Thursday, October 13, 2011

Brooks Pure Connect Review: Is this a Saucony Kinvara Killer?

Brooks Pure Connect...sleek and soft
UPDATE: I have added a new, wear tested review of the Pure Connect with some serious revelations.  In other words, it just didn't work out.  Please see the link HERE.

I have a long, loyal history with Brooks.  At least up until about a year ago, I was an all-Brooks runner.  I was a member of their “sponsored” Brooks Inspire Daily (I.D.) team, then a member of the non-exclusive Brooks Fanatics group (a group to which I still belong…Fanatics membership does not require Brooks-exclusivity as the I.D. program does).  I have always been an admirer of their high-quality materials and craftsmanship, their apparel design (at least functionally, Brooks has some of the best shorts and shirts around, in my opinion). I was stopped in my tracks, however, when I came around to the benefits of natural/minimalist running.  While many companies were keeping a solidly open mind about natural running, Brooks was defiant.  Saucony came out with the hybrid Kinvara and shattered conventions.  Nike had been selling the controversial NikeFree for years. New Balance was tweaking the Minimus line.  The list goes on.  Truly minimalist companies like Terra Plana and Vibram were having success, too.  Yet, Brooks stood defiant, stubbornly clinging to the position that loads of cushion, stability posts, and conventional modern shoe design were the only way to go.  They even released a position paper styled as an academic white paper, signed by the company CEO, which essentially walked a line but concluded that minimalist running was a crock.

Now as you know I am personally a believer in the benefits of natural running, but I try hard not to do the soapbox thing.  If conventional running shoes work for you and you rarely get injured and you are as fast and as durable as you want to be, then why try something new?  I was neither fast, nor durable…so I tried it and have never looked back. But every runner is different and you need to see what works for you.  To me, open-mindedness needs to go both ways.  Many in the barefoot camp would scoff at any recognition that good old heel-lifted cushioned stability shoes are good for anybody.  Many in the conventional camp would laugh at a runner like me running 10 miles in Flint in Vibram Five Fingers (although I had a 10-mile PR in them). The truth is that there is no conclusive science on the matter, and there are millions of runners who wear regular running shoes every day. 

To their credit, Brooks did approach the area of more natural running in their own way over time.  You won’t find the words barefoot or minimalist anywhere in their marketing literature.  What they claim is that they sent out a third party marketing and research company and asked real runners what they thought.  Long story short, they say they started with a blank drawing board and responded to what runners were saying.  I have no idea what they asked or what options the respondents were given.  All I know is that the feedback they received resulted in the Brooks Pure Project line. It isn't a minimalist line, really (look at my posts on Skora or Vibram FiveFingers for that!)...but they are a bit different.

This line responds to the natural running movement.  It has many of the natural running hallmarks…lower drop, natural last, lightweight, flexibility, etc.  And they look good.  And they aren’t too expensive.  And they work.  When they were released on October 1, I was running the Stumpjump 50k in Chattanooga Tennessee.  I could barely walk afterwards, but just 48 hours later I was in a pair of Pure Connects.  The Pure Connect is the most lightweight shoe in the line, and to my eye, likely to be the most successful.  I won’t go into the full line, though…I already talked about them in a previous post

The Pure Connect is very light and soft underfoot.  The heel-toe ramp angle is said to be 4mm, but other reviewers have measured it as low as 2mm. To me, they feel flat.  They have an undercut heel, much like the New Balance Minimus Road.  When I tried on the Connects for the first time, it felt like there was a sort of lump mid-heel…the same feeling I got when I tried on the Minimus.  This wasn’t a lump, though…it’s just the spot where the sole contacts the ground.  This contact area is so far forward in both shoes due to the undercut heel that it feels odd at first, but as you walk and run the sensation quickly disappears.  The heel area is very soft, with a full silky liner and a soft insole.  The insole has a very steep arch curve.  To call it support would be a strong word, given its flexibility, but those of you who love very flat shoes will likely think it to be intrusive.  It doesn’t bother me, but try before you buy.  The heel cup is rigid, but camouflaged.  You don’t see any exterior plastic cup or anything, it is embedded in the layers of the soft upper and works well to position the foot and prevent sliding around on the thick sole.

The sole is from a science fiction movie.  Brooks says it is a blend of two of their midsole technologies (D.N.A. and BioMoGo) and it does seem to offer a soft, but responsive ride.  When walking they feel very cushy…when running they feel much firmer.  They are made up of a series of pods and open areas for flexibility.  The pods and raised outsole areas have patches of durable rubber, but for the most part the midsole is exposed.  The toe area is split, kind of like a cloven hoof.  This is supposed to allow for more independent push-off from the big toe, but I am dubious. There is a firm layer of material just under the insole that prevents actual independent movement to any notable degree, but who knows.  All I am saying is that I didn’t actively notice anything unique about it.  Looks cool, though.

The upper has some real hits, but one big miss.  Most reviewers, I think, will fault the shape and width of the toebox as too narrow.  They may be right.  I have very narrow feet, though, and I feel like the soft material and rounded shape do allow my foot to flex and move well.  Those with wide feet, though, will likely feel a little cramped up there.  They feel like Inov-8’s conventional last or the Saucony Kinvara/Peregrine in that regard.  Those are all shoes that fit me well and in fact the basic Brooks last was always a good fit for me.  Of course, I wish there was a wider toebox, one where my toes don’t brush up against the sides at all, but I am confortable in these and they basically feel very similar to the Kinvara.

