New Balance 980 Review

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The 980 was an attempt to capture the Maximalist market that is dominated by Hoka, and it should have been a great shoe. It's thickly cushioned, has a relatively low drop and it looks great. New Balance described it as "award-winning cushioning" and "incredibly soft", which all sounds wonderful, but this hyperbole bears no resemblance to the shoe itself. Instead of being soft, the 980 is quite firm and provides surprisingly little cushioning. I classify the NB 980 as "balanced", which is part way between a minimalist shoe and a massively cushioned Maximalist shoe. The nearest competitor to the 980 is probably the Brooks PureFlow. I've rated the 980 as "worth considering." (I use The Science of Running Shoes as the basis of how I test running shoes and what you should look for in a running shoe.)

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 top
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 bottom
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 inside
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 outside

1 Characteristics

  • Why you’d buy it. The thick, firm midsole provides good protection on uneven surfaces, so it's a good choice for someone wanting protection without cushioning. However, for road use you can get a shoe that's lighter and provides far more cushioning, like the Hoka Clifton, or a lot lighter with a little more cushioning like the Asics Gel Hyper Speed. Heavier runners who land hard may find the firm cushioning works better for them. (Of course all runners should aim to land lightly, and Cadence can help with this.)
  • Cushioning . The foam midsole in the 980 is thick, but surprisingly firm. Don't expect the soft ride that New Balance advertises.
  • Drop. The 980 has 10mm of drop when unloaded, which I believe is far too much. However the drop is less when you're wearing the shoe, but still more than is advisable.
  • Structure. The 980 uses a single density of foam, and the area under the arch is only slightly raised so there shouldn't be problems with pressure on the arch of the foot. The rear edge of the heel does not have as much tapering as you typically see in a shoe this thick. This squared off age could exacerbate heel strike in those that have not fixed their Overstriding. The forefoot tapers gently and nicely from the ball of the foot to the front of the shoe.
  • Flexibility. The 980 has little flexibility. The combination of the hard foam and the outsole the covers the entire surface severely reduces flexibility.
  • Outsole. The 980 has a continuous layer of hard rubber outsole that covers the entire lower surface of the shoe. This approach has become a little unusual in modern running shoes as it reduces flexibility and increases weight. Modern manufacturing techniques make it quite practical to put the outsole over just of the areas that have the highest abrasion. The texture on the outsole means it has relatively little grip on soft surfaces, or on asphalt that is slightly muddy or has loose gravel.
  • Shape. The 980 is the classic shoe shape that does not match the human foot, and narrows excessively in the toe box. I'd recommend cutting open the toe box open to prevent toe problems. (I recommend cutting open the toe box of virtually all running shoes, with the exception of a few shoes like some Altra shoes. When you have some worn out shoes, you should try cutting open the toe box. I've found that it's a big improvement, allowing my toes to move naturally and engage for toe off, as well as reducing the possibility of blisters.)
  • Upper. The upper is inflexible and mostly seamless other than the transition from the unpadded forefoot to the padded rear foot. The ankle opening is nicely padded, and other than the poor shape on the forefoot the 980 is a comfortable shoe.
  • Tongue. The 980 has a traditional tongue that is has a tab to attach it to the laces. The tongue is well-padded and comfortable.
  • Lacing. The 980 has traditional flat laces that are high friction and stay tied.
  • Heel Counter. The heel counter is quite solid, but the padding around the heel counter will prevent any problems from the edge digging in.
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2 Cushioning and Shoes

It's intuitively obvious that the cushioning in a shoe will reduce the impact on your body when running. However, The Science of Running Shoes indicates that the reality is rather more complex. While slight cushioning may reduce the effort needed to run by improving your Running Economy, most scientific research indicates that more cushioning does further improve Running Economy. In addition, cushioning does not generally reduce impact and may actually increase it. This is counterintuitive, but is likely to be due to the way a runners mind and body adapts to softer cushioning. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence is far from complete and it's hard to give clear recommendations. I believe that some runners will prefer more cushioning, while others prefer less, and typically those running further have a fondness for greater cushioning. I also believe that a shoe should be as light as possible, and a shoe should justify its weight with the cushioning it provides. My advice is to decide what level of cushioning you're looking for, and then find the lightest shoes that also fit well and are comfortable.

3 Visualizing the Attributes of the New Balance 980

How New Balance 980 compares showing rearfoot cushioning against the performance penalty of its weight. Upper right is better.
How New Balance 980 compares showing forefoot cushioning against the performance penalty of its weight. Upper right is better.
How New Balance 980 compares showing the price against the benefit (cushioning/performance penalty). Upper left is better.
How New Balance 980 compares showing the loaded drop against the benefit (cushioning/performance penalty). Upper left is better.

