Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Shoe Review: Mizuno Wave Rider 15

Fellow runners, how many times has this scene played out for you:

You have worn a shoe consistently for years, always buying the updated model as it comes around. The brand knows that they have a successful formula on their hands, and so the new models come and go without you really ever noticing any changes with the shoe. The only thing you ever seem to notice is that the price every couple of years inches further and further upward, but you gladly pay for it. Hey, if it ain't broke?

Then it happens.

You stroll into your local specialty running store (*cough* like this one *cough*). You bring in your well-loved shoe. You come to find out that your shoe has been updated, but no worries. Then you step into it.

It's all wrong.

The fit isn't the same; the platform is different; the cushioning doesn't feel right. It finally happened: they messed it up, and now you must go to another brand. You feel violated; for years in your running group you've been known as "X brand" guy/gal, and now you've been forced to switch your allegiance, all the while wondering if your brand will get back on the wagon someday.


Stories, such as the one above, lead many to wonder: why on Earth do shoe companies change things? And why so often?

In general, shoe styles are updated approximately every 12 to 18 months. Case in point, for example, is the Brooks Adrenaline, which is updated every January 1st. (Specialty running stores, like the one linked to above, typically get to see it 60 days before anybody else.) This is when the new style will come out, any new technology that has been developed, and if there will be a price increase.

Now, there are two different types of shoe updates: evolutionary versus revolutionary updates. Again, I'll use Brooks as an example here. Let's take the recent development of the Brooks Adrenaline from the 11th model to the 12th, versus another shoe in the line-up, the Glycerin.

Brooks Adrenaline 11
Brooks Adrenaline 12
Looking at the two shoes, you see that the medial post is almost identical. The midfoot is wrapped in much the same fashion. The forefoot capture window is very similar. Overall, this would be an evolutionary update: some very minor tinkering, but very little change between the two shoes.

Now, as for the Glycerin:

Brooks Glycerin 7
Brooks Glycerin 8
Whoa! These are completely different, eh? The midsole has been changed to feature separate segments. The upper is nowhere near as tall. The wrap on the foot is different. This is what we'd call a revolutionary update; the manufacturer drew a whole new shoe from the ground up. The only thing remaining the same is the name.

As to the question: why change? A lot of this is due to feedback from runners, to try and continually improve the shoe. A lot of it is also to ensure that the shoes in your hands aren't stale. Remember: shoes have a shelf life of approximately one year. Whether you used them or not, they start to lose their cushioning in the box, losing elasticity and the ability to compress properly. By updating every year, you make sure that there is proper rotation of stock. It's also to help protect retailers; if the shoe was the same for 3-4 years, would you continue to pay full price at your local running store, or would you turn to save some cash by purchasing online? As much as we'd all like to say, "Buy local," when it comes to putting our dollars where our mouths are...I think we're all guilty of trying to stretch a buck every once in a while.


What does any of this have to do with the Mizuno Wave Rider 15? A whole heck of a lot.

For starters, the Wave Rider has had a fiercely loyal following for years. I would argue that it, along with the Adidas Supernova Cushion and the Asics GT-2000 series have the most number of repeat customers, year after year after year. They are established shoes, that rarely if ever get modified beyond recognition. Mizuno has a hallmark feel, due to the wave plate in the shoe (more on that in a minute). People just eat these things up.

And then the Wave Rider 14 came out.

To defend Mizuno for a minute, I can understand why the shoe got updated the way that it did. Mizuno had two shoes that, for all intents and purposes, were doing much the same thing. The Precision and the Rider were supposed to be in separate categories: one in the performance trainer silo, and the other in the responsive neutral category. But the Precision was a little more shoe than some others, whereas the Rider was a little less shoe than others in its silo. In other words, they were sitting directly on top of one another, competing for the same share of customers.

So Mizuno did what any logical business would do: it tried to separate the Rider and the Precision product lines. They did this by taking the Precision back down a half-step on the cushioning and weight front, and built the Rider up a little bit more than it's previous version. The brand also tried to get away a little bit from the traditional Mizuno fit by opening up the forefoot a bit more, and putting a higher collar on the shoe.

