[Editor’s note: Slowtwitch has two editors-at-large for footwear: Jeroen van Geelen owns Total Running, one of the more important running and triathlon retail establishments in The Netherlands; Pete Beauregard is a principal at City Sports, a chain of 15 specialty footwear stores along the Eastern Seaboard.]
Racing flats are minimalist shoes and, while not made specifically to simulate barefoot running—like the Nike Free 3.0 or Vibram Fivefingers—they are the closest to barefoot you can get in a running shoe category.
FLATS, as runners call them, are very light, made to feel the road surface, usually fit snug, often offer little to no “stability,” and last anywhere from 125-175 miles (compared to the 400-500 miles you’ll get out of your average training shoe).
Racing Flat outsoles are usually smooth, not variable-patterened as is the case in normal trainers. Trainers have a combination of Carbon Rubber (in the heel) and Blown Rubber (in the forefoot). Racing flats may have a little carbon rubber in the heel, but there's usually not too much going on in the forefoot. Trainers also have deep flex grooves to make them flexible for a nice smooth toe-off. Racing flats have flex grooves as well, but aren’t as deep because the shoe is already so flexible.
Because of the features listed above flats obviously aren’t for everyone. They are primarily worn for track/speed workouts, and on race day for any distance from 5k to a marathon. Triathletes who do some of their weekly workouts on a track, or at least incorporate some kind of speedwork into their training regimen, would experience the benefits of racing flats. They let your feet move more naturally than would normal trainers. Your foot works a little harder, but running in flats will strengthen your foot muscles. This may lead to fewer injuries, and grant you a better gait as well. You’ll be amazed at how light they are, and how different that feels when you’re running in them.
Most racing flats that I have come across are able to take elastic shoe laces (Yankz or Speedlaces) and work just fine without socks. (I don’t think I have ever worn socks with my flats.)
Before I launch into a list of the flats made for 2009, let’s talk about who might be a successful candidate for this type of shoe. Remember, elite runners average perhaps 125 pounds. Elite triathletes average 160 pounds. For this reason, both age group triathletes and the pros they emulate are, often as not, racing in lightweight trainers, especially for 70.3 racing and up. ITU athletes will certainly all compete in racing flats. But they take their toll if you’re heavier, and if you’ve got structural issues. Racing flats offer little or no support for over-pronators. So, the flip side of building your foot muscles is the lack of support for your "undermuscled" feet; and that lack of support is more, and more, acutely felt if you’re an over-pronator.
Even for stable runners with a good footfall, acclimating to a racing flat is a must before jumping right into your 6 minute per mile workouts. You don’t want to get injured right at the beginning of the tri season. Perhaps start by running in your flats only a few miles a week on a soft surface (like a track or a grass field). Get your feet used to the flats.
What commences is an overview of these flats for 2009. For those who can’t or don’t want to wear flats, but who want a higher performance shoe, check out the lightweight trainer articles written by Jeroen van Geelen. Even some motion control shoes are still “racing flats” compared with what you might be training in—someone wearing the Brooks Beast as his normal training shoe may want to try the Brooks GTS Adrenaline as his race day shoe. The Adrenaline gives a good amount of stability in a much lighter shoe.
Here is a review of some racing flats from Brooks, Puma and Asics for 2009. As I always preach to my managers and employees in the shoe departments at our stores, “Make sure you bring out a few pairs of shoes for the customer to try on. Shoes in the same category will do the same thing for you, but all will feel different from each other. Find the one that best fits them.”
Racer ST 4 (Unisex)
A Racing Flat offering some stability for those who don’t have that perfect neutral gait. The Racer ST (pictured above, white with black and red trim) was my first flat. I was always wearing a lightweight performance stability shoe for races and for training (In the Asics Gel DS Trainer/Nike Zoom Elite category) and the Racer ST was a nice transition shoe to introduce me to flats. (It is also the heaviest flat in this review weighing in at 8.7 ounces—if you consider that HEAVY!). Good cushioning, nice traction on the outsole, the upper has a little more room than your average flat and it offers a decent amount of stability. What I find that Brooks does better than other companies is medial posting. Brooks has several different densities of foam leading up to the medial post, so your foot will ease into the post instead of going from a soft foam and then right to firmer foam. This guards against the foot “crashing” into the medial post.
T6 Racer (Unisex)
Worn and inspired by the Hanson-Brooks original Distance Running Project, these Racing Flats (pictured above, white with yellow trim and a red logo) are the lightest in this review weighing in at a mere 5.9 ounces. Lightweight, flexible and fast is what best describes this shoe. Not a lot of stability in this shoe as you can almost fold it up and put it in your pocket—not really, but you get the picture—and the fit is pretty snug. With Hydroflow (Brooks cushioning) in the heel and forefoot, you can really feel the cushioning if you are a midfoot/forefoot runner like me. This is also the one shoe that broke down faster than most other flats here. Brooks recommends this shoe up to a half-marathon distance for us mere mortals.
Complete Road Racer III (Unisex)
You may not run as fast as Usain Bolt, who is a Puma Runner, but the Complete Road Racer III (pictured just above in grey) is a very fast shoe made specifically for the midfoot/forefoot runner. Weighing in at 8.4 ounces, it feels like there is something more substantial on your feet. Not that this shoe is heavy, but that it gives you more protection than a lighter shoe. The idcell cushioning system that Puma uses is in the heel and forefoot and you can really feel it. This is a great fitting shoe as the upper is snug but not too snug…nice feeling upper from the inside as well with not too many places that could cause hot spots. The torsional rigidity does give this shoe some stability but is still considered a “Neutral” shoe. Puma has taken some strides with tweaking some of their running shoe lasts over this past year. Very comfortable shoe.
Gel Bandito (Unisex)
The Gel Bandito (pictured adjacent, white with grey and gold trim) is one of the most supportive shoes out of the 5 shoes mentioned in this article (Brooks Racer ST 4 would be the other). Weighing in at 7.9 ounces, it’s a great shoe for any distance from 5k to marathon. Asics uses its Solyte midsole material that is usually found in its higher-end running shoes in the Bandito, along with a medial post and a good amount of torsion rigidity usually not found in a racing flat. I am an overpronator and for longer distances this shoe fits me well. If you do overpronate, over a long race your foot becomes tired and your overpronation really starts to become a factor. Your legs and feet get even more tired the longer you go and the stability in the Gel Bandito really helps out. It still has a snug fit like a racing flat does so it doesn’t get too “messy” when you pick up the pace.
Gel Hyperspeed III (Unisex)
The Gel Hyperspeed (pictured adjacent, white with blue and orange trim) is another interesting racing flat that Asics offers. It is made on a wider last to fit more runners and the wider platform does offer some stability—not as much as a flat with a medial post like the Bandito, but then it is more flexible and lighter (7.5 ounces). There is Gel in the heel for that cushioned ride. I have a “heavier” friend (175 lbs) who is fast and ran in a Hyperspeed for a half-marathon (1:20) and said they were just too light and not enough shoe for him.
[If you like what Pete has written, most of these shoes can be purchased at Pete’s click and mortar store: City Sports. Slowtwitchers can get a 10 percent discount on their entire City Sports orders by typing slowtwitch into the promo code box.]