After comprehensively testing all the shoes in this year's review for traction performance on steep dirt, steep grass, mud, dry rocks, and wet rocks, we were surprised to find that sizeable sticky rubber cleats located on the outsole of the Inov-8 Roclite 290 gripped all surfaces better than any other. It was the only shoe that handled every tricky and problematic surface without any hint of slippage. It was even able to unseat our long-held standard for optimal traction, the Salomon Speedcross 4, due to its superior grip on wet rock when running in the rain. But the Roclite 290 was not a gimmicky shoe with excellent traction, it also tied our Best Overall trail running shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4 as the second highest rated contender in our review, behind only the Salomon S/Lab Ultra. It is very comfortable, has a stable, low to the ground profile, and offers optimal sensitivity while still employing a mid-shank rock plate for underfoot protection. If you're looking for an excellent running shoe with absolutely unrivaled traction, the Roclite 290 as the shoe for you.
Inov-8 Roclite 290 Review
Compare prices at 3 resellers Pros: The best traction, stable and sensitive, great fit for the average width foot
Cons: Not much underfoot protection despite rock plate, a bit heavy for such a minimalist shoe
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Roclite 290 is a minimalist, low-profile shoe with a mere 4mm of heel-toe drop and only 13.5mm of stack height in the forefoot. As these numbers would suggest, this ensures it offers a light, nimble, and highly sensitive ride. Its high-quality inner construction is comfortable and flexible, and the overall impression from this shoe is that it will help you achieve your running goals by leaving the mechanics of your foot primarily un-modified. Runners who love a flexible, sensitive, and low to the ground shoe will love the Roclite 290. On the other hand, despite the midsole rock plate, this shoe provides vastly less underfoot protection than most in this review; runners who feel like they need a substantial buffer between them and the gnarly rocks they run over may want to check out Inov-8's Roclite 305 instead, or the zero drop Inov-8 TerraUltra G 260. The Roclite 305 has the same great traction but with 8mm drop and a bit of added cushioning, mostly in the heel.
Compared to the rest of the competition in this review, the Roclite 290 impressively tied with the Nike Terra Kiger 4 and others as one of the top rated shoes. It has a narrower forefoot and seems to hug the foot slightly more snugly, but also feels a bit less protective underfoot, and is a smidge heavier. Most impressively, it was able to outperform the extremely aggressive lug patterns on both the Saucony Peregrine 8 and the Salomon Speedcross 4, especially when it came to grip on wet rock. While we think it offers the best traction available, we awarded our Top Pick award for Traction to the newly released Inov-8 TerraUltra G260 which combines graphene with rubber to offer far superior longevity, a slight weakness of the Roclite 290.
There is no doubt that foot protection is the weakness of this shoe, and so it will be appreciated more by agile runners with a nimble, light-footed running style who like to dance over rough terrain more than they simply like to stomp right through. Despite a midsole rock plate, this shoe has the lowest forefoot stack height in this review of a mere 13.5mm and sports a lot of flexibility. While it has a thick, rubberized toe-bumper, as well as rubberized overlays that cover the high wear areas of the mesh fabric upper, these features do more to protect the shoe itself from over-wear, than they will guard your foot against impacts from obstacles.
While it was on the more sensitive and less protective end of the spectrum in this review, the Roclite 290 still dampened the effect of tromping over sharp rocks better than the highly sensitive Altra Superior 3.5 or the similarly zero-drop Topo Runventure 2. It was only slightly less protective than its most similar competitors, both in feel and in overall score, the Terra Kiger 4 and Peregrine 8. We gave it 5 out of 10 points for this metric.
When testing for traction we compared each shoe for its performance on steep loose dirt, steep grass, dry talus, wet rock slabs, and steep muddy trail, giving a rating of 1-5 for each surface based on how well it gripped and inspired confidence to move fast. The Roclite 290 was the only shoe which we felt garnered a perfect 5 rating for every single surface, an impressive feat! While its 5mm deep "cleat-shaped" lugs are well spaced apart for the optimal shedding of mud and grip on grass and dirt, even more impressive to us was how well the sticky Tri-C rubber compound gripped the rock, even when wet. Our only minor concern was that this sticky rubber compound might not be as durable as a harder rubber, and by the end of the testing period, we had experienced a few nicks and tears to these lugs.
