Earlier this year I mentioned that New Balance running shoes never resonated with me. But now, I’m loving them.

First it was the New Balance 1400 (I’ve since bought another pair). And now it’s the Fresh Foam 980 Trail.

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail

NB is making waves in the running industry by finally making shoes that runners actually love. They used to have an admittedly lackluster line of running shoes but they’ve turned that all around.

Today I’m impressed by their innovation and commitment to runners. More importantly, they’re passionate about running. A few months ago I met the global PR manager for New Balance who delivered a fascinating presentation on their new line of Fresh Foam shoes. Part of these shoes are built using a 3D printer and the foam material is unlike anything ever made by a shoe manufacturer.

I received a pair of the 980 Trails and was admittedly skeptical. They’re bulkier than my preferred shoe style and the elevated platform worried me; usually this style makes running feel awkward to me or irritates my IT band.

But I was pleasantly surprised at how well the shoes perform on and off-road, including technical trails, steep hills, and boulder scrambling in my recent Garden of the Gods trail running adventure.

They’re not perfect but the 980 Trails are an interesting shoe that I think will work well for many runners.

Fresh Foam 980 Trail: Specs & First Impressions

Let’s take a look at the 980 Trail’s specifications so you know what you’re running in:

  • Weight: 10.3 ounces (291 grams)
  • Stack height:  24mm (heel),  20mm (forefoot)
  • Heel-toe drop: 4mm
  • Gusseted tongue and tightly woven mesh upper keeps out debris

Most notably, the sole is constructed of New Balance’s new Fresh Foam material. At first I was doubtful I’d like this shoe because I typically prefer a firm ride (like the AdiZero Boston) but Fresh Foam isn’t super soft. It’s “softish” and is still responsive when running fast.

Note that I had to size up to a 10.5 rather than my standard size 10 running shoe. Other runners have experienced the same sizing issue, so keep that in mind if you decide to try them.

My first few runs in the NB 980 Trails went surprising well. I almost never buy trail running shoes because the outsole can be too rugged and stiff and they feel awkward on smooth surfaces like roads or the track. But the 980′s outsole is just the right blend of traction, smooth running, and grip.

The smooth ride is likely due to the responsive Fresh Foam outsole material, the low heel-toe drop, and also the heel cup being neutral. I’ve talked before about how aggressively flared heels are a red flag for me but the 980 Trail heel is barely flared at all.

 Lounging in the Fresh Foam 980 Trail shoes after a workout

Even though they’re technically trail running shoes, I would characterize them as a hybrid – well-suited for both road and trail running. I ran slow on technical single-track and fast on the track and the 980 Trails didn’t disappoint. They can perform in either environment.

I’ve been wearing both the NB 1400 and the 980′s, mostly alternating them every other day. I always wear the 980′s for my longer runs of 11 miles or more but I’ve done short, easy runs in them too.

Before researching these shoes, I wasn’t aware the drop was only 4mm. I’ve run up to 16 miles in them with no problems in my feet or lower legs (thanks to some specific foot exercises!).

What About the New Balance 980 Trails Could Be Improved?

Overall, I love these shoes and I’ll continue to wear them as I explore more trails in Colorado. The responsive cushioning, traction and grip, and the smooth ride make a future purchase of the 980 Trails a no-brainer.

But they’re not perfect. Like all of the shoes I review, there are drawbacks.

The upper seems stiff and while it loosened over time, it makes tying the laces cumbersome. On several occasions I had to stop and retie my shoes because I didn’t get them tight enough the first time around (and I’m not someone who likes really tight shoes in the first place).

There’s also excessive wear beginning to appear on the inner edge of the shoe’s upper. The fabric is becoming frayed from the bending and compression of my foot rolling inward when I pronate. There’s more than 200 miles on them now so this isn’t a big problem, but it’s clear these shoes won’t last for 400+ miles.

Finally, the New Balance 980 Trails are slightly higher than I normally prefer at 20 – 24mm off the ground. Usually this disconnect from the ground makes me feel “clunky” and incredibly unresponsive. But like I’ve mentioned, the 980′s are surprisingly responsive, light, and quick.

Final Thoughts

New Balance 980 Trail running shoes

I think the Fresh Foam 980 Trails are a valuable addition to the New Balance line of running shoes. They offer responsive cushioning, traction with grip for technical trail running, and a ride that also works on the road.

There’s a few situations and types of runners that could benefit from this shoe:

  • trail runners who want a cushioned shoe that feels faster than most shoes currently on the market
  • ultra runners who want cushioning and protection but “maximalist” shoes like the Hoka One One are too rigid or bulky
  • Minimalist runners who occasionally need more protection to help their feet recover
  • trail runners who love the Saucony Kinvara but want a more rugged outsole and a firmer ride

As always, it’s important to remember that every runner is unique. Shoes that work for me might cause you to get hurt because of the differences in our biomechanics, form, stride pattern, training history, and susceptibility to injuries.

Learning what fits, feels good, and helps you achieve your potential is a valuable journey that every runner must make. It’s a long process that includes much trial and error but it’s the only way to truly understand the exact type of running shoe that helps you thrive.

It’s helpful to read a lot of shoe reviews but it’s even more important to experiment and run in a lot of brands, styles, and models of shoes.

Ready to experiment with the New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail running shoes? Check them out on Amazon, where the prices seem to be the most affordable.

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How many of us sprint on a regular basis? My guess: only a tiny minority of runners ever sprint.

