A couple of weeks ago my family and I had the opportunity to visit the New England Footwear headquarters in New Hampshire - the company responsible for the design/production of GoLite footwear. This article is not intended to be an endorsement or criticism of GoLite shoes as minimalist footwear. It is intended to be informational, to explore what they are doing as a company, and to see what this new BareTech line is all about. A week before my trip I asked readers to post their questions and also did the same on the huaraches mailing list so that I could be prepared with something intelligent to ask.
At the table for the meeting was Douglas Clark (CEO), Vivian Lefebvre (Director of PR and Marketing), myself (shoe geek), my wife (photographer), and my three kids (eager learners - you could also call it a home-schooling field trip). Doug has a fascinating background, being in the shoe business his entire career. After graduating from college he got his first job working in the Nike research laboratory where he described it as the equivalent of doing graduate work. They studied, poked, prodded, and collected reams of data on runners using all of the available technology at the time to figure out how they could use footwear to improve athletic performance. Out of this research came all of the technologies minimalist footwear proponents love to hate: elevated heels, cushioning, motion control, etc. You might call it the golden age of running shoe development at Nike, and he was there right in the middle of it all as it unfolded.
Your next question is probably this: what does he believe about all of that research today?
Doug's perspective on footwear is this: it should be designed such that it does not hinder the foot's natural movement in any way. There should be room in the forefoot/toebox. Everyone's feet are built differently and thus shoe designs need to be able to account for variation in foot shapes. The normal strike pattern should be a heel strike, but close to a midfoot strike such that there is little to no foot slap. In order to achieve a foot strike like that, there should be no difference in height between the heel and the forefoot. He also believes that all of this forefoot strike business that the barefoot crowd is preaching is going to backfire and get people injured with fractured metatarsals and such. He said that some form of arch support is necessary to prevent the foot from collapsing when under impact. So, with that in mind as the foundation for their shoe designs, lets move on to the questions...
John Sifferman asks "What separates these shoes from the competition and how has the GoLite BareTech line of shoes improved upon the minimalist footwear concept?" and "What considerations have been involved with the shoe design in regards to optimal running/walking technique?"
Whether or not they have improved upon the minimalist footwear concept remains to be seen once the new line is released (at the time of our meeting they didn't have any available for testing). With that in mind, these are some of the features that define the BareTech line:
- BareTech shoes feature a completely flat sole, that is to say there is no difference in height between the heel and the forefoot. In fact, Doug said - in what I thought was a fairly bold statement - that he can't see any reason why GoLite would develop a shoe with a raised heel ever again (they still have original models with raised heels that will remain in production). They truly believe that a raised heel negatively impacts the natural biomechanics of the body.
- While most running shoes have a flared sole at the heel in an attempt to increase stability, BareTech shoes have no flare and are rounded at the heel. A flared heel causes the body to heel strike early on the the stride. A rounded heel removes this tendency, delaying the foot strike until it is closer to the mid-foot.
- BareTech shoes feature soft-against-the-ground technology. Where most running shoes are designed with a layer of cushioning over a stiff sole, GoLite reverses this putting a stiffer layer close to the foot and a softer layer underneath. This is done to improve stability - the soft layer is better able to contour the ground, and the stiffer layer provides a stable platform for the foot.
- The shoes feature wider toeboxes and flexible uppers to allow the foot to move naturally and expand as required for physical activity.
Joe from the huaraches mailing list asks "My concerns would be, is it too much cushioning, is the toe box wide enough, and is the upper breathable."
- All of the shoes in this series feature 12mm of foam. Doug says that this foam is not for cushioning, but for stability. If you are looking for intimate ground feel, than this will probably be too much for you. I see a lot of potential for this shoe in winter where you need insulation between your foot and the ground.
- The uppers are all made of a breathable material, but not quite as aggressive as some other brands/models on the market (i.e. Inov-8). I will reserve judgment on this question until I have spent some time with a pair.
- The toe-box question will be answered later.
Harry from the huaraches mailing list asks: "I'd find out the weight, heel differential (if any), amount of cushioning (mm), and flexibility (can you bend the shoe from the forefoot to the heel)."
