This is a somewhat long and unorthodox review, so I’m going to begin with an unorthodox introduction. I remember back in middle school we used to have a police officer come to class and talk to us about the dangers of drug use. One of the things he used to discuss were “gateway drugs” – those were the mild “drugs” like cigarettes and alcohol, which if you began to use them, would lead you down a slippery slope to the point where you’d be sniffing coke or shooting up heroin out behind the school at lunchtime. What, you might ask, does this have in any way to do with a running shoe? Good question – bear with me and I’ll try to explain.
Like gateway drugs, I have found that many people who make the transition to minimalist running begin the process with a gateway shoe. A gateway shoe is one that has many of the characteristics of a truly minimalist shoe, but still possesses some of the creature comforts of the familiar, high-tech, big heeled shoes that most runners have run in for the past 20-30 years. A gateway shoe gives a runner a taste of the freedom offered by a truly minimalist shoe (or, god forbid, running barefoot), and once a runner tries one of these out, it’s often a quick slide to the point where they, somewhat paradoxically, succumb to the throes of a raging minimalist shoe addiction. Sadly, it’s an addiction that I know all too well.
Lately, two shoes in particular have hit the streets and have garnered rave reviews from shoe junkies. These are the Saucony Kinvara and the Nike Free Run+, and I originally did not intend to buy either of them. However, both have apparently been huge sellers, and numerous friends have provided glowing reviews of each (I have now posted my own Nike Free Run+ review.). In particular, more of my on-line friends than I can count have jumped on the Saucony Kinvara bandwagon, and it has become the shoe of choice for many looking to move towards less shoe. Quite frankly, I suspect that the Kinvara may have become one of those very gateway shoes discussed above that causes runners slide down the slippery slope toward minimalism. Given the hype, I had to try the Kinvara for myself (this was a personal purchase, not a sample shoe), and having put in nearly 60 miles in them, including an 18 miler and some speed workouts, I feel ready to share my opinion.
To be honest, I have been asked about when this review was going to come out more often than for any other shoe I have tested. Furthermore, my original post providing some initial thoughts on the Kinvara has garnered big traffic numbers here on the blog (it’s currently my #2 post overall in terms of reader traffic). The Kinvara is clearly hot, and though true minimalists will probably cringe when I say this, I believe that it is going to play a pivotal role in the future of the minimalist running movement. Why, you ask? There are a number of reasons. First, if in fact the Kinvara is selling as well as it seems that it is, it may be the shoe that helps prove that money can be made from minimalism. Let’s be quite honest – minimalist shoes will not go mainstream and the movement will likely fade away if nobody buys this type of shoe. The success of shoes like the Vibram Fivefingers, Nike Free, and the Kinvara will go a long way toward spurring further development from the big manufacturers, and this has the potential to help shape the future of shoe design and marketing.
The second reason why the Kinvara is a pivotal shoe is that for many people it represents the first shoe that they will have worn that doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional style of running shoe that most people wear (i.e., relatively heavy and with a big heel lift). Sure, racing flats have been around forever, but they are generally not heavily marketed, and a lot of runners have never considered them an option. The Kinvara, however, is being heavily marketed, and it seems to have come to represent a “safe” option for those wanting to try less shoe. It deviates from most modern shoes in that it’s very light and has a low heel to toe drop (4mm), but it retains a hefty degree of cushion and it provides a very cushy ride. Once you go from a heavy trainer to a light shoe like the Kinvara, it can be hard to go back – this is exactly how I found myself on the slippery slope. About a year and a half ago I bought a pair of Saucony Fastwitch 2’s, which are a lightweight trainer that represented my personal gateway shoe. Once I started running, and setting PR’s, in the Fastwitch, there was no going back – the rest, as they say, is history. My suspicion is that for many people, the Kinvara will have the same effect.
Given all of this, how does the Kinvara actually perform? Below are my thoughts.
Appearance: As I’ve mentioned in other shoe reviews, I’m a sucker for a shoe that looks good. The Kinvara is a fine looking shoe, but not overly flashy like some of the others in my collection (Brooks Launch and Mach 12 come to mind). The upper is mostly just white and black on my pair (though I have seen pictures of a slick all-red version), and the sole is bright red. Saucony offers the Kinvara in a wide variety of color schemes, mostly by varying the midsole color, and this is a testament to the marketing effort they are putting into this shoe. Rarely do we see a lightweight training shoe with so many color combinations to choose from.
Construction: This is a category I’m including for the first time in a review, and it’s probably one I should have added in a long time ago. One of the issues that has been brought up in reviews of the Kinvara is durability, particularly premature wear on the sole. The problem is that, probably in an effort to minimize weight, Saucony went bare bones on the more durable black rubber outsole elements on the bottom of the shoe (see picture to the right). The lateral heel is well covered, but the forefoot is only speckled with small triangular patches of outsole, which are surrounded by far less durable EVA midsole material (the red foam). In what I consider to be a design flaw, there are no outsole elements along the lateral side of the forefoot. In a 4mm drop shoe being pitched as one that can help people transition to a midfoot/forefoot stride, having no protection for the lateral forefoot EVA is a problem. The reason for this is that mid/forefoot strikers tend to land on the lateral edge of the forefoot, after which the foot rolls medially. What happens then is these runners land on unprotected EVA, which wears down rather quickly as a result, creating the durability issues that have been reported. It has not been an issue for me since I tend to mildly heel strike in anything that has a heel lift, but for a true forefoot striker this could be a problem. It’s high time we see more shoes truly designed with a forefoot striker in mind – although still only a small (but likely growing) part of the market, this has long been an under-served population in the running world when it comes to proper running shoe design.
