Straight Talk About Running Gear

We're hoping that this blog will serve as a forum to discuss and review distance running and other endurance-related gear in an honest, unbiased way. We'll discuss what works and why, what lasts and what doesn't, what's worth the money and where to find good deals. You may see some ads along the way, but they will be for products we know and trust.

So read, enjoy and let us know what you think.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Winter Running Shoes & Socks

Having just completed a slow, hour-plus run in driving snow, it seems only appropriate to begin this running gear review blog with a discussion of winter running shoes and socks. As with all reviews, we will only review which we have personally tried, though we may share acquired wisdom about other gear on occasion.

In northern New England, winter may arrive with a vengeance in late October and hang around like an unwanted guest until April. And while cold temperatures are generally manageable, it's the amount and frequency of snowfall which determines how challenging a training season winter will turn out to be. Snowy, slushy and icy trails and roads present two related challenges for the feet: (1) staying warm and dry, and (2) maintaining solid traction underfoot.

My rotation includes two pairs of what we'd call "winter running shoes", both of which are billed as trail running shoes: Salomon XA Comp 3 GTX and IceBug BUGrip MR3

Salomon XA Comp 3 GTX

I've been a fan of Salomon products since before I became a runner, but since I spend a lot of time on the trails, I've discovered their XA and XT lines of shoes.

The Salomons have a very comfortable fit. As a classic trail shoe, they are not overly-cushioned, yet have a rugged outsole with multi-directional lugs, a perfect combination for running on snow. Their Sensifit Quicklace (TM) system is a feature which conventional running shoe manufacturers should consider adopting on a wide scale. [Note that early editions of the XA line had a design flaw which resulted in the lace grommets becoming frayed after a few months' use; Salomon diligently covered that issue as a manufacturer's defect, and has since corrected the problem by introducing reinforced grommets in more recent lines). The shoes handle custom orthotics very comfortably.

Most critical to winter running, though, is the fact that the "GTX" designation refers to the Gore-Tex (TM) membrane which renders the shoes truly waterproof. Runs of 20 miles and longer in the worst winter conditions may test even the heartiest soul, but with any Salomon GTX shoe on his or her feet, the intrepid runner will at the very least not have to worry about cold, wet feet.

IceBug BUGrip MR3

As an avowed gearhead, I nonetheless try to stay away from "gimmicky" products. I have the good fortune of living in a town with an excellent shoe store, Joe King's. This store sells everything from Crocs to baby shoes to heavy duty work boots. And, while their selection of road running shoes may not necessarily cause the serious runner to salivate, they do carry a great assortment of hiking boots and trail running shoes. I originally noticed the IceBug line after reading about them in an Outside magazine review of "must-have" winter fitness gear. The $130+ price tag made me look, pine and walk away . . . on more than one occasion. However, when one of the kids needed a new pair of shoes last winter, I noticed a "sale" tag on the IceBugs, and so a relationship was born.

The real hook of these shoes (affiliated with quality hiking-shoe maker Garmont) are the multiple carbide spikes built into the soles. The shoes are a tad stiff and do not - I believe - come in half-sizes, but the innovative design extends the winter running season by taking ice out of play in terms of forcing even the hardiest runner onto a treadmill. These shoes grip ice like a scared cat, and are single-handedly responsible for helping a dedicated runner maintain his enthusiasm when the roads and sidewalks become sheets of ice.

The price of the IceBugs is obviously a factor in deciding whether to make them part of one's winter running repertoire. However, given that they are best described as "limited-use" shoes, they should not rack up heavy mileage, and thus, with proper care and storage, should provide years of solid footing during the worst of winter's offerings.

SmartWool Socks

SmartWool is one of the rare companies which never seems to disappoint. Every one of the SmartWool products which I've ever owned is (a) of the highest quality, (b) seems to last forever, and (c) delivers on its promises.

The virtues of wool as a "tech fabric" goes a long way back. SmartWool has found a way to make wool thin, smooth and stylish. Their performance socks are comfortable, and keep one's feet warm even if they get wet. Without any excess bulk to compromise the fit and feel of one's running shoes, SmartWool socks deliver on their promise of keeping one's feet comfortable in even the most unforgiving conditions.

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