HOKA ONE ONE Zinal Performance Review
TAYLOR: The first half of 2021 has seen many brands in the trail game really branch out from their typical identities. Salomon and inov-8 have stepped into the maximal cushion game with both the Ultra Glide and the TrailFly Ultra G 300. And at long last, The North Face and adidas both actually have a viable trail option (Flight Vectiv and Terrex Speed Ultra). It’s a not-so-hidden secret that a lot of companies have shifted their strategy to align with the HOKA hype of the last few years – max cushion for max comfort.
So of course HOKA would go and make a minimally cushioned speedster.
The HOKA ONE ONE Zinal is named after a Swiss village that hosts one of the most competitive, fast, and furious trail races in the world. Huge climbs, smooth singletrack, and bomber descents. It has everything one would want in a true mountain trail race. It’s hard to find a shoe that can handle all of that terrain with equal fervor, but HOKA believes the Zinal could be the one (obviously).
With a low-to-the-ground stature (stack height of 22 mm to 18 mm men/ 21 mm to 17 mm for women) the Zinal is nearly half the weight of the Stinson, its cousin on the other side of the spectrum. Pair that with some of HOKA’s best tech and the Zinal is chambered and ready to be shot through some rough terrain. And If performance is half as hot as any of the colorways, we’re going to be in for a treat.
ROBBE: Taylor covered most of the background regarding the Zinal. I wish I could’ve gotten more miles in this shoe but after my last trail run, I had left them in my car with the doors unlocked. Which is basically like putting a ‘Yard Sale – FREE STUFF’ sign on your car in Baltimore. Needless to say, they were stolen along with my Nike Terra Kiger 7, so fun stuff for sure. (My Endorphin Trail shipment was then stolen off my steps last week, so some douchebag is loading up on trail shoes for no reason whatsoever.)
MATT: HOKA has been pushing the creative envelope for the past year or so, but I was still shocked when I unboxed the Zinal. The sheer lack of mass and trimmed-down midsole lacked all of the textbook characteristics of a HOKA trail shoe.
HOKA is marketing the Zinal as a lightweight trail shoe, geared towards speed and nimbleness.
It also is targeting a bit of a different trail segment, in that the Zinal may not be an “ultra” distance shoe, but rather a shoe to go hard and fast across shorter technical trail events.
The Zinal had my attention, and I was eager to find out if it would translate to East Coast terrain, or if we would have another “For West Coast Use Only” entry on our hands here at BITR.
TAYLOR: Light and fast is the goal with the Zinal. At 9.1 ounces (men’s 10.5) Hoka licked the stamp and went full send on this one! It’s one of the lightest trail shoes that you could slip your feet into.
A lot of that weight is saved because of the dual density Profly midsole. It’s the same midsole compound found in recent fan favorites – and two of our favorite shoes of 2021 – the Carbon X 2 and Mach 4. Profly is happily responsive, but not a bounce-your-face-off kind of foam. It’s the type of softness and bounce that you would expect from HOKA; there’s simply not as much of it as we’re all used to!
Mild protection is added with a rubberized EVA underneath the Profly. Again, same combo used in the Mach 4. This makes for a slightly more reactive ride with a little bit of protection and a moderate amount of ground feel. Until now, I haven’t been in a HOKA with any ground feel really.
The Zinal hits a happy medium of being protective and having awareness of what’s underfoot. From this standpoint the Zinal is not HOKA-like, but I’m diggin’ it for sure. If I were to compare the underfoot feel to any shoe, it would come close to something like the Nike Terra Kiger, inov-8 Trailroc, and a little like the Merrell Skyfire.
I’ll always respect a company’s commitment to being environmentally friendly. Some fall flat with grand attempts, but HOKA always comes up with something good (though they need to take some packaging tips from their sister company, Deckers X Lab). The Zinal has a beautifully crafted soft mesh upper made out of recycled yarns. Overall, it is light on foot. The mesh and integrated tongue hug nicely throughout so that your foot isn’t slingshotting around inside.
