equipment

Gear I like

Review: Earth Runner Alpha X Sandals

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of testing a pair of Earth Runners Alpha X minimalist sandals. That’s been a treat – they’re very good sandals indeed, with a couple of features that set them apart from others that I’ve worn.

Overview

That’s not to say that the Alpha Xs stray very far from the basic huarache-like minimalist sandal concept. The soles are cut to size and shaped to the foot, there’s a strap/lace system to hold them on, and they allow your feet to stay open, flexible, and to breathe. All good.

But they’re different. You can see a couple of the “set apart” features in the photo below.

Earth Runner Alpha X sandals

First, the straps… They’re leather, rather than the usual nylon – a lovely, soft, treated leather with the Earth Runner logo showcased nicely. They’re incredibly comfortable. And they’re complemented by a suede leather footbed that adds some moisture-wicking capabilities to the footbed, and has – even over a couple of weeks – already helped the sandals shape to my footprint.

The Alpha X strap pattern is different from that on the Bedrock and Xero Shoes sandals I own. From the toe, it comes back and across the foot to the outside, crosses in front of the ankle, goes around the heel, then back to fit into a locking buckle. It’s a design that works very well for my high instep feet. (If you’re uncomfortable with a strap between your toes, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.)

Alpha X strap

The photo below shows the bottoms of the Alpha Xs.

Alpha X soles

The Alpha X soles are from Vibram, which is no surprise, as almost all minimalist running sandals do that. But the tread pattern on the Alpha Xs is something called “Woodstock.” It’s not a very aggressive tread, but sturdy enough to hold its own on most surfaces except the most technical. (I find that good running form usually trumps extreme tread patterns anyway.) The Alpha X soles are 11mm thick, but surprisingly light, each sandal weighing only 141 gm (5 oz.). For all that, they’re reasonably flexible. Not the “once ’round the circle” flexibility you get with 6mm or 8mm soles, but still pretty good.

Alpha X flex

Testing, testing…

As I said, I’ve been testing the Alpha Xs for a couple of weeks. That means running in them – on neighbourhood roads and sidewalks – and walking in them as well. They’re good to run in, and even better as an everyday sandal. The leather straps are easy to adjust, which is a good thing, since they stretch a little at first. Not a big deal at all, just something to be mindful of.

It’s the combination of the leather straps, the lightweight/light-density sole, and the tread pattern that makes the Alpha Xs into a sort of “do everything” minimalist sandal. That was a bit of a surprise – I’d expected to wear them for running, but was completely unprepared for the other. The simple fact is that these are an extremely well-designed and well-constructed sandal. Given the attractive price point of the Alpha X (US$72 , not including shipping), they’re a good choice in the increasingly busy minimalist sandal market place.

A couple of caveats… As noted above, the toe strap thing might not be for everybody. And the strap pattern may not work for everyone’s foot shape. Leather straps? Great for comfort, good for security, but I’m not sure they’d be ideal for a lengthy trail ultra. And I worry a little bit that the bit of leather that goes under each side of the sole (see photo of the Alpha X bottoms) may wear out over time. As for the “general purpose” tread – you may want a more aggressive tread pattern for very technical trails.

Bonus!

I have to add that Michael Dally, the man behind Earth Runners, was kind enough to send, along with my pair of Alpha Xs, a pair of Smartwool tabi socks.

Tabi socks

These, to use a phrase from a much younger generation, are The Bomb! Here in southern Ontario in mid-November, my morning runs happen in temperatures at about 0C to 5C (32F to 41F). That’s certainly doable without socks, but the tabis make cool temperature running just that much more comfortable. I’ve never worn tabis before, but am now a convert!

Conclusions

The Earth Runners Alpha X is a great sandal. I recommend it highly.

The thicker sole means that there’s not as much groundfeel as with my Bedrock Synclines. That’s to be expected. But Earth Runners also offers the Circadian (6mm sole) and Circadian X (8mm) models for that. They’re similar strap design, but with less sole and are available with nylon laces.

I think the Alpha Xs will really come into their own when I’ve run and walked long enough in them that the footbeds have become even more shaped to my feet. When that happens, they’re going to be close to slipper-like comfortable, while keeping to their minimalist sandal roots. I’m looking forward to that!

