Tuesday, September 24, 2019

VJ Sport Shoes MAXx Review - "The Best Grip on The Planet"?

Article by Jeff Valliere and Jacob Brady

VJ Sport Shoes MAXx ($160)

Jeff:  I have never heard of the VJ shoe company and have to admit that because of that, came very close to passing up the opportunity to review, but the claim of superior grip drew me in.  Founded in 1981 in Finland by a shoemaker who was also an orienteering enthusiast, decided to make a shoe that would hold up to the rigors of and give appropriate traction in rough, often wet, off trail terrain. 

Designed and most often used for orienteering, sky running, trail running and obstacle course racing, VJ is the official shoe of Tough Mudder. Offering 3 models, XTRM, MAXx and iRock 3, which have varying levels of lug height, stack height, upper design and weight depending on the activity/preference. A summary of VJ technologies is here.  
I chose the VJ MAXx because it has the highest stack height and more reasonable lugs for the dry trails and off trail running I do here in Colorado. The VJ MAXx is described as “A well cushioned, light-weight trail shoe for the longer distances”, which, when combined with the extra grippy outsole, fits right into my wheelhouse.

Jacob: The MAXx is VJ Sport’s highest cushioned, lowest lugged, and widest of their three shoes, all with the same butyl rubber, what VJ Sport calls the “best grip on the planet.” I was offered to test the MAXx as my typical terrain in New England is often wet, very rooted, and never smooth. Especially when racing, I push trail shoes to the limits of spiky rock/root grip and sharp cornering. Most “general” trail shoes do not have the grip or foothold needed for the twisty and bumpy East Coast US terrain I run, but the VJ MAXx seems promising as it’s the most trail-running specific of their top-class grip shoes, all designed for tough terrain like OCR. 

Our testers set out to find out if VJ in fact had as they hashtag #TheBestGripOnThePlanet.

Jeff:  Precise and performance oriented fit, top notch traction, protection, response, stability, weight.
Incredible grip, the “best grip on the planet” did not disappoint
Great fit, comfortable even when tight enough to rip tight corners on singletrack
Good balance of cushion and ground feel

Jeff:  Tongue is a bit short and thin (requires some work to position and I experience some lace bite if not careful with lacing), stitching (while materials are holding up well overall, I am experiencing stitching issues), price
Rather heavy for the stack
Loud and a bit rough on pavement
Midsole is traditional and a bit dead on smooth/tame sections

Tester Profiles
Jeff  runs mostly on very steep technical terrain above Boulder often challenging well known local FKT's. 
Jacob runs a mix of roads and trails in the Portland, Maine area. He runs every day and averages 50 miles per week. Jacob recently ran a 2:54 marathon and completed his first ultra, a 50km trail race.

Official Weight:  8.8 oz. / 250 g
Samples:  9.75 oz. / 278 g (US Men’s size 10), Jacob: 11.8oz / 338g (US Men’s 12)
Stack Height: 16mm heel / 10mm forefoot (6 mm drop)
Available now. $160.00

First Impressions and Fit:
Jeff:  Out of the box, the VJ MAXx looks slightly reminiscent to the Scott Supertrac RC.  Fit is snug with a precise, performance oriented feel. The VJ MAXx feels light in the hand and lighter on the foot and is somewhat stiff.  The outsole, while not the most deep and aggressive lugs, look to have a good profile and arrangement to provide good grip in a variety of terrain and surfaces.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was a strong rubber smell. I’ve opened a lot of shoes in my life and have never noticed this before. I’ve also never tried the best grip on the planet though, so it’s probably a good sign.

I was concerned about the fit as some recommended sizing up in certain VJ models and the US sizes appear to be translated from euro sizes, but as soon as I put on the shoe I was pumped; feels great. The length is perfect and it’s snug around the mid foot, comfortably tight in the forefoot while still being decently wide—a bit of tightness is preferred for technical trail anyways. There appears to be a deformity—a bulge, maybe an air bubble—on the bottom of one of the shoes, but it’s minor. They don’t look as machined as the big, classic brands, but they feel high quality. Really great start.

