As a kid, having no understanding of fashion, I never understood pointy shoes. After all, the human foot doesn't come to a point, which to me seems to explain the popularity in the early 1970s of Earth Shoes, which had a down-sloping negative heel and a foot-like shape with an almost-rectangular toe box. They were odd-looking but so comfortable that I always hoped they'd make a running shoe.
In fact, runners' feet get so beat up that over the years a twisted badge of honor for mega-milers became the acquisition of black toenails (from slamming your smushed toes into the front of the too-narrow shoe). Today, some hard-core athletes get their toenails removed.
Fortunately, that could be a thing of the past, as shoe makers have discovered the foot-shaped running shoe. The natural anatomical shape gives your toes room to splay out naturally. If you're a runner looking for more comfort and balance, and you like your toenails flesh-colored, you might like these.
At one with the trail
ZEMgear Terra Tech: Ultra-light, form-fitting trail runner and hiker with a "zero drop" (0 millimeter) in elevation from heel to forefoot and a toggle lace closure. (ZEM stands for "zone of endless motion.")
Likes: Feels as comfortable as being barefoot. Excellent trail feel. Feathery light at about 6 ounces in a men's size 9. Super agile and grippy.
Dislikes: It's billed as a "light trail runner" for a reason: The minimal cushioning (about 6 mm between the sole and the insole) might leave your feet beat after a long trail run.
Price: $84 to 109. www.zemgear.com
Altra Paradigm: Highly cushioned foot-shaped road/trail shoe for long-distance training and racing. It features a flat "zero-drop" profile and a 34 mm pile of cushioning.
Likes: A very comfortable and well-balanced feeling. My toes had plenty of room to splay out naturally. The zero-drop from heel to forefoot and the ample forefoot space encouraged me to maintain good form, a forefoot landing and good traction on steep ups and downs. To add support on long runs, there is additional cushioning on the medial side. For all the cushioning, it's surprisingly light at about 10 ounces in size 9.5.
Dislikes: If it had a quick lacing system, it'd be flawless.
Price: $130; www.altrarunning.com
Best lacing system
Topo Runduro: Medium- to long-distance road running shoe with a blunt rectangular shape and lace-free Boa closure system, which requires you to spin a dial to tighten/loosen thin nylon wires. It has a 3 mm drop from heel to toe.
Likes: I loved that the laces could never come undone with the Boa system, a simple, common-sense approach to cinching up your shoe. This good-looking shoe feels much lighter than its 10 ounces (in 9.5). The slight angle from heel to forefoot felt natural and may be preferred by those used to a taller heel.
Dislikes: Although nicely squared-off, I found the toe box a bit too cramped, narrow and low-volume for my D-width feet (although those with narrower feet may not have this issue).
Price: $120. www.topoathletric.com
Best trail shoe
Merrell Bare Access Trail: Lightweight trail runner with a wide foot-shaped forefoot and a zero drop from heel to toe.
Likes: Lots of toe room and a thin, tactile sole that lets you "feel" the trail, but with enough cushioning to feel protected. It provides great traction and peace of mind in all trail conditions. While I gave this shoe's more Minimalist predecessor, the Trail Glove, a great review, I like this more-padded shoe even better due to its 8 mm of cushioning (versus 4 mm in the former). It kept my feet from getting beaten up on rocky surfaces. Weight: 8.3 ounces in size 9.
Dislikes: It needs a quick lacing system to keep laces from coming untied.
Price: $100. www.merrell.com
Wallack is the coauthor, with Santa Monica physical therapist Robert Forster, of "Healthy Running Step by Step." firstname.lastname@example.org