By Brian Metzler
Although running shoe geeks and trail runners could argue New Balance hasn’t really immersed itself in trail running since it sponsored ultrarunning wunderkinds Anton Krupicka and Kyle Skaggs 15 years ago, it’s quietly made some pretty good trail running shoes since then. The Boston-based shoe manufacturer is better known for the kicks it produces for road running, track and field, pickleball, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, skateboarding and – well, you name it, New Balance makes shoes for it. It just hasn’t made a big splash in trail running. As its 2023 crop of trail runners shows, however, it certainly could if it was a bigger focus.
This year’s light and fast FuelCell Summit Unknown v4 and max cushioned FreshFoam X More Trail v3 are both capable shoes that show the brand’s new commitment to off-road running. However, the just-released FuelCell SuperComp Trail is one of the best trail running shoes of the year with a stunning combination of comfort, traction, cushioning, propulsion and agility.
What’s New: The neutral-oriented FuelCell SuperComp Trail, which hit running stores in late July, is a brand new trail running “supershoe” with all new high-end componentry. But, as with so many top-tier shoes, the overall experience I had running trails with it was much greater than the sum of its parts. Those parts include a stretchy, modestly reinforced and very breathable engineered mesh upper, a dual-density midsole foam and a forked carbon-fiber propulsion plate and a durable Vibram Megagrip Litebase tacky rubber outsole with a grippy array of 4mm lugs. While a $200 price tag is never anything to sneeze at, for a performance-oriented shoe with so many high-quality materials, it’s actually a relative bargain and a worthy investment.
Fit/Feel/Ride: The New Balance FuelCell SuperComp Trail fits true to size with a narrow interior volume and a low-volume toe box that runs slightly short. (Unlike many New Balance shoes, this one isn’t offered in a wide version. Also, the slightly shorter length puts it right on the borderline of needing to consider a half-size larger than what I normally wear, but I ultimately opted against it.) The thin, soft gusseted tongue combines with the soft, stretchy upper to create a secure booty construction that really locks down your feet to the bottom of the shoe and is one of the main reasons the ride of the shoe feels so agile, lively and smooth.
The other thing that makes it feel so energetic and flowy is the dual-density midsole foam package (soft and responsive FuelCell foam on top, firmer, more stable EVA-based foam on the bottom) sandwiched around the EnergyArc carbon-fiber propulsion plate. Whereas most running shoes (trail or road) with carbon-fiber plates are egregiously stiff to optimize propulsion, the FuelCell SuperComp Trail has a little bit of flexibility built into the mix to allow it to be more accommodating. The plate’s forked design in the forefoot is what allows the shoe to have more lateral mobility without feeling so rigid and tippy. Because it’s not maximally cushioned – it has moderate 31mm/21mm stack heights – it offers very good proprioceptive feel for the trail, which is especially appreciated when running faster paces.
What It’s Great: It’s great because it feels like a luxury SUV, but it handles with the agility of a high-performance sports car. In other words, it’s comfortable and remarkably well cushioned (especially for a shoe that has a moderate stack height), but it’s also light, nimble, flexible and capable of going fast on a variety of surfaces. It’s a speed merchant on smooth dirt trails and gravel paths and roads, but its superior traction and carbon-fiber plate system – which contributes both noticeable propulsion and underfoot protection – make it agile and dynamic enough to dance through rocks, roots and other obstacles on technical terrain. It feels cozy and secure running at any pace.
Weights: 7.5 oz. (women’s size 8), 9.5 oz. (men’s size 9) Heel-Toe Offset: 10mm (31mm in the heel, 21mm in the forefoot)
Why You’ll Love It: The FuelCell SuperComp Trail can be a versatile, do-everything trail running shoe for most types of terrain. Yes, it can be an amped-up racing shoe, but it just as easily can be a casual cruiser, too. It’s exceptionally comfortable and well-cushioned, offering a smart combination of agility and stability for expert handling and control, and it can also be infinitely speedy when you want it to be. It’s perfect for easy cruising on your favorite dirt loop in your local park, but it’s also well-suited for longer runs on mild to moderate technical trails with wet or dry terrain. Granted, it’s not really meant for running gnarly ridgelines in the mountains – mostly because its upper and toe box aren’t very protective – although I did wear it to run the rocky route up Mt. Sanitas and down the semi-technical dirt trails of the Lion’s Lair Loop in Boulder, Colorado, and it more than held its own. It compares well to the new Nike Ultrafly ($260) and Merrell MTL Skyfire 2 ($200) trail running supershoes, only with better cushioning and traction.
Pro: The combination of the carbon-fiber plate, relatively high heel-toe offset (10mm) and hyper-responsive FuelCell midsole foam, which is made with a small amount of bio-based content from renewable resources, delivers a propulsive feel to help drive you forward. Although it feels slightly more subtle on variable surfaces, it feels as springy and energetic as your favorite road running shoes on smooth hard-packed dirt trails.
Con: The only drawback I found with the FuelCell SuperComp Trail is that the toe box is just a little bit too snug and unprotected for what I’d like it to be for running on moderate to technical terrain. If you stub your toe on a root or a rock – and yes, that’s one of the common perils of trail running – you’re bound to feel it a little bit more than you’d like. It’s not a reason to disregard this shoe, but it’s something to be aware of – and perhaps a reason to not run with all-out reckless abandon on techy trails.