For comfort, looks, and general goodness, I don’t think there’s a sandal on the market that can beat the Alpha X.

Earthing

I have to say something about the concept of earthing. It’s controversial, so bear with me.

Earthing is central to what Earth Runners are all about. In a nutshell, the theory behind earthing is that one’s health and well-being can be improved/enhanced by “grounding” oneself to the earth. The idea is that “earthing can help normalize your circadian cycle and avoid the harmful effects of high-frequency-man-made EMF” (from the Earth Runners website).

I’ve looked at it from all sides, and read and watched testimonials froma number of sources, including this video from Earth Runners’ own Michael Dally:

I’m willing to entertain the idea that there are benefits to earthing oneself. I’m not entirely convinced. I know how much better I feel when I run barefoot, but have always ascribed that to improved form, the joy of contact with the ground, and optimized groundfeel. But perhaps there’s more to it than that.

As it is, my Alpha Xs are only marginally conductive. You’ll see in the photo of the underside of the Alpha Xs that there’s a copper plug at the bottom of the toe plug. If the leather straps are moistened (by rain, sweat, or pre-soaking), they will, according to Michael Dally, become minimally conductive. For earthing to be fully effective, though, Earth Runner sandals with the full range of conductive copper inserts are needed. (The good news is that Alpha X sandals are available with conductive nylon straps instead of the leather straps I have.)

As I said, I’m reserving judgement. I will say, though, that I like the design and quality of my Alpha Xs enough that I can see myself ordering a pair of Earth Runner Circadians sometime in the future.

Note: Product for this review was provided by Earth Runners.

Earth Runners

Spoiled for Choice

I have a very good life. Sometimes I think I’ve got it all.

Right now, part of “got it all” is that I’m testing two great minimalist sandals – the Earth Runners Alpha X and the Bedrock Gabbro 2.0. I’m truly spoiled for choice.

It’s a great opportunity, because, while the Alpha Xs and the Gabbros are similar, there are enough differences between them to make it interesting.

Upper comparison

A top view of the sandals shows some of those differences. Most obviously, the strap methods are different. So are the strap materials – the Alpha X features leather straps, while those on the Gabbro are nylon. The footbeds, too, are different – the Alpha X footbed is suede leather, while the Gabbro is ballistic nylon. They weigh about the same – each Gabbro sandal comes in at 119 gm (4.2 oz), while each Alpha X weighs 141 gm (5 oz.).

Sole comparison

Underneath, it’s again a story of “like but different.” The sole thicknesses are very close – the Alpha X sole is 11mm thick, while the Gabbro sole is 10mm. Both sandals are made with Vibram soles – but those on the Alpha X are a pattern called “Birkenstock,” while the Gabbro soles have a more aggressive technical tread pattern.

No wrong answers here, obviously. I’ve run (and walked) in both of them, and can confirm that they’re both high quality, performance-oriented products. I’ll soon post full reviews of both. Separate reviews, not a comparison – each one of them deserves its own treatment, and I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by putting them mano à mano (not quite the right phrase, but you know what I mean).

So stay tuned. I’ll post the reviews after I’ve put the Alpha Xs and the Gabbros through some serious testing.

Earth Runners

Bedrock Sandals

Earth Runners Affiliate

I’m pleased to announce that I’m now an affiliate for Earth Runners minimalist sandals.

That means that, if you follow a link on this blog and then buy an Earth Runners product – such as a pair of their sandals or socks – I’ll get a small commission.

I don’t often do this sort of thing, but I want to support Earth Runners, because I believe that their products are worth it.

So have a good look at the Earth Runners site – and feel free to ask me any questions you might have.

I’m currently testing a pair of Earth Runners Alpha X sandals, and will post a full review soon.

Coming Up: Earth Runner Alpha X Sandals

Earth Runner Alpha X

I’ll soon be testing – and reviewing – a pair of Alpha X minimalist sandals (shown above), which are coming from the good folks at Earth Runners. The “X” stands for an “extreme” version of their existing models; you won’t see this one yet on the Earth Runners website.

Earth Runners does things a little bit differently, both with its products and in its philosophy.

The company’s website says that Earth Runners’ goal is “to create affordable USA-made earthing sandals that allow your feet to function closest to how they’re naturally designed – and that’s barefoot. We’re passionate about promoting a more grounded way of living that’s possible when we’re connect to the electrical energy of the Earth.” “Earthing” is a new concept to me, so I’ll explore that a bit in my review.

