Technology

Gel-Kinsei: Plenty of Spring in the Step


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Editor's Rating: star rating

This high-tech running shoe from ASICS may be a bit heavy and expensive, but you can't argue with its performance

ASICS spent eight years and an estimated $3 million developing the $165 Gel-Kinsei. So it's little wonder that the makers opted to introduce the shoe amid fanfare, previewing the Gel-Kinsei at the 2005 New York City Marathon under a banner that simply read, "behold" and making the product available for purchase only at a small number of specialty running stores at a time.

It was quickly hailed as the most technologically advanced running shoe ever—even more high-tech than Nike's (NKE) all-air midsole Air Max 360 and Adidas' microprocessor-equipped 1. It won accolades and best-of style awards from fitness magazines and Web sites alike.

I've been testing the Gel-Kinsei for this series of articles on high-tech sports gear (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/24/06, "CW-X's High-Tech Tights,"). And having logged almost 500 miles in these shoes, I can attest they do indeed live up to the hype.

What's the Gel-Kinsei's secret? It's the gel.

Toe Coolers

ASICS designers managed to create three pods of ultra-shock-absorbent gel that are attached to the shoe's heel. That's in contrast to other shoes that tend to encase gel in a single rubber frame. Running with the Gel-Kinsei is like having three independent springs, each minimizing shock and maximizing forward spring, depending on how they land and how you run.

The shoes feature a surplus of other tech goodies too. There's the so-called Space Trusstic System, a pocket under the midsole that's supposed to help maintain stability as your foot moves forward. The upper part of the shoe is clad in Spacemaster-UV mesh that prevents blister-causing fabric bunching and is also intended to reflect sunlight, keeping your toes comfortably cool.

ASICS uses computer-generated equations to work out the complex physics behind features like these. Fortunately for runners, the math works outside the classroom. The cushioning is phenomenal and although it's hard to quantify, I did feel a little faster off the mark than in comparable shoes, a pair of ASICS GT-2100 and a pair of Nike Plus. The streamlined heel gives your more stability and kick as you land, and the movement through the body and midsole of the shoe toward toe-off feels more controlled.

Built to Last

By far the best part of the Gel-Kinsei is their long-term durability. I'll admit that at the outset, I and a few of my BusinessWeek colleagues who are runners wondered out loud about how long the gel pods attached to the outside of the heel would hold up. We got our answer: a long time.

Hundreds of miles logged, and they still look and feel like they have plenty of life left in them. In fact, the Gel-Kinsei have already easily outlived a pair of Nike Plus (dead at 400 miles) and I suspect they will outlast the ASICS GT-2100s (dead at 650 miles). In my book, that goes a long way toward justifying the high price.

Still, $165 is a bundle for a pair of shoes you can't wear out to a fancy meal or at an important meeting. Luckily, no running store worth its salt would let you walk out with a new brand of shoe without having tried them first. Like all shoes, really, it's important to try the Gel-Kinsei out before you buy, high-concept technology notwithstanding.

Lessons for Leaders

The biggest disadvantage is the weight. At 12.8 ounces for the men's shoe and 11 ounces for the women's, they could stand to shed an ounce or two. And you might also get a few stares from other runners. I have. Clad in silver and neon yellow, these puppies are hard to miss.

There's not enough technology in the world to create a shoe that's all things to all runners. That's why, despite a healthy dose of high-tech, the Gel-Kinsei might not be for everybody. Still, millions of hardcore runners have entrusted their feet to ASICS, a $1.4 billion Japanese company that still manages to school $15 billion Nike on what makes a great running shoe. The Gel-Kinsei kicks off a new lesson for sports-shoe designers.

Matt Vella is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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