The next closest competitors when it came to traction were the Salomon Speedcross 4 and the Saucony Peregrine 8. The only place that these two awesomely aggressive outsoles failed to hold their own was on the wet rock test, where we landed and pushed off repeatedly on wet slabs of the talus in the rain, a test that the Roclite 290 impressively managed to ace. While its award-winning traction will surely benefit runners on the trails, we feel that athletes who commonly venture off trail will especially profit from this shoe's unique grip.
With a very low 4mm heel-toe drop and a mere 17.5mm of stack height in the heel, the lowest in this review, this was naturally a very stable shoe. Through years of testing, we have found time and again that the lower a shoe is to the ground, and especially in the heel, the more stable it tends to feel, and the Roclite 290 is no exception.
However, despite one of the lowest profiles in this review, we found that in our side-hilling test, where we ran back and forth across a steep grassy hill to better understand how well a shoe held our foot in place, this shoe was not the best. The flexible and lightweight mesh upper seemed to not have enough rigidity to hold our foot firmly on top of the midsole platform, and in this department, it was outscored by the Terra Kiger 4. Likewise, the zero drop Altra Superior 3.5 also felt more stable during this test, as did the zero drop TerraUltra G260. That said, we felt absolutely no instability or foot slippage of any sort while running straight downhill in this shoe, which more closely mimics actual trail conditions. 8 out of 10 points.
There is no doubt that this shoe is comfortable to wear. The "Adapterweb" foot cradle system that translates the tightening of the laces into foot hugging security is very comfortable for the foot, and the interior liner is genuinely seamless, eliminating any possible instances of rubbing or pinching against the skin. It fits true to size and is of average width, which means that it does not have the same extra-wide forefoot that many shoe designs are adopting these days. That said, it is certainly not as narrow as the Speedcross 4 or Salomon S/Lab Ultra.
While we felt it was one of the most comfortable shoes in this review out of the box, we were a bit disappointed by its performance in our water bucket test, especially for a shoe designed in and for the wet climates of Great Britain. It was the single most absorptive shoe when dunked in the bucket for 20 seconds, and also retained the largest percentage of water after the five-minute jog. Maybe fell-runners are simply used to having continuously drenched feet, but we felt that compared to the competition we had to dock it a point for these results, and only gave it 8 out of 10 for Comfort.
Our size Men's 11 shoes (US) weighed in at 22.1 ounces straight out of the box, placing it squarely in the middle of the field.
While this shows that it is by no means a heavy shoe, it was slightly surprising to us that such a minimal feeling shoe with such a thin midsole was not one of the lightest shoes in the review. By comparison, the lightest shoe was the Hoka Evo Jawz which only weighed 16 ounces per pair, and the Scarpa Spin, a shoe that has a similarly thin forefoot midsole, weighed in at only 19.0 ounces per pair. Regardless of the lower score, this shoe doesn't feel heavy or cumbersome on your foot, but rather allows for a light and nimble running style.
With so little midsole cushioning underfoot, and a correspondingly low score for foot protection, it is no surprise that we found this shoe to be among the most sensitive we tested. In our sensitivity testing, where we purposely ran back and forth across patches of jagged and sharp rocks, we could easily feel the edges and points of the rocks digging into our feet, but not at all to the point of pain. It is mildly surprising that this shoe does include a midfoot rock plate because it didn't exactly feel like there was much between our foot and the ground.
To run optimally fast in this shoe, one will need to avoid the sharpest and pointiest of obstacles, either by terrain choice or by running style. This shoe is meant more for a quick dancer than a loud stomper, and in that way, we found it very similar to both the Peregrine 8 as well as the Altra Lone Peak 3.5. 8 out of 10 points.
The Roclite 290 is a low-profile, sensitive, stable shoe that has the best traction one can find. As such, we feel like it is ideally suited to more mature runners who have strong feet and adaptable strides. While it is equally suited to any terrain type, off-trail fell-runners and ridge scramblers will especially appreciate its fantastic sticky outsole, as will runners who usually leave the house in the rain.
This shoe retails for $120, making it average in the cost department. Since we found it to be one of the highest rated models in this review, we certainly think this is money worth spending. That said, its minimalist nature and soft, sticky outsole mean that it may not withstand as many miles as a burlier trainer, meaning that if you want to get the most out of it, you may want to reserve it for special days, rather than use it on every single run.
The Inov-8 Roclite 290 is a low-profile shoe that is flexible and sensitive and has the very best outsole in this review. Its sticky rubber and deep lugs gripped all surfaces better than the rest. It's a running shoe for off-trail missions that require the best grip for the best performance.
— Andy Wellman