Thursday, December 19, 2013

New Gear in the New Year!

Sweet! The folks at Harbinger are launching a new line of gear (entitled HumanX) for a broad range of cross training applications, and they have been kind enough to provide me with some samples to review. I am super stoked to put these through the paces and write up my feedback for you guys!

Here is a couple of preview pics. Stay tuned!



Monday, May 27, 2013

Minimalist Shoe Review: Inov-8 Bare-XF 260



Well, I've done it. I have officially gone whole hog into Olympic-style, free weight cross training. Don't worry, though; I have not drunk the CrossFit Koolaid (Not that there's anything wrong with that. /Seinfeld). I have, however, started getting serious about my personal strength, and that means new gear to try out and write about in my blog! This latest review is about a shoe that is completely and totally targeted at the CrossFit sheeple, but, as I found out over the last six weeks or so, Inov-8's most focused minimalist cross trainer is good at more than just box jumps and kettle bell swings.

First Impression: Straight-Up Purpose-Built
The Inov-8 XF-260 makes no bones about its intentions. Heck, it's right there in the name: the "XF" is a crude approximation/abbreviation of "CrossFit." This, I presume, is because they can't officially use the CrossFit name; Reebok landed the rights to that cash cow a while back. So Inov-8, definitely one of the early favorite shoe makers of CF practitioners, has to flip their terminology like a tractor tire. Certainly, though, no other shoe maker has such a symbiotic relationship with CrossFit. The Inov-8 F-lite 195 and 230 can still be seen on the lower appendages of box-dwelling meat heads the world over - remarkable considering their age. Despite initially offering shoes designed primarily for the trail, the signature low profile and secure fit (along with a lack of similarly-featured competition) have made Inov-8 a crowd favorite for the past several years. The XF-260 carries on that legacy with the addition of a few key features that make it a home run for those looking for pure minimalism in their workout footwear.


The appearance of the XF-260 is quite no-nonsense and unique amongst minimalist shoes. The pattern is described as "Kettle bell Camo" due being made up from kettle bell profiles in varying shades of gray. The pattern works, too, giving the shoe a slightly military feel - appropriate for its intended application: suffering! It seriously is an eye catcher. If you walk around in these puppies, be prepared for a few glances of familiarity from Crossfitters you encounter. The logo emblazoned in large font on the side can't be missed, either. The 260 is also available in a (less-interesting) gray/black color scheme as well as a more eye-catching blue/black setup.

Few features are as controversial on a minimalist running shoe as the inclusion of hook-and-loop closures (otherwise known as Velcro®). I have had bad Velcro experiences in the past usually involving limited adjustment range, insecure fit, and/or frustrating lack of wear-and-tear durability. The Velcro on the 260 is quite intriguing and appears to be part of a very well thought out system featuring Rope Tec: Inov-8's system designed to allow wearers to shimmy up and slide down ropes with aplomb while not ripping the uppers or soles to shreds. Also, it adds a futuristic element to the look of the 260.

Criss-crossed for security of fit.
Fit and Feel
The XF-260 is built upon the same platform as the rest of Inov-8's minimalist offerings: all have the "Bare" prefix, are built upon the same last, and have the same outsole/lack of midsole. The outsole is zero differential from heel-to-toe and only three millimeters thick and siped with a "Metaflex" channel running from one side of the forefoot to the other. This means they are delightfully flexible, especially at the toes where our foot does the most flexing. There is a significant increase rigidity, however, in the heel which I assume is for increased wear resistance during heavy lifts or whatever. It's not noticeable during normal use, though.

The skeletal pattern is a nice touch and included on the sole of all the Inov-8 Bare-X line.


