Asics Gel Kayano 21 Review

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Asics_Gel_Kayano_21_score

Color: Royal/Lightning/Flash Yellow

Intended use: All runs except in bad weather.

Surfaces tested on: Road, 21° C/73° F

Upper: Spacer mesh, TPU welds, synthetic leather.

Midsole: Tri-density EVA foam with heel and forefoot Gel pads. Firmer foam insert on inner side. Midfoot plastic shank. 10mm heel drop.

Outsole: Heel carbon rubber, blown forefoot rubber.

Weight: 351 gms/ 12.4 Oz for a half pair of UK10/US11, D Width

Widths available: D-standard (reviewed), 2E (Wide) and 4E (Extra wide) in select colors.

The Kayano 21 marches further into softer cushioning territory, leaving Kayano 20 and even the Nimbus 16 behind. Upper material selection and design is similar to 20, except that the fit runs slightly snugger on sides.
Asics Gel Nimbus 16, Asics GT 2000 2
Quality of materials, soft cushioned feel
Tongue slide, inner lining slightly irritating, price, weight, assembly issues
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Kayano 21 is the softest version till date.

Who’d have imagined it a few years ago? The 2014 Kayano 21 is here, and it now happens to be one of the softest running shoes in Asics’ line-up when it comes to cushioning. And just how soft? More than the Kayano 20, and surprisingly, more than the Asics Gel Nimbus 16 too. This aspect is the key difference between last year’s avatar and the just released 21. There are some other subtle design updates, consistent with Asics’ approach of incremental evolution.

We’ve been doing some thinking lately. In some of our Asics reviews, we’ve been giving the brand much flak for lack of innovation. But then maybe, this is how it’s supposed to be. Spend anything of $120 upwards on Asics, and you get quality materials in a shoe which uses methods of traditional construction. With rest of the market moving towards lightweight, minimal design trends, staying at the lower end of innovation curve ends up differentiating Asics from the pack. There will always be a market for the type of overbuilt shoes such as the ones Asics makes, so as long as the brand from Japan marches slowly forward, things should work out ok, if not in a spectacular fashion. Asics’ recent revenue growth numbers are a nod to that assumption.

There’s a parallel (of this mindset) in the moto industry. Japan also happens to make extremely high quality crash helmets, with Arai and Shoei being familiar names. Now Arai helmets are expensive, the average model costing around $600, with race replicas graphics going upto $900. But basic design and materials have remained the same, and newness is introduced by small but progressive changes. Compared to other non-Japanese competitors, Arai sticks to a tried and tested formula, almost as if there’s a Japanese translation of ‘ If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ on metal plaques in every room of their office. If this philosophy of incremental evolution is culturally ingrained in the Japanese psyche, why fight it? With that, we’ll stop giving Asics a hard time when it comes to the degree of design evolution, and instead focus on pros and cons of functional running shoe elements.

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The oft seen 1-2-3 set-up of the Kayano. First, the heel to toe midsole layer. Second, the white(soft) foam which forms the bulk of midsole. The third piece is the Dynamic Duomax insert, which is this firmer foam on the medial (arch) side.

The upper hasn’t changed much on the Kayano 21 from a material or design perspective. In comes some small updates (on fit) worth a mention, which we’ll cover later. The midsole has major updates, and that’s what makes the Kayano 21 so different from the 20. As you might already know, the Kayano midsole is built using three different densities of foam – there’s an upper layer of foam just below the strobel, which is glued on top of the second layer of foam – the latter also has ‘Dynamic Duomax’ insert on the medial (arch side) which is hardest in density. In earlier days, Duomax foam used to be a different (usually grey) color and pasted together with softer density foam. As footwear technology evolved, brands were able to mold both these densities together without the need for adhesives. The recent trend has been to make the colors of both densities tonal so that they integrate aesthetically. And blended almost too well on the Kayano 21 – would have been difficult to tell had it not been for the speckles on the area featuring Duomax.

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Harder density foam on inner side is meant for motion control. Used to be of a different color, but now comes integrated – both in aesthetics and construction.

This harder density foam is usually placed by brands to control inward foot roll (pronation), but don’t let the ‘pronation control’ tag put you off. The Kayano 21 should work for majority of runners who just want a well cushioned shoe with premium looking (and feeling) materials. So much so, we’d go as far to say that if you’re unhappy with the un-plushness of the recent Nimbus 16, consider the Kayano 21. The shoe’s behavior has changed drastically since the days of Kayano 17/18, so if you’ve been staying away from the Kayano because of your past experience, then it’s about time you gave your perception a refresh.

