Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Dom Layfield's Running Gear of the Year 2018

Article by Dominick Layfield

My Year in Review

2018 was not a stellar year for me.  I had foot surgery in late April that put the kibosh on most of my race plans.  And those races that I did enter were disappointing.  I DNF'ed at Angeles Crest 100, and again later at the Bear 100.  At UTMB, I opted to play it safe and make sure I finished.   My result was unimpressive, but I still had a very satisfying experience.
In 2019, I plan to be back at all three of these races, hoping to redeem myself.  Otherwise, I'm also going to venture outside of my comfort zone and run a road marathon at Boston.

Lightweight Trail Shoe of the Year: Altra Superior 4.0

I'm psyched that Altra let RTR release our review of the new Superior 4.0 a little early, because that means I can fudge the timing and designate it my shoe of the year 2018 -- even if it is not officially available until January 2019.  (Although I notice the shoe is available for preorder at REI.)

I enjoyed running in the Superior more than any shoe I can remember.
The new Superior is a "minimalist shoe for the masses".  I've always liked lightweight, unstructured running shoes, but have found truly minimalist shoes (like Merrell Trail Glove, Vibram Five Fingers etc.) offered too little cushioning.

The Superior 4.0 is wonderfully soft and sensitive, enabling invigorating barefoot-like sensation of the trail under your feet.  Hard-core minimalists may scoff, but for me the new Superior managed to strike a wonderful balance between sensitivity and cushioning.  Additionally, the shoe comes with a removable rock plate (which Altra brands "Stone Guard") that can be added underneath the insole to provide a little protection while still retaining the stellar ground feel.
All this comes with a fabulous and innovative burrito-style upper that provides a glove-like fit, and that RTR reviewers unanimously thought was outstanding.
The Superior 4.0 is not for everyone.  For many runners, it will be just too soft and unstructured, and lacking in protection.  Others will think it too squishy underfoot.  Even for me, it's just not a shoe I can wear all the time during high-volume training, and I can't imagine racing long distances (50 mile +) in it.

Long-haul Trail Shoe of the Year:  Hoka Challenger ATR 5

Consequently, my "mainstream" pick for trail shoe of the year is the excellent Hoka Challenger ATR 5.
What I loved most about this shoe is its simplicity.  There's little overt structure to the upper or the sole.  It's a wonderfully neutral shoe on the foot, but still provides that characteristic Hoka feel of bottomless cushioning.

This shoe has no weak spots, and gets everything just about right.   The Challenger ATR 5 is ideal as an everyday training shoe, while also being lightweight enough to use for racing.
In the past, I've found certain Hoka shoes uncomfortably narrow.  But the forefoot of the Challenger ATR 5 is decently spacious.  What's particularly exciting is that the shoe is also available in a wide version for those with hobbit feet, dealing with foot swelling (as occurs in 200-mile races, for example), or who just like to wiggle their toes.
This is the shoe that I'm planning to wear for my next hundred-mile race (conditions permitting!).

Running Headphones:  Aftershokz Trex Air

I've tried a bunch of running headphones, but find nearly all of them either uncomfortable or too isolating.   I like to hear the world around me when I'm running -- or doing almost any activity for that matter.  Maybe when grinding away on a dreadmill or other indoor trainer, I might want to shut out all external sound, but for pretty much everything else, it is good to hear what's going on.

Aftershokz Trex headphones are designed to sit outside your ear and transmit sound through your cheekbones, allowing you to simultaneously listen to your tunes and hear the growl of the mountain lion about to gobble you up!  Last year I used the Trex Titanium headphones, and found them a revelation.  They were the first headphones I've ever wanted to use regularly while exercising.   This year, I upgraded to the newer Trex Air version that is slightly lighter and with improved sound quality.

Like a lot of great products, much of what works well is unobtrusive.  Little things, like having a hoop connecting the two earpieces and not having to insert the speakers into your ears make taking the headphones on and off so much easier.  Having an easy-to-find button on the phones to pause the music or answer phone calls turns out to be extraordinarily handy.

Pushing the button on the earpiece pauses music playback and answers phone calls.

  • Bone conduction headphones allow you to simultaneously listen to music and hear the world around you
  • Light, convenient, simple.
  • Bluetooth works seamlessly, including handling phone calls.
  • You'll wonder how you got through life without them.
  • Audiophiles might complain that sound quality is not as good as conventional in-ear headphones.
  • Headphones don't get loud enough to perform well in noisy environments.
  • I found that plastics used in latest version (Trex Air) do not play well with certain chemicals in sunscreen.  On the plus side, Aftershokz warranty and customer service is excellent.  Aftershokz replaced my headphones promptly and with no quibbles.

Race Nutrition:  Maurten & Spring Energy Gels

If you race ultramarathons, you will have experienced the logistical and physiological problems associated with fuelling on the go.  No matter who you are, how steely your stomach, you will have experienced both the energy crashes when you don't take in enough fuel, and the nausea (and other gastrointestinal issues) that occur when you do.

This is a conspicuously unsolved problem in sports physiology.

Several companies are innovating in this area.  The two that I want to single out here are Maurten and Spring Energy.