The grip on hardwood indoors was absurdly good, as expected. Couldn’t get them to slide even with all my weight. Every bit of dirt on my floor stuck to the bottom as well. I can’t wait to see how these work on trails.

Jeff:  The upper is described as a “breathable sandwich mesh and reinforced with strong kevlar fibers” with “strengthened rubber toe cap” and “Fitlock” midfoot wrap.  The mesh dense enough to keep out sand and dirt, but is open just enough to feel adequately breathable and my feet never feel hot. The kevlar fibers help add durability and support, while maintaining good flexibility.

The toe bumper is flexible, yet quite substantial and protective.
Around some of the lateral side and most of the medial side, is a very large area of continuous overlay for water resistance and increased durability in rough and rocky terrain.  Additionally, on the medial side is the Fitlock overlay, which a burly nylon overlay which helps secure the midfoot and provide added protection when scuffing through rocks and off trail conditions.

The heel collar is minimally padded, but comfortable and the heel counter is semi flexible, yet stable, secure and protective.
The tongue is a bit short and thin and if not careful (or sometimes even if I am careful), I experience a bit of lace bite.  I think a slightly higher, thicker tongue would help here, as would a gusseted tongue be a nice touch, as I find myself having to position and smooth the tongue before lacing up.

Fit is true to size, yet despite the description on the VJ website that the VJ MAXx is “Built on a larger than medium last with just a little more space in the toe box.”, I find that even for my slim foot, the fit is very precise with no extra room to space, though for the purpose of this shoe, I find the precise and secure fit to be an attribute.
Jacob: The upper design is simple and smooth. Largely a kevlar-reinforced mesh with thin, vacuum-sealed overlays across the shoe and thicker reinforcements for protection around the toe and stability around the heel. 
There is a rubber cage—two eyelets wide—on the medial side with “FITLOCK” written on the side. This addition provides more structure and ensures a performance fit. I thought the rubber might be annoying and able to be felt with uneven pressure inside the shoe, but it is totally unnoticeable and works really well.

The streamlined upper doesn’t look modern or dramatic, a bit plain even, but it is very comfortable, secure, durable, and easy to hit a balance between tightness and foothold when lacing up. 

The midsole softness and flex characteristics are a bit unique to this shoe which impacts the overall comfort and fit, but the upper itself is exceptional; I have no complaints at all.


Jeff:  The midsole of the VJ MAXx is comprised of “Cushioning units in the front and heel for maximum comfort”.  I find the cushioning to be appropriate for mid distance runs, several hours or so on hard technical terrain, as the shoe has a fairly firm feel and supportive cushioning.  The VJ MAXx is not plush by any means however despite claims to be designed for longer distances. I find response to be good for the most part, perhaps not race shoe fast , but I find that the VJ MAXx can easily move when I am feeling like getting after it and is most at home on steeper, more technical terrain.  On more smooth, hard, road like surfaces or roads, they feel a bit harsh, but these shoes were not designed for that.

The VJ MAXx is exceptionally stiff out of the box and figured they would break in over time, but after 40 or so miles, have not found that to be the case.  Much of that stiffness is due to the full length rock plate, which effectively wards off the hardest hits on the sharpest of rocks.

Jacob: The midsole is the weakest component of the MAXx, but it’s still decent. The stack height is mid-range, especially one named “MAXx” and intended to be for long distance. However, the foam is dense and provides substantial cushioning; I can’t decide if it feels soft or firm. Maybe on the soft side, but in an entirely different way than the super-light, thick-soled midsole on many shoes (such as nearly every shoe in Hoka’s trail line). 

The MAXx is generally stiff from the dense midsole and full-cover outsole, though the flex it does have lengthwise is a bit non-uniform. When bending the shoe by hand there is one flex point, right before the toe box. Thus the shoe doesn’t really roll though through from strike to toe-off that smoothly, though this is almost solely noticeable on smooth, flat sections or road.

Likewise, the midsole isn’t springy and doesn’t have much rebound. Because of that, it doesn’t provide a smooth, chilling ride or encourage speed. On pavement especially, it felts a bit dead—not energy sapping, just not really fun. As with most of the cons of this shoe, this negative is forgettable once on the tough terrain this shoe was built for.

