Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Newton Distance III Shoe Review

They are actually orange btw, not pink. Camera lighting.
I picked up a pair of the new Newton Distance III series shoes from my sponsor Kompetitive Edge the other day.

I wasn't planning on getting a new pair of running shoes. I'm kind of a creature of habit and have been racing in the same Brooks Racer ST 5s for eons now. In fact, I recently switched over to using them as my training shoe as well and have been really happy with them.

I've always liked the Newton concept; looking at how you build a running shoe from the ground up (or foot down) that promotes and supports a more efficient and healthier running style. So while I was at KE picking up some other things for my bike, I noticed the new Newtons had just arrived, stacked up on the floor and was curious about what I'd heard about the new design. Ryan (Stedeford) explained the layout of the new line and what had changed in the design. It peaked my interest to throw a pair on and hit the treadmill, and that experience got me thinking that it was time to give the Newton brand another try out in the wild. So out the door I went with my new shoes.

I have an older pair of Newtons that I bought from someone that got them new, ran a few miles and decided they weren't for him. He also threw in a pair of Saucony Kinevara's (same story) and sold both pair to me for a song. I liked the old Newtons, but still felt they had some work to do before they'd become my 'go-to' shoe. I'm happy to say that the new Distance series seems to have really gotten it right and refined an already solid concept into something pretty fun to head out the door in.

In following the 'minimalist' trends and experimenting with a number of shoes that fit that category through the years, I've distilled two key things that people generally are referring to when they talk about minimalism.
  • More pronounced heel drop (the heel is generally lower and sometimes the same, or in extreme cases lower, than the mid-foot contact point)
  • Less cushioning
I've over-simplifying here because this isn't a discussion about minimalism, natural running, etc. If you want a more detailed two part series I wrote about 3 years ago on minimalist running taken to an extreme you can find it here and here

In short, the Newtons are more about the pronounced heel drop than lessening the cushioning. But they take it further in the design of the sole itself in a way that puts them in a very special category. You can read about the science behind their shoes on their site. How is a techno-geek engineer like me not going to be drawn in by phrases like, "Bio-Mechanical Sensor Plate" and "Knight Mechanical Testing? Seriously though, they have quite a bit of interesting information there including testing, choosing a shoe and an overall commitment to improving running form and education. They really are so much more than just a shoe company - they are a fundamentally different concept in running.

Right away I could see the differences Newton had made in the shoe. The most obvious are the addition of an additional mid-foot 'lug'. Ryan explained that this was to promote better side to side stability, which I could feel on the side by side compare run I did (more on that later). Older model on top, lower on the bottom.

You can also see the mid-foot overall has a wider platform while the heel looks a bit narrower. I actually measured them to make sure it wasn't an optical illusion and sure enough, they are as they appear.

The other thing you'll notice is that the new shoe's arch to heel looks more integrated as opposed the older model that has several components to it; a 'yellow' base layer layered with a grey foundation and several black 'crash pads'. I've seen a trend lately around this and like the idea of a molded one piece design. As for the specifics including the 'angled channel' in the heel - well, I have some educated guesses, but that's probably a better question for the folks at KE or the Newton shoe engineers; who wouldn't be just guessing like me.

The Distance doesn't have much lateral or torsional stability, and that's both by design and what I'm looking for in a shoe. It's not as slipper-like as a racing flat (I have a pair of Saucony A5s that are basically socks with a sole), but this model is definitely a neutral shoe that will give you immediate feedback if you come down a bit off center of neutral. If you're looking for a bit more stability, then the Gravity and Motion offer increasing levels of stabilization. There are also more specialized models for things like trail running and even an 'Ironman' branded model. With 18 different models you want to spend a bit of time talking to someone that can work with you to find the best shoe for your needs and stride. This is only a review of one particular model.

The next was the scale test. I compared my current shoes (Brooks Racer ST 5), the older Newtons and the new Distance Newton. All are the same size and come with the factory laces. I was surprised by the weight differences. The Newton distance was nearly 40g lighter than my Racer ST 5s - and that's with the ribbon like laces of the ST (which often come untied). A small feature, but I like the laces of the Newton Distance - although for racing I opt for Nathan or other quick entry laces (as most triathletes do) to get out of T2 faster.

Brooks Racer ST 5 - 280g

Older model Newton - 291g

New Newton Distance - 242g
So will you feel 40g difference while running? Probably not, but maybe once fatigued it would become more apparent in being able to maintain a better stride.

Just to be fair - the Newton Distance and the Brooks Racer ST 5 are VERY different shoes. But, if I'm trying to figure out a shoe to wear that works for training and racing, then saving weight is a bonus, even if it's not a deciding factor.

I picked a 2mi course that included a mixture of asphalt, concrete, hard dirt trail, uneven trail, looser dirt and both easy and steeper uphills and downhills. I ran a warm-up and then the shoes in the following order:

Brooks Racer ST 5 / Newton Distance / Older Newtons

I was only looking to evaluate the Newton Distance, using the other two to compare impressions - so I won't get into what I like about the Brooks Racer ST 5's - which is a lot obviously since I've been narrowing down to that for quite a number of years.

