There are shoes you wear for comfortable, slow miles. And then there are shoes you wear for racing. Those in the latter category need to be lightweight, responsive and give you that little edge on the big day.
From carbon-fibre plates to super lightweight shoes for runners who care about every gram of extra weight, here's a round-up of some of the best race-day shoes currently on the market.
The best race day running shoes 2021:
1.Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next%
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
The go-to shoe for elite marathoners and enthusiastic amateurs alike, it's no exaggeration to suggest that the Nike Vaporfly Next% has re-written the distance-running history books. A combination of super responsive ZoomX foam and a carbon plate have been propelling athletes to break countless records while wearing these, and studies suggest that non-elites may see even bigger gains. Simply put, if you're serious about running a new PB – and you have deep enough pockets to afford these – then there's no better race-day choice.
2. Adidas Adizero Pro
Weight: 241g (unisex)
Heel/toe drop: 8.5mm
It's no longer enough to have a shoe with a simple carbon-fibre plate in it. Shoe brands now need to offer something that shows their carbon plate is better than the rest. In this case, the plate inserted between the midsole and the sock liner has been tuned to flex at a 30-degree angle, which Adidas says is the perfect angle to give you a decent spring in the toe-off without loading stress onto the metatarsals. Otherwise, the Pro takes its lead from the Adizero range (which has been worn for more world-record runs than any other): a superb balance of low weight and decent cushioning; super-slim fit; and a focus on marginal features, such as lack of irritation around the heel, a breathable upper (made from a new material Adidas is calling Celermesh) and a grippy Continental rubber outsole. What we loved most, though, was the two types of midsole foam: the new, super-light ‘Lightstrike’ foam on the front two-thirds of the shoe and Boost foam in the heel section to give extra shock reduction and bounce when you start to fatigue and your form goes in the later stages of long runs. A clever combo that testers enjoyed.
3. Mizuno Wave Duel
Weight: 200g (M), 165g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 9mm
Fans of the now-defunct Wave Sayonara may be comforted to know this latest performance shoe from Mizuno feels a good deal like its predecessor. It has the same combination of speed and responsiveness, coupled with good lateral stability and a last that is wide enough for the shoe to be worn on longer runs. Efficient runners will find they can use this for track sessions and events up to about half-marathon distance, making it excellent value for money.
That quality is accentuated by the durability of the shoe; we hammered it and even after
a few hundred miles, the outsole rubber looked barely touched and the upper had not started to bag or sag. On the downside, if you’re used to the bounce and energy return that many shoes give, you’ll be disappointed here because the Duel offers none of that –it’s quite old school in that respect. And a few details need to be sorted out: the underlay
in the toebox, which makes the toe section crinkle a little when you flex your foot; the heaviness of the overlays in the midfoot; and the porous nature of the mesh upper, which makes the shoe vulnerable in even a drizzle. We’re giving this one a solid B grade.
4. Inov-8 X-Talon G-210
Weight: 210g (M), 210g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 3mm
There are times on the trails when you want to bumble along with your head up, admiring the scenery. And there are times when you want to put the hammer down, and crunch over and through anything in your path as fast as you can. This is a shoe for the latter occasions. It’s the lightest, fastest shoe trail specialist Inov-8 has in its range. The combination of the lightweight and a 3mm heel drop gives it a low-slung, responsive feeling. As for protection, the upper is tough, water-repellent, breathable and surprisingly quick-drying – and our testers loved the aggressive 8mm lugs, with their extra-sticky coating of graphene – one of the earth’s toughest and most durable materials.
The shoes stuck to everything, including damp rock (and that’s not often achieved), incredibly well. We had runners using it over fells, mountains, gentle trail and cross-country, and it did itself proud on all of them. You wouldn’t find it much fun trying to run door-to-trail in them; it feels a little like running in football boots when you’re on the asphalt, so keep these in the boot of your car and crack them out once you get to a more rugged destination.
5. New Balance Fuelcell TC
Weight: 281g (M), 222g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 10mm
The advantage of the multi-tester system at RW is that we can really dig out the features of a shoe. For example, had we tested the Fuelcell TC on just one or two runners, we would not have discovered that not only is this a fine performance model with more speed and zip than a Jofra Archer bouncer, but that it’s also incredibly durable, reassuring and suitable for all your sessions, apart from recovery runs (it could be used for those, too, but it would be a waste).