Earth Runners is also doing its bit for a larger community. For every ten sandals it sells, it donates a pair to Seva Sandals, a non-profit organization which provides protective footwear to children in India. I like that a lot.

After the AlphaX’s arrive, I’ll do some serious testing, then write and post a full review. Stay tuned!

Sugoi Helium

Sugoi Helium

I recently bought a Sugoi Helium jacket. It replaces a couple of jackets I’ve had for a long time, neither of which meets my current needs.

The Helium’s perfect for me – lightweight (85gms/3 oz), wind- and water-resistant, and nicely fitted. Though pretty minimalist, it’s got the requisite reflective thingies, a couple of zippered pockets, and rolls up into a tidy, small package. It’ll serve me well for cool weather runs this fall, and will be ideal for the Race to the Stones 100K next summer, where the weather will be variable and, well… English.

(For a good summary of the Helium’s features, check out the short review of an older version of the jacket by Tom Caughlan for iRunFar here.)

I bought the Helium online from Running Free Canada. Not only was it on sale, Running Free’s excellent customer service made the transaction a pleasure. I recommend these folks highly!

Compression Kit

I’ve recently started wearing compression clothing on my runs. Never thought I’d see the day, to tell the truth. I’ve long been a “less is more” kind of guy – my usual kit has been just a pair of old school side-split shorts and minimalist sandals.

Why such a dramatic turnaround? Because compression kit works for me, that’s why.

The theory behind compression clothing, in a nutshell, is that it optimizes bloodflow, thereby improving performance, enhancing stamina, and speeding recovery. Proving that it actually works is very much under discussion, though. Folks who like compression garments won’t run without them. Folks who dislike them say they’re more about fashion than fact.

That said, my research turned up this study (among others) in favour of compression clothing. (The journey to a decision also involved anti-anxiety garments for dogs and my Asperger’s Syndrome. But that’s a story for another post.) So I decided I’d give them a try.

I’m pleased to say they work for me. They work very well, in fact. I now own two Under Armour compression shirts (one long-sleeve, one short-sleeve) and a pair of 2XU compression shorts.

Long story short… I run better when wearing my new compression kit. Form is better, pace is better, and recovery is better. The shirts seem to enhance better arm swing, and the shorts allow for better hip extension and flexion. I’m better able to hold my core firmly and strongly.

A couple of added benefits are: 1/ Compression clothing keeps me cooler on a hot day. It spreads out the sweat, which then evaporates more efficiently. 2/ Because compression garments move less against the skin than loose clothing, chafing is reduced or eliminated. No more BodyGlide. No more nipple tape. That makes them a very good thing.

A note of caution: If you’re self-conscious about your body image, you may not want to go the compression route. Compression garments are, by definition, tight. I’m reasonably lean (142 lbs/64.4 kgs on a 5’7″/170cm frame), but I felt like a sausage in a too-small casing the first time I put on a compression shirt. It didn’t take long to get used to it, though.

For me, it’s all good. Highly recommended, if you’re willing to try something new.

Review: Bedrock Syncline Sandals

Bedrock

When I got home from the Elk/Beaver 50K trail ultra, my new Synclines were waiting for me. They came in the mail, courtesy of the good folks at Oakland, California-based Bedrock Sandals, in the small burlap bag pictured above. (I love neo-hippie minimalist marketing!)

Presenting the Bedrock Synclines…

Bedrock Syncline

I’m a big fan of evolution. Without it, I wouldn’t have espresso, the Internet, modernist architecture – or Bedrock Syncline sandals. The Synclines represent the evolutionary peak of minimalist sandals technology for me right now. They offer a solution to some of my present trail and ultra running issues, and they promise great things for the future.

First, though, a little bit of backstory…

Shortly after I started running barefoot six years ago, I got my first pair of minimalist sandals – a pair of Barefoot Ted Macdonald’s pre-Luna sandals. Later on, I got a pair from Invisible Shoes (now called Xero Shoes). After that, two pairs of Xero Shoes – the Connect (4mm sole) and the Contact (6mm). Then I was an early reviewer for the Xero Shoes Sensori Venture.