The anatomical last is nice but not quite the toe box I would hope for. The midfoot and toe box are sufficiently wide - enough to be comfortable in everyday activities, running, and working out, but they could stand to be a tad wider. I would rate the forefoot width and height better than most; they are very comparable to New Balance's Minimus line, but I definitely prefer the volume of makers like VIVOBAREFOOT (Neo, Aqua Lite) and Altra (Adam, Instinct). I have not received any blisters on my toes or elsewhere due to fit, but take into account that I typically wear socks with my 260s. 

So far, the XF-260 does not suffer from any of the three typical hook-and-loop closure issues I mentioned in my initial impressions: lack of adjustment, insecure lockdown, and limited durability. Admittedly my foot shape and how well it matches the last may have something to do with it, but I love how this system works. I have lifted, run, jumped, cut, done plyometrics, performed yoga, and done quite a bit of yard work with nary a slip. *For what it's worth, these aren't the best shoes for use with a shovel.

The triple-closure Velcro is delightfully simple and quite functional. The straps are exactly where they should be for maximally secure fit and placement during high-intensity movements.
Model name emblazoned on the toe cap.
Super flexy - as any good "minimalist" shoe should be.
Perforated, thin, flat insole. No support, no arch. Perfect.
The unstructured heel cup is quite nice.
Zero drop, Baby.

On The Road and Trail
The XF-260's sole is, as I mentioned above, one of the thinnest in the business, and as such provides outstanding ground feedback for maximum proprioception. The well-ventilated upper breathes nicely aided by the perforated footbed. I have run many times on various terrain and can say that they are right at home on surfaces from smooth sidewalk or pavement to dry, hard-packed dirt or gravel. That is to say, this is not a trail shoe. Making the shoe as nimble and stable as possible in the gym has the tradeoff of limited tread depth and thus limited off-road bite. Nevertheless, I would still describe the 260 as a "versatile" offering.

One small issue I ran into when doing sprints and plyo in the 260: chafing at the front of my lower leg (at the upper edge of where the tongue is on a normal shoe). I am certainly this had to do with the fact that the top strap was cinched down pretty tightly for the dynamic movement, and I have never gotten the same discomfort since. I typically wear socks with these shoes because that's just how I roll, but the chafing is in a place where my low, crew socks would not have made a difference. I have, however, run and worked out comfortably in the 260 on several occasions with no problems despite its less than buttery-smooth interior.

The perforated insole (as if you couldn't tell by looking).

In the Gym
This is where the 260 is really supposed to shine, and it is definitely solid in all manner of cross training that takes place on a solid, fairly dry surface. I found the rubber sole to be especially grippy while on the boxes and quite adept at plyometric movements. Jumping rope was a real pleasure in these, but beware the thin upper; you should be okay if the rope hits the to cap or one of the straps, but anywhere else... look out!

One clever feature that I did not discover until a few weeks after I had already been wearing them:
What's this? Built-in motivation?
It's like the soul of my drill sergeant from basic training is built into each shoe strap. Scary thought.
Nevermind the grass and debris. That didn't come with the shoes. That was me.
The upper is almost burrito-like: no tongue to speak of (ya get it?).
The upper wraps the foot nicely.
The Verdict
When Inov-8 decided to produce the XF-260, they went out on a limb to make a unique, delightfully minimal, super-focused CrossFit shoe. Mission accomplished, but in the process they also made a very strong all-around minimalist road shoe. I thoroughly enjoy almost everything about this shoe. The only things that may scare away would-be wearers are the Velcro and the "Meet-me-at-the-box, Bro" design.

Pros
- Unique, unmistakably CrossFit-focused look
- Very innovative design
- Secure fit
- Great outsole/ground feel
- Versatility on the road and the gym

Cons
- Not so great sockless comfort
- Retail price tag ($140!)
- How do you feel about Velcro?

Inov-8 XF-260s (along with several other Inov-8 offerings) frequently go on sale at The Clymb and LeftLane Sports. Keep your eyes open, and you can find them for over 50% off!

Click on the links to sign up and enjoy the savings.




Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Super Simple Shoe Surgery

A few weeks ago while moping slowly blasting downhill on a Land Between the Lakes trail, I found the wrong end of a pointy stick with the top of my foot. The results are below:

Oh, Noes!
Yep, we're going to have to operate. He may never run a trail again!
Being the frugal fellow that I am, I broke out the thread and needle. The results were rather pleasing - that is, they were hardly noticeable. Everybody has war wounds - on their gear and themselves - if they have spent any time on the trail, but hopefully those gear-busting stumbles will all be as easy to remedy as this one.





So, have you every had any gear busters? Post up your stories and pics.

Don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Blog Pimping: The Ethics of Shameless Self-Promotion

I have a scenario for you: Your friend or acquaintance keeps pushing you about coming to their _______ party (insert "candle, jewelry, novelty products, etc."), but you have absolutely zero interest in doing so. These requests may be accompanied by a barrage of Facebook links touting the glories of their wares or services. Furthermore, they have created a page entirely for their "business," but they still post links incessantly on their personal page. Annoying yet?


The question is this: How much is too much when a friend is trying to get you to check out this "cool" thing they're really into? How many times can they mention it before you just want them to "shut up already"? What, if any, limits should folks place on social media promotion from their own page while balancing it with sufficiently ambitious entrepreneurship?

I have been pondering this question at length while trying to grow this blog. My primary reasons for desiring to grow are as follows:

1) To create discussion. I love talking to people in general (online or face-to-face), but I especially love talking to people about fitness, barefoot running, and their spiritual/life journey. These categories make up well over half the substance of the pie chart of my life passions. I just enjoy people.

2) To make a few bucks. I am an affiliate with Xero Shoes: the best huarache makers out there (No bias. No, no - none of that.) Every sale through my site helps support my running habit. It's not much, but it is certainly worth the effort I put in here. Seriously, they are an awesome company well worth checking out.

3) To test out cool new shoes and gear! I get to test the occasional pair of shoes free of charge. Whilest I search for the ultimate in minimalist footwear (Xero Shoes are it during the Summer. Current best cold weather footwear is arguable. Check out my reviews to decide for yourself.), I will continue to test any pair of shoes a company is willing to send me. This is both entertaining and enlightening for me. Plus I enjoy reading shoe reviews from other blogs, so it stands to reason that people like me would like to read them here.

On the one hand, I am very conscientious of how I present my "sales pitch,"which basically amounts to a gentle request to visit this blog. It's usually accompanied with a reason - "If you like "x," then check out what I wrote at this link..." - so it's not just floating out there, an imperative lacking in authority or interest. On the other hand, as my wife has so lovingly informed me, I have been known to overextend and drive people deep into suicidal ideations frustrated apathy. This results as one would expect: people tune me out/ignore my posts - the last thing I want to happen.

This is an area where I could really use some feedback. Post up and let me know what you think.

By the way, make sure you drop by The Clymb to check out their latest deals. Inov8 minimalist and trail footwear is went on ubersale this morning!  /shamelesspluglol

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Frugal Runner Series: Cutting the Crap on Sunglasses

Who doesn't love sunglasses? They are just universally cool, and they really take the ocular sting out of a sunny, mid-morning run. The beach would not be the same without shades, nor would the World Series of Poker (for different reasons). But probably more than any other one single piece of clothing or gear an athlete can purchase - except maybe shoes - sunglasses suffer from the most overwhelming tidal wave of marketing BS. This can make it exceptionally difficult to decipher what is real value and what is simply perceived regarding sunglasses' protective qualities.
Oakley: Making people with disposable income look semi-alien since 1990-something.
So, where is the dividing line between the facts and the garbage? In my tireless Google search for answers, I stumbled across several helpful articles and interviews that have proven very eye-opening (pardon the pun). For the sake of you, my readers, I will attempt to summarize all the most interesting and helpful content from those sources. Links can be found at the bottom.