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Visible area of heel Gel insert is thicker than that of Kayano 20, vertically.

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Forefoot Gel pad has been re-shuffled, with one of the pads moving closer towards the toe.

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Kayano 21 (left) ditches the angled midsole stacking of Kayano 20 (right), and increases the volume of softer (white) midsole foam under the heel. Also notice the increase in area of the Gel unit.

This year, the midsole construction has been overhauled to make the ride softer. Be it the upper or lower layer of foam, both of them have gone softer in density. The visible part of the heel Gel pad is also thicker when compared to last year, and forefoot Gel now moves closer to front of the shoe. The Kayano 21 also gets rid of the angled foam stacking on the heel (see picture above). There’s more of the softer, white midsole foam just below the upper heel which makes that section softer to land on.

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Heel crash pad is now larger, affecting foot-strike experience.

If you’ve been doing miles on the Kayano 20 and switch to 21, the change in cushioning levels will be instantly noticeable. The heel and forefoot now feel way more padded than the 20, which feels flatter (and firmer) in comparison. Outsole changes do their bit to influence cushioning too. The heel crash pad is now larger – the area of rubber mounted on heel midsole foam has been increased, and heel striking will result in the crash pad flexing, adding to cushioning feel. Also mentionable is the fact that heel rubber placements on either sides have increased articulation. Rubber on lateral rearfoot is now split into two parts instead of one (Kayano 20) and the medial side sees introduction of a flex groove. This allows those parts to move independently of each other, enhancing the sensation of a softer ride and transition.

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Forefoot has a wider ‘Guidance line’ groove in the center, and is more flexible than the Kayano 20.

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The gap between outsole lugs is wider, creating a pressure point. That’s the empty space between four corners of rubber outsole lugs.

The forefoot is more flexible than the 20 due to the softer materials, with the likelihood of revised forefoot Gel placement playing a role too. The forefoot is very well padded, making landings soft for forefoot strikers. If there’s any drawback of that, pressure is felt under the 2nd and 3rd metatarsal, the probable reason being the density contrast between the soft midsole and much harder blown rubber pieces. The exposed ‘guidance line’ is wider than Kayano 20 and overall gap in the center of the outsole has been increased. This wide groove is accentuated by the softer midsole foam, and weight loading results in building pressure on that portion. However, this is not something you’ll feel immediately; it only comes through once you’re past 6-7 kilometers of continuous running. There is no pain or soreness, you just finish the run feeling that the foot has worked harder in the front.

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Same insole design and top cloth.

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That said, the memory foam- like material is softer than the one used in Kayano 20.

Basic design of the Kayano 21 insole is left unmodified, but it has been made softer than the previous version. This dials up the level of cushioned feel underfoot, and supported by another layer of EVA strobel just below it. Heel stability is fairly decent, as densities on either sides are reasonably well balance. This is certainly no Lunarglide 5.

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Carbon rubber in heel and blown rubber in forefoot. Design has been tweaked to include rectangular lugs under forefoot and increased articulation in rear.

It is hard to say whether outsole grip has improved, inspite of some design changes. Outsole compound is the same – blown rubber in the forefoot and carbon rubber in the rear, but the Kayano 21 outsole has been tweaked to include smaller rectangular lugs in the forefoot. Durability levels remain unchanged, and ditto for the design of plastic midfoot shank. Only this time, it does not sit flush with the midsole, with some gap between them. Could be for bettering midfoot transition, though we could not notice anything different during runs.

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Similar materials to last year’s 20th version. Spacer mesh with welds and overlays.

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Midfoot welds, with logo execution carried over.

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Fit should be identical to Kayano 20, but that isn’t the case. Why? There’s a new layer of lining inside, which makes the fit snug.

Upper looks very similar to last year’s Kayano 20. Spacer mesh on top, welded webwork, and identical synthetic leather Asics logos on both sides. Logically, the fit should have been the same, but it isn’t. There is some wiggle room ahead of the toes, same as Kayano 20, and should be considered true to size. The difference lies in the side fit, which is snugger on the D Width Kayano 21 compared to same width 20. The change in fit owes it to the introduction of inner lining, which wasn’t a part of Kayano 20. There’s a second layer of soft fabric under the spacer mesh, which fills up gaps while slightly reducing the stretch properties of the air mesh. To sum things up, the Kayano 21 fits tighter than the 20, so consider 2E or 4E widths if you need more sideways room.

It is not under the toe box, but it still makes the Kayano 21 upper run slightly warmer.