The dense foam does provide adequate cushioning for long distances (with my current testing I wouldn’t choose them for over 50k, but they might work) and great protection. I can run on the tips of rocks and hit roots right on my arch without any pain. The dampening is different than max cushioned shoes (e.g. Hoka SpeedGoat and similar shoes) where impact is largely absorbed by a huge stack and you don’t even know that there even a root there. In the MAXx, the dense midsole + full coverage outsole effectively dulls the impact though it’s still present.


Jacob: The MAXx outsole is full-contact sticky 100% buytl rubber with well-spaced 4mm lugs which provide good versatility and performance on most terrain. It’s not really a mud/sand/loose material shoe, but that’s not what it’s for. 
Recently, I’ve been running primarily in the Hoka SpeedGoat 3 which has a Vibram MegaGrip outsole. I thought this outsole was amazing and felt like it had great grip in all conditions (which it does), however, I did an A/B test on wet rock with the MAXx and the MegaGrip doesn’t even come close. For wet grip on all surfaces, the MAXx definitely has the best outsole of any shoe I’ve run in. On dry it’s less shockingly good, but still outstanding. 

I’m curious how the outsole will wear over hundreds of miles, as quick wear could lower the appeal of an otherwise amazing outsole. Mine still look very fresh which is a promising start but I have <50mi on them, so we’ll see.
Jeff:  I have put this outsole through the ringer and have tested in everything except for snow and mud (has been quite dry on my home trails as of late).  Traction is good in loose terrain, though more pointed and deeper lugs would help there, but where they really excel is on rocks and slab, be it dry or wet.  I feel as though traction nearly defies probability on the steep flatirons above Boulder and also is surprising on wet rocks I have found when crossing creeks and deliberately trying to get them to slide.
Durability seem to be average, as I am seeing noticeable wear after 40 or so rough miles, but nothing that has me concerned.

Jacob:  The ride of the MAXx is smooth and largely unremarkable on most terrain. The drop, cushion, and ground-feel are all mid-range. On smooth straight trails and especially road, the ride is underwhelming; pretty average. Overall, it’s consistent, kind of smooth, and somewhat sluggish and dead—fine but nothing special. A bit too inflexible. On more challenging trails the ride is smooth and the consistency shines out over all the negatives, inspiring confidence and providing very good protection without loss of precision. 
Because of the sometimes dead-feeling midsole I was hesitant to race in the MAXx. I have many shoes that feel much more like racers—they like to go fast and help me glide along with less effort. However, as it rained the morning of the 12-mile, exceptionally twisty and rooted race I was doing, I knew it was worth giving the MAXx a go (it would be perfect test-conditions, that’s for sure). The race is notorious for causing falls—it’s even called the Bruiser. The wetness this year would add to the sketchiness of an already technically challenging course. The MAXx were truly awesome. I finished in third and hung around right at the finish line to talk to the other runners; over half of the first 5-7 finishers had fallen during the race. I had no foot-slips and was able to rip the downhills like it wasn’t even wet or sketchy; the grip is unbelievably good and I’ve never felt any pain or even significant pressure from landing on something hard or sharp.
Jeff:  I find the ride of the VJ MAXx to be exceptionally good while running on rocky, technical terrain and moderately technical terrain, quite stiff, but predictable, stable are great for rock hopping and moving quickly over rough surface.  I find the ride to be a bit harsh on hard surfaces at faster paces, primarily on roads and super hard packed steep downhills, but is a minor complaint, given that I choose this shoe for more difficult terrain.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Jacob:The VJ Sport MAXx is a great shoe , from construction to performance. It’s best suited for difficult terrain, especially in wet conditions. As advertised, the grip is exceptional. The unexciting midsole renders the MAXx just ok on smoother trails and no fun on the road. Overall, the MAXx is a solid do-it-all technical trail shoe that is simple enough in fit and design to work for a wide variety of people.
Jacob’s Score: 9.3
Ride: 8 (30%) Fit: 10 (30%) Value: 9 (10%)  Style 9 (5%) Traction: 10 (15%) Rock Protection: 10 (10%)

Jeff:  I agree with Jacob, the VJ MAXx is best suited for difficult terrain and especially in wet conditions, slabby rock, scrambling, talus, rock hopping, or anywhere you demand top level traction, underfoot protection, stability, control and precise fit.