Hill Sprints Steep Grade

It’s important to understand the definition of the word sprint: it’s to run as fast as you can. It’s a maximum effort, at maximum intensity, with 100% power. It’s as fast as you can possibly go.

But most of us never run at an all-out effort. If we run strides, those are about 95-98% effort but aren’t truly a sprint.

Back in college, I sprinted all the time: at the end of races and during many workouts. Sometimes I even raced a 400m relay (!) requiring this distance runner to sprint way outside of his comfort zone.

Now, sprinting is a rarity. And to be truthful, I feel less powerful as a runner because I rarely engage my leg muscles this way.

But there’s one workout I’ve done regularly in the last few years that increases power, engages more muscle fibers, strengthens muscles and connective tissues, and prevents injuries.

That workout is hill sprints. 

These are short, maximum-intensity sprints up a steep hill of about 5-7% grade. At only 8-10 seconds, they’re really short. But at max effort, they’re also really fast and require you to take a full recovery after each sprint.

After a few weeks, hill sprints have the potential to transform your running so you’re faster and less likely to get hurt. Excited? Let’s see how they can help (and what mistakes to avoid).

Why Are Hill Sprints So Helpful for Runners?

Hill sprints have a variety of significant benefits. They:

  • strengthen your running muscles and connective tissues
  • increase your stride power
  • make you less likely to suffer a serious running injury
  • improve your running economy (or efficiency)

You might recognize this list of benefits as the same you’d get from lifting heavy weights. And you’d be right!

Hill sprints are just like heavy weight lifting except they’re sport-specific. In other words, you’re strengthening all the muscles of your legs by running. There are no other types of running workouts that are more similar to weight-lifting than hill sprints.

Because you’re running uphill against gravity as fast as possible, you’re recruiting a large number of muscle fibers which can then be relied upon during future workouts or races. Hill sprints increase the pool of muscle fibers available to you so you can access more of them when you’re tired late in a race.

This type of sprinting also increases muscle stiffness (or tension), helping you run faster and feel more “springy” the next day. This is why I often schedule hill sprints the day before a faster workout.

Even though hill sprints are enormously beneficial, they can predispose you to injuries like strains if you’re not ready or don’t do them properly.

Avoid These Hill Sprint Mistakes

Since a hill sprints session is closer to a sprinter’s workout than a distance runner’s, many of us make mistakes when we do them. There are five things you have to watch while running hill sprints.

1. Most runners make the mistake of not SPRINTING when they run hill sprints. Remember, they’re as fast as you can go! Maximum effort means 100% intensity at full speed!

Because of this mistake, many runners turn a session of hill sprints into a session of hill repetitions, which is an entirely different workout. Hill reps are run sub-maximally – fast, but not all-out.

2. Keep hill sprints SHORT. The majority of us should stick to 8-10 second sprints, with much more advanced runners progressing to 12-seconds. When I hear a runner tell me they ran a 30-second hill sprint, they really meant a 30-second hill repetition. You simply can’t sprint at your fastest possible speed for 30 seconds.

3. Taking a short recovery is another huge mistake that can result in poor performance (i.e., not being able to run at max speed) and injury. This workout is a sprinter’s workout: the focus is on speed and form, so you must rest completely after each repetition. Slowly walking back down the hill is usually enough, but ensure you get at least 60-90 seconds of walking afterwards.

4. The first rep shouldn’t be at 100% effort. Running flat-out requires you to be VERY warmed up and easy running isn’t enough. That’s why it’s beneficial to run the first hill sprint just slower than your fastest pace. Being at about 98% effort helps you reduce your risk of injury during hill sprints.

5. Run tall and don’t lean! It’s hard to have poor form while sprinting uphill, but some runners “lean” into the hill which is a mistake. Focus on staying vertical and avoid leaning or else you’ll sacrifice power. Pump your arms for momentum and focus on quick, powerful strides (more on proper running form).

Hill sprints introduce a high level of neuromuscular fatigue. The central nervous system (communication pathway between your muscles and brain) will be “tired” after this type of workout so be aware your body is stressed differently than other types of endurance workouts.

Step-by-Step Hill Sprint Workout

Here’s the play-by-play of how a session of hill sprints should be executed:

  1. Finish an easy run at the bottom of a hill with a 5-7% grade (steep but not vertical)
  2. Optional: change into a pair of lightweight running shoes (or racing flats) for more responsive running
  3. Use the countdown feature on your watch to time an 8 or 10-second interval
  4. Accelerate into your first hill sprint gradually and reach about 98% max speed on the first rep
  5. Stop and walk back down the hill slowly, taking 60-90 seconds of recovery
  6. Repeat!

Here’s a video showing you what this looks like (with annotations):

Runners who have never done hill sprints should start with just 2-3 sprints. You can add 1-2 reps every session until you reach 8-10 total – there’s little benefit to doing more than this and more injury risk.

Some runners can do hill sprints twice per week while others just need one session. Remember that they’re very stressful (in a different but equally challenging way than what you’re probably used to) so exercise caution and don’t run them more than twice per week.

Combining hill sprints with body-weight exercises and general strength work can help you get incredibly strong. Building this foundation of structural strength early in the season for you (like early in a marathon build-up) can help you prevent injuries during the entire training cycle.

Enjoy this fun, exhilarating, and super fast workout. It’s one of my favorites and focuses on such an under-utilized aspect of our fitness: raw, blazing speed!

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