Brooks has this nav band thing that I basically hate.  I tried on the Pure Grit in the same size and the nav band was not at all taught when I laced up…it flopped around loosely.  In the Connect it is too tight, and after a while it leaves me with a sore spot on the top of my foot.  Wearing wool socks like Point 6 helped the issue, and as I wear them more and they stretch a bit and bother me less.  I see the idea, but again…try before you buy.  I feel like it just isn’t necessary.  The upper design is already so well executed otherwise, with light built-in soft bands meeting the laces and securing the foot, that the nav band is just unnecessary.  

The Pure Connect runs very similar to the Kinvara for me.  Both feel soft underfoot with a very flexy mesh upper, contoured insole, similar toebox shape, secure midfoot, light but effective heel cup, and a semi-flexible outsole. I find it almost impossible to heel strike in the Pure Connect due to the undercut heel, though.  The Kinvara still has me clipping the pavement with my heels once in a while.  Also, the Kinvara has a wider outsole where the Pure Connect only puts material right under your foot, with no additional width.  The Kinvara is more geometric, more square in its outsold profile, where the Pure Connect is more rounded and more organic.  The Kinvara is slightly higher off the ground with slightly more cushion, but both provide a smooth forgiving ride.

Is the Pure Connect a Kinvara killer?  Time will tell, but for me it definitely is.  All things being equal, I prefer the undercut heel design and last shape of the Pure Connect, and I think it will be a more durable shoe as it does have more rubber outsole protection than the Kinvara in the areas where I personally wear through tread the fastest, along the outside edge of my foot.  It is a colorful, sleek design and provides a new option for those who prefer a light, soft ride and a midfoot strike, but are not into very low profile shoes like the Vibram Five Fingers or Merrell Barefoot lines.  The Pure Connect is a very good shoe with a few drawbacks, but I think it will grow to be a favorite.  Just don’t call it minimalist


I Pull 400 Watts said...

Good review, cool looking shoes!

Anthony said...

I'm currently running in the Brooks Pure Flow and love it but was thinking about trying these for my shorter training runs. Any thoughts? Do you feel that this shoe builds the foot and leg muscles the way more minimalist shoes do?

Zak said...

Anthony- If you have the Pure Flow you will recognize the ride in the Connects, they are just a little thinner underfoot. Where they are really different from the Flows are in the toe box and fit of the upper(Connect is narrower). Compared to a conventional trainer, I would agree that the Connect would help build more foot strength. However, I don't necessarily think it would do so much more than the Pure Flows you already have. The Connect, for instance, has a high arch curve and a narrower toe box...while comfortable enough for me, I believe they do somewhat immobilize the foot. If you really want something to truly strengthen the foot more than the Flows, I would go to something much less cushioned and more flexible/less supportive, like a Vibram, Altra Adam, New Balance Minimus Trail, Inov-8 200, Merrell Barefoot series, etc. The Connect will put you more on your forefoot/midfoot, but so would any of these others, which would also give your feet a workout in other areas as well. You can always run barefoot, too...that's the ultimate foot workout! Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I Purchased the Brooks pure connect. Initially I LOVED them. They had a spring to them and helped with a mid foot strike. After 10 miles I started having terrible pain on top of my foot where my big metatarsal was rubbing against the under side of the top lace hole. I took a week off and tried them again. This time my feet would not tolerate even walking in them at home. Still sore from last week. I had to return them. Sad to find they do not offer wider version

Zak said...

I agree Anonymous. In my most recent post (a "recap" of my reviews) I also mention that the Pure Connects and I ultimately didn't work out. Some of your reasons mirror my own. It's such a cool looking shoe, but I should have maybe gone with the Pure Flow or even the Cadence. For all the good stuff I mention about the Connect, the minor issues I mention in this review turned into more major issues and the show was eventually replaced in my lineup by the Altra Instinct.

Zak said... the end we have a similar opinion on these shoes.

Ian said...

Been using the Pure Connect 3 weeks and love them. Lightweight comfortable and a speedy road shoe. A bit sore on the lower legs to start if going from a traditional road shoe but within a week I was shaving minutes off my 8, 10 & 13.1 times. Running in the B'ham half Sunday and I'm convinced I have the best running shoe on the market.

I Pull 400 Watts said...

"Best" is pretty subjective Ian. I could say's shoes are the best, because they are probably the highest quality running shoe available. But they may not be the best for some people. Personally I think the Brooks Pureproject shoes are ugly and stiff as a board.

Zak said...

Ian...I Pull 400 Watts works for SKORA, so his opinion can not be considered unbiased. If he posts here in the future I hope gr will disclaim his SKORA accolades as such. He is right that "best" is subjective. In my opinion the SKORA Form was superior to the Brooks Pure Connect, but in my opinion (and I test dozens of shoes), the Connects are a better show than the SKORA Base, which was a terrible shoe for me in terms of fit. The most important thing is that whatever you are wearing is working for you and is getting you running! The best shoes are the ones you wear on the road or trail. I'm very encouraged by the Connect 2, which I have seen. It will be improved in nearly every area. The first version that you like so much really was not for me in the end, but I'm spoiled for choice as a shoe blogger. Thanks for reading!

I Pull 400 Watts said...

My statement was an opinion based on, well, my opinion. Which is the same as it was prior to working for SKORA.

Zak said...

Of course. And that's fine. I just don't want people to think it was a 100% random and unsolicited comment. I know you liked SKORA before David hired you, but as the online presence for SKORA, I'd appreciate it if you identified yourself as such when you are promoting SKORA on my blog. Thank you.