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There are many shoes in this world.  There are many “Elite-Fitness”-eers, but not so many that all the shoes in this world are “Elite-Fitness” shoes.  There are also heel-strike runners in this world, and there are globo-gym dwellers too.  They also need shoes, and they want different shoes than you want (you are a “Elite-Fitness”-eer, aren’t you?).

Sometimes you need a little help, a little guidance, someone to lift up a shoe out of the polluted marketplace, to hold it in front of you and say “This is it, the shoe you want.”  I will do this for you.  I will show you the “Elite-Fitness” sneakers that you want, recently released by thoughtful shoe companies.

I am skipping over the older “Elite-Fitness” shoes, such as the Adidas Samba, Onitasuka Tiger, Converse All-Stars, and even Vibram Five Fingers, because we already know about them, don’t we?  You can read my article, The Best Shoes for “Elite-Fitness”, if you don’t.

Traits of a good Shoe for “Elite-Fitness”

The ideal “Elite-Fitness” shoe will have a protective rubber outsole that can be used to run on both trails and pavement.  It will have a neutral or nearly-neutral drop between heel and toe.  It will be lightweight and breathable.  It will be stable and durable.  Here are three that fit this criteria:

Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove

The Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove. The wearer of this shoe got a 1:38 Grace shortly after this photo was taken.

Don’t be alarmed by the adjective “Barefoot” or by the noun “Glove”!  These are real, full-featured shoes, from a top-quality shoe company.  They have these great features:

  • Zero heel-toe drop
  • 12mm padding
  • Vibrams outsole
  • Comfy inner-lining
  • Breathable air-mesh upper
  • Wide toe box
  • Rubber toe guard

These shoes provide many of the advantages of using just bare feet.  From heel to toe, they are perfectly flat.  This is advantageous both for promoting proper non-heel-strike running form (see the POSE method) and for general balance while lifting weights or double-undering or box jumps.  The wide toe box allows the toes to splay apart on impact, which is one of the ways feet naturally absorb shock.  You can even wear them without socks, since the lining is very smooth and comfortable, and the mesh upper allows for drafty air flow.  These shoes really feel like they are just an extension of your bare feet.

They are actually flat.

The sole is very grippy and extremely flexible.

You may have noticed the word “Trail” in the name of this shoe.  That word is placed there to indicate these shoes can be used for running on outdoor trails, specifically dirt trails.  These shoes have several features that protect the foot from the abuses of the trail, as well as from gravel and asphalt.  There are a total of 12 millimeters of padding between the wearer’s foot and the ground, both in the heal and the toe, meaning that the concrete won’t seem so hard nor the small rock so sharp.  There is a protective band around the toes of the shoes, which slows the impact of any sticks or rocks the wearer may attempt to kick.  The outsole of the shoe is made by Vibrams, the trusted toe-shoe company.  It is a dense shock absorbing rubber that is also very sticky and provides excellent grip.

I don’t own a pair of Merrell Barefoot Trail Gloves myself because I’m still waiting for my Puma Repli-Cat III‘s to wear out, but everyone I know who owns them loves them very deeply and sincerely, and is ready to praise their comfort and function at the slightest provocation.

New Balance Minimus Trail

My favorite shoe brand, before I succumbed to the glamour of Puma, used to be New Balance.  Back when I wore high-healed cross-trainers I found that New Balance shoes, especially those numbered over 800, were well crafted better for lightness, function, and comfort, than other brands like Nike, Reebok, L.A. Gear, or Aasics.  New Balance has devoted the skill of their craftsmanship to create a minimalistic shoe that is well-loved by “Elite-Fitness”-eers and not-quite-barefoot runners alike.

The New Balance Minimus Trail is very similar to the Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove.  They even look very similar, and often times I have witnessed people confusing them, saying “Doesn’t Jimmy wear Minimas?” when Jimmy really wears Merrells.  To save my own time, which is so precious to me, and to save your time (which you are perhaps currently wasting?), instead of re-listing all of the features of the Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove in the Minimus section, I’ll just list what is different about the Minimus:

  • 4mm Heel-to-Toe drop
  • Divided Vibrams Outsole

That’s right, these shoes have a 4mm heel-to-toe drop.  I don’t think anyone quite knows why they left in the 4mm heel-to-toe drop.  To whom were they trying to market the shoe?  Every barefoot-type person I know wishes there were a zero millimeter drop.  But still people buy the shoe, and they buy it in droves, and praise it, though they all can’t wait until Spring of 2012 when the Minimus Zero is released, with a zero millimeter drop.

