Wednesday, December 10, 2014

AIRIA One shoes: test run and review.

Shortly after I published my most recent blog post about the New York marathon, I was contacted by a representative from Airia shoes. They offered me a free pair to try out, asking in return only that I report back and post a review on my blog once I have run in them.

Never one to pass up a freebie, I readily accepted the challenge. When the shoes arrived this morning, I decided to take them for an easy evening double (just 5 miles/8km) and write the whole thing up in my usual race report manner.

The Background
Airia are a Swedish company that have apparently been around since 1992. That's news to me - prior to being contacted I had never heard of Airia shoes and I doubt I had even seen a pair on anyone, anywhere. But according to the box that the shoe came in, they've been around for more than 20 years now, developing this exact shoe. What on earth took them so long?

Ah, this must be it. The first thing that jumps out when I look on their website is the somewhat audacious-sounding claim that Airia One shoes can make you run up to 7% faster. If my math is correct (which it often is not), that would turn a 2:47 marathon into a 2:35 - something that hardly seems plausible. Such an improvement for me (and my current marathon PR is indeed 2:47:57) would catapult me straight into the Australian Olympic team for 2016 and have me winning the female Masters division at Boston by at least 4-5 minutes. All this, just from switching shoe brands? I'd almost certainly have a lot of explaining to do, not to mention "random" drug tests, if such a thing was to suddenly happen.

The email from the company quotes two reviews that I might be interested to read; it's a little disquieting to read and subsequently realise that neither of these reviewers has anything very positive to say about the shoes.  I have to wonder if the people marketing the shoes have actually read the reviews - it makes little sense to be linking to negative reviews, but it seems they are anyway.

The other thing that bothers me is the disclaimer that I read on the website and again when I open the box:

So what you're saying is...they're weird and I am not allowed to walk in them? Okay then.

I'm almost scared to venture out the door - for a while I contemplate running on the TM, but I really don't want to do that unless I have to, and the kids are with their father so it's the perfect opportunity to head outside. But what if I get halfway to the lake and am in sudden agony? Something like that happened to me in early 2004, when I was in Adelaide and decided to forsake my usual ASICS for a pair of Nikes, in the misguided belief that new shoes would somehow heal or compensate for the still-held-together-with-titanium right leg that I was dealing with at that point.

After limp-running about 3km along the River Torrens I was struck down by a sharp, severe pain in my right calf, entirely different to the usual leg-still-broken pain that by now I was used to enduring. Forced to walk back to where I had started, I came away with the firm belief that changing shoe brands was a sure-fire path to injury (conveniently forgetting that colliding with cars at 35mph/60kph is also a good way to damage oneself) and an ever-increasing superstition about the Wrong Pair of Shoes.

So it is with great trepidation that I stand at the counter considering my first run wearing Airia One. The name conjures up mental images of aliens and spaceships - I think of Roswell and the X-Files and Area 51 - and the shoes themselves actually look so weird that the whole thing suddenly makes perfect sense. Alien shoes! From Area One! Let's try them on and see just how bizarre things can get.

<mysterious music plays>

The Shoes
Once on, the shoes feel light but also kind of lumpy in the soles. I'm expecting this and it's not as bad as I anticipated - the upward pointing toes also feel slightly odd, but I find I can walk in them without too much difficulty. The soles are softly spongy and really quite comfortable; I don't feel like my gait is being forced into an unnatural pattern, which is good. They do seem a bit more like a prototype rather than a finished running shoe, though - the uppers are quite flimsy and I have to wonder how they would stand up to my usual training mileage.

I grab a spare pair of shoes to drop in my driveway, figuring that if it all goes to pot I can just turn around at the end of the street and come home to change, strap on my Garmin and it's go time.

my regular easy run route

Mile 1: 8:26 pace
Ok, these shoes are not making me run any faster, that's one thing for sure. I set off down the road and the first thing I notice is that the 2nd toe on my right foot is hurting. Despite having quite orderly-looking feet with 2nd toes that are actually shorter than my big toes, I do tend to mangle my 2nd and 3rd toenails regularly during races and they're generally in a dreadful state either purple and hanging in there or purple and hanging off. That said, they've been fine lately so I have no idea why my toe is suddenly protesting - it must be the shoes.

I realise that my toes feel like they're being jammed directly into the ground - the upward tilt of the shoes is putting more pressure than normal on my toes and this makes me very concerned for what would become of my poor abused toenails if I was to subject them to a whole marathon wearing the Airia Ones. Even a half marathon might be a bit risky - let's see how they feel after just 5 miles.

Mile 2: 8:00
By now I'm down by the lake and ooh, there's a rather strong tailwind! It does nothing to speed me up, sadly, but I've run many many miles in the past 7 days and my lack of zip is definitely not the fault of these shoes. The good news is that nothing is really feeling odd or hurting at this point - save for the 2nd toe on my right foot, which is moaning away still - and in fact the shoes are turning out to be quite nice.

