Shoe Review: New Balance Fresh Foam 1080

New Balance Men's Fresh Foam 1080 (M1080BK6)It’s one of life’s little ironies that having spent the first 30 years of my life trying to put on weight in order to avoid having sand kicked in my face (OK, it never happened, but Charles Atlas insisted that it was only a matter of time), my big problem now is in trying to reduce the bulk of my manly physique for the benefit of my long-suffering knees and ankles.

And so, like many big chaps who won’t ever blow out 50 candles again, the search for the most perfectly cushioned shoes possible takes up an improbably large proportion of my time and money these days.

I used to spend quite unfeasible amounts of take home pay on buying a new pair of Asics Gel Cumulus every 400 miles (which translated to every 8 weeks in the days when I ran marathons for fun), before they sadly turned away from cushioned neutrality and became something more akin to a control shoe. I even flirted a little with the ‘barefoot running’ revolution once upon a time; which is fine on the beach or for a fast few miles on the road, but really didn’t suit me on long runs. And so, my quest for a properly cushioned and completely neutral shoe has continued for many years and even more over-training injuries. Until now, that is. Because now, I have discovered Fresh Foam from New Balance.

Looking Under The Bonnet Of The Fresh Foam 1080s

At first meeting, I didn’t think the Fresh Foam 1080s were all that cushioned, as my usual running shop expedient of holding the shoes in both hands while prodding the insoles with my thumbs didn’t detect the luxurious level of ‘give’ I was hoping for.

Fresh Foam midsole

The one-piece Fresh Foam midsole

And then it was explained to me that while the insole wasn’t quite as plush as I might have expected, there was a lot of technology and, well, foam actually, going on under the bonnet, in the form of the neatly structured and incredibly spongy midsole you see here.

According to the manufacturer, this: ‘gives runners a continuously smooth ride without interference, while an intelligent emboss on the top bed of the midsole – in conjunction with data driven flex groove placement – combines to complement flexibility in this tremendously cushioned underfoot shoe.’

Well, colour me impressed with the tekkers. But does it deliver out on the road?

More Neutral Than Switzerland. More Lushly Upholstered Than Kim Kardashian.

Despite the promised technology – and the reassuring words: ‘Excellent Ride’ being printed on the top of one insole – my first few steps out of the front door were fairly tentative, as the Fresh Foam 1080s just don’t give off the same ‘bouncy castle’ vibe as most highly cushioned shoes the first time you wear them. And this was actually my first run since destroying a cartilage on the Rat Race Scotland Coast to Coast six months ago.

However, I only had to run a few hundred metres to realise that these things were quite capable of taking my much-abused knees and ankles to their happy place, as they feel just as neutral as any ‘natural running’ shoe, while plainly delivering all the cushioning you could ever ask for. Or as New Balance put it on their website, the Fresh Foam 1080 delivers: ‘…a supremely cushioned underfoot feel that respects and maintains a runner’s need to engage with the ride itself.’

To put it another way, running in the 1080s feels a lot like wearing a ‘natural running’ shoe, but on one of those springy foam tarmac surfaces they put in the adventure playgrounds of the very young.

Just as importantly, the bootie construction promises a highly adjustable fit that can even provide a neat and comfortable fit for my ludicrously high arches and finger-length toes. So much so that I have now completed several 10k training runs in these things, and while my long-neglected running muscles are none too happy with a return to 18 miles a week, I can honesty say that all of the joints that would normally be complaining at this point are still feeling pretty good about my long overdue conversion to Fresh Foam.

wholedamnbagSo while it’s early days in my return to anything resembling a decent road mileage, I have to say that if you need proper cushioning and a totally neutral ride, the Fresh Foam 1080s are just about the only game in town, and fully deserving of not just a prestigious Five Jelly Baby rating, but, indeed, the rare accolade of the Whole Damn Bag.

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Shoe review: UK GEAR PT-03 NC Road and Trail Shoe

pt03front1As I’m testing various tough-as-old-boots trail shoes at the moment, I was fairly thrilled when a pair of UK Gear’s PT-03 NCs landed on the doormat here at Jelly Baby Towers. Well, thrilled, but also deeply skeptical, as they claimed to be not just highly-cushioned, high mileage road shoes, but also, at the same time, they expect you to believe that they’re competent trail shoes too.

That’s surely an impossible feat, even for shoes that are developed in conjunction with the British Army’s Physical Training Corps…

However, despite my credulity feeling almost as strained as my left hamstring, I strapped a pair on anyway, with a view to heading  out to see what they could do on my favourite trail shoe test course, a fearsome (for me anyway) 12 miler comprising 4 miles of pavement, 3 miles of soft sand dunes and 5 miles of beach which alternates between soft sand, hard-packed sand, tide-ridged sand and also, crucially, a long section of mud flat.