1. Sunglasses are important even in overcast conditions.
I think most people know that sunglasses help you see better on a sunny day and can protect your eyes from searing sunlight.  But as Vissini would say, "Only thlightly leth well known ithz thisth!": UV rays couldn't give two poops about your beloved cloud cover. They attack with intense ferocity all day regardless of the conditions. Anybody who has gone shirtless at the pool thinking, "No prob. The sun isn't even out," only to wind up with a serious sunburn can attest to this. The research further bears it out. You may look a bit douchy, but you can say it's because you're health conscious... while smoking a cigarette and taking a bite out of your 1/2 pounder from Five Guys.

Something tells me that these guys aren't primarily concerned with premature glaucoma.
Sunglasses indoors? Check. Chinstrap beards? 2/3 check. Wifebeaters and chains? Check.
The triumvirate! And we haven't even gotten to the hair.
2. You don't necessarily get what you pay for.
When it comes to features in sunglasses, there is a definite point of diminishing returns. According to Dr. Dr. Jay Duker, chair of ophthalmology at Tufts Medical Center (Great name, right? Sounds like they research toilet tissue.), that means,  "for about $40, you can get a pair that offers 100% protection against ultra-violet rays. If you spend maybe $70 you should be able to get a pair with decent quality polarizing lenses that cut out glare. Beyond that, the medical benefits tail off pretty fast" (Arends). If you're paying more than $70 or so for your shades, you are essentially paying purely for style and brand recognition.

3. There are three kinds of UV rays, but we are only really worried about two.
Let me put my lab coat on for this one. The industry usually boils this down to just "UV rays," but UVA and UVB rays are both invisible to the eye and potentially damaging. To make it simple, long-range UVA rays burn your skin whereas short-range UVB rays age your skin. Cataracts and macular degeneration are linked to UVA exposure, whereas UVB rays are causally associated with growths on the eye's surface that can cause corneal problems and distorted vision as well as photokeratitis, a painful inflammation of the cornea commonly referred to as "Snow Blindness." Ouch. Make no mistake: you need protection from both.

Since I know you are curious, the third type of damaging ultraviolet rays are called "UVC." They are the most potentially damaging types of UV rays, but they are thankfully filtered out of the sunlight that reaches us as it passes through the Ozone layer. Makes sense why astronauts wear those highly reflective, dark-tinted shield lenses on their helmets, eh?

"I wear them purely for their UVA and UVB-protective qualities."
4. Almost all sunglasses are made and sold by the same people: Luxottica.
This further explains why all the "good" ones are so freaking expensive: there is very little competition. Sunglass Hut and other like retailers are also owned by Luxottica. Sound like a Monopoly? Well, it appears that it doesn't matter because Luxottica is an Italian company headquartered overseas. And technically it cannot be because Luxottica doesn't control the raw materials production... to my knowledge. Hrm...

5. The markup on "designer" sunglasses is absolutely absurd.
The harmful-ray-blocking and ballistic protection technology in the lenses of most popular sunglasses is rather cheap. Likewise, the materials and production processes for the vast majority of sough-after frames is very low-buck. R&D on sunglasses hasn't advanced much in decades. So what gives? Well, it's called supply and demand. Sunglass Hut will charge the price for those Oakley Half-Jackets that you are willing to pay. Having pro athlete endorsements and other elaborate advertising campaigns only boosts that image and brand recognition, making their product ever more desirable. This is where sunglasses companies spend their money. It's human nature to desire what others universally recognize as cool or associate with elite athletic performance, and ad execs know it well. Luxottica's gross profits were an absurd 60% last year, but the company's profits after advertising, etc. are factored in are a respectable, but pedestrian, 11%. That's many millions of dollars of advertising aimed right at your eyes.

"These have a recognizable logo on the side. We are hip."
Uh, those glasses make your eyes look fat.
6. Don't believe labels on those gas station aviators.
Testing shows that those "100% UV Protection" stickers often don't tell the whole story... or are outright lies. This may not be limited to the cheapies, though, so buyer beware, and take advantage of helpful fact #7.

