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Finding the sweet spot: Running companies try to find perfect amount of cushion

Running companies continue to search for that sweet spot of cushion with products offered this Outdoor Retailer Winter Market.

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Running companies continue to search for that sweet spot of cushion with products offered this Outdoor Retailer Winter Market.

“We’ve seen people try to push the boundaries for a while in the minimalist and barefoot arena,” said Graham Jordison, footwear design manager at Inov-8. “I can start to see some backlash against that.”

The buzzwords in running shoes this show: Sweet spot, midfoot strike, increased ground connection and stability.

The North Face is shaking things up a bit. Its reps are selling the Spring ’13 Single-Track Hayasa II (MSRP $110, photo, right) using the samples that are a bit more rugged up top, but the company has plans to deliver a better shoe, said Paul Astorino, director of performance footwear.

One of The North Face’s athletes, Lizzy Hawker, liked the sample, but wanted it lighter, so the team kept the footbeds with its Cradle Guide technology and lightened up the upper to feel like that of a racing spike. Plus, the rubber outsole won’t harden in cold or soften up in heat, leading ultra-runners specifically to be comfortable in variable conditions, often for hours upon hours.

Another big story is the cushion comeback and the hybridization between more cushion and minimalism, a concept made popular with Brooks Running’s Pure Project line.

“The cushion people aren’t going away,” said Brooks Running’s CEO Jim Weber. So companies are now focusing on offering more options to those runners.

Brooks Running tries to hit that sweet spot with the Ghost 6 (MSRP $110), which provides full-ground contact on the outsole, forefoot stable pod construction and Omega Flex Grooves on the outsole that makes it more flexible.

Even Vibram is playing with the idea of adding customary cushioned outsoles to its products. The Vibrada, a prototype lace-up FiveFinger model with a beefy outsole, is not going into production anytime soon, Vibram is currently gauging the response from the industry, said PJ Antonik, company spokesperson.

To help get a better grip on trails and slippery winter conditions, Inov-8 introduces its Oroc 280 (MSRP $140) and Oroc 340 (MSRP $150) updated with a new Ice Tech compound, a glass fiber compound mixed into the outsole rubber for better traction.

The hybrid Cortana 3 (MSRP $150) from Saucony has its new Power Grid premium engineered EVA foam foot beds and a flared midsole for increased ground contact.

New Balance presents its own hybrid in its 10 10 Trail with Vibram outsoles and glow-in-the-dark touches for added safety (MSRP $110).

The men’s Reebok One series, including the Reebok Run Cushion (MSRP $110) and the Reebok One Guide (MSRP $114) are each constructed with three different densities of foam on the heel, midfoot and forefoot. Unlike most shoes, which are constructed from top to bottom, the Run series are constructed from back to front.

But the minimalists aren’t going away, and companies continue to introduce options in that category. Merrell introduces its lightweight Ascent Glove (MSRP $120) for both men and women for the more minimalist trail runners and ZemGear introduces its Terra Tech (MSRP $85).

Runner’s World top picks

Picking a pair of running shoes is one of the most personal choices a runner makes. It comes in a very close second to choosing a life mate.

So it’s a good thing Runner’s World has got the backs of runners everywhere in its March 2013 Spring Shoe Guide issue, which announces its top picks in running footwear.

“The awards are a service that helps our readers find the best shoe that’s right for them,” said Jeff Dengate, gear editor of the magazine.

Dengate and his crew are circulating the floor, giving awards to the companies who are exhibiting at the show.

The winners are the Nike Flyknit Lunar 1+, which took the Editor’s Choice Award; the Brooks Ravenna 4, which got the Best Buy Award; the Adidas Energy Choice, which received the Best Debut Award; and the Saucony Mirage 3, which won the Best Update Award.

Dengate said more than 250 wear testers across the country put shoes through the wringer over the course of a month. The testers must log a minimum of 25 miles per week and rate the shoe based on its weight, support, cushioning, lacing system, comfort and other qualities. Plus, the shoes are examined and tested in the Runner’s World Shoe Lab in Portland, Ore.

Dengate’s favorite shoe was the Editor’s Pick, the Nike Lunar 1+. “It just has revolutionary technology,” Dengate said, referring to the shoe’s seamless, one-piece construction and its dense stitching pattern in parts of the upper. “Our testers loved the feel of it.”

The Brooks Ravenna 4 (MSRP $110) was named best buy because it proved runners don’t need an oversized, expensive shoe to provide stability. Saucony’s (#39183) Mirage 3 (MSRP $110) is part of the company’s Natural Series that promotes natural running. It’s been revamped to be lighter and more flexible, and have a slightly flatter offset than its previous version.

Adidas’ Energy Choice (MSRP $150) employs thermoplastic polyurethane instead of the standard EVA foam used in the midsole of most running shoes, resulting in a more bouncy, springy feel.

–Ana Trujillo