Foot to Foot: Elemental Neutral Running Shoes

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Elemental running shoes slot in between minimal shoes, where your foot does most of the work, and more traditional trainers that come equipped with the latest cushioning technologies. We’ve seen big growth in the elemental category over the past 2 years, and it’s now big enough to offer several fine choices for runners who want something a little lighter but that still gives good cushioning and protection.

We put 5 elemental shoes to the test and here’s what we found.

Saucony Kinvara 4

7.9 oz M/6.8 oz W, 22mm/18mm stack height, $100 MSRP

Like: A soft ride that doesn’t skimp on responsiveness.

Dislike: Most testers appreciated the new heel collar lining, but it rubbed a bit for a few.

Verdict: Still a heck of a package for the runner who wants a lightweight training/racing option.

If you’ve been shopping in this shoe category, you know the Kinvara. This shoe has been wildly popular for runners who appreciate its lean feel, good cushioning, and responsive toe-off. While the previous version carried on these traits, it also introduced a more streamlined upper that was a bit too close-to-foot through the mid/forefoot area for some runners.

For the Kinvara 4, Saucony heard this feedback and modified the fit of the upper. We find the new design to be more ‘open’ than the Kinvara 3. It has a more flexible fit for runners who need it, without feeling overly roomy for those with a lower volume or narrower foot. That’s the most noticeable change compared to the Kinvara 3, and it’s welcome. If you need even more room, the Kinvara continues to come in wide widths for both men and women.

Saucony also updated the heel cushioning in the Kinvara 4 to PowerGrid, from ProGrid in version 3. We couldn’t tell a difference with the upgraded cushioning system, most likely because our testers spent most of their time on the mid/forefoot of the shoe. Still, it’s nice to see an upgrade without an increase in weight or price.

The Kinvara 4 is a subtle evolution of the Kinvara formula. But hey, we’ll take more of the same any day when “the same” is this good to start.

Asics Gel Lyte33 2

8.4 oz M/7.4 oz W, 24mm/17mm stack height, $90 MSRP

Like: Balanced, fluid-feeling platform attached to a great fitting upper.

Dislike: Probably not the prettiest shoe at the dance.

Verdict: Plenty responsive, plenty cushioned, and plenty to love in the Gel Lyte33 2.

The original Lyte33 was a good first draft. It had all the key elements you’d want in this category: lower weight, good flexibility, a responsive platform. But many people felt that all the pieces didn’t quite come together, so we’ll forgive you if you passed it up. But the Gel Lyte33 2 is a completely new shoe that deserves your attention.

When our testers put on this shoe, they were almost instantly impressed by the forefoot feel and much improved upper comfort level. In the forefoot, the SpEVA section of the dual-layer midsole foam carries all the way through, providing both a padded landing and energetic toe-off. The upper felt more like we expect from an Asics running shoe, with a bit more mid/forefoot room and materials that just felt better on the foot.

We liked the look of the original Gel Lyte33, but its design didn’t quite connect with runners at large. Time will tell if the new model’s look is more of a crowd favorite. Still, at under a hundred bucks and with dramatically improved engineering, we’ll go ahead and christen the Gel Lyte33 2 one of the most welcome surprises in 2013 footwear so far.

Pearl Izumi EM Road N 1

8.1 oz M/7.4 oz W, 22mm/17mm stack height, $115 MSRP

Like: Rockered midsole gives a quick transition through toe-off and fluid ride.

Dislike: Lack of cushioning tech may limit this shoe to shorter runs or lighter runners.

Verdict: The Road N 1 offers a smooth, responsive feel and treats runners to a seriously quick ride.

Pearl Izumi just did a complete rethink of its running footwear line and has gotten all emotional on us. Well, e:motion-al, to be exact. The E:Motion line of shoes is designed with simple foam midsoles to deliver a smooth, fluid running experience.

The Road N 1 is the lowest and lightest shoe in the E:Motion line. Thanks to the distinct rockered midsole shape that characterizes the E:Motion collection, we found the shoe to offer a quick transition through toe-off while encouraging a midfoot landing. Combine that with a responsive midsole compound and you’ve got a shoe that feels smooth and quick on your foot.

Though the platform may be the main story of the shoe, our testers were pleasantly surprised by the upper, consisting of a supple mesh with minimal overlays. The upper conformed easily to a range of tester foot shapes. Hotspots and irritations were nonexistent among testers, and those who prefer to go sockless will feel right at home in the Road N 1.

Nike Free 5.0+

8.2 oz M/7.0 oz W, 23mm/14mm stack height, $100 MSRP

Like: Sipes give the shoe a super flexible ride that engages the foot.

Dislike: At 9mm, the heel-to-toe offset is on the higher side for an elemental shoe.

Verdict: The Free 5.0+ can easily be used as a daily trainer or a tool for strengthening the foot.

Sporting a 9mm heel-to-toe offset, the geometry of the Nike Free 5.0+ (formerly known as the Free Run) borders between elemental and traditional, and may not satisfy runners who want a lower drop shoe. That said, for those looking for a flexible shoe that’s still cushioned and protective, the Free 5.0 is a hard option to top, as shown by its vast popularity and by its longevity (this version remains very similar to the original Free 5.0, released in 2005).

The “sipes” (we’d call them grooves or slits) through the midsole give the shoe an ultra-flexible ride that allows the foot to move, well, “freely.” The midsole compound is on the softer side, and though this shoe doesn’t contain any fancy cushioning tech, testers reported feeling plenty protected from impact, even when heelstriking.

The upper of the Free 5.0 delivers a snug fit but never feels claustrophobic. Its seamless construction permits sockless wear, and testers found the new breathable mesh to be a big improvement over the Nanoply material on the previous version.

Though the geometry of the Free 5.0 may separate it a bit from its elemental peers, its lightweight construction and natural ride allow it to serve a variety of purposes. Suitable as a stripped down daily trainer, a foot-strengthening tool, or as a “gateway drug” for the minimal shoe niche, the Free 5.0+ slots itself nicely in many runners’ lineups.

Brooks PureFlow 2

8.5 oz M/7.7 oz W, 22mm/18mm stack height, $100 MSRP

Like: Well-padded platform that delivers a resilient ride.

Dislike: Some testers weren’t impressed by the updates to the upper.

Verdict: The PureFlow 2 feels flexible, responsive and fast.

Brooks put a lot of thought into the original Pure series shoes, and it paid off in terms of a legion of PureProject runners out there these days. Out of all the shoes in the line, the PureConnect and PureFlow are probably the best known, with the Flow being a popular choice for Kinvara and Free Run cross-shoppers. The entire Pure line got updates to the uppers in January 2013, with the original platforms carried over (except for a new outsole on the PureGrit 2).

So it’s no surprise that we continue to love the adaptive ride offered by the BioMoGo DNA midsole. At jogging speeds, the PureFlow 2 feels pretty cush, but pick up the pace and you get a much firmer feel underfoot. What is new in the update is the revised upper, which shaves a little weight, adds a “burrito wrap” tongue, and has a reshaped toebox.

While most of our testers liked the upper, several felt it didn’t fit them quite as well as the original. The new tongue design can make finding the right fit challenging over the top of the foot, and the mesh is a bit stiffer. Still, the construction quality remains high and we found the shoe to retain its upper fit better than some running shoes that tend to stretch a little too much over time.

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