I can recall my first cross-country practice as a high school freshman, running in jean shorts and old tennis shoes on our home course at Indian Island County Park in Riverhead, New York. I eventually traded in my denim for more comfortable gym shorts and replaced my thinly cushioned Keds with flats. I stuck with those shoes as I trained and raced, too intimidated by the spikes teammates wore during meets.
It’s been 20 years since that day at Indian Island, and even though I’m a seasoned runner, I’ve only now mustered up the courage to lace up XC spikes. Hoka’s Rebekah Broe educated me about this unfamiliar footwear category, and the Brooks shoe development team recounted their quest to build a spike to rival that of the leading contender, Nike.
Get Schooled in Spikes
On a video call, Broe, director of Hoka’s product and performance footwear, explained why you should choose spikes—the choice is both tactical and mental. Cross-country and track spikes are lighter and have a sleeker silhouette than trainers and racing flats. Some have a tailored heel collar construction for a more secure fit. “The beauty of a spike, whether it’s for cross country or track,” she said, “is that it’s the lightest possible vehicle delivering the most benefit for your most intense efforts. There’s a huge mental advantage to putting on something that you know is dedicated specifically to racing.”
In terms of XC versus track spikes, the former tends to have a rubber outsole to provide grip, support, and more protection over various terrain. Track spikes, which are used on a controlled, cushioned surface, often have less foam and typically have a plastic or carbon-fiber plate.
Unless the pins are embedded into the outsole, you can unscrew them with a spike wrench (brands usually include one in the shoebox, along with extra pins). To prevent the pins from getting packed with dirt and stuck in the shoe, Broe recommends removing them after competition. “I would suggest removing the spikes after every cross-country race, because then it’s very easy before the next race to address the conditions and change the length of the spike,” Broe said. “In cross country, you can use a longer spike than in track. So, if it’s a wet course or a muddy course, then you’re ready to put in a longer pin if needed.”
Types of Spikes
Depending on the course—and its regulations—there’s a variety of spike shapes to choose from.
Blank/Stud → Some courses don’t allow spikes. High school cross-country races in California, for example, restrict athletes from running with them. You can opt to wear a spike-less version of the shoe, or a flat or waffle version, or you can run in the same shoes you’re used to racing in with blanks to meet these regulations.
Needle/Pin → These are slimmer than pyramid spikes and can range from a quarter to three-eighths of an inch. Recommended surfaces: dirt, grass, cinder
Pyramid → This is the classic spike that’s used in both XC and track. They tend to be a quarter inch in length. Recommended surfaces: grass, rubber
Do’s and Don’ts of Spikes Care
- Take your pins out after every race
- Stuff wet spikes with newspaper instead of tossing them into the dryer
- Test new spikes on two to three short practice runs; after that, save them for competition
- Wear spikes without pins/studs
- Overtighten the pins
Building a Better Racing Shoe
Spikes aren’t the same as when I went to high school, circa mid-2000s. Today’s models are more streamlined and lightweight. Nike has been at the forefront of producing the best spikes, according to Nikhil Jain, who is Brooks’s Blue Line senior manager. “We built spikes that were good, but they were not good enough,” said Jain on a video call. “We wanted to make sure that our athletes had the best product.”
Brooks athletes were given the option to race in the competition’s shoes during the last Olympics cycle. And all of them chose Nike. “That was obviously really difficult for everyone,” said Jain. After licking their wounds, the two key things Jain and his team focused on when reconstructing their spikes were weight and energy return. According to Jain, most of the competition was at 4.8 oz (Nike’s , men’s size 9, is 4.7 oz).
As they developed the Wire 8 (a track spike that can be worn for XC, as well), prototypes underwent “an excruciatingly detailed weight analysis,” said Brooks’s footwear innovation developer Kenny Krotzer. The spike plate, made from a variation of Pebax, is a new material called Xelight, which is 20 percent 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 during push-off. These aluminum pins are embedded into the shoe to shave off even more weight by omitting the receptacles they’re twisted into.
The team admits they overshot the amount of DNA Flash, the brand’s proprietary nitrogen-infused foam, in the Wire 7. The foam is much softer in the 8, while still promoting high rebound.
I had dreamed of the day when I’d revisit the Indian Island course and run in spikes, shattering my high school 5K PR. That day has yet to come. Crazy but not crazy enough to drive 140 miles through NYC traffic just to test footwear on Long Island, I opted for a nearby park in Bethlehem, PA, and a 3K loop at the Lehigh University Goodman Campus Cross Country Course, which hosts the Paul Short invitational every year.
Brooks Wire 8
Weight: 4.8 oz (unisex)
As promised, the Wire is lightweight, and just as nimble over grass and dirt as it is on a Tartan track. The needles also don’t distract when the path briefly turns to asphalt. There’s not much support—the weight savings had me feel every muscle group working over knolls—and the collar sits a little low around the ankle. However, you still get some cushioning from the tweaked DNA Flash foam, and a little snap thanks to the Xelight plate. For a more traditional Brooks XC spike, the Draft XC ($70) is also available.
Saucony Kilkenny XC9
Weight: 5.2 oz (M), 4.6 oz (W)
The Kilkenny reminds me of the flats I wore in high school XC. The upper is soft, with a floppy tongue that had me tighten the laces to ensure a secure fit. The four-pin rubber plate makes the shoe feel heavier and more protective compared to other shoes I tested, especially over rocky patches on the Goodman course.
Nike Zoom Rival 5 XC
Weight: 6 oz (unisex, men’s 10)
Compared to Nike’s ($110), the Rival has a more accommodating fit. The Victory is extremely narrow, especially with socks on, and felt unstable down the park’s steep grassy hill and over thick grass and gravel on the university course. The shoe feels more suited for the track than for XC. The Rival allowed me to accelerate without any ankle twisting on uneven ground. The only downside: Out of all the spikes I tested, this was the only pair that lost pins on my run.
My gait eventually morphed from a gingerly shuffle to a loping sprint once I became more confident running with pointy objects attached to my feet. My ankles weren’t mauled; I didn’t murder my calves as deputy editor Jeff Dengate had predicted. Someday, I’ll settle the score with my home course. For now, I’ll work up to the 10K route at Goodman, looking and feeling sharp.
Test Editor Amanda is a test editor at Runner’s World.
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