Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole

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Review: New Balance Minimus Zero Trail

You guys have all heard of that brassy-haired, thieving little spoiled brat, Goldilocks, right? “This porridge is too hot, this one is too cold, this bed is too soft…” Make up your mind already, little girl! And while we’re at it, how dare you complain about the quality of the stuff you’re stealing from that poor family of bears?! I hated Goldilocks, she was such a bitch.

Unfortunately for you, today I’m going to sound a little bit like her. But without all that thieving stuff, of course.

See, the thing is, if you’re a minimalist runner like me who likes to go out and explore a lot of different terrains – along sandy beaches, out in the woods, up rocky mountain trails, and on plenty of smooth roads as well – then you know it’s next to impossible to find that one “just right” go-to shoe that fits every run. Most of the shoes you’ll find out there are either too smooth for trails, too rugged for roads, or too heavy for summer, and so on. Eventually you end up spending a crap load of money on a closet full of shoes for every occasion. That’s no big deal if you’re rich, or lucky enough to be an imposter a shoe tester like me. So I suppose this is where my Goldilocks comes out.

I really wanted the New Balance Minimus Zero Trail to be my “just right” shoe. The one I could take on every run, no matter where I was going. Maybe I was expecting too much from it, but from all the incredible talk and build-up it got prior to release, this shoe just had so much promise!

The Details

The Minimus Zero Trail is New Balance’s answer to last year’s original Minimus Trail shoe (now renamed the MT10). To those who wore and loved that shoe, the original Minimus really was the every-shoe. I had friends who wore it running trails, then roads, then to a Crossfit workout. But at the time, many minimalist and barefoot runners dismissed the shoe because of its 4mm heel height and its relatively inflexible sole. Some complained that the toe had too much spring and the sole’s rubber pods were placed inaccurately so the shoe wore out too fast. Even still, I loved the design of that shoe. But it was built way too narrow for my wide foot and high instep (although they do make a wide version now, go figure). So in other words, to many in its actual target audience, last year’s Minimus shoe wasn’t quite “just right.”

To answer the collective desires of the minimalist world, this year’s model, the Minimus Zero Trail, touts a zero drop heel, an extremely lightweight, strategically-designed Vibram outsole, no toe-spring, seam-free construction and an exceptionally breathable upper with drying speeds that will blow your mind. This shoe doesn’t look or act like anything else out there. The semi-transparent fabric of the upper seems papery and course at first, but once you’re wearing it the shoe becomes a surprisingly light and comfy home for your foot. There’s no more rubber binding across the mid-foot like in the earlier version, so it is a much roomier shoe overall.

Speaking of roomy, this model does come in regular width (B) and wide width (D). My amazingly generous contact at New Balance sent me one of each to try, and they were both comfortable and wearable for me. If you typically find yourself buying wide-width shoes, you may be happier wearing the D-width version, as it is exceptionally roomy and cozy. However, if you prefer your shoe to fit a little more snug and secure, go with the B-width because it’s slightly tighter across the toes without being too uncomfortable, and since the tongue is not attached, there is a good amount of room to adjust the laces. You can see in the picture below that I’m wearing both, and the B-width (left) still fits but the lacing is much wider.

Just a little FYI, the first day I wore the B-width version I took them out sans-socks for ten miles in the rain, and I did get some chafing on the outside of both feet, above my pinky toes.

The Profile

One thing I don’t have to complain about with the New Balance Zero Trail is its looks and style. It is really super cool looking! Right now the shoe comes in five bold and bright colors for men, six for women. I think testers automatically get the boring colors, which is fine, but I am in love with every colorway they show on the site, especially the yellow and turquoise blue. The overall design is sporty, clean and just a little bit flashy. And I kind of like that I can see my toes through the material.