- The shoe weights are as follows:
- Mens trail runners (size 9)
- Tara Lite: 10.7 oz/303 grams
- Flash Lite: 11.6 oz/328 grams
- Amp Lite: 11.8 oz/333 grams
- Womens trail runners (size 7)
- Micro Lite: 9.4 oz/267 grams
- Mens fast packers (over the ankle style - size 9)
- Carbo Lite: 12.7 oz/359 grams
- Surge Lite: 13.7 oz/387 grams
- Timber Lite: 14.1 oz/400 grams (waterproof membrane)
- Mens trail runners (size 9)
- As stated previously, the heel differential is zero. This is a pretty bold move in my mind, I think that GoLite should be commended for this!
- From my testing of the prototypes, they aren't as flexible as many other minimalist shoes. I suspect this is because of the stiffer platform layer they put over the softer stability layer. I don't know that extreme flexibility is what they are shooting for with these models.
Luc asks "Can you bend it also laterally like Inov-8 sole?"
- GoLite doesn't add anything to stiffen the shoe laterally, however the stiffer platform layer of the sole does limit lateral flexibility. Comparing these to an Inov-8 shoe depends on the model. I would say they feel similar in stiffness to my Flyroc 310s, but not nearly as flexible as my F-Lite 195s.
A VERY popular question, John Sifferman, Ginger, Joe, Harry, Luc, The Jerm, and Tsedee ask "What about width in the toebox?"
This question started a very interesting conversation. When we started talking about differences in foot size and shape, Doug pulled-out a couple of foot molds - molds that were cast back when the GoLite footwear division was owned by Timberland. They had taken a survey of all the Timberland employees with a size 9 foot and cast a mold of the biggest and smallest foot they found (and to think that we neglected to take a picture of these - sorry!). The results were visually shocking to see, I know that there are differences in foot size, but the molds that were sitting in front of us at the table were incredibly different.
What they found was that for the same length of foot, the size of the heel did not vary significantly, but the variation of width of the forefoot was tremendous. Using this information, they attempted to figure out ways that they could accommodate such a vast array of foot shapes in a mass-produced shoe.
What they came up with is what they call PreciseFit. The way it works is that the insole of the shoe is constructed out of two layers in the forefoot area. The lower layer can be removed or replaced with a thinner layer, or a thicker layer, depending on whether or not the person needs more or less volume. The flexibility of the upper also adds a little more room for people with wide feet.
With this system, GoLite claims to be able to fit 96% of the population without having to produce multiple shoe widths. What is especially interesting about this system is that you can configure each foot differently if you have significant differences in size between your feet. One downside I see with this system is that while the shoe may have more or less volume in the forefoot, it will also potentially have a positive or negative heel lift, depending on the insert being used. I explained to them that forefoot/toebox width is incredibly important to the minimalst footwear crowd.
I told them about how as barefoot/minimalist runners develop their foot muscles, their feet expand and the need for a wide toe box becomes even more important as time goes on (as can be seen by Luc's excellent transition photo).
Where these shoes fit for people who are trying to go more minimal will depend largely on what it is they are looking for. Having a wider toebox and no differential between heel and forefoot are a huge plus (I just hope we can eliminate the arch support by removing the insole). For myself, I am interested in finding something with a little more insulation under foot for use in the colder months and with a bit more stiffness for snowshoes and crampons. Others may be seeking more ground protection from rocks for long distance runs. For some minimalist shoe folks these may not meet any needs at all and that's ok too.
Doug had this final word to say about the new line:
We have done extensive fit, wear and performance tests on our BareTech models that are being delivered this month, including Amp Lite, Flash Lite, Micro Lite, Timber Lite and Carbo Lite. The feedback we received in the beginning led to a few more refinements, and the feedback we have received over the last three months has been quite positive in terms of performance and fit. In addition, the shoes are holding up well even after hundreds of miles of wear in pretty extreme conditions as well as a fair amount of road running/racing.
Overall we had a great meeting, Doug and Vivian were great hosts, we learned a lot, and I look forward to testing some of the new models when they are released later this summer. Thanks guys!
Update 10/11/2020: GoLite just sent me this photo of the updated version of the TaraLite. The new version features a thinner lycra upper and no sidewalls. The expected weight is 10.5 oz for a men's size 9.