7. You can have your shades' protective qualities checked at your local optician!
Who knew, right? Maybe I will grab an arm full of pairs that I like off of the bargain shelf at Wallyworld and tote them over to the Eye Center. I have not tried this and don't know how cooperative a busy optician would be when faced with what amounts to a favor for an non-paying customer. Either way, it's good to know.

8. The color of sunglass tint is almost completely a matter of preference, but some sport-specific applications make sense.
Brown, copper, amber blue, grey. It's all about what you like. There is some research pointing to the fact that amber, brown, and copper lenses supposedly allow for better visibility in low light and defining of contours; that is why most goggles on people at the shooting range are of the yellow/amber variety. Also, sports like fishing can make good use of the increase color contrast from such lenses. I personally prefer gray tinted lenses just because I desire an accurate-but-more-tolerable version of "real life."
"Holy Freaking Crap! My whole world looks like it's 1080p!" This has got to be the most shamelessly idiotic marketing this side of "I can't believe it's not butter."
9. Polarized lenses are what you want if you are an athlete.
Polarization is all about reduced glare, and it works. This is a feature well worth paying for if you intend to wear your shades on the water, in snowy conditions, or in any kind of athletic situation where you may encounter glare. The only real drawback of polarized specs for most people is that there can be some difficulty in reading an LCD screen while wearing them. This may be a problem for cyclists and runners reading their GPS or cycling computer at full sprint.

10. All sunglasses are NOT created equal.
Yes, there are differences between those designer sunglasses and what you may pick up from the rotating tower at Target for $5.00-14.99. Material qualities are likely going to be significantly better, both in the frame and lenses. The UV-blocking elements are typically laminated into the lenses of more expensive sunglasses whereas the cheapies are often simply coated, which may peel or flake. Notice that I use words like "typically" and "likley." Do a Google search with "peeling" or "flaking" and any high-end brand name to see why. However, a simple side-by-side comparison of Oakleys and Jokelys will reveal obvious quality differences in the frame. Worth the price difference? Hell no, but there is a difference.

The Takeaway
Don't think that there is some magic ingredient in those celebrity-endorsed, gorgeously-marketed, brand-name specs. If you are buying sunglasses purely for their medically protective properties (ie, you're a great grandparent), there is no reason to spend more than $10 at the drug store - probably not even that much.

So what is a penny-pinching fellow to do? Well, I am not, as a matter of principal, ever going to pay more than $50 for a pair of sunglasses. Even that seems like silly money for me considering what you get for those dollars and what you can get for considerably less, but I am unwilling to compromise on a few qualities:

1. Polarization - Since they will be primarily for running and bicycling, this is a must. Glare will no longer rule over me! 
2. Fit - I have a skinny face, so many models do not fit me well. This means I will probably have to try them on and buy from a retail location further limiting my choices. (internet = deals).
3. Looks - Yes, they matter. My tall, skinny noggin' limits my choices.
4. The "Stays-In-Place Factor" - Again, gotta try 'em out and read reviews.

I have no brand preference whatsoever, but if I can get a "known" brand for the same price as one that is not familiar to me, I will spring for the name recognition. /marketingworkedonme

My next entry about sunglasses will be about me narrowing down my search and laying down some meager amount of cash...maybe.

Works Cited: 
"Glasses and Sunglasses: Why do name-brand glasses and sunglasses cost so much?" - Quora.com
"Are Designer Sunglasses Worth the Price?" - Brett Arends, Wall Street Journal
EYEZONE: the oficial Framesdirect blog

"5 reasons why designer sunglasses are so expensive" - Tania Brauk√§mper, Fasionising.com Fashionista Blog

"Are expensive sunglasses worth the cost?" - CBS5 Arizona

"Sunshine on a Cloudy Day" - David Schoonmaker, American Scientist


Disclaimer: I am not a flippin' doctor. You've been warned.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stuff I'm Super Excited About (Part 2)

Altra is on a roll! In just a couple years, Altra went from a few drawings and ideas (I distinctly remember the drafts of the Adam being posted on Runner's World barefoot/minimalist running forum asking for feedback) to a name synonymous with zero-drop, anatomically-shaped footwear. They even sponsored the Naked Foot 5k series and Crossfit Games last year. In short, the brand has exploded, and the future is looking even brighter - both literally and figuratively (see below).

