[Editor’s note: I’d like to introduce Jeroen van Geelen, a new voice on Slowtwitch charged with a specific portfolio: technical running. We’ve spent little or no time in years past trying to keep up with running footwear, but one important goal for Slowtwitch in 2009 is to tackle this category with excellence, tri-specificity, and to do so comprehensively. This is Jeroen’s first article of what we hope and trust are many on the subject.
Jeroen owns Total Running, one of the more important running and triathlon retail establishments in The Netherlands.]
Asics was the most popular brand of running shoe among those participating at the 2008 Hawaiian Ironman, with 528 pairs of shoes represented among the contestants. This number is more than triple the 171 pair total from runner-up Nike. Saucony completes the top 3 with 143 pairs.
However, with the very strong collection from Saucony next Spring they stand poised to eat into the Asics pie, and maybe even threaten Nike for the runner-up position. With four models in its lightweight trainer collection Saucony means serious business.
But before I continue to explain the differences between these models, and from the other two brands, I’ll give you a short intro on why it's useful to have a pair of lightweight trainers in your closet.
Most triathletes use only one pair of shoes for all their training and racing. However, next to the nice psychological effect to race in a lighter shoe, there is a physical element that makes it useful to train once or twice a week on a lightweight trainer.
Most of us do several run workouts a week. Most of them are at different levels of effort: maybe one long slow run, an intermediate run and a somewhat faster-paced run, depending on experience and time of season. We do this to get endurance and speed, but also because training at one speed or effort over the long haul doesn’t challenge the weaknesses in our fitness. When you are always training on the same pair of shoes your body adapts to the specifics of that pair.
Furthermore, faster paced workouts are best executed in a lightweight trainer, because they are made for the purpose. They make leg turnover easier because of the lower weight and also because they are a more flexible during the push-off phase. And as a bonus you strengthen the tendons and muscles in your feet, because they are subject to different stresses when you alternate shoes.
Clydesdale and Athena athletes, however, should take care when training on lightweight training shoes and should do so less often.
Which model suits you the best? Below is what you'll see for Spring 09, and we’ll start with a look at the three most popular companies represented at the Ironman in Kona.
For Spring 09 four models in the lightweight trainer category are offered: The Grid Tangent 3 LC, the Grid Sinister, the Grid Tangent 3 and the Grid Fastwitch 3. These are four strong models; Saucony has a shoe in this category for almost any kind of runner.
The Grid Tangent 3 LC
This is the new neutral version of the Grid Tangent 3. With a weight of 9 oz. it's a light shoe with a flexible forefoot. Attention to fit in the heel is apparent, in keeping with Saucony’s historic norm. The shoe really grabs your rearfoot and gives you a secure feeling. At 9 oz. The shoe is slightly heavier than some other models, but it gives a very comfortable ride and the amount of cushioning will surprise many. The Grid Tangent 3 is the same as the LC model but with a medial post which makes the model suitable for triathletes with a slight to moderate pronation.
The Grid Sinister
In this model Saucony employs its proprietary Flexion Plate. Situated in the midsole, its purpose is to speed the transfer of weight and power from midfoot to forefoot. The weight of this shoe, due to the use of the Flexion Plate, is heavier at around 10.2 oz. in men’s size 9, but the shoes perform like they’re an ounce or two lighter. I had to convince myself of their weight, and put them on a kitchen scale to see that they indeed weigh as advertised.
At first the shoe feels a little strange and stiff when you walk around in it. But when running at 6:30 per mile pace or better, the push forward advertised by the Flexion Plate seems to work.
This shoe is a good match for mid- to forefoot strikers. The fit is narrow, so it's not suitable for triathletes who need a roomy toe box. This model uses extremely lightweight breathable mesh on the upper, and it holds almost no water spilled at aid stations. Also of specific utility for triatletes: the shoe is built with lace loops through which the laces slide easily—ideal for a faster transition. No medial post on this shoe, so it’s for neutral to slight pronators only.
