Someone stole my On Running shoes- and that is where this odd story begins. For me.
More compelling than the stolen shoe caper is the story behind On Running, a long and convoluted path across decades and continents that includes pro triathletes, triathletes whose career was cut short by injury, a junk tire in Africa and a mysterious Swiss engineer we’ll call “George”.
“…an injured triathlete, a junk tire from Africa and a mysterious Swiss engineer named “George”.
While this sounds like a Frederick Forsythe novel it comes together as something decidedly banal these days: A new running shoe brand. Yippee. Another new shoe…
On Running joins a new generation of shoe designs that are intended to moderate injury and improve efficiency. There isn’t much new about that. Swiss engineer “George” discovered that, of two force vectors acting on a runner, vertical impact and horizontal impact, horizontal impact was the “worst”. Research indicated the horizontal sheer forces have a more damaging effect on the skeleton and connective tissues than the vertical forces. Current shoe designs do almost nothing to moderate horizontal force on a runner’s legs. That is the basis of On Running. On Running shoes are designed to moderate horizontal sheer forces on impact and improve push-off.
“…of the two force vectors acting on a runner, horizontal impact was the worst.”
However, unlike many running shoe stories the On Running story begins with a discarded tire in Africa, an injured Swiss pro triathlete, and a stressed out engineer.
Part One: The Story.
Swiss pro triathlete Olivier Bernhard could have been the Next Big Thing.
Bernhard won 6 Ironmans and 3 World Championships. His career was threatened for the same reason European athletes dominate ultra distance events: tons of miles. Bernhard subscribed to the Euro work ethic of long miles, tons of training. He suffered the consequences with overuse injuries. The problem is big mileage training works- if you survive it. The entire former Eastern Bloc Olympic system- and their dominance of the Olympics, was based on the principle of starting with a lot of athletes, training them into the ground, and keeping the best- the survivors. Bernhard was determined to find a way to engineer himself back into the game- to use technology to survive high mileage.
Several thousand miles away on the African continent, trash, especially old tires, is plentiful. New shoes are not. Someone fashioned a pair of sandals from the tread of an old car tire- common in the third world. But they didn’t know how to do it correctly. These sandals used tread cut across its section, or width- not the length. When the person walked the sandal deformed, absorbing shock under their weight and impact moving forward until the tire was fully compressed- at which point it “locked” and the person pushed forward from a secure base. It was funny. Until someone thousands of miles away saw a video of the joke sandals and a light bulb went off.
Meanwhile, the shadowy Swiss Engineer “George” was dealing with something many engineers deal with: stress. His wife lived in Florida, his engineering practice kept him in Switzerland; the travel left him listless and stressed. He took up running to invigorate himself. As with most engineers “George” was analytical. While running on the A1A highway, a beautiful road along Florida’s coast, he noticed the paved sections covered with wind-blown sand offered better shock absorption that the pavement sections without sand. The problem was, the sand slipped underfoot when a runner pushed off and they lost energy.
What “George” needed was “one-way sand”: A material or design that absorbed shock in one force vector- foot “crash” and sheer force on impact, but then immediately “locked” in the other force vector- the push off, allowing a solid base to push off from.
“… Absorbed shock in one force vector, sheer forces on impact; but then immediately “locked” in the other force vector- the push off…”
The injured Swiss Triathlete met “George” the engineer who ran on sand and the African tire sandal video was shared. An idea was born.
Among the somewhat convoluted story of On Running, Cyle Sage entered the picture. You may recall Cyle’s brief brush with fame in the 1993 Ironman telecast when he led the bike for about 40 miles. NBC commentator Kyle Masback narrated his daring escape. That failed dramatically.
Between this unlikely group On Running started as a company named “Glide & Lock”, a retrofit sole intended to be glued to the outside of existing shoes to produce the On Running benefit: Energy and shock absorption on footstrike, solid base for push off. It didn’t work very well. The adhesive was inconsistent and the addition of the extra sole height changed the geometry of the shoe. Some major- very major- shoe brands conceded that Glide N’ Lock was a valid technology, so much so it earned an international patent. The technology was built into its own shoe and “On Running” was born.
Part Two: The Technology Refined.
A good idea has synergistic benefits. Everything works together to work better: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. On paper, the argument for On Running is like that.
On Running’s Wavestep technology claims to combine these benefits:
- Lighter weight with less multi-density foam, roll bars and ride control features to weight the shoe down.
- Better shock absorption with the compression of the 13 CloudTec shock absorbers working independently to maintain foot posture while absorbing shock: When one CloudTec shock unit compresses under load it does not compromise the ability of another to absorb shock. It’s segregated shock absorption.
- More solid push off may result in better speed when the actuators “lock” with the serrated teeth inside the CloudTec units.
- “Natural” running benefits with cushioned safety. The 13 independent CloudTec shock units allow the use of a highly flexible midsole that lets the foot find its own natural geometry during running- while still absorbing shock.
Part Three: The Shoes.
On Running currently produces three models, two of which I’ve ran in. The On Running CloudSurfer uses the CloudTec 3 D cushioning in a light shoe. For lack of a better definition, this is the “performance” shoe in the On Running line. A second female specific version is available. The Cloudrunner is the cushion shoe intended for long runs, especially on tired legs.
Part Four: Does it Work?
First; these shoes feel weird… And if you think of many good… sensations… they first started out feeling a little weird.
As with all new running trends including Vibram’s barefoot running shoes, Newton’s “Land, Lever, Lift” and other footwear… innovations (I stop short of using the term “gimmicks”) the On Running CloudTec 3 design takes time to get used to. If you are a barefoot runner it may take less time. If you are a fast, light, barefoot runner it will take even less time. That said, these are not barefoot shoes. They are effectively a neutral shoe with a cushioned ride. But because of the locking lugs, it is sports car performance with luxury car ride.
