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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

First Run Review: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail-Versatile Trail Runner, Neither Cush nor Mush nor Brick

I just received a review pair of the New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail, the 2nd shoe featuring New Balance's Fresh Foam technologies of computer designed midsole and outsole geometries. This 10.25 oz men's 9, 8.1 oz women's 8, 4mm drop "trail" shoe retails for $109.95 and will be available by July 2014. 
I say "trail" as I am finding the Fresh Foam Trail is also a fine road shoe. 
New Balance  Fresh Foam 980 Trail


I have run a few miles on road and trail in the 980 Trail so far and am concluding they are a big improvement over the initial 980 Road I reviewed here(Note 4/10/14: New Balance just sent me another pair of Roads as early pairs such as the one I received may have firmer midsoles than spec. I ran 5 miles in this new Road 980 and the cushioning was very similar to the Trail)  Smooth running even on the road with a foot lay down feel somewhat like Pearl Izumi's E:Motion line, they part ways with the PI shoes and the original 980 Road in that they are well cushioned and not somewhat harsh and overly firm as both the PI and 980 Road felt to me, nor rigid and a bit constricting in the forefoot as the pair of 980 Roads were for me at my true to size 8.5, the Trails here being 9's. The Trails are also not mushy or pillowy as the older model Hoka One One's are. 
Fresh Foam is the marketing slogan and with this shoe it starts to ring true, although I would not characterize the ride as "super soft and bouncy" as New Balance does. More a tuning of cushion and support to provide a smooth, well cushioned, stable and comfortable ride on trail and road. 

After 2 runs they are already more flexible than my still somewhat stiff 980 Road that have 30 plus miles on them. My first trail run in them was on muddy, steep, rooty NH trails and they were equally adept on the trail as on the road, I guess no surprise for this trail shoe!  Good grip, good stability on moderately uneven steep terrain with smooth striding on the flats.


Outsole: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail

First, what is special about the midsole outsole design?
The New Balance 980 Fresh Foam is not made up of innovative materials (a la adidas Boost) or for that matter has a radical design ( a la Hoka).  The 980 is innovative as for the first time New Balance is leveraging parametric modeling software often used by architects to micro design and shape the data characteristics of loading and biomechanics into what is essentially a very simple single material EVA midsole and single material rubber outsole. The outer sidewalls have hexagonal "relief" based on the data modeling, which depending on location, either provide additional support via convex bulging shapes or deform, absorb shock and cushion through concave shapes.

So what did New Balance do to make this such a fine shoe, and an improvement in my view over the initial 980 Road? Well they tuned the midsole and outsole using their software, common sense, and I am sure some feedback from runners.

Midsole
The view below is of the lateral (outside) of the forefoot with Trail top and Road bottom.
Forefoot Lateral Side: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail top, 980 Road bottom
New Balance swapped convex hexagons for concave ones upfront. Result for me a somewhat softer forefoot than the Road as concave shapes deflect a bit more than concave ones. Finger push test shows as much. I believe the midsole material is, or should be, despite my early experience with the Road of the same firmness in both shoes and the differences in feel are due to tuning of the hexagons and outsole.



Heel Lateral Side: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail top, 980 Road bottom
In the heel area on the lateral side(outside) they made the hexagons on the Trail (top) larger and deeper which softens the heel landing without in any way making the shoe mushy.


Heel Medial Side: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail top, 980 Road bottom
On the medial (inside) the Trail keeps convex hexagons from mid foot to heel and they are larger than on the Road. And this is my only quibble to date with the Trail and Road. I think these "support" geometries are intended to slow pronation as they firm that area, and while some may need a bit of help here, I usually run in a neutral shoe. The latest from the American College of Sports Medicine here recommends neutral non support shoes for the vast majority of runners. This said, especially for long trail runs and as the shoe gets some miles, the foot and eventually shoe tend to collapse inward in lighter shoes. I might have kept the smaller convex shaping of the road here as I feel a bit too much inside support in the Trail.

There is no rock plate I can see and don't believe it is needed, plenty of rock push through protection.