Environmentally cautious and performance doesn’t stop up top. Underneath is Vibram’s Litebase outsole. Only about half of the outsole material is used for this specific outsole which saves on the amount of rubber and cuts weight down pretty dramatically. Don’t worry your pretty little mind (thanks T-Swift) because performance isn’t cut one bit. Even though the lugs are pretty shallow and the outsole is only partially rubberized, I confidently ripped some dry and wet trails here in the Colorado Rockies. I was very pleased with its performance in a variety of conditions.
ROBBE: This is a really fun shoe, and probably my overall favorite HOKA trail shoe I’ve run in. I took it down Barr Trail in Colorado after Taylor and I did The Incline together (worst climb of my life), and it cruised.
I love myself some ground feel and the Zinal has it in spades, especially compared to the king of trail, the HOKA Speedgoat. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Speedgoat, namely because I have a hard time feeling the ground. I mean, with the Mach 4-like midsole and its lighter weight, this shoe is dangerously close to “a pretty freakin’ good road shoe” territory.
Of course, I love any shoe with a Vibram outsole, and the Vibram Litebase was good enough for what I ran in Colorado and a 5-mile stint through more technical East Coast trails. It had a nice and nimble feeling that is lacking in almost any trail shoe.
Another thing – this has a much more spacious toe box compared to the Speedgoat, which is pretty narrow/pointed (though it has improved over the years).
MATT: The Zinal certainly has a much different profile than what we are accustomed to from HOKA, especially with regard to its trail line. Weighing in at a tad under 8.5 oz for my size 10, the Zinal feels even lighter in hand. The profile also leans more towards a road shoe than some of HOKA’s other trail models. Painted with a bright combo of colors, the total package is a very nice-looking shoe.
The midsole and outsole are where some big changes were introduced with the Zinal. A slimmed-down midsole area, with an effective 18 mm of stack, is what first jumps out. The shoe sits wide and low to the ground (for HOKA, anyway).
HOKA also uses the same Profly midsole material that is found in the Mach 4. The ride has a nice balance of responsiveness and cushion. The outsole is Vibram, but the material here is also streamlined quite a bit to result in a thinner profile, which is topped off by 4 mm lugs.
That 4 mm spec seems to be a bit on the generous side, as they are nowhere as big as what you would find on the Mafate speed, Speedgoats, or Challengers. They provide a ride closer to recently reviewed models like the adidas Ultra Speed, or Skechers Razor TRL.
Regardless of size and weight, the Vibram is just as sticky and performs great in dry and wet conditions.
The upper is a super breathable mesh that is 100% vegan materials. It fits more like a road shoe, and feels great in hot conditions. There is just enough added padding around the heel to help lock things in, and HOKA stuck with the super-thin tongue used on the Mach 4. There are a few added TPU overlay areas (toes and below the ankle bone) to help with trail protection, but these are not super stiff and will only help out in more minor situations.
The Zinal felt great in a variety of trail situations, ranging from singletrack to packed dirt fire roads, to crushed stone and gravel paths. Climbs really highlighted the lightweight design, and the few water crossings I encountered were no problem for the Zinal thanks to the Vibram outsole construction. The more minimal nature and the smaller lugs allowed for a quick turnover and some fast miles when the trails opened up for longer stretches.Shop HOKA ZINAL – Men Shop HOKA ZINAL – Women
TAYLOR: There are just a couple of things that may prevent the Zinal from literally running away with the best of 2021 trail shoe award. Though it will definitely be one of the prime cuts this year, I had a couple of issues relating to fit.
Right out of the box, I could tell that the general shape of the shoe could be a cause for concern. For starters, it fits slightly long. Consider going a half size down. The other issue was that it is a little too torpedo-like. It just didn’t have that midfoot hug that most HOKA shoes boast even though it was relatively slim throughout.