In designing the FuelCell TC, New Balance looked at the competitive-level runner who’s aiming for a sub-three-hour marathon. They want a fast shoe, but also need the extra comfort and support of a non-elite. The magic is the combination of the Fuelcell foam and a carbon plate in the midsole. The landing is soft – but then, the energy return from the foam and the recoil from the plate kick in to push your foot backup, meaning you get the benefit of both soft comfort and firm roll-through, which is rare. If we’re being picky, we’d say that the mesh on the upper is a little too open, meaning wet feet in a downpour, but that’s a price we’re willing to pay for such an impressive shoe.
6. Brooks Hyperion Tempo
Weight: 207g (M), 190g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
If you're a lighter more efficient runner, this will serve you perfectly well as an everyday training shoe. It has the adaptable nature of a Saucony Kinvara, an Under Armour Machina or a Nike Pegasus Turbo. For the masses, though, it really comes into its own in the 10K to half-marathon range. The USP is the responsiveness: there are no rockers, plates or other devices designed to push your foot more quickly through from heel to toe – and yet the weight, the placement of the outsole grooves and the fluid design of the midfoot section combine to give a bewitching sensation that the shoe has, in effect, become an extension of your foot.
Brooks has named the new midsole foam DNA Flash: it’s the brand’s excellent DNAfoam infused with nitrogen to give more bounce at a lower weight. On the downside, the toe-off could be better – the cushioning up at the front, while not poor, is neither firm nor soft, offering little in the way of pop off the toes. The tongue also had a tendency to slide to one side a little. But as a well-cushioned, fast, slimline shoe that’ll provide a consistent ride across medium-distance endurance races, this is a very good shoe.
7. On Cloudflash
Weight: 211g (M), 211g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 5mm
On is positioning the Cloudflash (a unisex shoe) as its ‘fastest On ever, designed for pure speed’. It has all the hallmarks of the racing flat: low heel-to-toe drop, lightweight and minimal cushioning. And, most importantly, it feels super-fast on the feet – one tester compared it to ‘running on air’. The slick white-and-neon looks also got some admiring glances, although if you’re a fan of keeping your shoes box-fresh, you’ll struggle with these, as they seem to draw dirt and dust. Like a Formula One car, it is stripped down to the bare essentials – the one-piece upper is made from a super-thin mesh. The trade-off, however, is that the shoes lack a little comfort and protection underfoot. One tester experienced some pain under their big toe at the end of a half marathon in the shoes. Ultimately, if you’re already a fan of the On range and are looking for a featherweight flyer for 5Ks, the Cloudflash ticks all the boxes. However, we recommend you steer clear of dusty trails.
8. Altra Escalante 2
Weight: 263g (M) 198g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 0mm
Altra actually offers a shoe called the Escalante Racer, but we decided to put this shoe in because we think it offers more bang for your buck. It is an incredibly versatile shoe that offers enough cushioning and stability for an everyday training shoe, but enough flexibility, responsiveness and bounce to make it effective as a shoe for picking up the pace on sessions and races of 10K and longer. As always with Altra shoes, the toebox is wide to allow your feet to sit naturally and to splay more during the gait cycle – almost all other shoe brands offer a slightly tapered toebox. Altra says its wider shoes mean fewer injuries and more comfort, control and stability on the run.
The shoes are also zero drop, as with all the brand’s models, which means there is no height differential between heel and toe. This ‘flat’ feeling might sound strange but it has a loyal following and several of our testers who had not tried Altra before quickly adapted to it and became fans, citing a ‘more natural sensation’ and an enjoyable sense of speed and flexibility. Overall, this is an impressive and quick all-rounder for those prepared to look beyond the usual brands.
9. Brooks Hyperion Elite
Weight: 198g (M), 153g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
The majority of faster shoes tend to follow the narrow and streamlined template. The Hyperion Elite is different. It has an 8mm heel drop, which is high for a performance shoe, and the unisex last (the outline of the shoe) is surprisingly wide, too. It features a full-length carbon-fibre plate in the midsole and this, along with the hefty price tag, is a clear sign it is intended as a competitor to the Nike NEXT%. (US runner Des Linden won the 2018 Boston Marathon wearing a blacked-out prototype of this shoe).
