Alternative Running Shoe Designs: Genius or Gimmick

If, like me, you tend to be mildly (ridiculously, really) obsessed with what you put on your feet when you run, then you’re probably aware that some at times innovative, and at other times downright unusual shoe designs have become popular in the past few years. In this post I’ll review a few of the more interesting shoes out there, and point out a few others that are definitely worthy of recognition (for lack of a better word!).

Vibram Fivefingers

Vibram Fivefingers Bikila - Pink

The Vibram Fivefingers are one of the hottest shoes out there for runners these days. Made popular by the publication of the book Born to Run by Chirstopher McDougall, the Fivefingers are basically fancy water shoes with little pockets for each of your toes. Despite their odd, head turning appearance, runners desiring a more minimalist style of shoe that lacks the typical cushioned sole found on most running shoes have flocked to the Vibrams in droves. At one point last year, it was almost impossible to find the Fivefingers in stock anywhere on-line, and they continue to sell at a rapid clip (the soon-to-be released, running-specific Vibram Fivefingers Bikila is shown in the image to the left). As a Vibram runner myself, I view them as a fantastic tool for strengthening your feet and legs, but caution is recommended – do to much to soon in these shoes and you risk injury for your tender, shoe-softened feet. You can read a recent post by Michael B. on the dailymile Community Blog to learn more about the Vibram Fivefingers.

Newton Running Shoes

Newton Running Shoe

The Newton line of running shoes distinguish themselves by being designed specifically for those people who land on their forefoot/midfoot when they run, and for those people desiring to transition to this style of running. Newton’s have a unique system of “actuator lugs” under the forefoot that absorb shock upon impact and then release it on toe off – Newton calls this Action/Reaction Technology™. I have a pair of Newton Sir Isaac shoes, and they certainly have a different feel about them – the heel is noticeably lower, and the forefoot noticeably more cushioned than in a typical shoe. I haven’t put in enough miles in mine to pass a good judgment, but a number of dailymilers swear by the Newton shoes. If you’re a forefoot striker, and a small population of runners are, then these are really the only shoes designed specifically with you in mind (unless, of course, you want to forgo cushioning and run barefoot or in Vibrams). The major downside of the Newtons is price – most models will run you $150+.

Nike Free

Nike Free 5.0

The Nike Free line of shoes is designed to simulate running barefoot, and in terms of flexibility and weight they do a very good job of it. Nike rates the Free’s on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being barefoot and 10 being a typical shoe, and they’ve had models rated at 3, 5, and 7. I personally own a pair of the Nike Free 3.0′s, and they’re one of my all time favorites – light as a feather, ridiculously flexible, and extremely comfortable. I’ve put in well over 200 miles in my Free 3.0′s, and they’re still going strong. Where the Free’s don’t quite live up to the barefoot-like claim is in the presence of a cushioned heel, but despite this I’d still call them a fairly minimalist shoe. The Free 5.0 (see picture to the left) is a popular model these days, and Nike has a new model called the Free Run+ set to be released sometime this year.



The Z-CoiL shoes look like a typical running shoe with one major difference – they have a giant spring stuck on the heel, kind of like Nike Shox on steroids. If you don’t buy the argument that cushioned heels on shoes are unnecessary, then the Z-CoiL might just be the perfect shoe for you! For those of you who like to head off the beaten path, they make hiking versions as well to help you avoid impact on that oh-so-hard dirt. Now, I’m sure this monster spring might do a good job of absorbing shock, but the last thing a runner wants to do is bound through the air like Michael Jordan while on the move. Furthermore, it seems to me that raising the heel that high off the ground is an ankle sprain waiting to happen. Whe it comes to the Z-CoiL, I think I’ll pass.

Asics Kayano 16

Asics Kayano 16

Listen up ladies – Asics has designed the shoe you’ve been waiting for! A new version of the Asics Kayao 16 actually adapts to the hormone levels in your body to provide just the right amount of cushioning for those special times in your ovulatory cycle when you need that extra bit of padding under your feet. Apparently, when you’re at the most fertile stage of your cycle, your arch drops, and when you’re menstruating, the arch rises back up (now that this cat’s out of the bag, expect sales of ovulation predictor kits to tank in favor of a simple foot inspection!). These shoes supposedly adjust cushioning to respond to the rising and falling of the arch, so those hormone driven changes in foot structure can be compensated for. Color me skeptical. Now, if only Asics could design a shoe for me that also senses my wife’s hormone levels and makes me run really fast during that certain special time of the month – the Asics PMS has a nice ring to it, and by PMS I mean “Perfect My Stride” of course (man do I hope she never reads this…). If you want to read more about this “menstrual shoe,” check out this article from the Daily Mail.

Gravity Defyer

Gravity Defyer Ballistic

You might think it would be impossible to find a shoe that combines the best features of the previous two in this post, but I think I’ve succeeded. The Gravity Defyer Ballistic combines the spring-heel of the Z-CoiL (though in this case the springs are internal and a bit smaller), with a snappy logo that appears to be a swimming sperm. I’m not sure if this resemblance was intentional, but when I think about running fast and strong, the first thing that pops into my head is the graceful stroke of a sperm’s wiggling tail. It’s like they were reading my mind! Now, guys, if you really want to impress the ladies on your next group run, go out and buy a pair of the Ballistics – and if any of them happen to be wearing the Kayano 16′s, keep a close eye on their feet – here’s betting you see those arches drop. For another great take on these amazingly cool shoes, check out this great post by Downtown Runner.

The author of this post, Peter L., is a runner from Concord, NH. You can view Peter’s dailymile profile page, or read more about his running adventures on his personal blog, Runblogger.

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About Peter L.

I'm a dad to three little kids, small college anatomy/physiology professor, distance and dog running fanatic, blogger (, dailymile Team member, and gear/shoe junkie from NH.
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