons and outsole.
|Heel Lateral Side: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail top, 980 Road bottom
In the heel area on the lateral side(outside) they made the hexagons on the Trail (top) larger and deeper which softens the heel landing without in any way making the shoe mushy.
|Heel Medial Side: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail top, 980 Road bottom
There is no rock plate I can see and don't believe it is needed, plenty of rock push through protection.
|Outsoles: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail left, 980 Road right
Here clearly there are differences as the red sole on the Road is clearly for road use and green Trail for trail use. I found that the long deep lugs of the Trail provided superb grip on the steeps, a bit of icy snow, and the mud that I encountered. No mud accumulated but truth be said New England mud is not usually the sticky glop found out West. The lugs reverse towards the heel, sharp face foward, to provide braking. The long lugs also seem to contribute to a smooth ride on road, if a bit noisy. But there is more... The sheet, if you will, that holds the decently spaced lugs is thinner than the more continuous outsole with no flex grooves of the Road. I believe this contributes to not only better road feel but more flex in the forefoot of the Trail .
All overlays except around the lacing and for some strapping at the heel are seamfree. The upper is a very densely woven mesh, not exactly as light as many sub 10 oz trail runners who have but appears durable. I felt very well supported on some relatively rough trails without a need to overly cinch down the laces. It drains well, I did run through ankle deep water on my last run. It should not let dust in but may clog a bit with mud due to the very fine mesh.The Trail upper is built on the same last (foot shape, volume,etc..) as the Road. The toe box while not as roomy as say the Skechers Ultra is roomy enough with no sloppy play upfront, always an issue on trails for me. They are far more comfortable up front than my first pair of Road by sizing up half a size. With mid weight trail sock they should work for all my trail runs. If I ran long ultras and had wide feet, and I don't, I might potentially size up another half a size. The tongue is soft, padded and relatively thin when compared to the somewhat overly puffy tongue of the Road. The tongue is held in place by 2 webbing loops. The heel counter padding is a little thinner than the very puffy Road's.
Update 7/13/14: I finally got to run some Utah single track in Park City. And for my first run out here, 11.5 miles and 2200 vertical feet the day after a half marathon, I picked the 980 Trail. Superb in all respects. Climb well with plenty of grip. Very stable on downhills from heel to toe. As I expected the "firmness" of Fresh Foam shines on trails. Upper is supportive without being overly restrictive or too loose. A bit pointy in the toe but not a big issue for me. Lack of a rock plate not noticeable at all.
The 980 Fresh Foam Trail is a low drop (4mm), very solid, supportive mid weight trainer runner suitable for both smooth and rough trails as well as roads. It is on the heavier side (10.25 oz) of modern trail runners which often come in under 10 oz but given the cushion, deep and effective lugs, and rugged upper I think worth the weight for old legs, longer runs and tougher terrain. The tuning of the hexagon geometries and outsole has also made this a fine smooth running road shoe with few if any of the drawbacks associated with trail shoes on the road: harsh firm ride, overly slappy due to the outsole, or weight. I plan to make this one of my goto shoes for Summer 2014.
Competitor.com agrees with my review "...the Fresh Foam Trail—a modified replica of the award-winning Fresh Foam 980 road shoe—is a dynamic and versatile shoe that excels on many different types of terrain." See their review here.
Disclosure: The 980 Trail was provided to me free of charge by New Balance. The opinions herein are entirely my own.