The Grid Fastwitch 3
This shoe sits in between a lightweight trainer and a serious racing flat. The reason I put them in the lightweight category is that they offer reasonable cushioning for a shoe with this low weight of 7.3 oz. They are a bit less stable then the Grid Tangent 3 because there is less torsional stiffness. They do offer a medial post but this is more to give some stability and endurance to the midsole than it is to support a triathlete with more than a very slight pronation. This shoe could be very useful to the lighter triathlete who already has some experience in the use of a lightweight trainer. But as in almost all the Saucony models for Spring 09 they have a very pleasant feeling in fit and feel. I think Saucony hit it just right with their newfound fit, and the company can look forward to a new range of customers that wouldn’t have looked at the brand a few years ago.
All Saucony models mentioned are available in several colorways to match your race kit. They’re sold in specific mens and womens sizing.
I personally must say that I was a bit surprised that Asics lead over Nike in Kona was as large as it was. Still, Nike is always a big player in the lightweight market, maybe even the brand leader in triathlon in this specific category.
Nike always has some classic lightweight trainers in its offerings, like the Zoom Skylon and the Zoom Elite, which have been in-line for some years now. What I really like about Nike is its desire to search out the upper limit in weight and function. Sometimes it finds success and sometimes not, but it approaches lightweight shoe design in ways different from other brands.
This different approach to engineering led to the introduction of the Lunarlite foam material in Fall of 2008. The models in which this material is used are the Lunartrainer and racer. Since the racer is a racing flat I will write about this shoe in another article.
When I first received this shoe (the white shoe pictured just above) as a sample model to test about a year ago I thought it was still in development. With the extremely wide midsole it looked more to me like a case study than a production-ready sample. The first time I put them on they gave me what I can only call that Nike feeling: soft, lightweight (8.6 oz.) and with a snug fit. It is very easy to run in them without socks, and without worrying about blisters. It also helped that the inside of the heel counter is low and very soft on the inside. The material feels almost like suede.
They stepped away from their traditional Air system to create cushioning and used only this new Lunarlite foam material. This material gives a soft feeling but it's still responsive enough to run in at a faster clip. The midsole is slightly higher in the heel than what I see with other shoes, and this gives the shoe a feeling of forward propulsion while running. As I wrote before, the midsole seems a bit odd because it looks so wide but they never feel bulky. Due to this width they are very stable. So, even without missing a medial post they are still supportive enough for triathletes with a moderate pronation up to the 70.3 race distance; or for neutral athletes up to the full Kona distance.
The Zoom Victory+
With this shoe I have some mixed feelings. It has potential but there are just to many little things “wrong” with it to make it a hit. Let me first write about the things I do like about this shoe. Nike uses its newly developed Flywire technology which, simply put, are structural threads along the upper designed to deliver a compact fit without adding extra weight. And you do feel that these Flywire threads really work when you lace up. But the overall fit is so narrow that they are only for the those with a very narrow mid- and forefoot. What I also like about this shoe is the cushioning and responsive feeling the Zoom Air unit gives relative to its weight of 10 oz.
Now the downside of the shoes. The forefoot is made from breathable mesh but the rest of this shoe feels like it's made from plastic. The inside is—due to the use of this Flywire technology—almost seamless, so there are no rubbing seams in this shoe. But the plastic-like upper makes the shoe also almost non-breathable and after a short run in a warmer climate your feet are already soaking in your shoes. Also an issue is its lack of stability in the midsole. It's not stable at all, so you have to be an athlete with a very neutral gait and no biomechanical problems.
But the largest problem is that the heel counter is so high that there is likelihood of blisters on your Achilles tendon, especially if you run without socks. So if you want to try this shoe verify that the heel counter is not too high for you.