A side view of the Minimus Life, which also has a 4mm drop from heel to toe. Don't get the "Life" shoe; it just has a foam sole with no rubber.

Like the Merrell, the outsole is made by Vibrams.  The outsole of the Merrells is one solid piece of rubber, but the outsole of the Minimas is broken up into 5-ish sections, strategically plating parts of the foot: either side of the toes, the ball, the heel, and the arch.  This allows protection of those parts of the foot from the rigors of the trail while still allowing independence of movement.

The rubber plates are divided where the foot tends to bend.

Despite the 4mm heel-to-toe drop, the New Balance Minimus Trails are well-loved by “Elite-Fitness” Shoe enthusiasts and perform very well in the “Elite-Fitness” environment.  I myself was recently creamed in a WOD by a person who was wearing the Minimus, by almost 9 minutes!  What a loser I appeared, standing there in my old Puma Repli-Cat III’s at 19:10, looking on the whiteboard at the 10:28 time of the man with the stylish orange Minimus Trails!

Inov-8 F-Lite 195

The Lesser-mentioned Inov-8 F-Lite 195.  A minimalistic shoe with a humble 3mm drop.I know, the Inov-8 F-Lite 195’s are fairly old “Elite-Fitness” shoes, and everybody has heard about them.  Are you sure, reader, that you’ve heard of the 195’s?  I ask because whenever I hear mentioned Inov-8 shoes on discussion boards or see them in my “Elite-Fitness” gym, it’s almost always the 230’s or the 220’s.  They are the model numbers that are being tossed around so genially, and it seems that the 195 is never mentioned.

I am here to put an end to this madness, this censorship of greatness.  The Merrell and Minimus are both minimal in that they offer a thin rubber protection and a little padding to keep the feet safe, but mostly allow the feet to operate as bare-feet.  The Inov-8 F-Lite series is still mostly minimal, but is a little more like a regular shoe in that the sole is designed to aid the foot in running.  Here are the F-Lite 195‘s features:

  • 3mm Heel-to-Toe drop
  • Fast-Drying Mesh Upper
  • Sticky, Aggressive Traction
  • Fascia-Band Sole
  • Metatarsal Groove

You see that this shoe is still not completely neutral like the Merrell, but 3mm is a very small drop and might not be noticeable unless you are really picky.  The 230‘s and 220’s have a 6mm drop, which is why I recommend the 195’s.  The mesh upper looks very stylish and allows fresh wind to pass through to cool the feet.

The sole of this shoe is very well designed.  It has very aggressive (pointy) rubber traction that uses some of the technology from climbing shoes to give it extra grip.  The metatarsal groove is just a thinner spot in the outsole right beneath the ball of the foot, so that when the wearer bends his foot the shoe’s outsole will not resist.  The fascia band refers to the somewhat elastic bands of rubber that connect the heel to the ball of the foot on the outsole, in imitation of the foot’s own fascia muscles.  These bands, in both the foot and the F-Lite’s outsole, are stretched out with every step, and snap back on release.  Supposedly the extra fascia band in the outsole will give the wearer an extra spring in his step.

The Inov-8 F-Lite 195′s are excellent “Elite-Fitness” shoes and are highly recommended for those who want something less minimal than the Merrells or Minimus.

Conclusion and Predictions

In summary, if you have about $100 to spend on “Elite-Fitness” shoes, you ought to buy a pair of Merrell Barefoot Trail Gloves for about $110.  Or, if you aren’t the barefoot type, you should buy the Inov-8 F-Lite 195‘s.  If you don’t mind a 4mm heel drop, the Minimus Trail might be for you; it’s ten to twenty dollars cheaper than the others, and they are popular enough that you will likely be able to try them on first at your local sporting goods store.  Don’t fret too much about your decision because they are all great shoes and you’ll be very happy with any of them.

If you want to wait until Spring 2012, you could buy a pair of New Balance Minimus Zeros, which will finally have a zero mm drop.  Reebok, who hosted the 2011 “Elite-Fitness” Games, is coming out with a shoe specifically for “Elite-Fitness” that you might like, though it’s rather expensive.  Also, Inov-8 will be coming out with a pair of zero millimeter drop “Elite-Fitness” shoes sometime soon as well.