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.

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

- 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.