The Free Everyday+ 2
This is a shoe based on the original Nike Free concept of running barefoot. The Free Everyday has a more cushioned midsole than the original Free, but it's also a more substantive shoe. The upper wraps around your foot and gives again this lightweight and snug feeling. Its almost seamless inner makes it possible to run without socks. They fit nice and low around your ankle which gives an extra light feel to them. Although they use normal lace hoops they are easy to lace up and fast enough for a quick transition. No medial post in these babies, so it’s only for those blessed with a neutral footfall and no biomechanical problems.
Use these for distances up to a 70.3 race. Above this distance they are a little less cushioned, and not stable enough for most athletes. The weight of this shoe in a men size 9 is 9.5 oz. If you need a lightweight trainer from Nike with more support, it’s the Nike Zoom Elite+ 4 you want. All Nike models are available in specific mens and womens sizing.
Asics may well be the leader in the technical running footwear market, but I do wonder why the gap between Asics and the other brands is so great at Kona. My best guess is that a lot of the Kona participants did the run leg in their normal training shoes.
My assumption for this is that Asics produces very sound training shoes, but in the lightweight department I always found them a bit less innovative than other brands. It seems to me that their lightweight shoes are stripped down versions of training shoes and that's it. Just strip down a Kayano and voila, a lightweight trainer. No real innovative design or technology.
Gel DS Trainer 14
For 2009 Asics updated their popular DS Trainer only slightly more than adding some new colours. I will write about this shoe anyway since it’s Asics’ flagship lightweight trainer. Plenty of cushioning with large Gel units in heel and forefoot. The lacing on the shoe is asymmetrical which makes it easier to flex in combination with the Biomorphic fit.
But what underwhelms me is that they don't feel lightweight when I put them on. They are 9.6 oz. and this is almost 1 oz. heavier than last year’s "13." The increase in weight is caused by thickening the outsole. They do feel stable, but not light. For example the Saucony Grid Sinister is slightly heavier than the DS Trainer 14 but feel like they are 2 oz. lighter . No model in the DS Trainer range has ever felt light to me. I cannot really put my finger on it but in my guess is that they are just not flexible enough for a seriously fast lightweight trainer (although the new 14 is a little more flexible than last year’s 13 model).
But if you are an athlete who favors the Asics Kayano or the GT-2130 this is the shoe for you. It has the same build as these models, the same feeling, a stable medial post so it's like stepping in the same shoe—only a few ounces lighter. They tend to fit a half to full size smaller than the other Asics models.
Gel Noosa Tri
This (pictured at the top of this article) is an older DS trainer midsole with a specific triathlon upper named after the famous Australian race. Fewer seams, different and softer suede-like material in the heel counter, a choice of elastic or regular laces and a crazy printed upper for 2009. For the rest it is just like a DS Trainer in terms of stability and cushioning. You have to buy them online in Australia or in Europe since Asics USA chose not to import them, so, if you’re looking for something outrageous and fun, here you go.
Gel Speedstar 3
What’s written above about Asics models applies to this shoe (pictured adjacent) as well. It's certainly not a bad shoe at $85, but it's not innovative in any way. Asics didn't update the midsole to the lighter and better Solyte material, but sticks to the older SpEVA material. It has no asymmetrical fit, no Biomorphic Fit upper or any other recent Asics technologies in the shoe. As in the DS Trainer it feels stable, it's well cushioned, but it never gives you a really lightweight feeling that models from other brands may give you. Are you a Gel Nimbus fan? Or a fan of any other neutral model from Asics and you don't want to change brands? Then this is your shoe. In comparison to a Gel Nimbus 10 the Gel Speedstar 3 is almost 4 oz. lighter at a weight of 8.8 oz.
All Asics models are available in specific men and women colours and sizing.
[If you like what Jeroen has written for our Slowtwitch readers, and if the Netherlands is a convenient country from which to buy, most of these shoes can be purchased at Jeroen's click and mortar store: Total Running.]