By Paul Freary
This is HOKA’s new pinnacle racing shoe and the model offering the highest level of ‘energy return’ from the brand. The Cielo X1 features a new high-stack midsole geometry and carbon plate to give an incredibly propulsive ride.
Simply the appearance of the shoe looks something different and special from HOKA and once on the foot, it feels a big step away from anything I’ve tried from them previously.
My review is based on a pair of shoes received ‘pre-launch’. I’ve covered around 150 miles in the shoes at various speeds in these shoes, but there may be small changes to the final ‘production’ model due for release on 1st February 2024.
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Let’s dive straight into the tech here, as the Cielo X1 is packed with new features that make it stand out from any other model the brand has previously released.
As the shoe looks very different, particularly in the midsole section, let’s start here.
The shoe features a 39mm stack midsole with a 7mm drop from the heel into the forefoot. This midsole is a brand-new dual-density PEBA foam construction and sandwiches a full-length carbon-fibre plate.
The plate is a highly engineered design which includes small ‘wings’ in the midfoot and forefoot sections to create additional stability. In the midfoot cut-away section on the lateral side of the shoe, the exposed plate can clearly be seen wrapping up into the top layer of PEBA.
The layer of midsole foam directly under the foot is a softer density and creates an instantly comfortable and welcoming feel. The slightly firmer layer sits beneath the carbon plate and creates the more propulsive element of the ride.
The early-stage meta-rocker design is evident from the aggressive forefoot upward curl of the shoe. On the run, this creates an experience of the foot being propelled along the road, which when combined with the carbon plate and propulsive foam is highly evident.
The whole sole, midsole and carbon plate are an asymmetrical design to create an ‘active foot frame’. It’s a little reminiscent of some other shoes (Mizuno Wave Rebellion Pro) and perhaps my earliest memory of this type of ‘cut-away’ design would be the Reebok Instapump Fury back in the early 90’s. Here, the cutaway section reduces weight in the midfoot, where stability is retained from the carbon plate. It also helps with stability a little and the shoe feels very stable for this type of racing model.
The sole covers pretty much the whole of the shoe which comes into contact with the ground and has small holes cut into its design to reduce the weight a little. For me, it’s a bonus that it offers full-length coverage. Often, the advanced foams wear very quickly, especially when exposed to direct contact with the road.
The upper is a knitted design. It’s a single-layer construction and features an asymmetrical lace system and a gusseted tongue. The upper fit is good and fairly typical of a racing shoe.
The laces are a little unusual, flat, with a shiny finish that just feels like it might not stay tied, so either take extra care or, as I do, tuck them under the adjacent lace to keep them secure.
As a more minimal upper design, the heel counter and lining are of a rather simple design inside the shoe. There’s a small area of padding similar to that found in other racers and above this, the stitching and edge of the heel counter are exposed. It was in this area on both feet that I experienced a nasty bit of friction. On a longer (14-mile test run) this meant my skin was rubbed away with a little bleeding*
*I will point out here that my shoes are an ‘advance’ test pair before the official 1st February 2024 launch date, so hopefully this ‘finish’ has been addressed in the final production models. This said, it hasn’t spoiled my experience of the shoe and I’ve remedied the issue with the application of some stick-on felt!
The shoe is true to size when compared with other models in the HOKA range in terms of both length and width.
Long tempo training runs
Max-level, highly responsive
Men’s (US10) 9.3oz / 263g
Women’s (US8) 7.4oz / 209g
Suggested Retail Price
£250 / $275
True to size
When pulling the shoes on for the first time they instantly feel different to other HOKA models. Yes, they are big, thanks to the 39mm stack but they don’t feel as bulky as some other models. This is perhaps because the cushioning here is PEBA and along with the carbon plate, the shoe feels a little more purposeful than simply a ‘big, soft, cushioned shoe’.
The rocker and midsole geometry here is very noticeable and very aggressive. Even when stood still in the shoes the feel to ‘rock’ a little. They almost can’t stand still and want to get moving. And when they do get moving, they feel better the faster they go!
Upon receiving my advance testing pair, I really couldn’t wait to try them. I was due for an easy recovery run, so pulled the shoes on and set out for four miles at an easy pace. (around 7min30 per mile.
