September 20, 2016
Technology makes strides for the better
By Adam Stuhlfaut
Photo at right: X-ray photos of a human foot in a running shoe designed with a wide-toe box, left, and a traditional running shoe, right. Photo courtesy of Altra Running Shoes
In the early 2000s, the running shoe industry was dominated by a few major brands churning out running shoes built on the same premise: that heel strike running was the more efficient way to run.
To accommodate this style of movement, traditional shoe brands created heavy shoes with large heel cushioning pads and a steep drop from the heel to the toe box. The thought was big, soft heels were needed to reduce injuries. Then, in 2005, everything changed.
Tony Post, a runner and gym enthusiast seeking to reduce injury, launched Vibram USA and its signature Five Fingers toe shoe. It set the stage for a running shoe revolution that led to many innovative brands such as Topo Athletic, Hoka One One, Altra Runnng, On Running and SKORA.
Changing the Way We Run
These revolutionary running shoes feature lower heel drops, reduced weight and a wider toe box which helps runners achieve a more natural body position and allows for the feet and toes to spread out naturally.
This more natural position allows runners to land in a midfoot stance that can relieve certain injuries by reducing impact shock on their joints. Allowing the toes to spread out creates a more stable foot strike for the runner and helps control pronation naturally rather than relying on support elements built into the footwear.
In creating these new types of shoes, Post, of Vibram, aimed to get runners back to doing things a more natural way.
“These shoes challenged runners to load the ball of the foot and we realized that this type of platform changed running form,” says Post, now CEO and Founder of Topo Athletic, a brand he launched in 2013 that highlights a wide toe box, low heel drop and lightweight design philosophy.
One reputable brand that focuses on wide toe box, low heel-drop shoes is Altra Running.
Founded in 2009 by a trio of entrepreneurs, Golden Harper, Brian Beckstead and Jeremy Howlett, Altra’s original mission was to create shoes that put runners in a more natural running position.
“We saw a problem and looked to solve that problem,” says Howlett. “Feet aren’t shaped like pizza slices and we wanted to allow the foot to relax into a more natural position.”
By widening the toe box, Altra footwear allows the feet to do what comes natural, which can also relieve pain from injuries caused in part by traditional pointed toe-box shaped running shoes.
Technology Leads to Innovation
Post points out that this shoe revolution has led to many additional innovations, such as 3D printing some of the design elements on the upper part of the shoe, which reduces the overall weight. This new technology enables seamless construction that eliminates friction and chafe points inside the shoe.
Topo Athletic is also challenging its suppliers to change the way they provide materials for the shoes. For example, Post challenged his textile suppliers to build lighter waterproof shoes. As a result, Topo Athletic has partnered with eVent to build the new Hydroventure trail running shoe.
Founded in 1999, eVent is an innovative maker of waterproof textiles. Topo and eVent worked together to create waterproof shoes by blending the membrane, lining and mesh to create waterproof shoes that are lighter, less rigid, easier and more affordable.
From Minimalism to Maximalism
Another brand that is challenging the norm is Hoka One One. While Post and Topo Athletic are changing the shoe industry with low cushion, low heel-drop shoes, Hoka One One, founded in 2010, is delivering lightweight, low heel-drop shoes with incredible amounts of cushioning.
Andrew Conley, Senior Product Line Manager at Hoka One One, doesn’t want runners to equate cushioning with heavy shoes.
“Weight is the golden goose everyone is chasing,” says Conley. “We are obsessed with creating lightweight shoes [with] Hoka being the intersection between cushioning and light weight.”
Conley says they constantly address each element of the manufacturing process which leads to smarter choices about how Hoka One One constructs its shoes.
Conley is certain that the one thing that Hoka One One will not change is its commitment to low heel-drop shoes. According to Conley, low heel-drop shoes reduce the lever affect and creates a more stable run that feels more connected to the ground.
Focus on Lowering Prices
Both Conley and Post agree that one additional benefit from new brands challenging the way shoes are made is that these companies are also pushing the industry to consider ways to reduce the costs of the materials put into the shoes.
While Conley points out that much of the cost of a running shoe is tied to non-material aspects such as factory labor, he believes that more thought put into shoe materials and construction can help make running shoes less expensive for the consumer.
Post says that traditional shoe brands are too focused on marketing gimmicks that drive up the price of the shoes.
“Shoe are getting too expensive and the price creates a barrier to entry for consumers,” says Post. “We are committed to making shoes at fair prices.” Post says his goal is to keep shoes in the $90 –$120 price range.
This new revolution in running footwear adds up to many benefits for the consumer. One of the biggest benefits is choice. The large proliferation of non-traditional running shoe brands allows consumers to not just take what the traditional brands are selling, but to choose from a wide-range of new running shoe brands and philosophies.
Ultimately, the benefit may be realized over a lifetime as people are staying active longer and spending more time on their feet. These new brands and the people behind them hope that by creating footwear that works to keep your feet healthy, they will also become your lifelong fitness partner.
Adam Stuhlfaut is Director of Running at SHOES-n-FEET in Bellevue, Washington. A family-owned shoe business, the store offers running and comfort specialty shoes.