4 Comparisons

Here are some direct comparisons with its potential competition.

4.1 New Balance 980 and PureFlow

The nearest competitor to the 918 is probably the Brooks PureFlow. Like the 980, the PureFlow is what I consider a "balanced" category shoe that is part way between minimalist and the massively cushioned Maximalist style of shoes. I would choose the PureFlow over the NB 980 for its lighter weight and similar cushioning.

  • Similarities
    • Cushioning . Both shoes have similar levels of cushioning which comes from fairly thick but firm foam.
    • Shape. Neither has a good toe box.
  • Advantage NB 980
    • Trails. The 980 offers more protection on rocky trails, and its midsole does not have holes that stones would get lodged in.
  • Advantage Brooks PureFlow
    • Flexibility. The PureFlow is quite a bit more flexible.
    • Drop. While neither is zero-drop the PureFlow has far less drop, especially when loaded.
    • Weight. The PureFlow is a little lighter.
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 top
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 bottom
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 inside
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 outside
Brooks Pure Flow 3 top
Brooks Pure Flow 3 bottom
Brooks Pure Flow 3 inside
Brooks Pure Flow 3 outside

4.2 New Balance 980 and Hoka Clifton

Comparing the NB 980 and the Hoka Clifton, the Clifton is a clear winner for its lightness and cushioning. I think that the Clifton is the shoe that New Balance were trying to make when they created the 980.

  • Similarities
    • Shape. Neither has a good toe box.
    • Flexibility. Neither has much flexibility.
    • Drop. Neither is zero-drop, but the Clifton has far less of a drop than the 980.
  • Advantage NB 980
    • Grip. The 980 has slightly more grip.
    • Price. The 980 is a little cheaper.
    • Availability. The 980 is more widely stocked.
    • Longevity. The extra outsole on the 980 improves longevity.
  • Advantage Hoka Clifton
    • Cushioning . The Clifton has far thicker, softer cushioning.
    • Weight. The Clifton is lighter.
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 top
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 bottom
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 inside
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 outside
Hoka OneOne Clifton top
Hoka OneOne Clifton bottom
Hoka OneOne Clifton inside
Hoka OneOne Clifton outside

4.3 New Balance 980 and Asics Gel Hyper Speed

The NB 980 and the Asics Gel Hyper Speed are radically different shoes. The Hyper Speed is an extremely light weight, stripped down shoe. However, while the Hyper Speed weight only slightly over half the NB 980, it offers similar levels of cushioning.

  • Similarities
    • Shape. Neither has a good toe box.
    • Cushioning . The cushioning is quite similar between the shoes, though the way they achieve the cushioning is quite different. The NB 980 has a thick but firm midsole, where the Hyper Speed is much thinner but softer. However, running with the NB 980 on one foot and the Hyper Speed on the other, I'm struck by how similar the cushioning is.
    • Drop. Neither is zero-drop, and loaded they are quite similar.
  • Advantage NB 980
    • Availability. The 980 is more widely stocked.
  • Advantage Asics Gel Hyper Speed
    • Weight. The Hyper Speed is much, much lighter.
    • Price. The Hyper Speed is cheaper.
    • Flexibility. The Hyper Speed has a lot more flexibility.
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 top
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 bottom
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 inside
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 outside
Hoka OneOne Clifton top
Hoka OneOne Clifton bottom
Hoka OneOne Clifton inside
Hoka OneOne Clifton outside

4.4 New Balance 980 and Saucony Kinvara

Comparing the 980 and the Saucony Kinvara, I prefer the Kinvara as it is lighter, better cushioned, more flexible and more comfortable.

  • Similarities
    • Shape. Neither has a good toe box.
    • Availability. The both are reasonably easy to find.
  • Advantage NB 980
    • Grip. The 980 has more grip, though not by much.
  • Advantage Saucony Kinvara
    • Flexibility. The Kinvara is more flexible.
    • Drop. The Kinvara is 5-6mm drop, the 980 is 10mm!
    • Cushioning . The Kinvara is more softly cushioned.
    • Weight. The Kinvara is lighter.
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 top
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 bottom
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 inside
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 outside
Top
Bottom
Inside
Outside

4.5 New Balance 980 and Asics GT 2000

I like to compare shoes against the Asics GT 2000 as it represents the traditional running shoe. The GT 2000 is over engineered and includes many things I dislike in traditional running shoes. These excessive features go against The Science of Running Shoes and are more likely to cause problems than solve them.

