I’ve run trails wearing a variety of different shoes – anything from light hiking shoes to the barest of minimalist shoes, and about everything in between.
Each style has its own strengths and weaknesses. But what I was hoping to find was a product that hits the sweet spot – light and fast, but also rugged enough to take the pounding of highly technical terrain. I was also wanting to take something out that could handle a variety of conditions.
In short, a minimalist-style shoe with a sole (soul?) of a hiking boot.
I’d heard rave reviews about street running shoes from a U.K.-based company called Inov8, and one of the people I talked to mentioned an extensive list of trail shoes the company offers. I figured it was worth exploring.
The shoe I ended up with was the Inov8 F-Lite 195. It’s a 3-mm drop, 6.9-ounce shoe that feels like it’s barely there on your foot. While not as light as a Vibram or Merrell minimalist shoe, the Inov8 F-Light passes the test of being light and comfortable. I was told by the retailer where I bought them that the company only does “whole sizes” (no halves), so I opted with an 11. A little roomy in the toes, but that’s a good thing on the steep downhills. Most importantly, it hit the width of my foot right.
The sole is also designed to flex right where the toes and the balls of your feet meet – a good spot for mid-foot and forefoot strikers.
Unlike my minimalist shoes, the F-Lite does have some cushion. Not a lot, but some. It’s thin enough to feel the ground, but not quite as bare-bones as you might find with traditional minimalist shoes, which are often nothing more than a thin rubber strip on the sole.
I would note, however, that if you are accustomed to running on traditional running shoes with a lot of support, you will notice a difference and you will need to ease into them over time. Don’t buy a pair and bust off a 12-miler unless you are used to running with minimalist footwear. Also, as with other minimalist and neo-minimalist shoes, heel strikers will need to adjust their gait (go mid-foot or forefoot) or go in another direction with your purchase.
The test runs I did were meant to give an impression of initial quality. I picked a variety of surfaces and conditions, and the weather cooperated nicely. The initial tests could be divided into technical terrain, snow/wet conditions, and muddy trails.
Technical trails: My first run in the F-Lites took me to my favorite trail running haunt. The route I picked included steep uphills and downhills, rocky and rooty singletrack and loose soil and rocks.
Grinding my way up the steep inclines was made easier by the shoes’ light weight. That was the most notable difference. With jutting rocks and tree roots (as well as other variables), the sole thickness gave me a good feel for the terrain, but just enough protection to where I didn’t think an obstacle was going to stab its way through the bottom of my foot. That’s not always the case with thin-soled shoes. Similarly, loose dirt and rock was more easily navigated because of the lighter weight of the shoe and the “feel for the road” I got through the sole.
Snowy and wet: The beauty of a breathable, light upper is that you avoid the sweaty mess that comes with long runs (and the blisters!). The flip side is that if you’re doing to run in rainy, snowy or slushy conditions, your feet will get wet. The shoe drains well, however, and dries out quickly after the run. I found that even running hills on fresh, wet snow (up to 3 inches in places), I had excellent traction. And despite getting wet, my shoes never got squishy or heavy. That’s a huge plus.
Muddy trails: All the snow and rain we got inevitably left some of my trails pretty muddy. Mud can be fun in a sadistic sort of way, but the reality is this: Mud kills traction, slows you down and, when it collects on your shoes, weighs you down.
The F-Lites’ traction on mud wasn’t any worse than other trail shoes I’ve tried. I think bigger knobs on the tread would help, but that would add weight to the shoe. And let’s face it – if the mud is thick enough, it doesn’t matter how well your shoe is cleated. It will collect mud. I’m not sure there’s a magic bullet for that. As long as the mud wasn’t too deep, my traction was good.
A note about minimalist and neo-minimalist shoes: One thing you will notice with the F-Lites and any other shoe like them is that your legs will work harder than they would if you wore thicker, more heavily cushioned footwear. Initially, this will lead to more leg and foot soreness, particularly in your calves and on the bottoms of your feet. But as your feet get stronger, so will your legs, and you will become a stronger runner. So be patient in that regard.
In the future: The question I get is about durability, and that is a question that I will have to answer after many more runs in the future. So expect a follow-up review on that topic.
If you’re interested in checking this shoe out, the F-Lite 195 retails for about $120, but can be purchased at discount retailers for about $80.
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