REVIEW: HOKA Zinal 2
Written By: SportsShoes
A veritable paring knife for the trail, the HOKA Zinal 2 was designed to deliver the same light responsive precision as its predecessor, but with a touch more energy return. 2mm of stack height has been removed and taller lugs have been added for an aggressive, toothy grip. Updated with a stretch-knit collar to keep trail debris at bay, this ultralight update employs Vibram® Megagrip with Lightbase and Traction Lug for enhanced grip.
|Fit (length):||As always, this shoe fits slightly small so I always opt for a UK 10.5 rather than a UK 10.|
|Fit (width):||I would say more suited to thinner feet, precise in the midfoot but roomier in the forefoot and toebox.|
|Most suitable for:||Fast and responsive trail running! Perfect for racing and fast-paced training sessions. Most suitable for shorter distances.|
|Key features:||Heel pull tab, Stretch-knit collar, light, responsive EVA midsole, Vibram® Megagrip with Litebase and 5mm lugs for improved traction.|
|RATINGS:||(out of 5)|
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: ZINAL vs ZINAL 2
In all honesty, the HOKA Zinal 2 is one of my favourite shoes of 2023 and I'm going to tell you exactly why.
I'll start by stating the obvious, the HOKA Zinal 2 is anything but the HOKA Zinal. In fact, I have to question whether these two shoes are even related at all. Despite the fact they share the same name, they might as well be completely different models, because so much has changed from the original release.
To summarise, the Zinal 2 looks and feels like a different shoe in terms of design. It weighs less (now only 227g), has a slightly higher drop (now 5mm compared to 4mm), 2mm of stack height has been removed and extra lug depth has been added (now 5mm compared to 4mm) to make it a more aggressive on the trails. The traditional collar design has been replaced with a stretch-knit collar, which fits like a sock and repels debris. The addition of a heel pull at the back to make it easier to get on and off and a new lightweight vamp mesh replaces a recycled yarn mesh in the upper.
In short, it's lighter, grippier and faster than ever before!
Based on appearance alone, it's obvious that this is a trail shoe built for pure speed.
Super-lightweight in design, with a sock-like fit and ultra-thin vamp mesh, the upper is as minimal as it gets for a trail shoe. Initially, my primary concern was the lack of protection at the front + sides of the shoe and also at the back in terms of support, because of the stripped-back heel counter. However, as soon as I wore this shoe for the first time, all of my worries completely disappeared. From fit and feel to performance, it simply feels incredible and I absolutely love it. Dare I say, it's currently my favourite HOKA trail shoe. And that's a very bold statement because I'm a big HOKA fan.
Stretch-knit collars on trail shoes aren't for everyone and I myself often need convincing that they can perform as well as a traditional collar. But, this shoe fits like a slipper and the heel pull tab at the back works like a dream because I can literally slip it on and off so easily, usually without having the retie the laces (maybe I love it because I'm lazy!).
I was also impressed with the fact that I haven't yet rolled my ankles, despite the fact the heel counter is much more flexible and lightweight compared to other trail shoes.
This Zinal 2 upper fits and feels like a second skin. And, whilst I wouldn't describe the shoe as a wide fit, I do still have plenty of 'wiggle room' in the forefoot area and in the toebox. The stretch-knit sock and midfoot wrap is where I most feel the support because the upper really hugs my feet in these two key areas and helps to lock them in place.
Overall, what I most love about this upper construction is the fact that it moves, bends and flexes in harmony with your foot, allowing you to feel more agile and responsive with every step. Perfect for twisting and turning quickly on uneven and technical sections of trail.
If I was going to be picky, the only thing I would improve about the upper is the vamp material. It feels like it should be waterproof, but it isn't. I'd probably say more water-resistant, to a certain degree. But, when your feet are immersed in water, it offers little to no resistance at all. In really hot conditions I also think it could be a lot more breathable. In all honesty, I think the same jacquard mesh used on the Speedgoat 5 and Mafate Speed 4, or the tried and trusted Matryx upper of the Tecton x 2 would be more suitable alternatives.
On the plus side, the vamp mesh used on the Zinal 2 is a super-lightweight, comfortable and very robust material.
If I was to compare this shoe to another model, it would be the Salomon S/LAB Pulsar Trail. And whilst HOKA won't like me comparing the Zinal 2 to a rival brand, it's actually a MASSIVE compliment because I love the S/LAB Pulsar Trail. Most importantly, I also think the Zinal 2 has two even better attributes, the first of which being a more cushioned midsole and the other is better grip, which I'll discuss in the Outsole section.
Famed for bringing soft and spongy high-stack midsoles to the trail, HOKA have actually stripped back on this design, but kept enough of that divine cushioning to still make it feel incredibly soft underfoot. The EVA midsole in the Zinal 2 is both light and responsive, the perfect blend of plush cushioning but with a close-to-ground feel that you wouldn't normally associate with a HOKA shoe. So, when you're tearing down a rocky, technical descent, this shoe really soaks up the impact from huge slabs of rock, protecting you underfoot whilst still allowing speed and agility as you quickly twist and turn in different directions.
One of the big improvements from the original Zinal model is the outsole design which features a more aggressive lug depth for extra grip, now 5mm compared to 4mm. This means that the shoe can be also worn on softer ground (to a certain extent), as well as hard and rocky trail surfaces. Therefore, the Zinal 2 is now a much more versatile shoe than it's predecessor, making it more of a 3-season shoe, which is music to every UK-based trail runner's ears. As I mentioned in the previous section, this is one of the things that really sets this shoe apart from the S/LAB Pulsar Trail and means it can be used more often for faster-paced training runs and races where grip is as much of a priority as cushioning. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to wear this shoe for running in extreme and muddy fell races in the middle of winter, but right now in the summer months, it's hardly been off my feet.
The Vibram outsole is one of the few technologies that remains the same in both versions of the Zinal, which makes sense to me because it's tried and trusted. All of this grip and traction power is wrapped up in a lightweight, slim package, with it being up to 30% lighter than other Vibram outsoles and up to 50% thinner - for excellent speed and proprioception, all without reducing performance.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing HOKA athlete Jim Walmsley about his shoe rotation, of which he identified 3 key models (plus a prototype) that he uses in the current HOKA range. He described the Zinal 2 as his 'Strava segment shoe' and jokingly commented that he wears it to steal segments from his good friend Francois D'Haene! I laughed at this and can 100% relate because it's exactly how I would describe this shoe too!
It's lightweight, fast, comfortable and cushioned - the perfect racing weapon for racing, fast-paced training sessions and of course Strava segments, which is something that I'll need if I'm going to attack any more dangerous downhill segments!
Watch this space...