  • Similarities
    • Shape. Neither has a good toe box.
    • Drop. Both have far too much drop.
  • Advantage NB 980
    • Cushioning . Neither is well cushioned for its weight, but the 980 does not have the anti-Pronation features that can cause problems.
    • Flexibility. The 980 is more flexible.
    • Weight. The 980 is lighter.
  • Advantage Asics GT 2000
    • Availability. The GT 2000 is a common shoe, available pretty much anywhere that sells running shoes.
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 top
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 bottom
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 inside
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 outside
Asics GT2000 top
Asics GT2000 bottom
Asics GT2000 inside
Asics GT2000 outside

5 A Comparison with other Recommended Shoes

For a more detailed comparison of these shoes see the Recommendations for Best Running Shoes. This table lists the key attributes of What to Look for in Running Shoes. For more detailed information, on the shoes see detailed shoe comparison.

Full Review Name Rating Recommended
price
Benefit Weight
(oz)
Penalty
(sec/mile)
Forefoot
Thickness
Heel
Thickness
Loaded Drop
mm
Cushioning Flexibility
Asics 33-DFA Review 33-DFA Worth considering $90 5.7 10.6 16.5 27 27 0 6.1 6
Saucony Type A6 Review A6 Highly Recommended $100 8.2 6.1 9.5 17 21 4 5.0 8
Adidas Adios Boost 2 Review Adios Worth considering $140 4.7 8.6 13.4 17 27 11 4.0 7
Hoka Bondi Review Bondi Highly Recommended $150 8.0 10.9 17.0 41 45 5 8.8 0
Hoka Bondi 5 Review Bondi Review Pending $150 6.1 11.6 18.1 38 42 5 7.1 4
Hoka Clayton Review Clayton Best of the Best $150 8.8 8.3 12.9 26 30 3 7.3 5
Hoka Clifton 3 Review Clifton3 Best of the Best $130 9.1 9.8 15.3 34 38 3 8.9 6
On Cloudracer Review Cloudracer Worth considering $130 5.7 8.2 12.8 19 27 5 4.7 8
Hoka Conquest Review Conquest Worth considering $170 5.0 11.9 18.5 28 34 5 6.0 3
Saucony Cortana 4 Review Cortana Worth considering $150 4.4 9.9 18.7 22 28 5 4.3 5
Mizuno Wave Cruise Review Cruise Worth considering $120 6.6 5.9 12.5 17 20 7 3.9 7
Newton Distance IV Review Distance Worth considering $155 7.5 9.1 14.2 26 31 3 6.8 6
Asics Gel DS Racer 10 Review DS Racer Worth considering $110 8.2 7.0 10.9 21 26 6 5.8 6
Mizuno Wave Ekiden 8 Review Ekiden Worth considering $115 5.7 5.7 14.6 13 18 6 3.2 8
Saucony Endorphin Review Endorphin Highly Recommended $125 11.1 4.1 6.4 14 13 -1 4.5 9
Adidas Energy Boost Review Energy Worth considering $160 7.2 10.0 15.6 20 30 7 7.2 6
Altra Escalante Review Escalante Review Pending $130 9.1 8.7 13.5 28 25 -1 7.9 7
Puma Faas 100 R Review Faas 100 Highly Recommended $90 8.4 6.1 9.4 15 20 1 5.1 9
Saucony Fastwitch Review Fastwitch Highly Recommended $90 9.5 7.1 11.1 20 22 4 6.8 8
Topo Fli-Lyte Review Fli-Lyte Highly Recommended $100 6.0 9.4 14.6 23 24 4 5.6 6
Nike Free 4.0 Review Free Recommended $120 5.3 8.2 13.6 24 30 6 4.4 6
Saucony Freedom Review Freedom Recommended $160 5.4 10.7 16.6 25 29 3 5.8 7
Asics Gel Lyte 33 3 Review Gel Lyte Not recommended $90 8.0 7.3 11.4 17 24 4 5.8 9
Skechers GOmeb Speed 3 Review GOmeb 3 Worth considering $120 6.9 8.1 12.6 20 24 4 5.5 8
Skechers GORun 4 Review GORun Not recommended $100 6.1 7.5 11.7 15 23 3 4.5 7
Skechers GOrun Ultra 2 Review GRU Worth considering $90 7.5 10.0 15.6 28 34 8 7.5 5
Skechers GOrun Ultra Road Review GRU-R Worth considering $105 6.5 11.3 17.6 30 40 6 7.4 7
