The New Balance Fresh Foam 980 seems to be a shoe experiencing a slight identity crisis – it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as I like shoes that are innovative and buck the traditional mold for a running shoe, but I think the marketing of this shoe has contributed to some of the confusion.
The tagline that New Balance has chosen in marketing the Fresh Foam is “Experience the Science of Soft.” This suggests that the shoe is going to offer a cushy ride, and it has resulted in some people (probably me included) thinking that the shoe is New Balance’s answer to maximalist running. In fairness, New Balance would probably not agree with this positioning, and on their product page for the Fresh Foam they do say “With a lower midsole for a more natural underfoot feel, the Fresh Foam is incredibly soft yet stable…” So is it soft and cushy? Maximal? Natural?
Let’s try and clear the air a little bit.
Is It Maximal?
Going solely on specs, the Fresh Foam 980 is clearly not a “maximal” shoe. With a stack height of 25mm heel, 21mm forefoot and a weight of 9.1 oz it’s actually pretty similar to shoes like the Saucony Kinvara, Brooks Pureflow, and Asics Gel Lyte33, all of which could be considered lightweight trainers. And perhaps most perplexingly to me is the fact that the Fresh Foam doesn’t really feel all that soft. To me, the Kinvara 5 is a much softer shoe. This isn’t a bad thing, I just think the Fresh Foam has been poorly marketed.
Construction and Ride
So what does the Fresh Foam feel like? To me it actually feels like a semi-firm, responsive lightweight trainer. I’ve put about 55 miles on my pair (these were a personal purchase at my local running store), including a long run of 16 miles, and have come away quite impressed with nearly everything except for the fit up front (which I’ve managed to make work via an insole swap – see below).
The only time I get any real sensation of softness running in the Fresh Foam is when I force a hard heel strike. The back of the heel does compress nicely, and feels somewhat like a cushy shoe like the Nike Pegasus. But with my mild heel strike the shoe actually feels pretty firm – it runs very smooth and is very stable under the forefoot. I’d almost compare the ride to something like the Pearl Izumi N1, which is an extremely firm shoe.
The upper of the Fresh Foam is composed of a breathable mesh, and it has plush cushioning around the ankle collar and tongue. There is a plastic heel counter. Nothing really fancy about the upper. Seems durable and well made.
The smooth ride that the shoe provides is likely a combination of the full contact outsole and the geometry of the forefoot. There’s almost a slight rocker sensation under the toe. I think the contour is necessary since the Fresh Foam isn’t very flexible – it still allows for a smooth transition.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my biggest complaint (only major complaint really) about the Fresh Foam is the shape of the tip of the toebox. It’s too pointy, and it forces my big toe inward (compare the Fresh Foam toebox shape to the Salomon Sense Pro below; I even went a half size up in the Fresh Foam to try and improve fit). This led to some abrasion between my toes and significant blistering on a long run. It’s the only shoe that has caused me to experience toe blisters in a few years.
Since writing that post I have managed to resolve the issue enough to make it comfortable by swapping the stock 4.5mm insole for a 3mm Inov-8 insole. The latter has become a great tool for me when I need to create a bit more space inside a shoe. A 1.5mm difference in thickness doesn’t seem like a lot, but it improved comfort dramatically in this case. The Inov-8 insoles are the only thin, flat insoles I am aware of that can be purchased independently of shoes ($10 at Zappos; if you know of any others, please leave a comment!).
I have heard rumors that New Balance will be addressing toebox fit in the next iteration of the shoe. I hope they do, as it’s the only thing that really prevents me from strongly recommending it. If you have narrow feet, it probably won’t be a big deal. Unfortunately, pointy toeboxes seem to be present on several current New Balance shoes – I returned the MT00v2 due to poor fit, and Nate Sanel was unimpressed by the fit of the new MT110v2 for similar reasons. This is disappointing given how well the New Balance Minimus shoes fit up front.
The New Balance Fresh Foam is not a maximal shoe. It’s not a particularly soft shoe. Rather, it’s a 4mm drop lightweight trainer that offers a responsive ride and a smooth transition. If it fit my foot better I’d definitely consider it as an option for marathons, but the pointy toebox creates a bit too much of a toe blistering risk for me over long distance (not too mention I don’t like my toes being scrunched together). Swapping out the insole for a thinner one has helped significantly, and I think New Balance has a winner here if they make a few small tweaks in v2.
If you have a narrowish foot and like a firm and responsive shoe, the New Balance Fresh Foam 980 is definitely worth a try.
The New Balance Fresh Foam 980 is available for purchase (MSRP $110) at your local running store, or on-line at Running Warehouse, Zappos, and Amazon.com. Outside of the US they are available at Sport Chek (Canada) and Wiggle.co.uk (UK and Europe). Disclosure: Runblogger.com receives a small commission from purchases made via these retailers – your support is very much appreciated!