The shoes that Mark and I have recently added into our regular rotation have been the Saucony 4mm heel-to-forefoot offset range. The Saucony Kinvara (Brian), Mirage (Mark) and Cortana (Brian) have kept us company as we’ve been steadily logging some miles on various surfaces, on easy, long and up-tempo runs, hill sprints and even for some harder 1,000m 5k race pace repetitions.
These shoes are not what I’d describe a minimal, given they are built on about a 20-24mm cushioned platform, but they are designed with reducing the ramp between the heel and the forefoot being a key minimalist or natural running type feature. Saucony have been innovative in setting up their range of running shoes with a graduated reduction in ramp height – every shoe now sits in an 8mm, 4mm or 0mm drop category.
I don’t have a problem with the approach; it makes a lot of sense to categorize your shoes in a way that an increasingly well informed running consumer can understand and put in context. Drop is much talked about in minimalist running circles, on this website, and many others. This risk from Saucony’s perspective is being perceived to be putting all your design eggs in the one basket i.e. heel-to-forefoot drop as being the primary determinate or design feature being identified. In terms of this 4mm range; the other question relates to whether 4mm is generally too low a drop for daily trainer type shoes? We get to this question during this review with other properties of the shoe i.e. flexibility being drivers as to the suitability or otherwise for certain types of running.
Taking the leap to move every model from the traditional 12mm drop of entry level trainers to 8mm has been the cause of much discussion and debate – perhaps something to be explored at a later date.
In general terms reducing the ramp or drop of your shoes could have the following benefits: work your ankle, lower leg, calf and foot through a wider range of motion, increase foot and calf strength, and allow you to run faster and particularly accelerate harder.
Usually reductions in drop have been associated with commensurate reductions in cushioning, so from an innovation perspective Saucony have done a good job in offering up a relatively unique category of shoes i.e. lower drop daily trainer with cushion. It’s been my experience that it is much easier to run in a cushioned 4mm drop shoe than it is to run in the equivalent 4-5mm drop un-cushioned alternative – usually for me that would be a racing flat or an extreme minimalist shoe.
Mark and explained our thinking on the Saucony 4mm range in the video review below. Apologies for the quirky lighting and video quality; we’re still getting still getting to know our new environment.
Cushion versus drop
The addition of a reasonable amount of cushion under the forefoot makes this style of shoe perhaps a safer beginning point for runners who want to transition to forefoot striking whilst also moving towards minimalism. Injuries to the metatarsals reported by overly enthusiastic barefoot or extreme minimalist shoe wearers could be reduced by sticking with some cushion while you refine your technique. But in the end this is really educated speculation; we’re most interested in the shoes and how they perform as part of a regular mix of training and potentially racing.
In the Saucony marketing literature, these shoes are pitched as being designed for slightly different runners and purposes, but in reality they are pretty similar in form and substance. Therefore we have decided to review them together. That being said there are differences between the models and I’ve got a strong favorite out of the three.
Saucony Kinvara 3 review
The Kinvara, which is the most well known of these shoes, I’ve previously reviewed and quite liked. I was a fan of the the Kinvara 2 model so I was interested to see how the third edition would stack up. Ultimately I was less enamored with the update than the 2nd iteration of this popular light-weight trainer. The main reason is the forefoot cushioning is much stiffer than the previous model and tapers away closer to the end of the shoe. They are also pretty inflexible side to side. The Kinvara therefore worked best for me when running faster. Erstwhile training partner Lisa reported today from Sydney that she too found the Kinvara to be overly stiff for easy running comfort.
The removal of weight and the additional stiffness might make the Kinvara a viable marathon racing shoe for runners looking for some cushion up front in the forefoot. If you’re a 3.30 – 3.00 hour marathon runner a Kinvara could be an option for you at that distance, but also for the half-marathon or even 10k road racing. Because of the stiffness, I’d tend to use it for shorter tempo pace efforts e.g. 1000 to 3000m.
The 4mm factor comes to the fore when you’re running faster, if you’re looking for a shoe to run comfortably at an easy pace i.e. slower than 5 minute kilometer pace – then perhaps pulling the 4mm drop Kinvara isn’t the way to go. On the other hand it strikes me that faster runners could potentially like this shoe more as a daily trainer than I do – if your easy pace is in the 4.00 – 4.30 kilometer pace range then you might appreciate the 4mm drop which will allow the calf and Achilles to stretch more fully than in a regular high mileage trainer. The increased range of motion combined with protection for the metatarsals could be a mix worth trying. Having said that, the flip side is that even for a faster runner, wearing a shoe that makes you want to run fast might not always be a good idea – especially if the purpose of the run is recovery or you’re on the comeback trail needing to slowly build fitness.