Jeff’s Score: 8.9 / 10
Ride: 8 (30%) Fit: 9.5 (30%) Value: 7.5 (10%)  Style 7 (5%) Traction: 10 (15%) Rock Protection: 10 (10%)

In addition to the tongue being a bit on the short and thin side (gusseting would be nice too, especially given that this is a $160 shoe), after a few runs, I noticed some of the stitching coming undone where the outsole meets the upper at the toe of the left shoe.  While perhaps not a critical stitch (and perhaps an anomaly), it does have me a bit on guard, as I can’t recall ever seeing this before.

Comparisons Index to all RTR reviews: HERE

Salomon X Alpine Pro (RTR Review)  
Jeff:  The X Alpine Pro is heavier, but has superior upper fit and better overall quality, cushion and comfort, with a more accommodating toe box (though without compromise in security/control).  I also find the X Alpine Pro to have superior traction in a wider range of circumstances due to the edging zone in the forefoot, as well as more effective tread design.

Salomon Sense Pro 3: (RTR Review
Jeff:  The Sense Pro 3 is lighter and more responsive, with a similar precise and low volume fit, though more comfortable upper with a more flexible and higher quality feel.  Cushioning is similarly firm, though the VJ MAXx is more substantial and protective. The Sense Pro 3 has a more aggressive tread, though MAXx does better on slabs and in wet.  I found the Sense Pro 3 to be particularly unstable however in technical terrain, where I have no such issues in the MAXx.

La Sportiva Bushido 2  (RTR Review)  
Jeff:  The Bushido 2 has comparable traction and protection, however the Bushido weighs a bit more and might not feel as quick, though the Bushido has far superior upper fit/comfort/quality, as well as a more plush cushioned feel (without feeling squishy or compromising rough terrain stability.

Tecnica Origin LT  (RTR Review)    
Jeff:  The Technica Origin has comparable traction, though rock protection is slightly less.  It is hard to match the custom fit of the Origin however and the Origin is very quick, responsive and agile, more so than the VJ MAXx.

Scott Supertrac RC  (RTR Review)   
Jeff:  The RC has better traction in loose terrain, but is close on rocks, slab and in the wet with the edge to the VJ MAXx.  RC has a better upper in my opinion and a more forgiving midsole with more flex, yet great protection and response.

Saucony Mad River TR  (RTR Review)  
Jeff:  The Mad River TR is slightly heavier, but has better cushion and comfort, though traction is not quite as good as the VJ MAXx, nor is rock protection.  The Mad River TR is unique in that the lacing is customizable, as well as it is set up for adding screws for traction or holes for drainage.
ead reviewers' full run bios here
The product reviewed was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are the authors'.
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Jeff Valliere said...


MarkP said...

As the person who requested a review of these thanks for trying them out. I've been waiting to hear your views before committing to the shoe I hope to use for my first 50 mile ultra which will be a hilly (10,000 feet plus) effort on a mixture of UK mountain terrain (open, grass mountainside, rocky trails and paths that can get very muddy plus possibly some road sections. I was hoping from the limited information I'd found on the Maxx that this might be the shoe but it looks like it might not have the comfort for that distance.

Given a choice of shoe for that sort of race what would your choice be? I've tried a Speedgoat 3 on and it just felt slightly too tight up front at true to size, they didn't have a half size up but a full size up didn't feel secure. I currently run longer fell / trail races in an Inov8 X Claw 275 but find my feet get too sore in them and they aren't really cushioned enough for more than about 15 miles, I also went half size up in them as advised but that was a mistake as they move about too much on steel and cambered ground contributing to the foot soreness.

Sam Winebaum said...

Hi Mark P,
Sam RTR Editor chiming in. Speedgoat 4 coming within a month or so. The underfoot platform is slightly wider at the ball of the foot and the SG4 will also be available in wide sizing.

Anonymous said...

