After hearing the rumors and catching a glimpse this past summer at Outdoor Retailer, I have finally managed to get my hands on (and feet into) the latest New Balance concoction: the Minimus Zero.

The Minimus Zero line is the last stage in New Balance's transition towards a zero-drop (i.e. no heel rise) shoe. For a brief history of the evolution of the Minimus line, there is a great article and slideshow on the New Balance website here. To see a video where I talk about the previous iteration in the Minimus line (the Minimus Trail MT10), click here.

The two samples I have on test are the Minimus Zero Trail (MT00) and Minimus Zero Road (MR00), both of which will be released in Spring 2012. Before I get into specifics on the individual models, there are a couple of general observations I have noted that apply to both:

  • Out-of-the-box the new models look narrower and pointier than the previous Minimus models. My first thoughts were that NB has taken a step backwards in toebox design. It turns out (thankfully) that this is just an optical illusion. Upon closer inspection it is clear that the new shoes use the same natural/anatomical last as the original Minimus. What the designers have done is extended the tip of the shoe out a bit further and brought it to a point in front of the second toe (I wonder if they were getting complaints from people with Mortons toe hitting the end of the shoe in the older model?). From the press release:

    "Key to the NB Minimus Zero collection is the use of a new last, the NL-Zero, which mirrors the original NL-1 last used in the initial NB Minimus collection, but eliminates the drop from heel to forefoot (the NB Minimus 10 series features a 4mm drop), positioning the foot in an even more neutral stance, promoting a more natural stride, and encouraging a mid-foot landing. The new NL-Zero last also provides increased width in the forefoot that allows the foot to expand laterally on impact..."
  • As with the first version of the Minimus, I made sure to get a half-size larger than my regular shoe size (10 instead of 9.5). This turned out to be a good decision as wouldn't have wanted them to fit any smaller. If I were wearing them sockless, then my regular size would probably have been fine, but I don't like to go sockless.

Minimus Road (MR00)

New Balance Minimus Zero Road - Top
"Simple and durable, the NB Minimus Zero Road running style, the New Balance MR/WR00, is the first New Balance road-focused model to use a Vibram® rubber called the Vibram® R-Lite, which features large low lugs and strategically positioned rubber for durability in high-wear areas, and a supple compound for a bouncy, fun ride. A REVlite midsole combined with a simple mesh upper, a form-fitting mono-tongue construction and minimal overlays makes this the dream shoe for which high mileage runners have been waiting. The tip, foxing and eyerow have been reinforced for protection and durability."
New Balance Minimus Zero Road - Walking
Weight: 178g (6.3oz) in a mens size 10

To be honest, I am somewhat disappointed... not because I don't think it is a good shoe, but because the design doesn't fit me very well. The uppers are soft and comfortable, but the width is too narrow. The toebox is good (comparable to the previous generation Minimus shoes I have worn), but they are too restricting for me in the mid-foot, squeezing the sides of my feet. I would love to see NB offer these shoes in multiple widths.

Interestingly, I didn't have this problem with the older Minimus Trail, nor do I have it with the new Minimus Zero Trail either. What is the difference? The Minimus Zero Road EVA midsole curves up on the sides which - I am assuming - is designed to cradle the foot. Unfortunately for me and my wide mid-foot, this foam presses into the side foot uncomfortably. Interestingly the Trail models don't have this same problem and my feet are able to comfortably expand out the sides of the shoe.

For people with regular width feet, I suspect these will be a popular shoe. The design is simple, practical, and durable. A no-nonsense, stripped-down, and gimmick-free. The uppers are constructed out of the same type of mesh as was found on the original Minimus Trail. They are lined with a nice soft synthetic fabric that has few seams and feels great on bare feet.

New Balance Minimus Zero Road - Sole
The soles feature durable Vibram rubber in high wear areas, a design which (according to NB) makes for a high mileage shoe.

While the soles are flexible, they are definitely not what I would consider a barefoot-feel. There are other brands/models on the market with thinner soles if that is what your are looking for. That being said, NB is not marketing this sole as being close-to-barefoot, it is a zero-drop minimalist shoe (and yes, there is a difference!). The combination of foam and rubber deadens the senses, but does allow the foot to flex and move in a natural fashion.

New Balance Minimus Zero Road - Flexibility

Minimus Trail (MT00)

New Balance Minimus Zero Trail - Top
"The NB Minimus Zero Trail running style, the New Balance MT/WT00, is an ultra-minimal flyweight trail running shoe that features the new Vibram® T-Lite outsole. This outsole, which was designed after methodical review of the lug wear patterns of the previous NB Minimus trail model (the MT10), features a “less-is-more” inspired lug placement and a unique webbed midsole pattern complete with small, cushioning pods that can move with independence. The two-piece upper is constructed using a lightweight, unlined mesh and an ultrathin, laser cut, fully-welded overlay. The tongue of the NB Minimus Zero Trail is a soft, single layer, form-fitting mono-construction."

I was having coffee with a friend last week and happened to be wearing these shoes. I took one off to show it to him and this was his response: "C'est comme le papier!" (Translation: It's like paper!). And he's right, with your eyes closed it feels like you are holding a piece of origami art in your hands. With eyes fully operational, there is a lot here to blow your mind (or my mind at least :-).

For starters, the weight is incredible: 131g (4.6oz) for a men's size 10!

New Balance Minimus Zero Trail - Walking

Next on the amazing list are the uppers. The uppers are made out of a super-thin fabric that looks kind of like a ripstop nylon, only stronger and more breathable. The fabric is unlined, papier thin, virtually seamless (how do that do that?), and translucent. The uppers are not soft and stretchy like the Road model, they actually feel kind of stiff (I suspect this is to provide better security on uneven terrain). While the fabric does not have a soft feel I still find it to be quite comfortable due to its flexibility.

Despite the super light-weight, I am willing to bet that the uppers are more abrasion resistant than those of the Minimus Trail. Where the Minimus Trail had soft mesh exposed down to the end of the toe, the the Minimus Zero Trail has a black abrasion resistant fabric laminated to the mesh around the entire perimeter of the shoe. Additionally, they have added an extra layer around the toe. Because this stuff is laminated there is no exposed stitching anywhere, a huge plus in my books.

New Balance Minimus Zero Trail - Uppers
An attempt to showcase just how thin the mesh fabric uppers are... you can see my fingers on the inside.

New Balance has made water management a high priority in the design of this shoe. I think that these are going to be one of the fastest drying trail shoes on the market: The uppers are very thin, airy, and absorb virtually no water. All fabrics used are a single-layer (i.e. unlined), and the soles have drain holes between the lugs.

One thing you need to be aware of with a design like this is that if there is any amount of moisture on the ground, your feet will feel it. I recently went for a run on wet pavement and quickly got wet feet as the water soaked-up through the soles. I am not suggesting that this is a problem (I would have wet feet if I were running barefoot in those conditions too), but thought it worth mentioning.

New Balance Minimus Zero Trail - Sole Holes
Gaps between the lugs do double-duty: they provide excellent flexibility, and function as drain holes for evacuating water quickly.
New Balance Minimus Zero Trail - Sole
Vibram rubber only in the high-wear areas, the rest is exposed EVA.
New Balance Minimus Zero Trail - Flexibility

Because the lugs aren't super aggressive, these shoes will work well for both trail running, and road running. As the temperatures drop, I am finding myself less inclined to wear these as they don't provide much protection from the cold. Once spring arrives however, I have big plans for them :-) Plans that - in addition to running - will include a healthy dosage of hiking and backpacking. The biggest unknown as I see it will be durability... how many miles will we be able to get out of a pair? Only time will tell.