The high stack and 7mm drop (something of a departure for HOKA, whose shoes usually sit on a 4 or 5mm drop), combined with the dual-layer foam and carbon plate create a forward motion promoting propulsion that’s highly evident. At 263g, the Cielo X1 is a little heavier than one might expect for a race-specific model, but once on the feet, they don’t feel quite as heavy. Certainly on my first outing the weight wasn’t an issue and the running experience was a highly enjoyable one.
The following day I took to the treadmill and, being tempted to pick up the pace a little, decided to give the shoes a test over a timed 5k effort on the Zwift application. I started at an easy warm-up pace and then jumped into the first mile at 5 minutes 40 seconds per mile. The shoes felt great! I enjoyed the ‘rolling’ nature of the shoe and the foam felt nicely balanced between soft cushioning and a responsive toe-off.
The carbon plate is evident from its shape, the curvature under the forefoot propelling me forward. I picked up the pace with each mile by a few seconds and finished at 5 minutes 20 seconds per mile speed. The shoes felt great at this increased speed too and perhaps the most noticeable element is the stability on offer. My feet felt perfectly stable and neutral and simply well balanced and progressing along the road in a very efficient manner.
At the weekend I decided to take the shoes on my longer weekly outing. A 14-mile effort was on the schedule and the pace was to be based purely on feel. With this type of run, I usually just take each mile as it comes and at a speed, I feel most comfortable. I don’t tend to check my watch during these types of runs to ensure I maintain a run-to-feel pace.
Checking my speed and pace on my return I’d been working at around 7 to 7 minutes 30 seconds per mile. For most of the 14 miles, the shoes felt as they did on the previous efforts, just really very comfortable and nicely propulsive. The ride has a definite ‘bounce’ to it, particularly when landing a little forward of the heel. The forward rolling geometry is continuously evident and welcome in the later miles.
I did notice the weight of the shoe a little after around ten miles and that’s the 263g making the difference, around 20% more than many competitors. I also noticed as I tired a little, that I felt myself scuffing the ground a little and thought this might be due to the unusual geometry, the more pronounced rocker creating the scuff when my cadences slowed.
Another minor issue was some rubbing on the internal ankle collar as mentioned above. This became rather painfully evident at around the ten-mile mark. As mentioned above, I think this is due to my shoes being an early production sample and I resolved the issue with some stick-on felt!
Further runs in the shoe have been at a variety of speeds and the shoes continue to feel very accomplished, so much so that I’d say it’s my favourite HOKA to date!
The first, most obvious comparison would be the Rocket X2 also from HOKA. The Rocket X2 is lighter and a little softer. When side by side I’d probably recommend now making the Rocket X2 a racing shoe for up to half marathon distances and the Cielo X1 for longer distances – assuming weight isn’t a major factor for you. The Cielo X1 also makes a great tempo shoe for longer reps and runs.
The Mizuno Rebellion Pro share a similar midsole geometry to the Cielo x1, although the midsole cutaway on the Mizuno shoe is on the medial side of the shoe and the lateral side on the HOKA.
Both have aggressive rockers and are plated. The Mizuno forces a more midfoot strike whereas the HOKA is a little more forgiving and allows a heel strike. Both feel relatively soft and bouncy when landing on the midfoot ‘sweet spot’. The HOKA is a little more versatile of these two models and is happy at a wider range of speeds, whereas the Mizuno, at least for me, is a shoe I reserve for faster efforts and races only.
With regards to my 8.5 out of 10 score for the shoe, I’ve knocked points off for the weight of the shoe and that ‘rubbing’ on the ankle collar.
At 260g+ it’s just too a little too heavy to be called an out-and-out race-specific shoe. It needs to lose around 50g to be more competitive and that’s around 20% of its current weight! So, a little work to be done here. Perhaps a slightly lower overall stack and revision to the carbon plate.
I do have slight concerns about the finish of the internal heel counter in the ankle area. Hopefully, this will improve in the ‘official’ production model and I’m looking forward to trying those.
Despite these minor issues, the HOKA Cielo x1 is the best shoe from the brand to date and one which I’ve been tempted to run in every day of the week, such is the enjoyment it’s been bringing to my training for the last few weeks. I have, of course, resisted this temptation a few times in order to run in ‘lesser’ shoes simply so I can retain some of the benefit of carbon-plated models on race day.