Only a few months back, lightweight racing flats were one of the few non toe shoe options for barefoot minimalist runners. Though they may still have a place as a transitional shoe, the recently released Merrell Barefoot and the New Balance NB Minimus lines provide more and better alternatives. Read the following guest post by Joey about his experience with both.
My Journey to the Waffle Racer
after the jump.....
In the summer of 2009 I was frustrated. I had begun training for the 2010 PF Chang’s Marathon in Phoenix, Arizona but after a couple months of training, I was suffering from some pretty debilitating IT Band Syndrome. I don’t have a lot of money or health insurance, so I looked everywhere to find a solution on my own.
One night I saw Christopher Mcdougall on The Daily Show promoting his newest book Born To Run. He was talking about overcoming injuries, and how we run wrong because our shoes teach us bad habits. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical, but I was willing to try anything. I ordered a copy of the book from Amazon before Jon Stewart could say, “Here it is, your moment of Zen.”
Beyond being a fantastic adventure story, the book was loaded with all the most up-to-date running science. It introduced me to “Barefoot Ted”, barefoot training, and our beloved Vibram Five Fingers. I ordered my first pair of KSOs from REI, and loved them immediately. My knee was healing, and training resumed.
Fast forward a few weeks to two bad toe injuries. Oops. I read the warnings to start wearing them only a little at a time, but they felt so natural, I couldn’t resist. It seems after 28 years of marshmallow shoes, I jumped too far, too fast into the barefoot world. Suddenly, I had two toes that were too swollen and painful to even think about slipping those glove-like toe pockets over them.
The first one was only a severe sprain, and happened while demonstrating a plank to my fitness class. Somehow, I managed to hyper-extend the pinky on my right foot so bad that for a week I couldn’t touch it without whining like a six-year-old girl.
The second toe was actually a break. It happened while I was doing pull-ups. When I finished the set I was working on, I dropped down off of the 8-foot high bar I was working on. When I hit the floor something popped in my second toe on my left foot, and did NOT feel very nice. Needless to say that workout came to a premature end. I sat down and pulled off my KSO, and within a few minutes my toe was purple and too big to go back in the shoe.
I needed something to wear while my toes recovered. I wanted something that retained the spirit of Vibrams, but with a touch more shelter for my owies. By now I understood the principles of barefoot running, and why I ran better and without injury in Vibrams. I had learned the lingo about heel drop, and marshmallow shoes, and I knew what to look for. I first found the Nike Zoom Streak, but like Britt found in his review, the toe-box was entirely too narrow and the heel was too high. What I did end up liking a lot was the Nike Zoom Waffle Racer VI, another Nike “cross-country flat” offering.
Just like Britt found with The Streak, the upper of The Waffle is almost not even there. The fabric is light-weight and extremely breathable, and feels great with or without socks. I personally tend to have odor issues without socks, so I wear them, but if you can get away without, it feels great!
I work in the fitness industry, so I like the styling on this particular model for work, but with the flashy zig-zags and bright orange details, there is no way I could get away with these on a weekend with jeans and a t-shirt. There are several other color choices, but most of them are pretty garish and flashy, and that’s not really me. They do make a simple, black model, with a white swoosh, but I was clearance shopping on Eastbay, and all the clearance models were circus colors of course.
I will warn anyone in colder and/or wetter climes that this is NOT the shoe for you. I teach outdoor fitness classes in Pasadena, CA and we’ve had lot of rain the last few weeks. The upper on these shoes lets every single drop in, and in a matter of seconds my socks are saturated to the bone. When you’re stuck at work in those socks for five hours, like I was, it is NOT fun.
I will also let you know that I ran Phoenix’s Piestewa Peak (formerly Squaw Peak) in these, and trail-running may not be the best place for these either. I noticed several snags in the upper fabric when I was done. Don’t misunderstand, the sole performed great and felt completely comfortable on the trail, but I can’t imagine they would last too long with that kind of abuse. Durable is not the impression that these shoes give.