How do these things feel on your feet?

I’d been warned by the chaps at UK Gear that while the PT-03s are cushioned, they’re designed to be highly durable, and so take a little bit of time to bed in properly and offer up their full measure of cushioning. Well, you could have fooled me, as despite their chunky and slightly frumpy appearance, these are light and very comfortable shoes, with plenty of springy cushioning evident in the forefoot as well as the heel.

In fact, the only questionable area when I first put them on was that they ride higher up around the ankle than most cushioned road shoes, making me wonder if they’d start to rub once I’d gone a few miles. I also noted the high level of protection around the toe box and heels, and wondered a little if these were more trail shoes than road shoes.

How do they feel on the road?

Having borrowed my son’s camouflage pattern Buff and added an appropriate selection of music to my iPod (with ‘In the Army Now’ and ‘Eton Rifles’ featuring prominently) I headed out to see what the PT-03s could do. And I have to say, they were a massive surprise from mile one onwards.

If you’ve ever assumed that squaddies are a tough bunch, and been taken in by the overt machismo of the army’s TV commercials, I’ve got some news for you: the running shoes these guys wear are as comfortable as carpet slippers. So perhaps our military aren’t quite as hard as they make out…

No, really, on the initial 3 miles to the beach, the PT-03s were an absolute revelation. Certainly they felt slightly firmer than my usual Gel Cumulus road shoes, but also springy and entirely comfortable; and crucially, they also felt 100% neutral, fully justifying the NC (Neutral Cushioning) acronym in their slightly wordy full title.

‘Goodness me’, I thought. But surely, if they’re this good on the road, they must be rubbish on a trail…

How do they perform on the trail?

pt03sole1Well, before I hit the dunes, I have to tell you that I really wasn’t expecting much, because these things are so good on the road. But hell’s teeth, once I hit the beach, they dug in like a Challenger Tank going over an Iraqi sand dune, with a combination of forefoot flex and whole foot support that beat any other trail shoe I’ve tried into a cocked hat.

They weren’t quite as competent on the mud of the Velvet Trail as some other shoes I’ve tried lately, but they still had more grip than quite a few dedicated trail shoes I’ve worn.

Most importantly, they felt poised and comfortable as I dragged my ageing bones along the varying sand and mud surfaces on my way back home, leaving my feet and legs feeling ridiculously good, even after I’d completed the full 12 miles.

Pros v Cons

Erm. I don’t know quite how to say this. But these things really are quite astonishing. Sure, they’re not the prettiest shoes, nor the sleekest, nor the lightest, but I absolutely loved the performance and the feel of them, off road and on.

pto3tongueI’d be enormously happy with them just as road shoes. I’d be pretty chuffed with them just as trail shoes. But the fact that they perform so well in both arenas really has blown me away.

I’ve been aware of the UK Gear brand for ages, but never felt too tempted by them, as the ‘Tested by the Army’ sales pitch seemed like it was trying a bit too hard to be butch. They’ve just never seemed quite as desirable as brands like ASICS and Salomon somehow.

But while I’ve desperately tried to think of some ‘cons’ for this section, it’s been a real struggle. I had planned this review out in my head to ring with easy clichés like ‘square bashing’ and ‘excused boots’, but I’m afraid that’s just not going to happen.

My favourite Asics Gel Cumulus shoes may be 5% better than these on the road. And I’d have to say that my favourite Salomon XTs are a smidge lighter and possibly 5% more competent on mud. But the Asics can’t hack it on any kind of trail, and the Salomons just aren’t cushioned enough for the road.

I’m as surprised as anyone to be saying this: but the PT-03 NCs, despite their ponderous name and slightly utilitarian looks, are simply the best all-round running shoes I’ve ever tried.

5jellybaby2Frankly, I was expecting these things to be Not Very Good, and I’m now carb-loading with humble pie, as they’ve turned out to be Very Good Indeed.

For roughly £75, the PT-03 NCs are an awful lot of running shoe for the money. In fact, they’re actually two pairs of running shoes. Go figure…

Product Specification

– Anti-microbial treatment

– All round reflectivity

– Skeletal support struts

– Fitted tongue lace loops

– Solite EVA sockliner

– Woven heel pull (for faster ‘donn and doff’)

– Rhinoflex heel counter

– Solite EVa midsole

– Strategic panelling for side foot support and additional 3M reflectivity

– Durable carbon runner sole

– Structured landing area

– NRG Impact pads

– Bio flex technology

– NRG reactor pads