It might look a little on the large side, but Brooks has taken care to keep the weight to the minimum. It’s achieved this by offering an outsole that is just 2mm thick; reduced padding around the heel; a new midsole foam called DNA Zero, which, the brand says, is 45 per cent lighter than its signature BioMogo DNA foam; and a featherlight upper made from 25 per cent nylon. The overall effect is thrilling but, crucially, controlled. The carbon plate gives real zip and bounce, but not at the cost of lateral wobble or an out-of-control sensation that can blight similar shoes. Bust these out on race day and watch that PB time tumble.
10. Salomon S/Lab Speed 2
Weight: 265g (unisex)
Heel/toe drop: 4mm
The S/Lab range of Salomon running shoes is designated ‘for athletes’. That doesn’t mean only those who are paid to run for a living, but anyone who has reached the point where the right gear offers marginal gains. If this is you, rest assured that the feedback and knowledge of many of Salomon’s athletes, including Kilian Jornet, has gone into the design of these shoes. They’re a slim fit and feature prominent, chevron-shaped outsole lugs that coped admirably with the worst sludge the South Downs, the Peak District and the Lake District could throw at them. Pleasingly, the mud and muck didn’t get stuck between the lugs, either.
An internal sleeve not only feels lush but hugs the foot in place, so you don’t get any lateral sliding inside the shoe when changing direction quickly on the trails. And, finally, the lace-lock system (essentially, pulling a toggle tight rather than lacing) means runners did not have to worry about trying to unpick muddy laces to retie them. Be warned, though: there’s little cushioning on these, so keep them for race day and break them in thoroughly before you try properly putting the burners on.
11. Asics Evoride
Weight: 225g (M), 210g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 5mm
It's not often the third part of a trilogy is better than the original, but that’s the case here. The Evoride follows on from the the MetaRide and the GlideRide in featuring Asics’ Guidesole rocker design (similar to the rocker – curved outsole – Hoka shoes have). The reason for the Evoride’s success is the reduced weight and increased responsiveness. It’s designed to be the speediest of the three shoes in the range and it’s when you are moving fast that the Guidesole comes into its own, delivering a smooth and speedy ride, according to our testers. It’s not meant to be an out-and-out racer, more of an everyday shoe for quicker runners and sub-elites – but the vast majority of consumers would use this only for faster runs such as tempo and interval sessions.
Elsewhere, grip is fine in the dry but struggled a little in the wet, slipping slightly on toe-off. And for such a stripped-down shoe, Asics has made a bit of a boo-boo by not applying the same methodology to the tongue, which is too thick for a shoe of these dimensions. It makes the feeling pleasingly cushioned on the top of the foot but some may find there are issues tying laces tightly.
12. On Cloudflow
Weight: 235g (M), 235g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 6mm
This second version of the Swiss brand’s light, neutral road shoe gets almost everything right. The midsole, featuring 18 ‘pods’, On’s proprietary Helion foam and a curved heel unit for a smoother transition, offered an excellent balance of cushioning and responsiveness. It also provided good traction, even in wet conditions. Tweaks to the breathable mesh upper, with strategically positioned overlays and a new lacing configuration, mean tall testers, regardless of gait pattern or foot size, found a fit that felt comfortable and secure – a big plus in a shoe that’s designed for fast running. The only minor issue was the laces, which are thinner than traditional ones – one tester found them too long, while another found the material ‘slippery’ and tricky to tie and untie. The pods also collected a lot of mud and grit when testers went off road. But, in general, the shoe impressed, converting runners who were new to the brand. It is worth a serious look for faster sessions or racing.
13. Asics MetaRide
Weight: 306g (M) 249g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 0mm
This was Asics’s flagship launch for 2019, and the result of much R&D. It has been put in the same bracket as the Hoka Carbon X or the Nike Vaporfly Next% - but while it propels your foot off the floor quicker than your average shoe that’s as far as the comparison goes. The other two are lightweight speedsters to be used by the masses for shorter races whereas Asics intend this to be a shoe for heel strikers of all abilities to keep on going while minimising the stress of a long run.
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