Maurten's signature product is their hydrogel drink mix.  The concept is that they take a relatively simple carbohydrate drink formulation and add a chemical to it that forms a gel when exposed to the acid in your stomach.  Exactly why this is beneficial is actually debatable, but the likely reasons are (i) faster gastric emptying, and (ii) less sloshing around in your GI tract.

If you're a running geek, you've likely heard of Maurten, as all sorts of high-profile athletes have been using their products, including most conspicuously Eliud Kipchoge in his world-record-breaking run at the Berlin Marathon.  I hadn't heard of them until early 2018 and bought some to try.
For road marathons, and long events in relatively predictable environments, I think this is an important step forward.  However, for many trail and wilderness events, the logistics are too fragile.  The problem is that you need to limit your fuel exclusively to the Maurten drink, as the gel only forms at a limited range of concentrations or pH.  If you decide to chase down the Maurten drink with a liter of water, you will dilute it and the gel won't form.   More likely, you'll refill your bottles with whatever is available at race aid stations, and really mess things up.   If you have a effective support crew, and can control exactly what you ingest during a race, Maurten has the potential to be a game-changer.

For the reasons outlined above, Maurten's drink mix is not a good fit for many mountain races.   A more practical product that I discovered in 2018 are Spring Energy Gels.   In terms of macronutrient composition, their gels are relatively conventional.  What is most striking about their products is that they are made with real, natural foods like rice, banana pulp, mango, coconut etc.

I experimented with Spring Energy products at a couple of races, and really enjoyed the different flavor.  Late in a race, when you're suffering and your stomach is rebelling, it's hard to make yourself continue to ingest fuel.  There is a lot of what's called "flavor fatigue" where the things you've been eating for the last umpteen hours taste repellent.  No fuel that I've yet found is immune to this problem, but Spring gels are about the best in this regard.  They are a pleasant contrast to the overpowering sweetness of most gels.
I would suggest starting by interspersing Spring gels with whatever you're used to fueling with.  Spring sell directly through the web, and the best way to try them is their sampler pack of 12 assorted gels for $24.

Dominick Layfield
Dom lives in Southern California after several years in Park City, UT.  He is an avid trail runner who likes to race.  He holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT, and has worked as a researcher in orthopedic biomechanics.  He trains and competes mainly on trails, running about 3000 miles and 500k ft of vert per year.  In 2017 he was 14th at Western States 100 and in 2018 finished 50th at UTMB and 32nd at the Los Angeles marathon.

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Dan said...

I'm curious about your pick for the Challenger 5 at Orcas Island. I've never been there but all the photos and video show some pretty sloppy, wet and muddy terrain. The couple version of Challangers I've run in are pretty terrible in the mud. Anyway, it's the shoe I've chosen for my 100k+ distance races and it's done really well outside very wet/muddy terrain.

Telemarker said...

Hah! Good point, @Dan! You're absolutely right. Unless Orcas Island is abnormally dry, chances are that I'll want something that is better in the mud. I think I'll revise the text to reflect this.

ama said...

I hope you are healing at a good rate.

MathChief said...

Hi, Dominick, nice post. I just wanna say that if you want isolation for example on treadmill, just put on the earplug coming with the Trekz air, and you will hear nothing but music! Even better than some close back active noise cancelling headphones.

Emily Heseltine said...

Hi Dominick, thank you for a great post. Can I ask what your road shoe recommendation is for a forefoot striker? (My favourite shoe is the Salomon sense ride, as I believe I favour a stiff sole- so much so that it is my road shoe currently) I would appreciate a push in the right direction from yourself.
Many thanks and I hope your recovery is a good one.
Emily Heseltine

Telemarker said...

Hi Emily,

I'm a heel-striker who has been trying to make the transition to toe-striking over the last couple of years. My motivation is somewhat nebulous, as the evidence shows no clear benefit in terms of efficiency or injury prevention. Mostly, I guess I just feel that if I am going to call myself a runner, I'd better be able to comfortably land as comfortably on my forefoot as my heel.

The other thing to mention is that I don't really consider myself a road runner. I do run on roads, but mostly just to get to the trails. So I'm not a good advisor on such matters.

Are you looking for a recommendation for a race shoe? Or a shoe for everyday training? For road racing, I'd opt for the Nike Vaporfly 4%. For training, it depends not only on your training volume but also your personal taste. I like my shoes soft and squishy, with a wide forefoot, and a low heel-to-toe drop. The Salomon Sense Ride is none of these things, and if this is your favorite shoe then my suggestions are unlikely to suit you. (Although it does seem a strange choice for a forefoot striker.)

Much of the structure in a running shoe is there to accommodate the heel striker, and in general a forefoot striker can get away with less drop and a torsionally softer shoe. I would encourage you to experiment, and see if you can make the transition (slowly!) to a less structured, lower drop shoe. This will progressively strengthen your feet, allow you to use lighter shoes, and enhance the sensation of running.

I apologize not to be able to give a clear recommendation, but I've racked my brain, and really don't feel that I can usefully suggest a specific shoe. Maybe another RTR reviewer (a forefoot-striking, road-runner with a narrow foot!) may be able to help.

-- Dom