Saucony Mirage 2 review by Mark Gorski
The Mirage II is the 4mm shoe most like the Kinvara and pitched as a shoe that offers some support but doesn’t really feel like it intervenes in your stride in any way. The base of the shoe looks and feels a little straighter and more solid than Kinvara, which is where I believe any extra support comes from, rather than the mild medial shank giving you much help. It’s refreshing to see another shoe company starting to move away from dual density medial posting in their supportive shoes. I dislike dual density posting so much I think I’m now allergic to it! More on this at another time.
The major factor of note from my perspective was a slightly stiffer forefoot, which I feel makes jogging in these for more than an hour a little bit tough. The extra stiffness and low profile just makes me want to run faster, which isn’t a bad thing if you want to use this shoe for tempo work or longer races, but for long runs over an hour maybe wait until the Mirage III comes out.
The word is that Saucony have increased the flexibility in the forefoot. This will open up this shoe to an even bigger range of runners. All in all I find myself reaching for the Mirage II more often than not especially when I’m heading out for less than an hour.
Saucony Cortana Review
The Cortana for me has been a surprise favorite of the three 4mm drop models, despite its extra weight and rubber on the sole, it feels the most flexible and forgiving when it comes to running a bit slower. I start my easy runs at above 5 minute kilometer pace and don’t get much faster than 4.45 pace on any given day. The Cortana feels pretty good at slower speeds compared to the other shoes, but having said that the faster you go the better it feels.
One of my favorite sneaky training sessions I’ve been doing is to run for 40 minutes around an undulating and rocky forest trail at an easy pace and then finishing off with some fartlek style hill sprints. There’s about a kilometer stretch of trail with rises of between 10 and 60 seconds effort each that is perfect for that type of training. This is where the 4mm Cortana trainer comes into its own; when you want to run faster it goes there with you. Plus, on those rocky trails having a bit of protection under the foot isn’t a bad idea – especially when you start sprinting and putting more pressure down through the forefoot.
In terms of surfaces I enjoy all of these Saucony 4mm shoes more off road, trails and dirt roads that have an uneven surface tend to suit them better than concrete pavement which feels a bit unyielding. Sealed road isn’t too bad either, it has a more broken surface, and gives a bit more compared to concrete.
Where to from here for the Saucony 4mm drop range?
We like the 4mm range for the specific purposes outline in this review, but we feel it could be improved further by tinkering with stiffness and forefoot feel especially in the Kinvara and Mirage models. The reduction in weight for the Cortana 2 and the addition of deeper flex grooves in the Mirage 3 look like good steps forward. Perhaps taking one of these models and making it ultra flexible by putting it on a lower profile cushioning bed would add a point of difference – tapering the forefoot off a little earlier would also help make these shoes more forgiving for daily easy running. For me I’d do that to the Kinvara – making it a bit more minimal by building it on a 10-12mm forefoot and 16-18mm heel platform would no doubt loosen up the feel of the shoe while still providing some cushion.
Saucony would probably argue that the forthcoming Virrata zero drop model would fit that profile. The single shoe sample I have seen certainly is very flexible, light, and does taper off much earlier in the forefoot. My gut says I’ll probably find this shoe a better option for easy running than the Kinvara. There’s no doubt that properties such as cushion volume, flexibility and forefoot taper seem to make a much bigger difference to shoe feel and performance than drop alone – attention to this area could improve the Saucony 4mm range and make them more approachable for a wider range of runners. It’s worth evaluating all shoe models on many more criteria than heel-to-forefoot drop alone.
Provided you have a clear idea of the purpose you are buying each of these shoe models: Kinvara, Mirage, or the Cortona we’d have no problem in recommending them. But we don’t suggest any runner trains in just one shoe model – rotating for variety and to suit the objectives of each run is definitely a useful thing to do. As Mark indicated in his take on the Mirage; using the Saucony 4mm range for runs of less than 60 minutes and for up-tempo faster training and fartlek work is where they sit most comfortably from our point of view.