When choosing a car, some people prefer soft luxury isolating them from every bump. Others prefer pared-down speed and a firm connection with the road, giving them complete control. Applied to runners, these shoes are for the latter type. Yet, while you’ll find a couple of thin, minimalist models here, new materials and designs allow for a variety of underfoot experiences that still can be called “responsive.” All of these shoes will bring a smile to those who prefer secure touch-downs and powerful push-offs, but you’ll likely want to try on several to discover the ride best for you—and maybe buy a couple of them for different runs and moods.
Altra Solstice XT
- 8.4 oz (M) 6.7 oz (W)
- ~0 mm
At a glance: Billed as a cross-trainer, ready for any type of sport or exercise, the Solstice XT runs with a light, flexible, connected and surprisingly smooth ride.
Altra’s co-founder Brian Beckstead, describing the new Solstice XT, says, “We married the Solstice to the HIIT and this is their love child.” The original Solstice was one of Altra’s most minimalist models, with a responsive, close-to-the-ground feel, used as a racer by many. The HIIT was a rather stiff cross-trainer designed for gym work and maybe a lap or two of the track.
This love child is better than either. For those who want to use them for gym work, the platform is wide and stable, thanks to Altra’s foot-shaped construction and thin, level platform. The full sole—spare a few flex grooves—is covered with court-gripping rubber. And the upper has a supportive, flexible cage around the instep to assist during lateral movements.
That supportive saddle also creates a more foot-hugging feel than in other Altras, which was appreciated on the run by several testers. Also for runners, the thin, flexible sole delivers a barely-there feel that still provides a foot-protecting layer of cushioning.
Testers found the Solstice surprisingly comfortable. One, a fast masters woman who had never worn Altras before, fell in love on first run and they quickly became her favorites. She said they made her feel fast, the fit was “perfect” and the cushioning “minimal, but I preferred it.” Another tester said, “I didn’t think I would like these shoes since they are SO low profile—but that didn’t seem to matter. They were comfortable and fast and I found that my natural stride worked well in these shoes. They felt like I was running barefoot, without the obvious issues of really doing that.”
Brooks Launch 7
- 8.8 oz (M) 8.1 oz (W)
- ~10 mm
At a glance: This speedy daily trainer retains its classic ride, while getting an updated modern look and feel, making it more comfortable for putting in long miles.
When the Brooks Launch came out circa 2010, it was ahead of its time. In a year when everyone was debuting minimalist models, the Launch was a clean, simple shoe that didn’t rearrange your stride and rolled quickly from heel to toe—yet still provided a nice layer of underfoot cushion. After that first version, Brooks discontinued the shoe, but it was so popular it inspired a “Save the Launch” social media campaign, and in 2015 the model was reintroduced.
In today’s post-minimalist environment, the Launch’s formula of providing simple, neutral cushioning has become the industry standard, and new materials have made many similar shoes lighter and springier. But the Launch 7 still delivers a familiar, comfortable ride that was much appreciated by many testers. “This is definitely a style of shoe my foot is most familiar with,” said one. “It didn’t take any time to get used to.” Though one tester expected more energy return and found the ride a bit “flat,” another, while noting that the foam felt firm in comparison to other recent models, said of the Launch, “This shoe has a fantastic responsiveness. It made me feel fast, like I had springs on my feet.”
New in the 7 is the sleek, one-piece mesh upper with an internal bootie that hugs the foot. Testers universally praised the fit: “I think this shoe has one of the best shapes I’ve ever run in,” one said. “I didn’t feel any loose or tight spots.”
In sum, one tester said, “The shoe made my feet feel happy, comfortable and not overworked.”
HOKA Mach 3
- 8.6 oz (M) 7.1 oz (W)
- ~5 mm
At a glance: Lightweight and performance-driven speedy road trainer/racer with a HOKA roll.
The Mach 3 could be classified as a demi-HOKA, given its less plush, more flexible cushioning that offers plenty of underfoot feedback—enough so that it makes it into the “responsive” shoes category, an anomaly for most of the HOKA line that is known for its marshmallow-like cush. The forefoot of the Mach 3 is firmer than the rear, allowing for a HOKA-esque landing, rolling to a more connected push-off than you might expect.
Both those expecting the overwhelming maximalist experience from a HOKA shoe, and those new to the HOKA low-drop, rockered ride, took some time getting used to the Mach 3 before they were won over by the lightweight road-feel-providing performance. “Once I settled into this shoe it made me feel light, speedy and well-supported.” The midfoot security provided outstanding foothold and the test team enjoyed the fluid roll of the rocker midsole shape.
There was general concern, however, among testers about durability, causing them to wonder whether the rubberized outsole, upper or midsole cushioning would hold up, given those areas displayed signs of fatigue or bottoming out on longer runs. None put on enough miles to alter the shoe’s performance, leaving the concern unconfirmed.
