I love trail running as much as I love mountain biking. This is why I was quite excited to try out the New Balance Fresh Foam 980 when it was unveiled several months ago.
This shoe has generated a lot of hype. The very name itself was calculated to stir up buzz and incite curiosity. Fresh Foam: does this mean every other foam used in every other athletic shoe has become stale? What the heck is so fresh with this foam anyway?
Well, honestly, not that much. The foam isn’t really that (excuse the pun) groundbreaking. But it’s the shoe’s marriage of the virtues of minimalism and maximalism which really distinguishes it from the current crop of running footwear.
First some history: Like most other running shoe companies, New Balance was carried away by the minimalist movement and its inflated claims that uncushioned running shoes were the wave of the future.
The minimalist mantra went like this: your cushioned shoes are injuring you by forcing you to run in an unnatural style where your heel strikes the ground first. You should instead run in the correct style where your midfoot or forefoot strikes the ground first. If you do this, you’ll minimize injury. Heck, you won’t even need shoes. Pwedeng mag-paa ka na nga lang. But of course it’s always better if you have some extra skin on your feet, hence minimalist shoes.
I have to admit, I also used to be a militant minimalist. But that was until studies came out which suggested that running in the minimalist “natural” style wasn’t really all that great compared to the traditional heel-strike style. And then Vibram Fivefingers settled a lawsuit over its false advertising of its weird toe shoes and all the moral ascendancy of the minimalist movement drained out of it like psssh from a punctured Nike Airmax.
Despite this, I still run in the minimalist style. Why? Because it works for me. My knees don’t ache when I’m running minimalist. No shin splints either. But I no longer claim that it’s a style suited for everybody, or that it’s even the “natural” way of running.
Send in the Clowns
Over the years I’ve accumulated several minimalist style shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove, Mix Master 2, and All Out Fuse. Yeah, I like Merrell.
I love all these shoes and am very happy with their performance. However, I was also intrigued by the rising popularity of maximalist shoes.
It seems ironic that just when the minimalist shoes (which look and feel like ninja footwear) were falling out of favor; maximalist shoes (which look like they were made for clowns) were conquering hearts and minds and ultramarathon podiums.
Ultrarunners swear by the Hoka One One, the shoe that started the whole maximalism craze. Just look at that thing. It’s like a fatbike for the feet. It’s a monster shoe that’s got a sole thicker than a senator’s face. You can even say: Pwede na syang PNP Chief or Vice President sa kapal.
Anyway, I wanted to try out the Hokas, but they were just too damn expensive. Also, I wasn’t ready to subject myself to the humiliation of wearing something that looked straight out of Ronald McDonald’s wardrobe.
Best of Both Worlds?
Enter the Fresh Foam 980. This shoe has cushioning, but the sole isn’t so thick that you feel like a buffoon wearing it. More importantly, it still provides you with enough proprioception or ground feel—a quality I’ve come to love in minimalist shoes. And just like a lot of minimalist shoes, the Fresh Foam has a heel-to-toe drop of only 4mm.
When I put on the shoes and walked in them, I immediately noticed their softness. Other reviewers say that the Fresh Foam is not as soft as New Balance hyped it to be, and they are probably right. But for someone who has been used to wearing shoes that barely have any cushioning, the 980 was plenty soft.
I broke them in with a 10k road run in UP a day after buying them. They felt pretty good on the pavement despite being categorized as trail shoes. The next day I tried them out on the UP mountain biking trail and Heartbreak Hill. The treads on provided plenty of grip on the gravely and muddy route, and my feet felt even better in the short downhill.
However, I have to admit that I missed feeling the ground beneath my feet and the added agility triggered by this. You just move better when you can feel what you’re running on. The Fresh Foam still gives me some ground feel, but not as much as my minimalist shoes.
But I can also see how valuable the cushioning could be in 21k trail run or even an ultra. In my last 21k trail run, I felt so drained going into the final downhill that I reverted to heel-striking. If you’ve ever run in minimalist shoes, you know that’s not a good thing.
The 980’s thick soles would be very valuable in such a race because your running form could deteriorate in the final kilometers.
I tested the Fresh Foam on a 10k run on Shotgun San Mateo, and I loved the shoe’s cushioning on the downhill run. I realized that just like in mountain biking, it pays to have a lot of squish when you’re going downhill fast!
It doesn’t hurt either that the Fresh Foam 980 looks damn good.
I still need to test the 980 on a real trail like Mt. Balagbag. But I already know where this shoe fits in my running quiver. I’ll still use my All Out Fuse and Kinvara to do tempo runs in the 10k threshold, but I’ll be using the Fresh Foam for more leisurely 15k runs. It will also be taking over for trails and my Shotgun expeditions.