Perhaps Altra's most distinctive key feature is the toe box - a foot-shaped, super wide shape that allows for maximal toe splay. Even now, there is maybe one other shoe company on the market that offers a full-coverage, non-toe shoe that features this kind of free movement (VIVOBAREFOOT). I find that kind of confusing in light of Altra's remarkable growth and success recently, but flat, zero-drop footbeds definitely caught on. Maybe the spacious, anatomical toe box will be the next big shift in shoe design (New Balance and others are already creeping that way).

Here are a few shots that I scavenged off the web of the new wares: the Altra One (racing flat), and the Altra 3-Sum (Triathlon-targeted racer). I would definitely love to get my hands on a pair for testing, so hopefully I can make that happen and bring the review to you! Enjoy the pics.

Altra One.

Loving the day-glow coloration. Altra began with a very subdued lineup, but you can see that they have left that behind.

The 3-Sum. Looks like a minimalist triathlete's dream!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

More on the SKORA Phase and Core

I was directed toward some more great pics of the SKORA Phase and Core. These shoes really have me stoked. I hope they live up to the hype I have built up inside my brain. The big question for me is the toe box: Will it be wide enough? Let's hope so. Enjoy.

Men's Phase model.




Women's Phase model.


Women's Core colorways. 
Men's Core colorways.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Stuff I'm SUPER Excited About in 2013! (Part 1)

Things are great for lovers of minimalist shoes right now. Really great, and they are only getting better! Here is the first in a series of posts that will display just a few bits of news that I have scavenged from across the web that really get my blood pumping.

I dig Skora's slogan.

The rowdy upstart company that goes by the name of Skora burst onto the scene in 2012 with two models of minimalist shoes targeted at zero-drop-demanding athletes and triathletes. The Form and Base, their flagship laced and tri-friendly velcro-strapped offerrings respectively, garnered a strong following with runners ranging from track junkies to the ultra crowd. I was lucky enough to get to review Skora's Base and write about here. Although the shoe was less than perfect (still haven't found one that is), it was an impressive first offering for the new company. (Click to read that review.) I have grown fonder or my Skoras since modifying the strap to allow me to snug them up a bit more, too. They see regular service in my shoe rotation - mostly during barefoot-unfriendly conditions. If they produced such a solid shoe in their first try, I can only imagine how great their follow-ups are going to be.

There are two new Skora models set for release in February:
The Phase is a lighter shoe with an upper made from synthetic mesh.


The Core is features a combination of goatskin and mesh upper.

Both new models feature a new outsole design fashioned from Injection Blown Rubber (IBR) which purportedly provides greater flexibility and comfort without sacrificing weight. Both models also feature asymmetrical lacing, which I totally dig. Skora is not resting on the apparent success of their first line of shoes and is pushing the limits of innovation and design. I am eager to see if these two new models fit my foot a bit better. If so, I'm definitely on board. Perhaps most importantly, price gets the axe on the Phase and Core: $110 and $155 respectively.

*See more about the Core and Phase at Minimalistrunningshoes.org, or head to Kyle Kranz's blog, Running on the White Line. Click either link to take you to the preview. While you'r at Kyle's blog, go ahead and check it out. He is an ultra runner who also works with/for Skora as a social media coordinator (I believe that is the official title). His blog is worth exploring, and I am certain he is more than willing to answer any and all questions you may have if you post up on there.

I forsee great things from Skora in the near future.