Asics GT 2000 Review GT 2000 Not recommended $120 4.8 11.2 17.4 28 35 5 5.4 4
Hoka Hupana Review Hupana Recommended $115 6.1 8.9 13.9 31 36 7 5.4 5
Asics Gel Hyper Speed 7 Review Hyper Speed Highly Recommended $75 10.9 6.3 9.8 22 26 5 6.8 7
Altra Instinct 3.5 Review Instinct 3.5 Recommended $115 4.9 9.3 15.2 24 23 0 4.5 6
Altra Instinct 4.0 Review Instinct 4.0 Review Pending $120 6.0 9.8 15.3 29 25 -1 5.9 6
Asics Tarther Kainos 3 Review Kainos Worth considering $130 10.0 6.9 10.7 17 27 9 6.8 7
Saucony Kinvara 7 Review Kinvara Best of the Best $110 7.4 8.2 12.8 23 27 3 6.1 6
Nike LunaRacer 4 Review LunaRacer Recommended $90 9.9 7.0 10.9 22 30 7 6.9 6
Nike LunarSpider R5 Review LunarSpider Recommended $125 6.9 6.7 10.4 17 21 3 4.6 7
Hoka Mafate Speed Review Mafate Best of the Best $170 7.6 11.9 18.5 39 40 4 9.0 3
Pearl Izumi EM Road N0 v2 Review N0 Highly Recommended $100 7.9 6.5 10.1 14 20 4 5.2 8
Saucony Nomad Review Nomad Review Pending $110 4.3 10.5 17.2 25 27 2 4.5 5
Hoka Odyssey Review Odyssey Highly Recommended $130 8.5 9.4 14.6 37 45 5 8.0 4
Altra Olympus Review Olympus Highly Recommended $130 5.4 11.8 18.4 27 27 3 6.4 4
Altra One 2.5 Review One Highly Recommended $100 8.5 7.1 11.1 22 25 2 6.0 8
Altra Paradigm Review Paradigm Highly Recommended $130 6.4 9.9 15.4 25 25 1 6.4 4
Asics Piranha SP 5 Review Piranha Recommended $100 10.1 4.2 6.5 11 15 3 4.2 9
Brooks PureFlow 5 Review PureFlow Worth considering $110 6.0 9.7 15.1 26 29 5 5.8 8
Salming Race Review Race Worth considering $130 6.9 6.5 10.1 16 19 4 4.5 7
New Balance RC1600 v2 Review RC1600 Highly Recommended $110 8.8 5.6 8.7 15 21 5 4.9 8
New Balance RC5000 Review RC5000 Best of the Best $125 12.2 3.4 5.3 13 17 3 4.2 8
New Balance RC5000v2 Review RC5000v2 Best of the Best $125 14.2 4.0 6.2 13 21 6 5.7 8
Skechers GoRun Ride 3 Review Ride Worth considering $85 5.9 8.5 13.2 18 28 6 5.0 9
Inov-8 RoadXTreme 220 Review RXT-220 Worth considering $120 5.2 8.0 18.2 14 17 3 4.2 9
Topo ST-2 ST-2 Highly Recommended $90 8.2 7.3 11.4 20 18 0 6.0 8
Hoka Stinson Lite Review Stinson Highly Recommended $160 7.3 11.6 18.1 35 40 6 8.5 2
Nike Zoom Streak LT 3 Review Streak LT Best of the Best $80 8.8 5.4 8.4 16 21 4 4.8 6
Adidas Takumi Sen 3 Review Takumi Sen 3 Highly Recommended $160 7.7 6.6 10.2 17 21 4 5.1 6
Altra Torin 2.0 Review Torin Worth considering $125 5.8 9.6 14.9 28 25 -1 5.5 5
Hoka Tracer Review Tracer Recommended $130 7.2 7.4 11.5 21 24 2 5.3 6
Merrell Trail Glove 3 Review Trail Glove Best of the Best $100 2.9 6.9 24.7 11 11 0 2.0 9
Topo Tribute Review Tribute Recommended $100 5.9 7.3 11.4 20 18 -1 4.3 7
Mizuno Wave Universe 5 Review Universe Highly Recommended $125 10.7 3.1 10.6 9 12 1 3.3 9
Merrell Vapor Glove 2 Review Vapor Glove Highly Recommended $85 2.1 6.1 27.6 6 5 0 1.3 10
New Balance Vazee Pace Review Vazee Pace Worth considering $110 6.0 8.6 13.4 18 24 6 5.2 6
Asics TartherZeal 3 Review Zeal Worth considering $140 10.9 6.3 9.8 17 27 9 6.8 7

It's not a running shoe, but I love the Hoka Tor Ultra hiking boot and I've tested the Altra Lone Peak Boot.
Older shoe reviews: Saucony Hattori Review, Mizuno Cursoris Review, Skechers GO Bionic 2 Review, Hoka Clifton Review, Saucony Virrata 2 Review, Brooks PureCadence 3 Review, Brooks PureConnect 3 Review, Brooks PureFlow 3 Review, Skechers GO Bionic 2 Review, New Balance 980 Review, Brooks Transcend 2 Review.
Reviews of shoes that are not worth including on the table: Hoka Huaka Review, Patagonia EVERlong Review.