Running Shoe Test-Fest

Introduction

Last week, I had the pleasure of testing a number of shoes during the grand opening of Black Toe Running. No less than four shoe manufacturers were present with their demo fleets. What a perfect opportunity to test a few shoes back-to-back, on exactly the same course! I tested the shoes strictly for my own benefit, to learn about them and whether any of them would be candidates to add to my (admittedly numerous) shoe collection. I wasn’t really intending to test them thoroughly, as one might expect for a proper shoe review, but afterwards, I felt it would be useful to share my experiences.

One thing I’ve noticed about shoes is that there is a symbiotic relationship between the runner and the shoe, and one can’t really talk about shoes in a vacuum, without reference to the runner wearing them. Clearly, everyone is built differently, with a variety of body types, gaits, foot size and shape and running dynamics. So really, I can only share my experiences in relation to my own running. Hopefully, that will give you some perspective and reference point for my specific comments on each shoe and allow you to apply the right filter in relation to your own needs.

I’ve posted my gory personal details in a separate post, so I can reference it in future reviews, and also not bore readers that want to continue to the punchline.

Testing Methodology

I ran each shoe on an out-and-back course for a total distance of 2km. The out leg was slightly uphill and the back leg was of course, slightly downhill. The route was urban, with a variety of curbs, concrete and asphalt surfaces. There were a few metal and wooden areas as well. It snowed immediately before my test, so i also ran on dry, wet and snowy surfaces. The ambient temperature was 0C, with high wind chill. It wasn’t huge miles on each shoe, but the ten minutes I got with each model was enough time to get a good feel for each and still allow me to test four models back-to-back without getting overly tired during the test, or run a marathon. Each manufacturer present brought two or three different models. I opted to test the lightest, most minimal and lowest offset model.

I’m not going to write about the general specifications and marketing buzzwords for each shoe. There’s the internet if you want to learn about such things. I generally focused on a few key elements:

  • Upper fit, particularly in the toebox, instep and heel area
  • Midsole “ride” – shock attenuation, spring and energy return
  • Transition and toe-off – stiffness vs. flexibility

Mizuno Sayonara

SayonaraThis was the first pair of Mizunos that I have tried. Mizunos have a reputation of a firm ride and I was initially put off by that. I have callouses on the bottom of my feet and always sought out decent cushioning, especially in the forefoot. Trying them on, I was pleased by the wide forefoot and snug heel fit. Starting to run, I was surprised by the ride quality. Despite being firm, they provided very good shock attenuation. The midsole was stiffer than I like – I feel it restricts the amount of flex as my foot transitions to toe-off. The upper had the major problem of folding during the toe flex and pushing into my metatarsals. That’s a major deal breaker for me, as it puts a lot of pressure on the top of my feet and can lead to irritation and blisters. Also, while the offset was spec’ed at 10mm, it felt subjectively lower than that. Nonetheless, it was still higher than I would like. It was interesting listening to the Mizuno rep’s explanation of why the line doesn’t have low-drop shoes. I suspect the real reason is the wave plate needs a minimum stack height to fit in with a reasonable amount of EVA midsole. To achieve a low offset would require a correspondingly higher forefoot stack and really change the ride and feel of the shoe. It started to snow just before I tested the shoe, and I noticed it had excellent wet traction. I couldn’t break the grip loose by twisting my foot during the plant phase, nor during the toe-off.

Saucony Kinvara 4

Kinvara4As mentioned in the intro, the Kinvara is in my rotation and it’s my race shoe for over-10k to half marathon distances. I’ve gone through multiple pairs of Kinvara 3 over the past two years and have logged over 2000k in this model. Needless to say, I know and love this shoe. The K4 update didn’t really change much – same midsole tooling, with a switch to PowerGrid cushiony-bits and a repatterned Flexfilm upper. The switch to PowerGrid made very little difference, especially to a forefoot striker. The reduced Flexfilm does allow the shoe to stretch a bit more laterally to accommodate wider forefeet, which I did notice and welcome. My left foot is an E-width, so I always tend to notice when a shoe is tight in the toebox. I am concerned with the durability, as some other testers have had lateral side tearing in the forefoot during extended wear testing.