Regarding the upper, the Kinvara has an unusual mesh covered by thin fabric design (see picture at left). I’m curious as to why the under-layer of mesh is necessary, but I’ve had no issues with the design so far. The upper is very light and comfortable, and has a nice, sock-like fit.
Fit and Feel: As mentioned above, the Kinvara has a minimal, sock-like upper and fits very comfortably on my foot – perfect for a lightweight shoe (the Kinvara weighs only 7.7 oz in men’s size 9). It is neither too wide nor too narrow (results may vary depending on foot size), and runs true to size for me. While I would prefer a more anatomically shaped last that is shaped more like my foot (check out the exciting shoe line coming from Altra Running to see what I mean by this), the Kinvara is more comfortable than many other shoes I own due to the minimal upper.
The place where the Kinvara deviates most from a truly minimalist shoe is in the midsole cushioning (the red portion of the sole) – the cushion in the Kinvara is downright thick. While this might make true minimalist runners shy away, I suspect it will maintain the feel of a more traditional shoe for those using the Kinvara as a first foray into a lightweight trainer. Wearing the Kinvara, it feels cushy, and the forefoot does ride a bit higher above the ground than some other shoes. If you want a firm shoe like a traditional racing flat, this is probably not the best choice.
Performance: The Kinvara is really kind of an unusual shoe when it comes to performance. I was initially skeptical about the cushioning, but it feels good out on the road. However, using it on a springy track was not as fun – the combo of shoe cushion and track springiness seemed to make for too much give (I prefer a true flat on the track).
Viewing this as a road shoe, the Kinvara is super lightweight and handles very well. Given the low drop of 4mm (similar to the Nike Free 3.0, Brooks Mach 12, and soon to arrive New Balance Minimus), it doesn’t tend to get in the way of my shorter stride too much, although it does still tend to cause me to mildly heel strike (Update 9/24/10 – I seem to have overcome the Kinvara heel strike – see video below). If you have never before run in a shoe with a lower than usual heel, some adaptation may be necessary, and a period of calf soreness will likely occur after initial use (low drop shoes work the lower calves a lot more). Go easy at first, allow sore calves to rest, and all should be fine.
The Kinvara is a neutral shoe without stability elements, so that may be a change for you if you decide to try it and are coming from a stability trainer (I’ve written extensively on my thoughts about the pronation control paradigm elsewhere on this blog). For many, this might be the first neutral shoe that they try, and I suspect it may be one of the shoes that makes people realize that there is a whole world of shoe choice out there that they can now tap into – though some may truly need pronation control, I found that I at least did not, and it’s a lot of fun (but bad for the wallet) when you realize that you aren’t tied to a pronation control category.
I have now used the Kinvara for speed work as well as long runs, and I could easily see myself using it as a marathon shoe given it’s cushioning (I’m still hesitant to take the pounding of 26.2 miles in a flat, particularly since I’m quite sure my form would get sloppier in the final miles). I have no doubt that the Kinvara could handle the distance, and it’s currently one of the shoes that I’m considering for my Fall marathons (haven’t decided yet). It would also work well in shorter races, and I know some really fast guys who rave about it and have thrown down sub-18:00 5K’s in them (Steve Speirs of Run Bulldog Run to name one). I haven’t raced in them yet, so I can’t offer an opinion on that, but for most people coming from a traditional trainer they will make you feel like you are flying due to the low weight alone.
Conclusion: The Saucony Kinvara, although being pitched as minimalist shoe, finds itself in a middle ground along the spectrum from traditional to barefoot-like (I’d say about right in the middle of that spectrum). It represents something of a risk to runners used to a traditional shoe or fearful of anything that doesn’t have pronation control, and it represents too-much-shoe to those who are true minimalists. Yet, despite this, it seems to be one of the most popular shoes around right now (my local shoe store indicated that they are flying off the shelves). Based upon my experience, I can understand why.
The Kinvara breaks the mold of most shoes in the Saucony lineup by having a much reduced heel-toe drop and a very minimal upper, but retains the cushiony feel enjoyed by many runners. I personally have a wide range of preference in shoe choice, and value variability in choice on a given day and for a given purpose. The Kinvara definitely has a place in my lineup, and it will continue to be used regularly. It’s a super-light, fast shoe that will knock the socks off of many runners used to something heavier with a bigger heel lift (literally in some cases – this is a shoe that can be run in sockless, and I have done so myself).
If you are hesitant to try a neutral, lightweight shoe like the Kinvara, you might want to consider the following statement from a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine: “…despite over 20 years of stability elements being incorporated in running footwear there is, as yet, no established clinically based evidence for their provision.” Next, you might want to check out this article in the New York Times: “Do Certain Types of Sneakers Prevent Injuries?” To a certain extent trying out something new when it comes to running shoe choice can be a bit frightening, because the biggest fear that most runners face is not being able to run due to an injury. However, one will never know if less shoe is an option unless one takes a leap of faith and gives it a try. From where I stand, the Saucony Kinvara is as good a choice as any with which to take that leap.
Update 10/6/2010: Decided to go with the Kinvara at the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon (full Smuttynose race report here) and qualified for Boston in 3:15:21 – that’s a 9 minute PR. Shoes felt great the whole way, no blisters or hotspots, and recovery has been going really well. Awesome marathon shoe.
Update 10/14/2010: A couple of friends and I put up a detailed review of the Saucony Kinvara as a marathon shoe on the dailymile blog.