Sandal evolution

In the image above, you can see some of the sandals I’ve worn, along with my new Synclines. (The Barefoot Ted sandals are long gone. After about a year of wear, the soles broke at the lacing side holes, and I pitched them.) The Xero Shoes Contacts are at the left, with the leather laces from the BFTs. Next are the Xero Shoes Connects, with nylon laces in a slip-on lacing pattern. Then, the Xero Shoes Sensori Ventures, with stock/out of-the-box lacing. And, finally, the Bedrock Synclines, with straps (straps at last!)

Pre-Syncline, each of the sandals has presented its own joys and sorrows. I like the openness and freedom sandals offer. But the BFT sandals’ leather laces, which I tied Tarahumara style, cut into the thin skin on my upper feet when I’d run long distances (30K+). And they eventually broke. The nylon laces on the Invisible/Xero Shoes sandals broke after about 300K of use. And all of them made a slappy sound when I ran in them, no matter how good my running form was. (And you can be sure that, after six years of running barefoot, my form is reasonably good.)

The Synclines are different in a number of ways.

First, that shape. I followed the sizing chart on the Bedrock site, and ordered the indicated sandal (size 8, which is a size smaller than I usually take). Not only do the Synclines fit my foot shape perfectly, they also follow the curve of my foot in an almost eerily precise way. Point one to Bedrock.

Next, the sole. The Synclines offer an 8mm Vibram sole, with a nubbly rather than chevroned bottom surface. This thickness choice, say the folks at Bedrock, provides wearers with more protection on trails and more durability. That makes sense to me, as long as it doesn’t inhibit groundfeel. (It doesn’t.) Point two to Bedrock.

Now, the really good stuff – the Synclines’ straps. They’re “U.S. Military Grade” (I don’t quite know what that means, but it sounds good), with a lightweight pull-tab at the heel, an elastic heel strap, and a patent-ending buckle adjustment system (very nifty, as it makes tweaking the sandals’ fit an absolute breeze).

Syncline Straps

Bedrock has also tried to solve some of the wear-and-tear issues normal to sandals with inlayed bevels on the lower sides of the soles to protect the straps from abrasion. Big point number three to Bedrock!

Bedrock side holes

The straps are available in your choice of colours – black, gray, teal, lapiz blue, sage green, yellow, olive drab, and red. I’m told by Bedrock that black and olive drab are customers’ most popular choices. That makes me feel good, as I’ve always thought that brightly-coloured straps or laces on serious sandals are a bit weird. (Then again, I don’t like the sight of brightly-coloured running shoes either.)

Colours final

One feature worth noting is the new corded toe-straps that come on the Synclines. According to Bedrock, the toe strap has always been the weak point on thong strap sandals, and so they made this change. It’s “Our way of making Bedrocks much harder to kill.” To date, they say, none of their customers have reported a broken corded toe-strap. I agree – but it’s nice to have an interchangeable feature if ever needed, so I plan to order a pair of replacement toe straps to tuck away in my race/run bag.

Corded straps

So far, I’ve run on trails, roads, and my treadmill with the Synclines. They fit perfectly, they don’t slide around, they don’t chafe, and I don’t make loud slappy noises in them. I’ve run in some mud, though it wasn’t deep mud, and am prepared for some slippage when I get to the deep stuff. I haven’t done any really long runs in them yet, as I’m still on healing journey after shredding my feet at Elk/Beaver (read my race report for all the gory details), and may try some band-aids or blister strips behind the heel straps as needed for really long distances. However, I have a feeling that the better way to resolve that will be to find the right adjustment for those straps.

“Walking wounded” doesn’t quite convey the post-Elk/Beaver picture, by the way. After EB, my feet were completely shredded, swollen, and very, very sore. However, with some bandages and my new Synclines, I was able to run – albeit slowly and tenatively – within a few days. That would have been a much slower process without the Synclines, and I’m grateful.

(It’s worth noting that Bedrock plans to add a new sandal model to their product line late this summer. It’ll have a completely new lacing system as well as a new sole, and will be market-positioned as an all-around adventurer built for hiking, fishing, kayaking, etc. Worth watching for, I think!)

My Bedrock Synclines have made me a happy man and a happy runner. I have a feeling that they’re also going to make me a better trail and ultra runner. ‘Nuff said.

Note: Product was provided by Bedrock Sandals for this review.