The softer upper and shape made it difficult, but not impossible, to really dial in the fit. Synching up the laces helped initially. Then, I needed to change the lacing through the variety of top eyelets (glad they were available). Finally, I made another adjustment through the midfoot and finally came up with a winning combo. I still had some foot security issues every time I went out that could be solved with lacing adjustments. This will be, without a doubt, where Hoka should focus their attention for the next model. Dial this fit in, and running and those could easily be a top choice for your next go at Sierre Zinal.
To be fair, once I did figure out a promising lace-up, the Zinal was a really flippin’ fun shoe.
ROBBE: As Taylor mentioned, this shoe does run long, at least a half size. I swear this is like half the shoes I’m testing these days, so maybe I’m just shrinking. Too much time in the pool.
Now when I see you feel the ground, you really feel the ground. Out here on the East Coast you’re gonna feel the f*** out of the trail to the point that if you’re slamming downhills, expect to feel beat up and/or bruised. But hey – it’s a fast trail shoe, what do you want from it? The fun comes with a price tag, that’s all I’m saying.
Speaking of price tag – the $160 price point is up there, but still in the range of the latest The North Face offerings.
MATT: While the Zinal stood up to the test of navigating the root & rock-infested East Coast single track, I would still have my reservations to roll with these when conditions get extra gnarly. Really wet and muddy conditions may be too much for the more minimal outsole/lug combo to handle with confidence.
Descents in those same conditions may be riskier than I would like as well. In dry conditions, I had more movement around the ankles than I would want on a couple occasions. I think the lower cut nature of the upper, when combined with the reduced stack, presented a less than ideal fit. For the most part the fit felt secure, but it is something to take note of if this is going to be a shoe used to push limits and go hard.
Disappointing to me was that I thought the ZInal may be the perfect “road to trail” shoe. Where there may be shortcomings when presented with rough conditions due to the minimal outer, I thought that would shine when presented with stretches of blacktop. Maybe my hopes were set too high, but even with the less than 4mm lugs, stretches of pavement felt clunky to run on, and especially when trying to push the tempo.
The sections of towpath (crushed gravel) and open field really great in the Zinal, so they are certainly a great option when planning on tackling a mixed terrain run/race, but I’m not sure they are the shoe I was looking for that would allow me to cruise a few miles of roads from my house to the trailhead, and then perform on the trails. I think in that situation I would go back to one of the Adidas Ultra Speeds or Skechers Razor TRL.Shop HOKA TRAIL – Men Shop HOKA TRAIL – Women
TAYLOR: Fast and furious can be easily achieved with the new Zinal. It has all the ingredients to make a dang good batch of cookies: a soft/responsive midsole, mild protection, some ground feel, and a high-performance upper. It’s all there! Yet, none of that really matters for a speedy technical terrain shoe if it doesn’t feel secure. I practically arm-wrestled with the Zinal to get a promising fit. I did find that fit eventually.
Overall, this will be a worthwhile shoe to consider if you’re looking for a lightweight speedster. It’ll fall among the ranks of many other great lightweight racing trail shoes out there – especially when considering its performance over technical terrain. These will release in July 2021 for $160.
ROBBE: This is a really fun shoe to run in, especially if you’re just looking to rip something on stuff that’s less technical or a mix of road and trail. I’d say you could go almost full road on this thing and you’d be pretty happy overall.
MATT: HOKA has a really solid entry to the shorter trail distance (<50K) scene with the Zinal. I would hesitate to label it as a West Coast trail shoe, because I do think that it can handle the majority of what we can throw it’s way here out East. If you are tackling mainly hard-packed trails and are looking for something lighter that won’t compromise traction, the Zinal will be an appealing new option this summer. If you encounter sloppy and muddy conditions more frequently than you like, you will want to save the Zinal for less challenging days.
The HOKA ONE ONE Zinal releases mid-July for $160. You can pick it up then at Running Warehouse (featuring free 2-day shipping and 90-day returns) by using the shop link below.Shop HOKA TRAIL – Men Shop HOKA TRAIL – Women
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How does the Zinal compare to the Torrent, Hoka’s other non-Hoka offering?
Zinal is lighter and faster.