Sunday, January 03, 2021

Cheng Chen's 2020 Top Running Shoes, Watch and Run Nutrition

Article by Cheng Chen

2020 was actually a great year of running for me. I’m fairly new to the sport, but have managed to dive head in, testing out plenty of gear across many miles. Despite lockdowns and uncertainties, I managed to go through a higher mileage training block, chasing PBs in the half and 5K. This bode well to trying out many different running products of which I will elaborate a little further on the ones recently discussed during our RoadTrailRun year end review.

Profile: Cheng is a CrossFitter turned runner. He lifts and base builds in the winter while racing in the summer with personal bests of 5:29 (Mile), 1:28 (Half), and 19:33 (5K). In season, he trains at 50-80 miles per week in shoes ranging from 0-10 mm drop and races in various plated super shoes. He is 5’7” and around 145 lbs.

Primary Training Companion: Garmin Fenix 5X

Is this an awesome watch? Absolutely!

Do I recommend it? Absolutely not!

Well, maybe...

My main training companion for 2020 wasn’t anything worn on my feet; it was the watch that recorded not only all my miles, but was a constant companion for many other adventures. The Fenix series of devices takes the GPS watch concept to another level by incorporating features that a multi-sport athlete would find useful.

At the gym, the strength training mode helps to record sets and reps and even auto detects the particular exercises performed. The watch was able to recognize various barbell movements as well as bodyweight activities, counting each rep and providing a fast and easy way to record the weight. Outdoors, the topo mapping feature is very useful on backcountry trips, especially navigating in no-signal areas. And although not directly recommended, I even side-loaded a diving app that accurately sensed water depth, taking this watch to new realms, literally. The watch really is a total-solution training companion for almost any type of athlete, including even hunting and shooting tools such as ballistics calculators.

However, the Fenix 5X is a beast . It is a massive device weighing around 100g and is generally too big for most wrists. In fact, I became quite frustrated with its cumbersomeness, managing only to continue using this watch by adapting a lightweight velcro strap that completely changed the feel of the device. I now use that strap for racing and other beefier ones for training.

So why do I mostly not recommend this watch—because for most people, this is a poor value in the sense that you’d be paying for far more features than you’ll ever need. If you’re looking for a reliable running watch without all the mapping, lifting, cycling, shooting, hiking, hunting, fishing, skiing, diving, skydiving, rock climbing, and dog tracking capabilities of the Fenix, just get a Forerunner or the Instinct. The Fenix really is overkill. But if you happen to significantly recreate, consider this series. My wife just acquired a Fenix 6S Pro and I personally look forward to the 6X Pro Solar. Let’s save that review for another day.

Best Tempo Trainer: Altra Escalante Racer

Within a regular Altra Escalante review, if you were to replace every adjective relating to ‘mushy’ with ‘well-tuned’ you’d get a review of the Escalante Racer. This is because the ‘Racer is exactly that: a tuned up version of its regular companion, turning an already excellent shoe into a phenomenal tempo companion.

Some of the biggest complaints relating to the everyday Escalante include a loose, floppy upper, and overall instability especially around corners. Version 2.0 was also a miss as Altra applied a blend of EGO foam that was too harsh for loyalists and too unimpressive for newcomers. The Racer fixes all of that by being unambiguously focused as a tempo paced shoe. The upper offers fantastic lock-in and the midsole forgoes the need for plushness in the pursuit of speed.

Personally, I did a significant portion of my threshold workouts in the Escalante Racer. And while it may sound contradicting, this was in preparation for racing in supershoes such as the Nike Alphafly Next%. I’m a firm believer in a periodized training approach and saw benefit in developing form strength by training in a zero drop racing flat and racing in its dichotomous opposite. Reach out to me if you’d like to discuss how this works, but for now I can definitely say that it helped me reach my PB goals in 2020!

Best Threshold/Track Shoe : ASICS Tartheredge

Quote from original RTR Review:

We live in a golden era of running shoes . Since the original Breaking2 project, brands have been releasing iteration after iteration of wonderfully fast super shoes to the point where the IAAF/WA had to implement limitations on the technological arms race. In this rush to maximal stack heights, the art of making racing flats has been quietly continued by a few. Here, it’s refreshing to see ASICS maintain this tradition; and in fact, at the time of this writing, there is already a second generation Tartheredge with an updated upper.

Looking back to previous generations of the Tarther series, one can observe that ASICS has been making stepwise improvements on this platform, slowly tuning and perfecting it over time. The Tartheredge is truly a unique shoe that represents a pinnacle of classic heritage. It is a perfect companion for those interested in training with a low-to-the-ground, light, yet protected shoe. Read More

Best Racer: Nike Alphafly Next%

A fundamental issue with super shoes is that the increase in stack height leads to a decrease in proprioception, leading the runner to not fully feel the ground for effective plantar dorsiflexion. This is typically solved by using a highly rockered midsole design that promotes the feet to roll forward to a toe-off. This approach, however, comes at the cost of shifting power generation further up the kinetic chain, requiring runners to activate their hips and glutes to essentially treat the entire leg-feet unit as a lever arm. This is part of why there are both responders and non-responders to the super shoes and why the Vaporfly 4%’s actual boost was between 0% to 8%, averaging at its namesake four.

Shoutout to my local running shoe store, Gazelle Sports Birmingham (Instagram @gazellesports), for helping me acquire one of the rare watermelon Alphafly’s!

Where the Alphafly is unique to traditional super shoes is that it solved the problem of proprioception by adding pressured air pods at the mid-foot to forefoot transition point. This significantly increases responsiveness and queues the runner for a powerful toe-off. The more dorsiflexion of the toes, the more pop one feels at the terminal gait cycle. I might even speculate on a difference in pressure between the lateral and medial pods, but this is enough discussion for a mini review.

Although dichotomous, training in zero drop shoes and racing flats ultimately compliments racing in the Alphafly. The biomechanics of landing midfoot to forefoot and powerfully toeing off works well with the unique pod-&-plate design of this super shoes. So in a reversal of the typical saying, “Train low; race high!”

Maurten 320 + KetoneAid KE4 Esters

Train low; race high... this also guides many more aspects of my approach to running. From using lower-stacked flats to consuming nearly no carbohydrates during base building, I am a true believer in periodizing training not only at a macro level, but also at the session-specific nutritional level. Of this, two of my favorite fuels to support training and racing are low osmolarity sugars like Maurten and ketone esters like KetoneAid.

With that dichotomy, one experimental concoction that I prepare for races is a mixture of Maurten 320 with 30 grams of ketone esters, a rocket fuel concoction that forces a typically impossible physiological state of both high blood glucose and high ketone levels. The effects are exactly what the name says: a rocket fuel effect where substrates are available for both glycolytic and oxidative pathways. But once again, this isn’t something that I’d normally recommend but was a big part of my 2020 running.

That’s all for now folks. There’s much more shoes, gadgets, nutritional, and training protocols that I tested throughout 2020, but these are my top hits. Feel free to reach out to me via Instagram @MrChengChen. Happy new year—may 2021 bode well for your endeavors!

Products discussed were personal purchases. The opinions herein are the author's

RTR Team's Best of 2020 Articles
Road Running Shoes HERE
Trail Running Shoes HERE
RTR Contributors' Best of Run 2020, Year in Review Articles & Videos

Comments and Questions Welcome Below!
Please let us know mileage, paces, race distances, and current preferred shoes

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