I'm not afraid to say it: this was disastrous. Mizuno lost a lot of business with this generation Wave Rider, particularly with men. This isn't surprising, given the trend of men towards the minimalism category. The Wave Rider had consistently provided a firmer shoe than its' competitors, and it gave that up. Meanwhile, Brooks took the Ghost series, and placed it right next door with a relatively close fit to how the Wave Rider had traditionally sat. For those looking in the responsive neutral category, there was no question: the Ghost was the class leader.

Mizuno had a tall order on its hands: how do you get those customers back? To radically change the Wave Rider again would be to admit failure, something that is very rare in the footwear industry. Yet they did.

The Techno-Babble

The Wave Rider is, again, what we'd call a responsive neutral shoe. This category will feature no medial posting, making it ideal for neutral pronators or supinators. Overpronators would instead be served by the Rider's brother, the Inspire (which also gets updated at the same time.) Responsive neutral shoes are different from more structured options by featuring a slightly firmer feel underfoot; a bit more flexibility; and a lower to the ground platform (typically, 2-3 mm less shoe underfoot than the structured neutral category options.)

This is a big category, particularly on the women's side: women generally are going to benefit from a shoe with a little more flexibility through the forefoot, as the load forces generated will be smaller due to body weight and frame. Competitors include the aforementioned Brooks Ghost, the Saucony Ride, the Adidas Supernova Glide (formerly the Cushion), the Asics Cumulus, the Nike Air Pegasus, the New Balance 880...and this doesn't include the performance neutral trainer options that crossover into the category.

Mizuno differentiates itself based on the Wave plate in their shoes. The Wave plate is a hytrel (read: plastic) piece that extends from the heel to at least the midfoot in all of their shoes. On their upper-level options, such as the structured neutral Wave Enigma, it extends all the way to the forefoot. The Wave plate helps transfer impact energy, and move it into kinetic motion. The idea is that the less time that the foot is in contact with the ground, the less impact energy that will travel up into the body. This seems to follow the same logic used to conclude the Harvard and Hasegawa study's on running form.

With the Rider 15, Mizuno lowered the collar on the shoe, to not impinge on the ankle joint in the same way that the 14 did. They also changed the seaming on the shoe, to provide a closer-to-the-foot feel overall throughout the shoe. In other words, it was going back to the Rider formula.

Enough Babble. How's it feel?
The best thing that I can say about the new Wave Rider is that it feels like a Wave Rider.

Let me explain: I've worn the Wave Rider before, since the Rider 10. I know how this shoe has felt underfoot, and it reminds me of the Rider 10, 11, 12, and 13. This is a good thing.

There's an awful lot to like here: when initially slipping your foot into the shoe, you immediately notice that the shoe fits onto your foot like an old, familiar friend. There's no point of the shoe digging into your foot. As you start to lace it down, you get a slightly racier feel over the previous model. It's slender, but not snug. It's comfortable, but not boxy. The heel collar is comfortable. There's little arch to speak of underfoot from the insole, but that's OK.

However, I personally don't enjoy the feel of it out on the run. The Wave Rider, for me, has always suffered from in-between-itis: it feels a bit too firm for the amount of shoe underfoot, and it's a bit too heavy and soft to really race in. I find that the Rider works best at either a recovery run pace, or full anaerobic threshold workouts, but that it clomps on the ground when you're trying to run, say, aerobic pace workouts.

Let me be clear, here, though: this shoe may not be for me. But I think that it's going to be a great update for Mizuno.

Why? There's a lot of people who want a firmer shoe, but still want a relatively "traditional" heel-toe offset. They want something to take them in-between say, a Saucony Triumph and going to the New Balance Minimus Road. This is a great way to get there. It's got a great deal of flexibility through the toe-off, making it a good racing shoe for some larger framed athletes, and a wonderful trainer for lighter weight runners.

The Wave Rider, thankfully, is back where it belongs. Mizuno fans, rejoice.

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