One of the reviewers described how their footfalls became very loud, like they were slapping their feet on the ground as they ran, but I'm settling rather quickly into the "silent stride with a rolling feel to it" that is supposed to be the desired effect. Also, my fast cadence actually feels like it is supported by the way the toes of the Airias turn upwards; it's like I'm spending less time or effort toeing off, in fact. Nice!

Mile 3: 8:08
Ugh, the headwind comes into play as I turn around the northern end of the lake and run along the far side. The good news is that my post-NYC phobia about running into a headwind seem to be lessening; the bad news, I'm still running pretty slow. As I plod up the sharp hill behind the Boat Club, I find myself trying to run on my toes and ooh, it feels very unsafe. I can't imagine how these shoes would work for a toe runner (someone who lands on their forefoot and whose heels stay pretty much off the ground when they run) - something tells me they'd be in danger of overbalancing with the upward-tilted toes of the Airias constantly pitching them forwards.

Just a bit further on the path becomes rougher and ooh, ouch, I step on a rock and realise how little padding there is between my forefoot and the ground. My toes are sort of being held up (with the exception of that 2nd one, which is stubbornly headbutting the ground still) but the ball of my foot isn't and I realise quickly that this means the Airia shoes are NOT going to be very suitable for most of the gravelly country roads where I usually train. They seem like a great racing shoe, sure - although I doubt my toes would survive a full marathon in them, or even a half - but not a good trail or even gravel-running shoe.

Mile 4: 8:05
Still not speeding up, oh well. The rolling feel of my gait in these shoes is coming along nicely though - they feel light, and fast, and springy. Lately I've done a fair bit of running in a pair of Hokas that I won earlier in the year and the difference is noticeable: in the Hokas I feel clunky and slow; in the Airias I feel springy and quick (even though I'm running just as slow in them).

Mile 5: 7:53
I try to put in some effort for the final mile home, but my legs are not very interested and I don't manage to speed up very much. That's disappointing but not too surprising; the good thing is that none of my muscles feel like they've been put through anything much different to a normal easy evening run.

I notice the strangeness of the shoes almost as soon as I stop running in them and start walking; I'm not tempted to leave them on at all, really. Despite the zippy feel it's been a slow run overall for me, but none of the expected weirdness has surfaced so I declare the run a success and add the Airias to my pile of running shoes in the corner reserved for "racing".

The Verdict

* light shoes with a zippy feel
* less effort required at toe-off
* minimalist feel but enough cushioning around heels to be comfortable
* gait pattern seemed quite natural and I didn't think my usual gait was altered by the shoes
* free!

* not much cushioning around forefoot, very minimal for toe area
* curved toe-box maximises impact on toes - very likely to be a problem for longer distances
* probably not good for the heavier runner (over 160lb/75kg might find them not cushioned enough)
* probably not good for anyone who needs a motion control shoe
* expensive ($190US according the website).

My overall impression is that these shoes have real potential as a shorter-distance racing shoe, but they are quite gimmicky and would be likely to have a limited runner type to whom they would appeal. 

This kind of person would probably be a lot like me and have the following charateristics:
- light (I am 5'3" and weigh 103lbs, which is around 46-47kg)
- neutral (not for over- or under-pronators; these shoes would likely have a negative effect on gait patterns and feel quite unnatural for those used to stability or motion control shoes)
- midfoot or heel strikers (toe runners would probably feel quite unstable)
- accustomed to running in racing flats with little to no cushioning.

My plan is to take the shoes out a couple more times for runs up to 10mi (16km) and provided there are no issues, try them out at the Australian Masters HM Champs in Hobart in January. Who knows, if I can take 7% off my usual HM time (currently around 1:22) and these shoes enable me to run 1:16, I may just buy the company! Or their entire supply of women's size 6.5, whichever works out cheapest.

In early January I ran 12 miles in the Airia shoes. I finished with a blister on my 2nd toe (the same one that was complaining on the 5 mile run) and subsequently lost the toenail on that toe also. I decided not to wear the Airia One shoes for my HM and haven't run in them again.


  1. Thanks for the review. They sound a little risky, even for a half. Black toenails and a longer recovery? Your maths is good, but yes, a 12 minute marathon improvement isn't going to happen due to a simple shoe change.
    BTW, what model Hokas were those you won? I now have the "Cliftons" which feel different to the Bondis - light and not clunky at all.

    1. I have the Kailua Tarmac model of Hokas, Ewen. They are light but somehow feel clunky. I can't explain it. That said, I've managed to run fast(ish) in them once or twice, but I always feel like I'm plodding. They are good recovery shoes though.

    2. Ah, thanks. My Cliftons are 272gms (US13), 10 more than my Kinvaras. One thing I find with Hokas is the "stable" platform (I think) stops natural pronation early as the foot moves through foot-strike - maybe not a good thing for some runners.

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  3. I have to wonder if the people marketing the shoes have actually read the reviews 15 Off Reebok