Last week I was priveledged to be taken to Milan for the launch of two new lines in the ASICS extensive running range – some new apparel and a new pair of shoes. You can read my introduction to the launch and now, having had a chance to run properly in the tights and the shoes, I have written a review of each.
The ASICS Gel Super-J 33
The name of this shoe is intriguing – from what I understand, the ‘Gel’ bit refers to the mid-sole technology that ASICS employ to provide cushioning. In fact the gel pods in the 33 series of shoes are placed so as to mimic the the natural fat deposits in the runner’s foot and are positioned to cushion and distribute the impact forces.
The ’33’ in the name refers to the shoe being part of the series of natural running shoes that ASICS have developed and is based on the fact that we have 33 joints in each of our feet. The idea is that this small range of shoes is designed to allow the foot to flex and move as naturally as possible, whilst still providing cushioning and protection and this is reflected in the fact that ASICS suggest that runners should have a pair of the ’33’ series shoes in their wardrobe as a second pair of shoes – not the primary shoes that you do most of your running in.
As for the ‘J’… I have no idea. Maybe that will be explained in due course.
What I do know for sure is that the ASICS Gel Super-J 33 is a very light and unstructured shoe. The upper is a mesh with welded overlays which means that there are virtually no seams in the upper and the shoe is feather-light on the foot. There is no heel counter to speak of and the mid-sole is on the thin side adding to the whole sense of minimalism.
However, and this is the really interesting part, this shoe is designed specifically for over-pronators. ASICS have identified that 45% percent of runners over-pronate and this shoe has been engineers to ensure that those runners have a stable platform when the foot is planted to launch into the next stride.
The way this has been done is by moving the FluidAxis – a groove through the outsole and into the mid-sole which allows the shoe to flex – closer to the outer edge of the shoe, thereby countering the effect of the over-pronation.
My impression after having had a few runs in these shoes, is there is not really much sense that these shoes are engineered for a foot-strike different to mine (which is pretty neutral) and I think that is a really good thing. There is an initial feeling of some denser material under the arch of the foot on first wearing them, but that doesn’t last and I think that unlike so many support shoes on the market, this one does it’s job as subtly as possible. I certainly don’t think that this shoe would be a bad idea for a neutral runner, especially if you are planning on running longer distances in them, where you run a risk of losing form anyway, as well as for over-pronators looking for a shoe that really will let their feet do their thing whilst providing a modicum of support and enough cushioning and protection.
ASICS Muscle Support apparel
I am going to say, right now, that I am deeply skeptical about the claims that many apparel firms make about their compression wear. In my opinion it is ludicrous to claim that a piece of fabric can have a direct effect on powerful muscles deep beneath skin and sub-cutaneous fat. You only have to handle a piece of meat to realise how strong muscle is and a thin sheet of nylon is not going to have much effect.
However I have experienced the benefits of compression, not least when I have worn my Compressport calf guards and a pair of Skins recover tights that I was sent by them to try out. But I remain unconvinced by the idea that running tights could do much to help maintain form and generate more strength in the legs.
So imagine my delight when the keynote speaker for the apparel section of the presentation, a sports doctor and physiotherapist, started by talking about his skepticism about the apparel. He went on the say that the proof for him was in the testing and that having tried the tights and top, he was now a believer and he explained why. He talked about the skin being a hugely sensitive organ that constantly feeds back to the brain about all the conditions it is experiencing. In the case of the Muscle Support tights and top, that feedback tells the brain that the quads and the area below the knee, where the compression is at its strongest, needs extra blood, which in turn brings more oxygen to those regions and leads to the muscles being… well, supported really.
After the presentation and before going for a run in the kit, I asked the doctor more about this theory and we talked about a treatment I had had for a damaged knee, when the osteopath, Gavin Burt from Backs and Beyond, used acupuncture to relieve the pain. Gavin explained that the wires that he inserted would alert the body to intruders and the extra anti-bodies rushing to the scene of the alien invaders would find nothing there and instead get to work repairing the injured knee. It really worked and a similar process is at play when the skin tells the brain that there is a weird tightness in the quads, so send reinforcements.
The same goes for the Inner Muscle Half Zip top that we were issued with. This is tight in the extreme with a diamond shaped panel running across the back from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. Obviously there is not much that a bit of nylon is going to do to hold your arms back and your chest expanded. But the feeling of the top is enough to remind you constantly to run tall and upright and keep your arm-carriage in the right form.
I must admit that I am not in a very heavy training period at the moment – I’m really only doing 50-60 miles a week of easy running at best (and sometimes much less) so I have not been able to really gauge whether the tights can have a dramatic impact on muscle fatigue. But I do subscribe now to the theory behind the Muscle Support range. It is tight enough that you know you are wearing compression apparel and I have no doubt that it is tight enough that the brain is receiving feedback from the skin. It could just be then, that this gives you the small gain that you need to go the extra mile, or hold your form a little longer, or push a little harder and it is all those small additional gains that add up to you becoming the best runner you can be. Which I guess is the whole point!
Tight tops and loose shoes
Overall I really like what ASICS have set out to do with both the Gel Super-J 33 and the Muscle Support range. As seems to the way with all the brands now, the names are all ‘hyper’ and ‘super’ and ‘mega’, but beneath that layer of hype, there is real science at work. I guess the ASICS ‘Apparel-That-Tells-Your-Body-To-Send-More-Oxygen’ Tights, doesn’t have the same ring, so I will happily defer to the experts on that!
My feeling is that the shoes are only subtly developed to accommodate those runners whose feet roll in as they land on them. The dual-density EVA and the repositioned FluidAxis are designed to help as much as possible for something that is made out of nylon and foam. If you think that a 5mm bit of foam is going to change the way you land, when your 70+ Kg frame comes crashing down onto it, you are deluded. But what the Gel Super-J 33 might do, is give you a little extra stability, a little less roll and add a few more percent to your training.
The same goes for the Muscle Support apparel. The science behind the kit is sound. The idea that a thin sheet of nylon, however tight it is, could force the way your muscles work to change is idiotic. But by telling the skin to tell the brain to change the flow of blood or the firing of nerves in a set of muscles, the top and tights can change the way we run just enough to make a subtle difference and that might be all you need to smash a session or get through a long run with less fatigue and better form, which will pay dividends when you come to race.
The final thing that really made me realise that ASICS are actually about performance above all else, was the guest that they had for the day in Milan – the great Stefano Baldini. This is a serious runner. He is a man who, I am sure, could eat out every night and never have to pay for his dinner. He is a national hero and a serious figure in the Italian world of athletics. He has no need to lend his support to a gimmick. It was extremely hard to get a word with him, but he did say, quite openly, that he thinks that both the innovations from ASICS are rooted in research and experience and if Baldini says that, then it’s good enough for me!
Moreover, I for one can do with all the subtle help I can get so you can be sure that I’ll be using the shoes and the apparel through the autumn and winter. We will see whether it’s helped come London marathon time next year!