“These felt minimal but very comfortable,” is how one tester described the Mach 3 experience. “Best HOKA ever,” praised another. “Just the right amount of dampening while popping quickly off the ground—if you stay tall and light.”
Inov-8 Road Claw 275 Knit
- 9.6 oz (M/W)
- ~8 mm
At a glance: A low-profile, flexible shoe that delivers a snappy ride with just enough cushioning to temper the road feel.
Inov-8 has its origins in the Fell running of northern Britain, and the company is known for their aggressive trail models. This rare road shoe from the brand is similarly tooled for the efficient, fast runner.
One of the brand’s trademarks is an internal shank, embedded in the midsole. In the Road Claw, this takes the form of what they call the “dynamic fascia band” a five-fingered plate that extends from the heel to the back of the met heads and mirrors the function of the fascia in storing energy as the foot flexes, then releasing it on toe-off. For the runner, it creates a distinctive, snappy ride.
That ride is further enhanced by the two-compound midsole, combining a cushion layer and a high-rebound layer. All of this is, however, in a thin midsole (stack heights of 20 mm/12 mm) that doesn’t shelter you much from impact. Many testers, accustomed to today’s more heavily cushioned models, predictably, found the Road Claw’s ride firm, even hard. Those who enjoy a minimalist ride noted the elastic feel of the midsole that smoothed the pressure points underfoot with little squish to reduce proprioception.
All agreed on the comfort of the smooth, flexible upper, particularly for wider feet. And the design was deemed stylish—testers said they would use these for casual wear on days they didn’t use them for going fast.
On Cloudflow 2
- 8.3 oz (M) 7 oz (W)
- ~6 mm
At a glance: Beautifully engineered, lightweight speed-oriented trainer/racer.
It was difficult to get our test team to divert their eyes and talk about the quality of their run experience in the Cloudflow 2 because, like the Greek hunter, Narcissus, their beauty attracted footwear fixation. However, once they were able to look away, testers enjoyed the flexibility, lightness and comfortable fit while running roads in high Swiss style.
In motion, Cloudflow’s new, firmer, more responsive foam in the 18 “Cloud” elements that serve as the foundation of the sole, got mixed reviews. The “clouds” are meant to compress to provide cushioning, then bottom out to allow a strong push-off. Most testers preferred the shoe’s responsiveness when they were moving at a faster clip, but when they slowed down the heel-toe transition felt abrupt. Similarly, when running with a quick turnover, the semi-rigid “speedboard” that connects and anchors the clouds felt like it enhanced the stride’s transition and power, but at slower speeds it simply seemed firm. Some observed the cushioning was inadequate for longer runs.
The uppers were very comfortable and the fit accommodated a wide variety of foot shapes. The Cloudflow 2’s new lacing configuration was not a winner, however. Testers almost unanimously dissed the laces, finding them too thin and reporting that they posed a real challenge for a tight, secure feel on the run. The outsoles held up nicely, with plenty of durability, but are not recommended for off-road use, especially where they might pick up small rocks or large gravel and carry it along for the ride.
“I enjoyed how light the shoe felt and the mix of firmness in the toe and cushion in the heel. The Cloudflow 2 felt slightly stiff for the first few runs but then I became more accustomed to it,” reported one tester. “Stylish, but certainly not confident enough to do much more than a couple of runs in them. I’ll wear these as casual shoes, though,” said another. “I wasn’t sure about these until I took them on a tempo run,” said a final tester. “Then they seduced me with a smooth, energy-return feel in the forefoot.”
Skechers GO RUN 7+ Hyper
- 7.6 oz (M) 6.1 oz (W)
- ~4 mm
At a glance: A springy yet comfort-driven workhorse well suited for a variety of speeds and distances.
“My favorite shoe of the whole lot,” beamed one tester who credited the “just right” 7+ Hyper for such esteemed praise. “Incredibly light and fast,” he described the shoe, “But protects my feet from fatigue and never feels flimsy no matter how long I go.” Another tester proclaimed them the “most comfortable shoe that I have ever run in” and chalked it up to the “super light, cushy, soft” experience. “It’s like running on clouds,” he said.
Skechers dialed in the thickness of its almost bouncy, cushioned Hyper Burst midsole so that it hit the sweet spot for a variety of testers who enjoyed the seemingly everlasting impact dampening. To help keep the neutral trainer as light as it is, Goodyear outsole rubber is only placed on strategic pillars for traction and durability.
The upper is where this model differs from the bootie-like GOrun 7. Skechers returned to a more traditional upper with a tongue and padded ankle collar, and used a circular knit reminiscent of their uber-comfortable, award-winning GOrun 4, circa 2016. The flexible, breathable wrap held the foot securely, except for hard cornering, where they felt a little sloppy. “This shoe is not too loose or too tight,” praised a tester.
This flexible performance trainer is light and comfortable enough that it would serve well for a marathon-distance race shoe, where its durable, dependable cushioning would shine.