One important distinction to note in this category is the shoes selected are NOT specifically designed as racing shoes. Rather, they are shoes that are substantial and durable enough to be used as an everyday trainer, but lightweight and responsive enough that they could also be used for road racing. The prices for these models range from $100 to $150, so consider the value on the number of quality training miles a shoe provides rather than how many seconds it takes off your PR.
Shoes in this test group are evaluated on the following criteria:
- Fit: How the shoe matches the shape of your foot, and how well it stays in place when you’re running. Is the length true to size? Is the toe box wide enough? Does your heel stay in place when running at speed? Does the bottom of your foot slide around on the midsole? These are all considered for this sub-category.
- Comfort: How does the shoe feel when it’s on your foot? Do you get any hotspots or points of irritation when using the shoes? Do the shoes ventilate well when it’s hot outside?
- Responsiveness: This is where we evaluate the performance of the midsole material. How much energy return is maintained with each impact? Is it easy to transfer your momentum from the rear of the shoe to the front? Does the midsole give you any additional propulsion or toe spring when you push off the ground?
- Ride quality: This incorporates some of the responsiveness issues above, but mainly addresses the overall quality of the ride. Is the transition from heel to toe smooth or sloppy? Are there any asymmetries or design quirks that make the shoe feel weird? We also consider the outsole, and how effective it is at providing traction and transitioning your weight from the rear to the front of the shoe.
- Speed: Simply put, how easy is it to run fast in these shoes? As a general rule, a shoe that is lightweight, comfortable, and has good energy return in the midsole will score high in this category. We also consider what type of speed work each shoe is best suited for; sometimes a great 5K shoe doesn’t have enough resilience to race a full marathon for instance.
There was a huge variety in fit this season from the shoes we reviewed. From the snug racing fit of the Adidas Adizero Boston 7 to the wide voluminous fit of the Altra Torin 3.5 Mesh, all the bases were covered. The New Balance Fuel Cell Impulse was the biggest surprise with a snug and anatomic fit that reminded many testers of a better fitting track spike. The Adidas Adizero Boston 7 had the narrowest fit that gave testers a feeling of a racing flat. The Altra Torin Mesh 3.5 had the widest fit, but many applauded the new heel lock system. More companies are moving away from hard heel counters and the Boston 7 was the only shoe with a minor counter. It was far more flexible than previous and did a great job of holding the foot without putting excessive pressure on the achilles insertion.
Many companies have been advancing the uppers of their shoes to make them more and more comfortable. Moving away from hard overlays and rigid uppers, all the shoes have moved to mesh uppers that stretch decently to accommodate different foot shapes. The Altra Torin 3.5 Mesh was the most comfortable shoe with softer cushioning and a wide upper that many felt comfortable wearing during and post run. The synthetic mesh of the New Balance Fuel Cell Impulse gave a second skin feeling that many of our testers lauded as truly disappearing off the foot once they got it on. Testers felt the Adidas Adizero Boston 7 was less comfortable and had a speedier feel due to the racing flat feel, but many reached for it over lighter racers due to the additional cushioning.
As new materials and midsole foams have been introduced to the market, shoes have been getting more responsive and quick. Both the Adidas Adizero Boston 7 and New Balance Fuel Cell Impulse have partial non-EVA based foams with Boost and the Nitrogen infused Fuel Cell foam. The Boost is Adidas’s classic foam that continues to provide reliable and responsive cushioning mile after mile. Testers unanimously reported that the Boston 7 was by far the most responsive shoe, to the point that they reached for it for races, normal runs and everything in between. The New Balance Fuel Cell Impulse, with its nitrogen based material in the forefoot, was found to be responsive but mostly for fast workouts as the firmer EVA in the heel made it less forgiving during easy runs. The Altra Torin Mesh 3.5, using traditional EVA, was reported to be the least responsive yet most comfortable. The softer cushioning and zero drop lended more to easy recovery days that fast workouts.
The Adidas Adizero Boston 7 won this category by a landslide. The Boost, heel bevel and toe spring gives this shoe a fast, smooth ride over long distances and fast workouts. Testers were impressed with how smooth the shoe was despite having the highest drop of any shoe in this review. For workouts, the Fuel Cell Impulse impressed many of our testers with the flexible Fuel Cell material in the forefoot. However, only the forefoot strikers seemed to remark about the smoothness of the ride due to the firmer heel. All testers remarked that the Altra Torin Mesh 3.5 had a smooth ride with the increased toe spring to help unload the calves from the zero drop sole. However again the softer cushioning pushed many toward a recovery pace than a faster one.
The top rating in speed provided another landslide victory for the Boston 7. All testers reported searching their calendars for a race after their first run in this shoe. From marathon pace to 200m sprint pace, the Boston 7 performed well across the distance board. The speed came from the fast Boost, racing fit and firmer forefoot. The New Balance Fuel Cell Impulse was again noted to be a shoe that shined at high speed on the track. The flexibility in the forefoot made it a little less quick than the Boston 7, but the lower drop gave it a more track spike feel. Testers found the Fuel Cell Impulse to be a shoe that was limited to high speed days on the track due to the majority of speed coming from the forefoot. All testers agreed that while the Altra Torin Mesh 3.5 was a comfortable shoe, speed was not a strong part of its repertoire. A number of testers noted that again due to the softer sole and wider upper, the lack of security made picking up the pace difficult. However, of all the shoes tested, testers were quick to grab this shoe for recovery runs.
- As described above, testing of our lightweight road shoes was performed by a committee of testers, both male and female. Our group consists of eight testers who wore the shoes for total distances of approximately 40 to 100 miles. Single runs ranged in distance from three to 26 miles, and included casual training as well as speed workouts and road racing. The majority of our testing is conducted on asphalt roads or all-weather tracks, but we occasionally venture onto trails.
- One key variable that affects the subjective experience of our testers is the heel to toe drop of a shoe. The shoes in this season’s test group range from 10mm (Adidas Adizero Boston 7) to 0mm (Altra Torin 3.5 Mesh), and the most common drop is a midrange value of 6 or 8mm. Depending on the tester, this variable can make the difference between a smooth ride and one that feels sluggish or awkward. Our testing group contains heel, forefoot and midfoot strikers, and we take this variable into account when assessing the ride quality of a shoe by indicating what type of runner a particular shoe is best suited for.
- A big distinguishing characteristic in this category is the midsole material, which has become the “secret sauce” each brand tinkers with to find the magical balance of cushioning, energy return, and durability. Almost all of these material compounds are proprietary to each company, and they are frequently described in buzzwords (Bounce! Spring! Pop!) or claims that are difficult to validate (for example: 33% more resilient than traditional EVA). But make no mistake, midsole material makes a HUGE difference in the overall ride of a shoe.
- Many companies seem to be moving away from traditional EVA foam into materials that are inherently firmer and more durable. EVA typically provides nice cushioning on impact, but doesn’t dependably return that energy into forward momentum—it’s like running on pillows: the landing is soft, but it’s hard to transition from one step to the next. EVA also has a tendency to break down after a few hundred miles, which in turn dictates the overall lifespan of the shoe. Firmer materials are designed to more effectively transfer ground impact forces into forward momentum, and tend to maintain their shape and function for a longer period of time compared to EVA. The tradeoff is that firmer midsoles often feel less forgiving or less comfortable during casual training miles than regular EVA; consequently, one popular trend right now is to combine a firmer midsole compound with traditional (and softer) EVA to strike an ideal balance of cushioning and responsiveness. The New Balance Fuel Cell Impulse is a great example of this, with a Nitrogen Infused Foam utilized in the forefoot, while the remainder of the sole is traditional EVA.