I remember my first cross-country practice as a high school freshman, running in denim shorts and old tennis shoes on our home course at Indian Island County Park in Riverhead, New York. I ended up swapping my jeans for more comfortable gym shorts and replaced my lightly padded Keds with ballet flats. I stuck with these shoes while I trained and raced, too intimidated by the spikes teammates wore during competitions.
It’s been 20 years since that day on Indian Island, and although I’m a seasoned runner, I’ve only just worked up the courage to put on some XC cleats. Hoka’s Rebekah Broe filled me in on this unfamiliar shoe category, and the Brooks shoe development team recounted their quest to build a peak to rival that of main competitor, Nike.
Get trained in spikes
During a video call, Broe, director of product and performance footwear at Hoka, explained why you should choose spikes – the choice is both tactical and mental. Cross-country and trail spikes are lighter and have a sleeker silhouette than running sneakers and flats. Some have a custom heel collar construction for a more secure fit. “The beauty of a crampon, whether it’s cross-country or track,” she said, “is that it’s the lightest vehicle possible, providing the most benefit for your efforts. There’s a huge mental benefit to putting on something you know is specifically for running.
In terms of XC versus trail spikes, the former tend to have a rubber outsole to provide grip, support, and more protection in various terrains. Track spikes, which are used on a controlled, padded surface, often have less foam and usually have a plastic or carbon fiber plate.
Unless the pins are built into the outsole, you can unscrew them with a spiked wrench (brands usually include one in the shoebox, along with extra pins). To prevent the pins from getting dirty and getting stuck in the shoe, Broe recommends removing them after competition. “I would suggest removing the spikes after each XC race because then it’s really easy before the next race to adapt to the conditions and change the spike length,” Broe said. “In XC you can use a longer pin than in track. So if it’s a wet or muddy course, you’re prepared to put in a longer pin if needed.
Types of tips
Depending on the course and its regulations, you have the choice between different tip shapes.
vacuum/stud → Some courses do not allow spikes. High school cross-country races in California, for example, prevent athletes from running with them. You can choose to wear a studless version of the shoe, or a flat or waffle version, or you can run in the same shoes you are used to running with whites to meet these regulations.
Needle/pin → These are thinner than pyramid tips and can range from a quarter to three-eighths of an inch. Recommended surfaces: dirt, grass, ash
Pyramid → It is the classic peak that is used both in cross-country and on track. They tend to be a quarter inch long. Recommended surfaces: grass, rubber
Dos and Don’ts of Spikes Care
- Take out your pins after each race
- Stuff wet tips with newspaper instead of tossing them in the dryer
- Test new cleats on two to three short tries; after that save them for the competition
- Wear pointe shoes without pins/studs
- Overtighten the pins
Building a better running shoe
The tips are not the same as when I was in high school in the mid-2000s. Today’s models are more streamlined and lightweight. Nike has been at the forefront of producing the best cleats, according to Nikhil Jain, who is Brooks’ Blue Line Senior Manager. “We built spikes that were good, but they weren’t good enough,” Jain said in a video call. “We wanted to make sure our athletes had the best product.”
Brooks athletes have had the opportunity to run in the shoes of competition in the last Olympic cycle. And all of them chose Nike. “It was obviously very difficult for everyone,” Jain said. After licking their wounds, the two key things Jain and his team focused on when rebuilding their spikes were weight and energy return. According to Jain, most of the competition was at 4.8 oz (Nike’s ZoomX Dragonfly, men’s size 9, is 4.7 oz).
While developing the Wire 8 (a trail cleat that can also be worn for XC), the prototypes underwent “extremely detailed weight analysis,” said Brooks shoe innovation developer Kenny Krotzer. . The spike plate, made from a variation of Pebax, is a new material called Xelight, which is 20% lighter than the Wire 7’s Pebax Rnew Distance plate and stiffer. The 8 also has five pins instead of four to provide better traction when pushing. These aluminum pins are integrated into the shoe to further reduce weight by omitting the receptacles they twist into.
The team admits they’ve exceeded the amount of Flash DNA, the brand’s proprietary nitrogen-infused foam, in the Wire 7. The foam is much softer in the 8, while promoting high rebound.
I had dreamed of the day when I would revisit the Indian Island course and run spikes, breaking my 5K PR in high school. That day has not yet come. Crazy but not crazy enough to hike 140 miles through NYC traffic just to test shoes on Long Island, I opted for a nearby park in Bethlehem, PA, and a 3K loop during cross-country du Lehigh University’s Goodman campus, which hosts the Paul Short by invitation each year.
Brooks Yarn 8
Weight: 4.8 oz (unisex)
As promised, the Wire is light and just as nimble on grass and dirt as it is on a Tartan track. Needles also don’t get in the way when the path briefly turns to asphalt. There’s not much support – the weight savings made me feel every muscle group working hills – and the collar is a little low around the ankle. However, you still get some cushioning from the modified DNA Flash foam and a little snap from the Xelight plate. For a more traditional Brooks XC pick, the Draft XC ($70) is also available.
Saucony Kilkenny XC9
Weight: 5.2oz (M), 4.6oz (W)
The Kilkenny reminds me of the flats I wore in high school XC. The upper is soft, with a flexible tongue that made me tighten the laces to ensure a secure fit. The four-pin rubber plate makes the shoe heavier and more protective compared to other shoes I’ve tested, especially on the rocky slabs of the Goodman course.
Nike Zoom Rival 5 XC
Weight: 6 oz (unisex, men’s 10)
Compared to Nike’s Zoom Victory 5 XC ($110), the Rival has a more accommodating fit. The Victory is extremely cramped, especially with socks, and felt unstable on the steep grassy hillside of the park and the thick grass and gravel on the college course. The shoe seems more suited to the track than to XC. The Rival allowed me to accelerate without any ankle twists over rough terrain. The only downside: of all the spikes I tested, this was the only pair that lost pins during my run.
My gait eventually changed from a cautious shuffle to a looping sprint once I became more confident running with sharp objects strapped to my feet. My ankles were not mutilated; I didn’t kill my calves like associate editor Jeff Dengate predicted. One day, I will settle accounts with my home course. For now, I’m going to work up the 10k route to Goodman, looking and feeling great.
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