The Test

The New Balance Minimus Zero Trail is truly and absolutely the embodiment of a minimalist trail shoe. It has every feature (or lack thereof) that you would expect from one:

  • exceptionally lightweight at 3.5oz each (which is nearly non-existent)
  • highly breathable upper that can be worn without socks
  • zero-drop
  • super flexible, paper-thin sole
  • foot-shaped last with a roomy toe-box

But what maybe some of us didn’t expect is that…well, getting what we expected might not give us the results we expected. Yep, I just wrote that sentence, and I’m leaving it.

I want to mention that I have not actually read a lot of other reviews about this shoe, because I didn’t want anyone else’s opinions to influence mine. So I don’t actually know if other testers feel the way I do. But how I feel is this: the Zero Trail is not “just right” for every trail. In fact, it sort of sucks on most of the trails I’ve run.

Okay, that was a big statement. Let me clarify before the media people at New Balance black-list me forever.

The first handful of runs I did in this shoe were on hard-packed soil in the wooded trails of New England. Those trails are pretty easy on the feet but there are a lot of lumpy rocks and roots to contend with. I loved this shoe on those trails because, as I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I need to feel the ground below me so I can respond to it quickly and keep myself upright. This shoe allowed me to make all of those minute adjustments to the uneven surface of those trails, and it gave me an amazing feeling of control.

Once I moved out to southern California, I was in for some much more unpredictable trail surfaces. Around here you could end up on loose sand, chunky rocks, steep hills, patchy weeds, pavement, just about anything. And sometimes, all in the same run. But because I loved this shoe so far, I wore it out to the trails by Lake Hodges with a friend of mine. We started along the loose sand paths for a bit, and then headed for the rocky hills. The rocks were sharp and replete, and I came home with several bruises on the arches of my feet because the Zero provided absolutely no protection against them. Moreover, every time we came upon a sandy incline, I was sliding all over the place and had some serious trouble getting my footing down. The rubber pods of the sole have surprisingly little traction for a trail shoe, so it’s really no match for those slide-worthy surfaces.

Another thing that kills me about this shoe is that they chose not to attach the tongue to the upper. I’m really not sure why they made the choice on this model even though just about all their other trail models have an attached tongue. And although I think it serves well to add adjustability to the shoe’s width at the laces, it’s a really flimsy tongue that does absolutely nothing to keep debris out of the shoe. I’ll run 50 feet in these and already have rocks digging into my toes. It’s a total bummer.

Because of the reasons I said above, I am probably going to be the first to say this shoe is really at its best on roads. Yes, roads. If you think about it, all of its best qualities fare well on paved surfaces, and all of its drawbacks are minimized by them. Right before I started writing this review I went out for a 4 miler in this shoe, half on sandy, rock-free trail and half on road. Once I emptied the handful of sand out of them and got onto the pavement, I felt great and the transition was pretty seamless. I’m not really sure how long this shoe will last if I keep using them on pavement, because the Vibram rubber is only molded to certain parts of the outsole, and the rest is all EVA foam, which tends to break down pretty quickly on road surfaces. The shoe is already starting to show some signs of wear. But then again, a minimalist runner can’t exactly fault a shoe for becoming even more minimalist, right?

The Final Word

I definitely like this shoe, but I really wanted to like it more. I wanted the NB Minimus Zero to be my every-shoe, my “just right” fit for all my trail running, from the woods of New England to the mountains of SoCal. But it turned out to be only another single-purpose addition to my closet. I’ll continue to take the Zero Trail out when the right run calls for it, and I will absolutely recommend it to runners whom I feel will benefit from its best qualities. But it’s really not the all-around super star that some have made it out to be.

And it’s funny that this is how this review turned out, too…because wasn’t it just a week or so ago that I was telling you I wasn’t sure the New Balance WT1010 was exactly right for me? Well, that porridge was too hot, and this one…well, it’s too cold. Go figure.

I’m now wondering if the runner who wants a “just-right” shoe to bring out to every trail should be running in the New Balance Minimus Trail 20. It seems like a good happy medium. Ya think they’d even bother to let this picky little Goldilocks test it now? :p