No category has evolved more in running shoes than the lightweight trainer/racer, with new materials changing the parameters of the equation. Today’s runner doesn’t have to choose between models that are either soft, sluggish and heavy or light, firm and responsive. These road shoes are both soft and responsive, with midsoles that compress easily, then firm up and bounce back—and all are remarkably light. Each material is tuned somewhat differently and, combined with different shoe geometries, provides a distinctive ride. One of these is likely to suit your unique mechanics and preferences, complementing your stride and making each step light, powerful and fun.

HOKA rincon running shoes for trails on a wood background in pink, red and white
Photo Credit: 101 Degrees West

HOKA Rincon

Weight: 7.7 oz (M); 6.3 oz (W)
Drop: ~5mm
Price: $115

The Rincon tends to bring out superlatives: “Cushioning is perfect.” “Felt really perfect on my foot.” “Most comfortable HOKA’s I’ve ever tried.” That last one comes up a lot. If you haven’t liked the squishy ride or constraining fit of many HOKA’s, the Rincon might surprise you. The Rincon’s ride is exceptionally light and responsive, with a firmer, bouncier foam than its popular sibling, the Clifton—yet it is still well cushioned. An “early stage” rocker that falls away under the ball of your foot—and more of a forefoot flex than most HOKAs—rolls your stride off the front quickly. But the shoe is also surprisingly stable due to the “bucket seat” geometry, wrapping the midsole up around the heel, and the wide platform all the way along the foot. Best of all, the upper is thin, airy, and uber-flexible, with no overlays to create unwanted localized pressure or hot spots, but not stretchy, so it holds the foot securely down onto the wide midsole. Testers raved that, “it felt like a custom fit” and the ride felt “turbo charged.”

Bottom Line: A fast-rolling HOKA that takes care of you while having fun—and fits!

Nike Pegasus Zoom Trail Running Shoes
Photo Credit: 101 Degrees West

Nike Zoom Pegasus Turbo 2

Weight: 7.2 oz (M); 6.2 oz (W)
Drop: ~10mm
Price: $180

You don’t have to get very far down the driveway to feel the unique ride of the Pegasus Turbo 2: this is a highly responsive shoe. The sensation produced by the two layer sole—ultra soft and bouncy Zoom X foam over slightly firmer React foam—is both firm and bouncy, as if running on a highly-inflated tube that pushes back even as it is cushioning. You feel like you can drive your feet into the ground without fear of hitting too hard, yet you’re able to push off equally strongly—and your times show that you are, indeed, driving forward powerfully. The ride feels somewhat firmer and more stable than the first version—thankfully for most—and testers found it supported and cushioned nicely even over longer runs. Provided, that is, you keep a quick cadence and stay balanced over your feet: they start to feel sloppy and unstable with a heavy heel strike, although more forgiving than Nike’s VaporFly models. Testers diverged on the fit of the minimalist upper (lighter and less structured than the Turbo 1), some finding it “excellent” and others unable to get them consistently comfortable. Similarly, testers found they were either “pleasantly surprised” by the responsive ride or “like I shouldn’t be wearing them.” Even those who liked the ride felt they shined brightest on well-rested, faster runs, particularly longer tempos and marathon-pace work.

Bottom Line: An almost-everyperson’s Nike Zoom X shoe that will power you to speedy tempos, and maybe a marathon PR.

New Balance Fuel Cell Rebel Trail Running Shoe on Wood Background
Photo Credit: 101 Degrees West

New Balance Fuel Cell Rebel

Weight: 7.3 oz (M); 6.1 oz (W)
Drop: ~6mm
Price: $130

There’s a lot going on with the New Balance Fuel Cell Rebel: Under the forefoot you’ll find high-rebound Fuel Cell foam and TPU plate that flexes and rebounds, providing a “certain pop” to the ride. There’s a stylish bootie upper, and a translucent, crystal-rubber sole. But what stands out from across the room is the large “fin” sticking out of the side. It seems to make sense, considering that if you look at your weighted bare foot it doesn’t have the hourglass shape of most shoes but flares out on the middle of the outside—right where we land. The podiatrists we asked said the outrigger probably doesn’t make much of a difference in support for most strides, and testers didn’t notice a big impact on how it rides. But the shoe does feel stable, and transitions through the stride quickly and smoothly—likely due to the wide ground contact and the embedded plate. What testers noticed more was the cushioning—surprisingly ample for the shoe’s weight—and the fit. That fit is as unique as the shoe’s looks: You can barely feel the upper that is thin and flexible, even around the heel, but it holds the foot securely from the snug ankle collar to the toe. Two testers said it “fit like a glove.” Another small-footed tester commented, “I loved the snug feel of the upper. The fit was perfect with just enough wiggle room, but no slippage in the heel.”

Bottom Line: A snappy ride that balances cushioning, stability and rebound, held on by a snug, glove-like upper.

TOPO fil-lyte 3 trail running shoes
Photo Credit: 101 Degrees West

Topo Fli-Lyte 3

Weight: 8.4 oz (M); 7.7 oz (W)
Drop: ~3mm
Price: $110

Topo doesn’t tout a special formulation or make any energy-return claims for their shoes, but their EVA blend tends to be more responsive than many of today’s trainers. The Fli-Lyte 3 provides excellent road feel and resilience with a “just right” layer of neutral cushioning—you pop off the ground without getting beat up by it. True to Topo’s design principles, the Fli-Lyte has a low heel-toe drop—at 3 mm just enough to take the edge off for those used to higher heels—and a roomy toe box. Testers were impressed by the snugness and support that the light, mesh upper provided around the heel and midfoot, while still opening up to give ample space for forefoot splay. The flexible, decoupled sole also impressed with its ride and traction. Each element combines to create a smooth, nimble, comfortable ride that made one tester say it felt, “Like I could keep running.”

Bottom Line: An “invisible” shoe that fits your foot and stays out of the way—with just enough protection to put you at ease.