The Zelen is the latest in a slew of running shoes from Xero Shoes, but this shoe has one differentiator. It’s the first Xero Shoe made with sustainability in mind.
I have mixed feelings after trying the Zelen. Is it a running shoe like they market it? Why did they add another running shoe to their already busy lineup? Why would I buy it over the HFS?
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(45-day exchange period)
In this review, I’ll dive into the shoe’s fit, feel, and durability, and the big talking points come down to the shoe’s feel. So if you want to know how the Zelen differs from other Xero Shoes, skip straight to the “Feel” section.
But first, we start with the fit! Because if it doesn’t fit, it’ll never work!
When I first slid the Zelen on, it felt like…… a Xero Shoe……
Wider at the toe box. Flexible sole. Forgiving upper materials.
But after a short time, the small details started to stand out.
Shallow feet can finally fit in a Xero Shoe! Typically, most models in the Xero Shoes lineup have been relatively deep, and those with little volume (if you often have material bunching around your laces, that’s you!) would have to look to other brands. High-volume feet will still work in the shoe because the opening and tongue are wide enough. Plus, you can take the insole out for extra space.
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Buy ½ a size larger than your regular size. You can never guarantee sizing from shoe to shoe. And even though Xero Shoes advises you to stay true to size with the Zelen, I’d disagree. My toe was precariously close to the end of the shoe, which may be okay for everyday wear, but for running, you need a little extra space to avoid pressure on your toes.
The toe box is wide enough and squared nicely on the big toe. If you’re new to minimal shoes, Xero Shoes can be a nice starting point because their shoes, and toe boxes, in this case, aren’t clown shoe-like. For anyone with a huge toe span, you’re best off looking to other brands, but for most, Xero Shoes are wide enough. For the Zelen specifically, it’s nice to see they’ve squared the big toe area to allow extra room for your toe.
The heel cup is shallow but still grips the foot. This is more of a “feel” thing because it never caused an issue with fit. Even from the pictures, it’s evident that the heel cup is unusually low. It never hindered heel lock and may even please those with sensitive achilles.
The familiar Xero Shoes lacing and strap system works great again. The laces loop through the straps that extend down onto the outsole, tightening around your entire foot, locking it in with zero movements. I’ve never had issues with Xero Shoes lacing; I believe that’s because they’ve found a system that works and replicated it across the whole range.
I’m just going to say this upfront.
Is this really a running shoe?
In the marketing of shoes, Xero Shoes’ references “Your eco-Friendly Road Runner” and “the barely-there feel of this sustainable runner.” But with the heavy-duty mid-foot overlays, I’m just not convinced.
I was so unsure that I never even went out for a run in them! Ok, the pair I got was a little short too (pssst ½ size up), but it just didn’t feel quite right.
This shoe is just an everyday casual shoe or could make a good court shoe.
So let’s get into the reasons why—starting with the biggest culprit.
The heavy-duty midfoot materials lock you in place but are restrictive when running. Imagine a running shoe. You don’t think of running shoes made with thick leather or solid materials, do you? Instead, you’d choose more flexible mesh-like materials. With the Zelen, you’ve got a mix, but in the midfoot, you’ll find super thick side walls looped into the lacing, restricting movement. It’s that restriction of movement that feels unnatural when running.
Restriction in the midfoot is detrimental to running. When running, our feet extend, flex, splay, and perform various movements. To allow these movements to occur, your foot must be unrestricted. That’s where conventional shoes fail; they restrict the foot’s range of motion, immobilizing its function. In the same way, the Zelen restricts the range of movement around the midfoot due to the use of heavy-duty materials. Two things come to mind when making these comments, but neither convinces me.
- The materials will soften over time? – Maybe, but due to the thickness, I think that’ll be a while.
- Loosen the laces? That’ll give a little room for movement – True, but then you’re compromising fit.
The forefoot remains flexible. Because the thick materials only extend over the midfoot, the forefoot still remains very flexible. This means the shoe could work well in situations where you’re on your toes, like court sports.
The stack height is on the higher end of the Xero Shoes range. The sole remains minimal, with plenty of ground feel, but it doesn’t have that authentic barefoot feel like the HFS or Speedforce. With a stack height of 5mm, it’s more in the range of the Prio. Another reason why I feel this shoe is well suited to court sports.
There is zero slipping around in the shoe, and the lockdown is solid. Sorry, back to that midfoot material 🙂 This time it’s for good. Because the midfoot is so stiff and extends around the foot towards the sole, lockdown is sold, and the foot stays in place perfectly. This again lends itself to court sports with swift changes in direction.
(45-day exchange period)
Here’s where I think the Zelen will shine.
Much of the marketing material is geared toward sustainability and eco-friendly materials; part of that action is the shoe’s durability!
With Xero Shoes’ standard 5000-mile outsole warranty, we have to believe they trust the rubber they’re using. But what about the rest of the shoe?
Those stiff thick materials I was complaining about….. It’s good for durability. Having sturdy material choices like plastics and leather may not always be the most comfortable, but they often have the best longevity. There’s no mention of what the specific material is other than vegan-friendly, but after having a good look over it, I feel it’ll last a long time.
Materials used at high flex points are supple enough to allow for creasing and folding. A highly flexible rPET material (recycled polyester to you and me) makes up the toe box and extends down to the side of the forefoot. This area is where the shoe will see the most flexibility as the toes flex during landing and toe-off. Keeping this area flexible will reduce the wear you’d typically see on other shoes, hopefully extending the lifespan.
A welded overlaid toe box protects your toes and shields the soft mesh mentioned above. Sometimes we scuff the front of our shoe or kick a table leg. The pain of stubbing your toe is terrible enough; you don’t want to end up with a damaged shoe too! The toe box is somewhat soft, but it still protects the soft mesh that makes up the rest of the toe box and will hopefully avoid any shoe damage!
As you may well have guessed, The Zelen isn’t for me. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.
If someone came to me asking for a court shoe with enough room for their toes to splay, I’d suggest the Zelen every day of the week. But I just can’t wholeheartedly recommend the shoe for running.
The one exception I’d make would be if a runner with low volume came to me and was dead set on buying from Xero Shoes. Then I’d suggest the Zelen.
The eco-friendly claims made with this shoe may be a draw for some, and I’d get that, but I’d also suggest looking at other options, such as Vivobarefoot, for eco-conscious options.
So, where does that leave you? If you still want running shoes from Xero shoes, I’d suggest the following.
- If you’re looking for a true barefoot feel with an accommodating toe box.
- Xero Shoes HFS. (My personal favorite)
- If you want more stack height and a sturdy upper.
- If you want a lightweight runner and have a narrower foot.
All these options will perform better than the Zelen for running, and most of them are cheaper!
If you’re heading out to play tennis or squash? Choose the Zelen.
(45-day exchange period)