The Saucony Virrata continues a shift towards a more approachable brand of minimalism in the running shoe industry at large. These shoes are designed and marketed as zero drop, this means there is no difference in cushion height or thickness between the heel and the forefoot of the shoe. Ordinarily this would be a trigger that the Virrata should be approached by runners very cautiously, and if you’ve never run regularly in shoes with 5-4mm drop or less, you should be wary about diving in headfirst before checking out the depth of the pool. On the other hand, if you’re familiar with running in lower drop style shoes, the Virrata doesn’t seem a big step away. You could say that shoes like the Virrata are selectively minimal, but what we’re getting as a spinoff benefit of the barefoot running movement is a wider range of shoes with different design features – that can only be a good thing.
Minimalism recap – flexibility
One aspect of minimalism that I believe is critical to the feel and performance of running shoes is the degree of flexibility afforded to your foot to move relatively naturally. Ultimately this is why the Nike Free range have been such good shoes – because they flex every which way; side to side, front to back, toes up and toes down. Great feel for the ground while retaining some cushion; making them a good shoe for a wide variety of runners training on many different surfaces. To me this aspect is just as important as the “drop” of each shoe: feel improves with flexibility and the more flexible the shoe the harder the muscles in your feet and lower legs need to work during ground contact. The Virrata joins the Type A5 and the Hattori, as the most flexible shoes in the Saucony range.
Running in minimalist shoes is not the same as barefoot running
And as recently discussed by Pete Larson over at Runblogger a study that compared barefoot running to running in Nike Free 3.0 and Lunar Racers showed that wearing shoes (even Nike Free 3.0) was significantly different to running barefoot. Not a great surprise and not a major problem in my opinion. But perhaps this kind of study might prompt a rethink from the marketing departments of shoe manufacturers and retailers about how they display and promote certain models?
In one major chain in Australia you’d find the Nike Free Run 3 – a relatively cushioned and 8mm drop shoe in the same “barefoot’ category as the Vibram Five Fingers. I’d much prefer to see shoes marketed by the purpose for which they are designed e.g. daily trainers, racing flats or marathon racing shoes. Then the drop and other characteristics would be additional pieces of information available to help runners pick the shoe most suitable for their individual needs. To that end I wouldn’t describe the Virrata as being very close at all to a barefoot running experience, but it does have attributes that make it a reasonable choice for easy paced daily running.
Saucony Virrata versus Kinvara, Mirage and Cortana
The Virrata looks and feels a lot like a traditional running shoe; much like the 4mm drop range of the Kinvara 3, Mirage 2 and Cortana previously discussed on this blog. The Kinvara and Mirage are good shoes, but in terms of completely hitting the mark as daily trainer I personally believe they need to be a touch more flexible through the forefoot. As discussed earlier the third member of the 4mm range, the Cortana, does just that.
Got to try out the saucony Mirage 3 as well! http://t.co/gzSYbFLa
— Pete L. (@Oblinkin) January 24, 2013
I know this is on the cards for the Mirage 3 (see the deeper flex grooves in Pete’s picture above), the Kinvara 4 also looks to also be headed in that direction. If they can pull that off they’ll make great regular daily trainers for those runners who are minimally inclined, but for various reasons feel like having a but more cushion under their feet.
The Virrata on the other hand is much more flexible and more cushy than the 4mm range of shoes and I’m actually more excited about that than the fact that these are zero-drop. The runs I have done in the Virrata have been relatively easy paced, it might sound strange that I consider the fact that they don’t make me want to run fast a good thing. I don’t want to use these shoes for hard training session or races, I only want them to make my easy runs at 5 minute km pace comfortable – they do this just fine. The heel and forefoot heights for the Virrata are 18mm forefoot & 18mm heel, compared to the Kinvara 18mm forefoot & 22mm heel.
A minor gripe with the Kinvara 3 (and it’s a selective issue for slower running where I favour greater flexibility for feel and foot strengthening benefit) is that it’s not overly flexible. The addition of deeper flex grooves in the Virrata (pictured below) and what feels like a change in the cushioning material composition to a slightly less firm compound address this issue. The cushioning used here feels similar to the Cortana.
The feel of cushioning is a bit of a Goldilocks thing for individual runners, I don’t mind the additional plushness in these shoes – especially for city running on hard surfaces. But I do know some runners who will not enjoy the cushy ride. Best bet, see if you can have a jog in them outside before making a commitment.
Volume – forefoot and mid-foot
I have a high arch and perhaps a slightly wider than what would be proportionally acceptable forefoot. There no doubt that the Virrata is a slightly snugger fit than the Kinvara 3. I’ve been padding around with one shoe on each foot for most of the day and I can safely say that there is a difference there. My solution has been to run in the Virrata sock-less which has provided me adequate volume to run without problems in my regular US size 9. What Saucony could do here is something that Pete Larson has suggested previously; which is to make a finished bed under the innersole that you can remove it if you like a firmer ride and/or like me need a bit more volume.
The Skechers Go Bionic is another shoe that I’ve been kicking around in recently that does have this feature – although in that shoe I’m happy enough to take the additional cushioning and there is no need to look for volume as they are a generous fit. The Nike Free 4.0 has a similar issue – I can run in these only by taking out the innersole, otherwise I’m jammed against the upper which isn’t as friendly for sock-less running – a simple to fix flaw in an otherwise decent shoe. The Virrata model I’m wearing is a sample rather than a production model, so it might be delivered with a slightly thinner inner-sole. I’m trying to clarify that at the moment. Weird footed runners such as myself can either go sock-less or hunt around for a thinner innersole.
Update 26 March 2013: confirmed that the production model has a much thinner innersole than the sample I reviewed.
The other feature of the Virrata that might raise some eyebrows amongst hard core minimalist runners is the significant taper from the forefoot to the tip of the shoe. I’d agree this makes them less minimal, but on the flip side this feature does seem to make shoes a bit easier to run in.
Conclusion: where does the Virrata fit in our shoe recommendation model?
This is going depend a little on the individual runner but I would recommend this shoe to a runner looking for a minimalist daily trainer (for those accustomed to running in lower drop shoes) – especially for a runner doing some miles on hard surfaces in the city. The plushness in the cushioning is a good match for these unyielding surfaces. If I haven’t written it on this blog before I’ve thought it – additional cushion makes lower drop shoes easier to run in. The Virrata is no exception to this and could be approached relatively comfortably by runners using the Saucony 4mm drop range and/or those running in the Nike Free 3.0 (another 4mm drop shoe).
Words and images by Brian Martin