First off, the Distance has that Newton 'feel' to it. If you've never run in Newtons, you should. It's fundamentally different than any other shoe you've ever run in - I defy anyone to deny that. Now, whether you like that 'feel' or not is personal. I happen to admire it because it's obvious the engineers at Newton have gone out of their way to put that feel into the shoe.

What you notice right away is more emphasis on the mid-foot and a decreased emphasis on the heel. Laugh as you will about the term "Bio-Mechanical Sensor Plate" but I can tell you it's there and it works. Right away I noticed that there was far better sensitivity programmed into that construction than in the older Newtons. There were more sensations and feedback coming back up through my foot, and I think that's kind of the point. You are instantly aware of not only the moment of impact, but all the way through when you paw off in your stride.

The other thing I noticed (that surprised me) was that the shoe instantly got me in a better position (hips projected more to where they should be). Normally I have to think about that projection, but the Newtons seemed to promote that. I was really surprised by that because I would have bet that given the amount of time and work I've put into my stride, that the shoe would simply be along for the ride. It caused me to start thinking about how it was doing that. Specifically, what feedback was it sending my body that caused me to close that little gap and put my hips into the 'slot'.

What I'm speculating is this. The Newtons get the heel 'out of the way' of your stride by the simple nature of 'retreating' it up into the shoe (less heel means the forefoot part of your strike is more pronounced). Further, the sensor plate in the forefoot creates more feedback there to process and adds more emphasis still to the forefoot. What that does is create a 'feedback trigger' that I'm further along in my stride than I think (closer to the paw-back portion) and I engage those muscles to push off a bit sooner. That cascades into my hips moving forward and (probably - I didn't measure it), a quicker turn-over.

Two thoughts - the above is my own speculation and based on a few hundred foot strikes - is the theory going to hold up after a few hundred miles? Second, would my body get used to the feedback (numb) and the additional stimuli would then evaporate? Unknown on both. But it was intriguing and I was pretty excited that ANY shoe would actually automatically cause a slight shift in my stride like that.

The less engaged heel has the usual Newton (same as in the old ones) heel 'washout' when taking a tight corner at speed on a hard surface. Don't get the impression that I think this is a fault of the shoe. I imagine that with some experimentation and time in the shoe, I'll stop relying on digging the heel pad in to make a tight corner. In other words, it's more about me adapting the way I currently take a tight corner based on running in shoes that allow me to dig that heel in. Anyway, most races results (for me) aren't made on sharp changes in direction.

Where I also noticed the benefit of the heel being out of the way was on a steeper descent on a hard surface. I felt like I could turn over more smoothly and really liked how these shoes descended. Felt like I could turn-over faster and keep my toes out of the front of the toe box. That's good, because when your foot is making little slams into the front of the toe box, those are the brakes my friend and you're decelerating every time you do it.

It's not often I get excited about a pair of shoes. Ho-hum is my usual response. I've run in a bunch of shoes that were going to 'change my experience' and they didn't. The Newtons though, do deliver some unique feedback that I definitely want to explore and play around with a bit more. They really are fundamentally different and offer some 'feelings' you wont' get with other shoes. 

No shoe by itself will make you run with a better stride, but the Newton Distance do come through with lighting up the right neural pathways to aid you in running better - if you are paying attention and spend the time so your body knows what to do with that feedback.

For someone interested in experiencing this, I'd recommend the following:

1. Get fitted with the right Newton model by someone like the folks at Kompetitive Edge that knows what they are doing. I think this goes for any shoe, and this definitely applies here. Take your time, try on different models and really pay attention to what you're feeling and how the shoe feels. Keep an eye out for demo days to run outside on a variety of surfaces. The treadmill is OK, but outside is always better.

2. Think of Newtons not just as a shoe, but as a training device. I know this sounds corny, but after spending a bit of time reading things on the Newton site and really thinking about what I was feeling - it hit me what they were getting at. Newton is about running more efficiently and in a healthy way. The shoes are just part of that equation.

3. Ideally couple your Newtons with a running coach. Now is a great time to get some quality instruction and work on improving your stride outside the stress of being 'in season'. When I did this a few years ago I invested about 4 months before a new stride really took hold. And I am constantly tweaking and 're-feeling' things to make adjustments back to good form. Expect that initially you will actually slow down and feel fatigued more quickly. But if you are working with a good coach and being diligent, it will pay off in years of injury free (and faster) running. I'd suggest some great coaches from Team EMC (Elite Multi-Sport Coaching) who offer some great run clinics from time to time.

Happy running.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Great review of this shoe. I've been running in the last generation Distance for the last 6 months (love them btw) and really appreciate the thoroughness of your review. I think I'll bite the bullet and buy the new ones.