Outsole
Outsoles: New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail left, 980 Road right
Here clearly there are differences as the red sole on the Road is clearly for road use and green Trail for trail use. I found that the long deep lugs of the Trail provided superb grip on the steeps, a bit of icy snow, and the mud that I encountered. No mud accumulated but truth be said New England mud is not usually the sticky glop found out West. The lugs reverse towards the heel, sharp face foward, to provide braking. The long lugs also seem to contribute to a smooth ride on road, if a bit noisy. But there is more... The sheet, if you will, that holds the decently spaced lugs is thinner than the more continuous outsole with no flex grooves  of the Road. I believe this contributes to not only better road feel but more flex in the forefoot of the Trail . 
Upper
All overlays except around the lacing and for some strapping at the heel are seamfree. The upper is a very densely woven mesh, not exactly as light as many sub 10 oz trail runners who have but appears durable. I felt very well supported on some relatively rough trails without a need to overly cinch down the laces. It drains well, I did run through ankle deep water on my last run. It should not let dust in but may clog a bit with mud due to the very fine mesh.
The Trail upper is built on the same last (foot shape, volume,etc..) as the Road. The toe box while not as roomy as say the Skechers Ultra  is roomy enough with no sloppy play upfront, always an issue on trails for me. They are far more comfortable up front than my first pair of Road by sizing up half a size. With mid weight trail sock they should work for all my trail runs. If I ran long ultras and had wide feet, and I don't, I might potentially size up another half a size. The tongue is soft, padded and relatively thin when compared to the somewhat overly puffy tongue of the Road. The tongue is held in place by 2 webbing loops. The heel counter padding is a little thinner than the very puffy Road's. 

Update 7/13/14: I finally got to run some Utah single track in Park City. And for my first run out here, 11.5 miles and 2200 vertical feet the day after a half marathon, I picked the 980 Trail. Superb in all respects. Climb well with plenty of grip. Very stable on downhills from heel to toe.  As I expected the "firmness" of Fresh Foam shines on trails. Upper is supportive without being overly restrictive or too loose. A bit pointy in the toe but not a big issue for me. Lack of a rock plate not noticeable at all.

Overall Impressions
The 980 Fresh Foam Trail is a low drop (4mm), very solid,  supportive mid weight trainer runner suitable for both smooth and rough trails as well as roads. It is on the heavier side (10.25 oz)  of modern trail runners which often come in under 10 oz but given the cushion, deep and effective lugs, and rugged upper I think worth the weight for old legs, longer runs and tougher terrain. The tuning of the hexagon geometries and outsole has also made this a fine smooth running road shoe with few if any of the drawbacks associated with trail shoes on the road: harsh firm ride, overly slappy due to the outsole, or weight. I plan to make this one of my goto shoes for Summer 2014.

Competitor.com agrees with my review "...the Fresh Foam Trail—a modified replica of the award-winning Fresh Foam 980 road shoe—is a dynamic and versatile shoe that excels on many different types of terrain." See their review here.

Disclosure: The 980 Trail was provided to me free of charge by New Balance. The opinions herein are entirely my own. 

5 comments:

Detroit Runner(Jeff) said...

I love the road version. Just to be clear, I should size up 1/2 size. I also wear an 8.5 and the road version is perfect size for me. Great review. I can wait to try these out.

Anonymous said...

How can I tell if the NB980 Roads I have are of the 'too form' variety?

sam winebaum said...

Did you buy them when they first came out? My pair was a review pair so right about when they first went of sale in Feb. About the only good ways would be 1) to take them to a store and compare by pushing with your finger into the midsoles of each 2) compare how stiff the forefoot flex of each is. Of course if you have alot of miles on the first pair they will have more flex than when new. Also try one of each type on each foot and see if you can tell the difference on a treadmill at the store. My second pair was a half size up from my true to size but I was able to pretty clearly tell a difference particularly in forefoot cushion and flex by running with one on each foot.

Anonymous said...

They shipped on Feb 9. The insole is quite spongy, so they were deceptively cushioned when I first put them on. Removing the insole though and they are quite firm. Have not run much in them at all. I've emailed NB about it. Would feel bad taking them in to the LRS for a 'push test' since I bought them online.

sam winebaum said...

How do they feel when running? How many miles do you have on them? After about 30 my first pair felt better but certainly not "plush" or particularly responsive. My first pair were not bad or particularly harsh but firm and quite stiff, a function of midsole and outsole firmness and lack of flex grooves up front. 2nd pair was noticeably better in this area of course helped by a half size up and a bit more room for the foot. My second pair is white with blue yellow trim. Firs t pair blue. I wouldn't hesitate to take them to the LRS. You might pick something up while there and I am sure they will be happy to see a runner in the door!