Back to the Kinvara 4 itself, it has a very flexible sole with 4mm offset and a distinct lug pattern in the tread. According to the marketing-speak, they are supposed to act as pistons, but all I can feel are the triangular shape of the lugs through the insole, as I start running in these shoes. The feeling does go away after a few minutes, however. The Kinvaras have a nice springy feel in the transition and toe-off. This gives the impression that the shoe has good energy return. Whether this is actually true, I have no idea. The net result is that this is a shoe that’s fun to run in, especially at speed. It has enough forefoot cushion to allow middle distance running in very light package for what it delivers. The heel doesn’t have a lot of stiff structure, but the base of the midsole is wide, so it has moderate stability, at least in the context of a minimal feature, low drop shoe.

New Balance 1400 (v1)

NB1400I put these on and they immediately felt like no nonsense shoes. No fancy cushioning technology, overlays or midsole lug systems. The upper had a good sock-like fit. The laces were fiddly and small-diameter, and short. I got the distinct impression that they wouldn’t stay tied over time. I didn’t worry much, since I always replace the stock laces with bungee laces. (I find that they provide much more consistent tension, they are quick to adjust on the fly and it’s easy and quick to get on and off). Running the 1400 confirmed that it is a shoe that just gets out of the way and lets you run naturally. The midsole was extremely flexible and provided very little resistance during toe-off. Unlike the Kinvara, I can’t feel the lug system through the insole, because there is no lug system -just a mostly flat tread pattern. The only flaw I found was that the tongue slipped to the lateral side of my foot. Whether this happens is really dependent on foot shape and I have one of those feet where this often happens. It’s normally not a problem and doesn’t affect the performance of the shoe, although the 1400’s tongue was a bit narrow, which creates a small gap between the tongue and the medial side of the shoe. This might cause some lace irritation over time, but I didn’t get to run long enough to find out. The offset is 8mm, which was noticeable to my feet, but tolerable.

Overall, this is great shoe and the only one I actually bothered to run a couple of intervals to try them out at higher speed and cadence.

Nike Free 5.0 Shield

FreeshieldI tried out the Shield version of the Free 5.0, which features some additional DWR (durable water resistant) and reflective materials in the upper. The tooling is the stock Free 5.0 midsole, which features the signature lateral and longitudinal sipes that give the Free sole its multi-axis flexibility. I’ve run the standard Free 5.0 and didn’t like the offset. This is spec’ed at 8mm, but I really noticed the “ramp” down towards my toes, to the point that my toes feel like they are getting pushed towards the front of the shoe. The ramp certainly feels “steeper” than the 8mm NB 1400, or even the 10mm Sayanora. It was as if I was sliding towards the front of the shoe. The midsole did not provide much cushioning and felt clunky throughout the run. This was different than my prior experience with other shoes with the Free 5.0 sole. I suspect it was because the demo shoes were cold. I gave this feedback to the Nike rep and they mentioned that their demo shoes stay in the van full-time, effectively at outdoor ambient temps, and we got a cold snap last night.

The upper was stiff with the additional inclement weather materials and suffered from the same metatarsal fold issue that I experienced with the Sayonaras.

Final Words

While I try to give my raw observations, I feel that a review must also provide some opinions and analysis.

  • I was really impressed with the ride and shock attenuation of the Sayonara. If Mizuno would make a 4mm offset version of the Sayonara and changed the upper so I didn’t dig into my feet, I would buy those. I’ll probably aim to try other Mizunos in the future.
  • The NB 1400 is a great shoe. Slips on your feet and gets out of your way. That is high praise. I’m going to hunt down the 1400 v2 and see if they’ve fixed the tongue issue. I might even concede to the 8mm offset.
  • The Kinvara 4 shows Saucony’s restraint in the “don’t mess with a good thing” department. These will be high on my list when my supply of K3’s run out. While not tested, it’s great that Saucony has expanded the range to include high-visibility and Gore-tex versions, in addition to the huge number of colourways already available.
  • I couldn’t get past the steep angle and stiff ride of the Frees. It’s unfortunate, because I think it could work well as a transition shoe for many runners. I will need to try the Free 3.0 to see if they work better for me.

I’d like to thank Black Toe Running, Mizuno, New Balance, Saucony and Nike Canada for making this test-fest possible.

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