Remember how New Balance doled out information about its Minimus shoes in very small increments over last summer and fall, only releasing partial photos and snippets of information in an effort to create buzz about the products and initiate a slow boil of customer demand? Well, with the release date nearly upon us – they’re officially available on March 1st – I’m taking a cue from New Balance in the way I review their shoes.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m hoping to build some excitement around this line of shoes - and trust me, by the time we get to the end, there’s something very cool that’s gonna happen. But it’s going to be a slow boil – at first just generating a small amount of heat with a shoe that I’m basically kind of lukewarm on, before moving onto a model next week that I think might be one of the hottest products of 2011. And we’ll cap it all off with … well, you’ll just have to wait and see when we get there.
We’re kicking things off with the Minimus Road version, about which I’ve already sort of tipped my hand a bit. It’s not that it's a bad shoe … it’s just not a minimalist shoe. New Balance categorizes it as a transitional shoe, targeting the same market who would be interested in the Newton Gravity, Brooks Green Silence, or Saucony Kinvara: runners who are seeking barefoot biomechanics without giving up the familiar features of a traditional training shoe.
However, since I scolded Saucony for disingenuous marketing in calling the Kinvara a minimalist shoe, I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct the same criticism toward New Balance with this shoe. Most likely, I’m getting hung up on the name; if something’s called Minimus, I expect it to be, you know … minimal. So maybe they just need a more accurate name. Like Medius, perhaps. Or Transitionus. You get the idea ... but I’m starting to digress.
So here’s what you get with the New Balance Minimus Road version: a transitional trainer with 16mm of midsole in the heel and 12mm in the forefoot, resulting in a nearly-flat 4mm drop. At just 8oz, it’s fairly lightweight compared to traditional trainers, and actually equal to some true minimalist shoes such as the Terra Plana Evo. It’s extremely well-constructed - as you’d expect from New Balance – and has a handful of subtle design elements that give you a feel for the biomechanics of running naturally. We’ll look at those from the top down.
The Minimus Road’s upper looks like a classic running shoe, and actually brings to mind some of New Balance’s old-school looks from the 1970s. Its mesh upper has decent ventilation, but probably runs a bit hotter than Saucony’s Kinvara, and isn’t nearly as airy as Newton’s Gravity. The toe box is nice and roomy, providing plenty of space for foot splay, which is a great departure from classic running shoes. The heel area is built like a standard trainer (at least on the upper – more on this soon), with a fabric liner and a small amount of padding around the collar.
One really cool aspect of the upper is that New Balance designed it to be worn without socks – so the sockliner fabric extends throughout the interior of the shoe, and is sewn directly onto the midsole, without any insole to mess around with (see next photo).
I thought this was a nifty touch as well: Less is more – get it? It’s not only a sweet slogan, but it looks like the shoes are texting me. Just like all the cool kids do.
Below the upper, the Minimus Road has a relatively firm midsole with a very slight arch support built into it. Given the thicknesses of heel and forefoot, there really isn’t any ground feel to speak of, but there also isn’t any of the cushiness that you experience in traditional running shoes (or for that matter, even in some transitional shoes). The midsole will hold form pretty well if you land with a midfoot strike, but will also absorb shock if you regress back to a heelstrike pattern as you fatigue.
However, one intriguing aspect of the midsole seems to promote midfoot strike just by its shape. Looking at the heel area from the side, you can see that the midsole material is undercut and doesn’t actually contact the ground along the last few centimeters in the back of the shoe. In practice, this makes it far easier to land more forward on your foot – and if you’re already accustomed to midfoot running, the Minimus is made to order for you.
Underneath the midsole, New Balance uses a proprietary rubber called Ndurance that is cut into a honeycomb pattern, with small cutout areas for decreased weight and increased flexibility. The heel area has a more traditional-looking tread, but the remainder of the outsole is relatively smooth, and honestly doesn’t provide great traction in any sort of off-road use. They also get a little bit slick on wet surfaces, but the only times I found this to be a limitation were on excessively steep roads.
Like other transitional shoes, the Minimus Road version targets a very specific demographic: road runners who are looking to move very gradually towards minimalist running, or who just want something a little lighter, flatter, and firmer than what they’re accustomed to. The barefoot-specific design elements definitely distinguish this shoe from traditional running shoes and effectively promote the mechanics of natural running.
Compared to the minimalist footwear market, the number of quality entries in the transitional space is relatively limited; of those, the Minimus is a fairly strong option. However, if you’re looking for a true minimalist shoe from New Balance, you’re going to have to wait for the next review. Trust me – both the shoe and the review are going to be worth waiting for.
*Product provided by New Balance
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