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A new inner lining is introduced inside. Problem is, as you can see, the edges fold over.

The lining is good thing, but its attachment to the insides could have been better executed. The starting point of the lining has some free material (flap) which tends to fold over once you slide your foot past. This causes the lining materials to fold over, and it can be felt. The sensation is similar to having a fold in your running socks, which you need to adjust by straightening it out with your index finger.

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Tongue lining fabric feels more plusher, same as what was seen on Nimbus 16.

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The lace-loop regardless, tongue slides during runs.

Use of a new tongue and collar lining is a welcome update. The Kayano 21 tongue and collar feels much more luxurious, much in thanks to this new mesh with a softer hand feel. The tongue design has been changed, and the softer lining turns over to the front lip, making it feel softer when you tug on them. Incidentally, the fabric used is the same as what’s used on the Nimbus 16, with striking pattern similarity. However, the tongue continues to feature a gusset free construction, making it prone to tongue slide. That there’s a small lace-loop in the center is of no help at all.

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Collar is constructed using the same material as tongue lining. Plush and padded.

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Soft Achilles dip, but goes relatively straight up compared to Kayano 20. Some runners might feel a slight slack around the Achilles.

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Vs. the Kayano 20, the heel area has a lesser outwards curve. This opens up some room at base of the heel.

Collar fit will feel unchanged for most people, unless you’re very perceptible to even the slightest changes. If you are, you’ll notice that there some extra room around the base of the heel and the soft Achilles dip seems roomy, but only by a minuscule margin. So tiny, that if you coming from a shoe other than the Kayano 20, chances are that you’ll not give it a second thought. The Kayano 20’s molded heel area appeared to be recessed (and curved) slightly outwards in relation to midsole heel, whereas the 21 adopts a straighter silhouette. Same goes for the Achilles dip area, where the Kayano 21 goes relatively straight up instead of the slight curve in the Kayano 20.

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Midsole wall has molded ‘carve-outs’.

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Toe bumper texture aligns with the visual direction.

This has no functional value, but we’ll call it anyway. The Kayano 21 has a distinct aesthetic, something which makes it looks sleeker. The midsole walls feature these triangular ‘carve-outs’, helping the shoe’s cosmetic flow. The synthetic leather toe-bumper also has a texture which aligns with the design language on the midsole, tying things together from a visual perspective.

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There’s one reflective overlay on the toe-box, and the second one is on the heel.

Reflectivity is at a premium on the Kayano 21, much in the way of other brands. Nowadays, it is becoming a trend to offer less reflectivity on mainstream models and then introduce special versions which go all out. Asics offers its ‘Liteshow’ editions, with equivalents like ‘Flash/Shield’ (Nike) and GID – Glow-in-Dark (NB, Skechers), Nightlife (Brooks) and Viziglow( Saucony) found in competing brands. In the regular Kayano 21, there’s only a tiny piece on the heel, and a standard on-toe-box insert.

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The spacing between the tear-drop eyelets is not uniform across left and right half-pair. Result? Crooked row of lacing. (click on image to enlarge)

Any negatives on the Kayano 21, save for tongue slide, and the high $160 sticker price? There was a small upper assembly fault found on our pair. The gap between the teardrop shaped eyelet overlays on both shoes weren’t uniform, causing the left shoe to feature a crooked, misaligned row of lacing. That’s the problem with complex, traditional uppers – they look great and detailed, but brands need to take great care to make sure they are stitched up perfectly.

There’s also some chatter on the internet saying the Kayano 21 is the lightest ever, but that isn’t correct. It might be the softest Kayano ever, but it comes in 10 grams heavier than previous generation Kayano 20.

With the radical shift towards softness, the Kayano couldn’t be more different from what it used to be a few years ago. Once the torch bearer for running shoe firmness, the new Kayano is a reset of its earlier self, transforming into an ultra cushioned offering. While this broadens the appeal of Kayano 21 to a larger consumer base, the update is obviously going to upset a few gents who were used to (and liked) the firm ride of earlier models.




In that case, the $100 Asics GT 1000 3 is something you could consider – that shoe has a similar Duomax midsole minus the visible forefoot Gel units and some amount of upper plushness.

(Disclaimer: Solereview paid full US retail price for the shoe reviewed)

Note on ratings: Our numeric scoring of 8.5/10 is based on a total of weighted averages. The attributes namely transition, stability and fit contribute to 69% of total scoring weight, which we see as more important than material (7%), cushioning (7%), traction (12%) and weight (5%). Hence the scores will not add up when a method of simple average calculation is used.

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