Would love to see this shoe with another additional 10mm stack height back/front. To call it Max with 16/10 is silly. Mid stack at most.
Very happy to see another New England guy hammering away on shoes looking for the nirvana grip for our nasty environment.
I'd like to try this shoe if they had a 30 day trial but for $160 I think probably not.....but that grip thing. Really I would like a shoe that can go 30-50 miles on our terrain in 1 day and not destroy my feet. Just tried the Scott Supertrac Ultra RC on a Pemi Loop 31 mile , 9,500 ft. elevation gain hike over 12.5 hours. Not sticky enough for wet or slab rock including one nasty fall.
This shoe does sound extreme promising for shorter distances but I think I'll give the Topo Mtn Racer a 30 trial with its higher stack and vibram Megagrip sole

MarkP said...

Thanks Sam. I might wait to see how the SG4 feels when it comes out, there's more chance of finding a local shop that supplies them than the VJ and I'm keen to try first as I've bought a few shoes online recently that just haven't worked for me. I need some shoes for a hilly road marathon with about 4 miles of off road sections next month, my Epic Reacts are giving me a pressure sore after 2 hours so might invest in a pair of Rincons for that and wait for SG4 as I've got 6 months before my Ultra.

Unknown said...

Let me insert the "Scarpa Spin Ultra" in the discussion here, great shoe for longer outings, still capable of technical terrain, quite light because of Vibram Litebase, therefore excellent grip. For me a mix between Salomon Sense Ride and XA Elevate, better fit, especially in the toebox and traditional lacing, which I prefer.

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Martin said...

Hi, do you have any update regarding durability of the butyl outsole. That is a big concern to me as I read everywhere how soft and sticky the outsoles of VJ sports are. Thanks

Jeff Valliere said...

Hi Martin, unfortunately I have not really worn them since the review period (just too busy testing newer shoes and can't really run in all of the old ones consistently long term). Wear rate through the review period was average, some wear mostly where I toe off, but is not entirely uncommon given the steep and rocky terrain I frequent.

gtpatton said...

As Advertised; Great Grip! Just did two days of all granite rock on Katahdin North & South Brothers; and KnifeEdge via Taylor Trail; About 24 miles in Two Days. These shoes grip everything; wet granite; wet rocks in stream bed; and placing foot positions at 45 degrees while bouldering. Fit, size 10 was size 10 (true to size) but a bit more snug than my Arc'teryx Norvan VT2 or Salomon X Alpine Pros. Not tight, just not as much room inside. They are not as bulky as the Arc'teryx or Alpine Pros and therefore more minimalistic. But I would say they are not true "minimalist" shoe, just approaching minimalistic. They had enough protection over two days, no pointed rock zingers or root zingers. The biggest difference is I had +10% more confidence rock pecking at high speeds (descending) and being aggressive about my landing choices. Because of both traction and more minimalistic feel, could be more aggressive. After 5-7 hour hikes, feet were not sore, did not feel like they were void of cushioning; But that is biggest difference, If you have miles of flatter dirt trail these are not as luxurious (comfort / cushioning) as Norvan VT 2 or Alpine Pro's. So the choice is, if you know that 80% or 90% of your hike is going to be on rock, talon, scrambling use these for slight technical advantage, but if you have 10 hour hike with some rocky technical terrain but also miles of dirt trail, maybe add a bit more cushioning. But again, after 5, 6, or 7 hours my feet were not feeling the lack of cushioning. Quality- Just like Jeff, both shoes after first hike had exposed threads sticking out of the very front of shoe, where they used some threads to reinforce where the bottom outer-sole wraps from the bottom of shoe up around the top of the toe (which mechanically I presume is super adhesive holding the toe wrap). The threads seem superfluous and not to have integral part of the construction (I hope). I have image if someone (from VJ Shoes QC department) wants to email me at user name at gmail.com. Again, not worried about the threads sticking out at this point... AND thoroughly enjoyed these shoes for technical terrain; will be my "go to shoes' for rock scrambling.

Sam Winebaum said...

Thanks so much for your in depth feedback GPpatton!
Sam, Editor

Jeff Valliere said...

Excellent feedback gtpatton! Agreed on all counts.