Very little cushion, no air pockets, no marshmallow garbage here. These are from the Bowerman series, and the name Waffle is a nod back to Bowerman’s original soles, which he made by melting rubber in his wife’s waffle iron. If you look closely at the sole, there is a little bit of a waffle-like shape here and there, which seem to be an homage to the humble beginnings of the brand. There are also four round, orange, rubber lugs where spikes would be on the sprinting models. I thought I would feel those lugs under my feet, but I didn’t really at all. I found the sole was just thick enough to not feel my injured toes stress out, but it still allowed me to have a reasonable ground-feel. Obviously, it’s nowhere near the ground-feel of a Vibram, but I don’t feel as though my feet were completely muted like they were in my old marshmallows from New Balance.
As you can see from the picture, the sole is very thin and flexible. I will admit that the shoe in that picture has seen a bit of mileage, and the fact that it’s broken in helps make that folding easier, but it didn’t take long to get there, and even when they were new, it wasn’t too hard to fold it in half.
I looked online and could find no specific measurement on the heel-to-toe drop on these, but it is very low. And according to Nike’s website, my size weighs 6.4 ounces, which isn’t quite as light as my Vibram KSOs, but is pretty close, especially when you consider the extreme difference in the structure of that sole. Most importantly to many of you, I can safely tell you that I had no issues whatsoever maintaining a forefoot strike in these.
To Sum Up
When I read Britt’s review of the Zoom Streak, I was struck by his two biggest issues with that shoe. He said he wanted a wider toe box, and thinner sole. I have worn both models before, and I wholeheartedly agree with Britt on the Zoom Streak. It’s way too narrow for me, and the heel is entirely too high. I felt they were narrow and my feet are even slightly on the narrow side, if that tells you anything. The Waffle has all the pluses of the Streak (airy, open upper, flexible sole, and light-weight) without those minuses (high heel and narrow toe-box).
After wearing my Waffles for about 6 months, my toes have long since healed, and my Vibrams work again. However, wearing the Nikes had become habit, and besides that, I actually liked them. The padding on my initial pair of Waffles was crushed down, and the rubber outsole was thinned out a great deal, so I had excellent ground feel, great flexibility in the forefoot, and little-to-no heel drop. The upper of the old pair finally wore out and I caught it on something and tore a hole in it.
This prompted me to pull out a second pair of Waffles from my closet. They were on clearance when I bought them, and my size (13 American) is often hard to find, especially for cheap, so I had bought two pairs. Pulling out the second pair was a brutal contrast to the broken-in pair. The outsole is very stiff, the heel drop is more noticeable. I’m now very sad that my broken-in pair are ripped, because the broken-in pair was more useable.
Instead of breaking in a new pair again, I’ve moved on to Vibram Five Fingers KomodoSports and a pair of NB Minimus Trails, and I love them both. With those choices in my closet to compare to, my newer pair of Waffles feel ridiculous. The stiffness feels like big swim fins, and the heel drop feels like stilts. I can feel a clear difference in my gait in them, and I don’t like it at all.
Having said all that, I will say there is definitely a great deal of value in the Waffles as a transitional shoe. I mean, despite the rough beginnings, the shoe is still without any support to speak of, and the heel drop, while noticeable, is still relatively low when compared to typical “trainers.” If you’re looking to step down slowly and safely from marshmallow foam shoes, I’d say get a pair of these and wear them down to nothing. Beat them down until you love them, and then beat them down some more until there is simply nothing left to wear. Once you’ve done that, you’ve slowly adjusted yourself down to roughly a neutral heel, and you should be ready for a VFF or a New Balance Minimus.
Check this one out, it’s especially nice after it is broken in and as a transitional shoe. And if you're working out in VFFs, watch out for that first step off the pull-up bar, it’s a doozy.
About the Author — I'm a strength and conditioning coach, running coach, and Owner of a CrossFit Gym in Thousand Oaks, California. When I first discovered the "barefoot" movement, and minimal shoes in 2009, I jumped in too far, too fast and messed up some toes. I needed a transitional shoe to ween myself off a 30 year addiction to cushion and padding. Yes, I said addiction. Bad shoes are like a drug. The more you wear them, the more you need them. Well, I needed the footwear equivalent of a nicotine patch. Enter The Nike Zoom Waffle Racer VI. It certainly has its pluses and minuses, but if you're a barefoot noob looking for a good place to start, this may be it.