Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The new Zoot shoes - Part 2

In part 2 of this assessment of the new Zoot shoes, I am going to discuss feature #1, "Sockless Wear," and see how successful Zoot is with this feature.

The idea of sockless wear is nothing new, and is practiced by many already, but many a triathlete has experienced the negative consequences of such a choice in a race or training. Bloody, mangled feet, limping down the home stretch, a DNF or even possibly pain for weeks depending on the severity, are just some of the issues one might face if running without socks in a race.

What makes sockless wear so important? Well, speed of course! It's certainly faster to eliminate the process of putting on socks during a transition. How much faster depends on the overall dexterity of the athlete, but a fair estimation would be 20 to 30 seconds.

So how much value does 20 to 30 seconds have? This again returns to the basic premise of being relative to the dexterity and ability, but also in this case the length of the race. Obviously, if you're an athlete competing for a podium spot at the USAT Nationals, then 20 to 30 seconds can mean the difference between top of the podium and not even being on it.

This doesn't even take into consideration what a blister can do to your time, or better yet, what a lack of blisters can mean for your overall time! Certainly limping in the final mile of a 10K will be slower than turning on the jets and really getting after it, pain free.

Certainly, the more competitive you are, the more important this feature is to you. If you've ever lost a race by a few seconds, or missed a Kona slot by the same, you certainly would appreciate anything which could help give you back those precious few seconds. There are also plenty of people who just don't like to wear socks in a race, whether they need the seconds or not.

Ok, so now you've determined what the value of this "sockless wear" feature means to you, now what the heck does it mean? What makes this shoe so special that you don't need socks?

The first thing Zoot did with their new shoes is make the entire upper fit like a sock, with some elasticity and smoothness. (The upper is the part of the shoe which encases the foot, above the sole.) This upper is a single piece, unlike traditional shoes which have a tongue, and quarter panels on the sides. This single piece not only helps with the snug-fit, it offers a great side benefit of no seams. (Interior of shoe shown below.)

Normally, when we get blisters from running without socks, it comes from high friction points between our feet and the shoes. This lack of seams virtually eliminates high friction points within the shoes, as there is no single place rubbing more than any other.

Zoot added a very cool secondary support item for this feature, what they call a "friction-free coating" was added to the interior of the shoes. This is actually a small layer on the interior of the upper, which acts as a constant lubricant within the shoe. This further reduces the impact of rubbing within the shoe.

So that sounds great in theory and all, but does it really do what it claims?

When I got these shoes and heard about the features, I was excited. Then honestly, I was very skeptical of it. As a competitive triathlete, I certainly valued this feature, and have faced many of the negative consequences of sockless wear in regular shoes. I always just accepted it as something which was a necessary evil of the sport. I also have some mutations, (you could say), on my feet, which makes even a good shoe have some increased friction points which may not even happen for most people. (I will spare you the details and photos of my mutated feet!)

The first thing I did was walk around in the shoes without socks. The shoes claimed to have great breathe-ability, with the sock-like upper, and I thought maybe my shoes wouldn't smell if I didn't wear socks. I was wrong on that aspect, the shoes still smelled bad after walking around in them without socks all day. In fairness, I am a heavy, profuse sweater, and my feet are no exception. If you are not a heavy sweater, you may have different results.

However, I had no blisters. First test for blisters, and the shoes passed.

If you read Part 1, you know I mentioned the shoes run about a half-size large for me, but I wear orthotics. I decided for a more accurate test though, I would run in the shoes without my orthotics. I did this also because I did not want the orthotics to create any seams and therefore cause a blister themselves, as this would be unfair to the shoe.

The fact that the shoes were already running a half-size big would be compounded by sockless wear though, as the size of my foot would therefore be reduced without a sock.

My first runs were my typical bay loop here in San Diego, approximately 10K, about 40 mins each time. No blisters, each time. Impressive so far. It seems clear so far that if I were to use the shoes in an Olympic distance race or shorter, I would be fine without socks. The next test would be to see how things went over the longer runs.

The first long run I did was 90 mins, and no issues with any blisters, but I did begin to get a hot spot on the inside of the left Achilles, just above the heel. I believe these spots came from the fact I am a severe pronator, being a big guy, who was running without his normal orthotics, and in shoes which were about a half-size big. It seemed pretty clear that extra space within the shoe allowed for extra rubbing, along with my running style. This certainly made clear the importance of fit for a pair of shoes, much like many claim for bikes.

The other long run I did was about 1 hour and 45 mins, and included a 4 mile road race on flat roads, in the middle of the run. This run had about the same results of the previous run, with a water-filled blister in the same spot on the inside of my left foot. Later this blister popped, and became a sore spot on my foot.

I also used the shoes with runs following these, with socks and with my orthotics, and no issues. At Kona, I made the decision to run with socks and orthotics, and had no issues with my feet on the run. Afterwards, in the evening, I noticed a small spot on the lower, medial part of my heel, where it had a water-filled blister, but it was small and no pain. (It probably didn't help that I ran over 4 hours for the marathon, but the fact it didn't hurt was impressive.)

Ok, so based on these experiences, what would I suggest? Here are my thoughts:

1. If you're doing a short course race, sprint to Olympic, possibly XTERRA, you should be able to run without socks, and without issue.
2. If you're doing a half-Ironman, you should consider how long you will be on the run course. If you're looking at more than 2 hours, you may need socks still, but this can be tested in your training. If you running close to 90 mins, and you don't have mutated feet, (like I do), you should be just fine without socks.
3. If you're doing an Ironman, the need for an extra 20-30 seconds is greatly diminished, yet the need for avoiding a blister is heightened, so I would suggest wearing socks for this distance.

You can also get a better sense of if you need socks by training in the shoes for your long runs.

All in all, I would give the shoes a B+ in their ability to provide a shoe with "sockless wear", but I reserve the right to change this grade to an A- if I am able to run in shoes which fit me better.

Coach Vance


Steven said...

Any suggestions on a MTB shoes that I can wear sockless in an Xterra event?

Jim Vance said...


Great question! I am actually attending a meeting next month at the Zoot HQ, to discuss their footwear line and improvements for 2008 and 2009. Let me just say, off-road triathlon shoes is something they are planning to address.

In the meantime, I think the current Zoot shoes are as good as any shoe on the market for off-road. The problem with most off-road shoes is weight. Blister issues are extremely variable depending on the person, so you if you want to choose an off-road shoe, you will need to make sure it works for your foot with regard to blisters.

In the meantime, if you get a chance, check out the new Zoot shoes when they launch in March!

Steven said...

Thanks Jim.

I'll be watching for Zoot's new shoes.