Newton may be a good compare/contrast with On Running, since both designs use a hollow space to manage energy and depend on some degree of return. The additional technology with On Running is the “locking” serrations that enable forward thrust. Newton relies prominently on their “Land, Lever, Lift” process of run energy management. There is no provision for “locking traction” on Newton.
“Three steps: 1. Mitigate Shock with compression, 2. Lock for push-off, 3. Rebound with thrust: Mitigate, Lock, Rebound.”
On Running shoes are engineered to be optimal for runners below 185 pounds. Under 185 pounds the 13 WaveStep shock elements only fully compress or “lock” under maximum foot strike- the moment your foot hits the ground with the most force, the WaveSteps have mitigated the shock, and now the WaveSteps “lock up” for the propulsion phase. Three steps: Mitigate Shock with compression, Lock for push-off, Rebound with energy return.
We had a number of testers run in On Running shoes thanks to Paul Thomas of On Running. Paul has been in the industry for years, is a contemporary of Dan Empfield and Mark Montgomery and now works for On Running’s North American marketing and sales. Paul provided our testers with early model On Running shoes for evaluation about 2 months ago at Bicycle Dealer Camp, where Triathlon America was also meeting. In the Triathlon America tent, everyone was wearing On Running or Hoka One One’s (Empfield).
Most of our testers reported the On Running shoes as “too soft” initially. Others weren’t so kind. When we posted a teaser on our TriSports.com Facebook page before this review of On Running shoes, one contributor, Mark, said, “Worst shoes ever…” But with running shoes- curb appeal doesn’t count for everything. It is likely new users like “Mark” are not running in them at a sub- 9:00 or even 8:00 minute pace to evaluate them. Like many things that seek to be tangibly better, it first has to be tangibly different.
On Running technology does work. It does what they claim. It makes the shoe lighter, it absorbs shock better than a traditional multi-density EVA or gas-pocket cushioned shoe and it provides the most solid push-off I’ve ever felt in a shoe.
“The technology is valid- and it does work. I ran easier. The shoes felt very good at speed. I see advantages over a conventional midsole.”
The question is- is the market ready? On Running spent years developing the current shoes. Like other advanced companies such as Apple and Oakley, they may have engineered past the current user. Advanced users and better athletes will appreciate the benefits through appropriate use of the product. The rank n’ file, average age group athlete will try them on in the run shop, walk around, take a few jogging steps and pronounce them “too cushy”. As with most new running technologies, there is a hefty paradigm shift to On Running. You have to get accustomed to how the shoes feel. Another challenge in marketing the brand is the tendency for people to push the individual wave steps in with your fingers. One tester said, “I can push this in with my finger- it’s not firm enough for me to run on.” What they missed was the fact that foot strike is different than pushing down on the actuator with your finger. Foot strike is a component of horizontal and vertical forces- and it is distributed over all 13 actuators in a specific sequence slightly different for every runner. The On Running shoes are adaptive in a way conventional shoes are not. But people try the shoes by conventional shoe shopping methods- pick it up, flex it, push on it and jog around the store at what is likely a 10-13 minute pace. On Running shoes won’t impress people with a casual try-on and a quick jog. They actually have to run in them. Outside. Fast.
“On Running shoes won’t impress people with a casual try-on and a quick jog. They actually have to run in them. Outside. Fast.”
The technology is valid. The marketing will be an uphill battle for all but the most sophisticated athletes. On Running will likely have to design “entry level” shoes with firmer actuators that have rounded outer edges- for the same reason most people wanted to grind down the actuators on their Newtons, raise the handlebars on their Cervelo P3 and lock out the rear suspension on their full suspension mountain bike. This technology will speak to the front 10% of the pack- of which the elites can’t use it since On Running doesn’t have deep enough pockets to pay them.
When I asked On Running’s Cyle (say “Kyle”) Sage about the initial, average runner feedback he told me;
“The shoes feel odd at try-on, and when walking. They may feel unstable to some people. They are engineered for running, not jogging and walking. At speed the feel becomes more natural and the benefits become apparent”
“The shoes feel odd at try-on, and when walking. They may feel unstable. They are engineered for running, not jogging and walking. At speed the benefits become apparent”
Cyle Sage is right, and I found this out through a rather inconvenient happenstance. My neighborhood in Tucson backs up against what was one of the best dirt running trails in the U.S. The City, in their infinite wisdom, paved this trail with black asphalt- in one of the hottest cities in the U.S. The result is like running in a kiln with footstrike. The shock absorbing benefit appreciated by the Swiss engineer “George” while running on the sandy A1A in Ft. Lauderdale is gone now. It disappeared with the trail. So I’m left with black asphalt and On Running shoes. That contrast- from packed dirt and conventional shoes to On Running on pavement- did frame the benefits of On Running substantially. They actually do what they claim. It does work.
At a 10:30 pace the shoes feel wobbly. At a 9:30 pace they begin to feel luxuriously cushioned by not entirely “guided”, a bit random on footstrike. As you pick up speed to an 8:30 pace the shoes seem to “come up on plane”. They ride and guide better. At 165 pounds and 5’9” tall wearing the size 9.5 Cloudrunner shoe I found it came into its own below a 9:00 per mile pace. At 9:00 per mile and under the shoes felt reasonably guided and more cushioned than anything I’ve run in. Luxurious. During early runs the “feel” of the individual shock absorbing clouds felt as though I wanted to radius or round the outer edges of the individual clouds. As speed increased this sensation moderated- then disappeared altogether around 8:30 pace and below.
“They actually do what they claim. It does work.”
When I look at the On Running shoes I sense a lot of development has gone into their design. On Running says it has. Now they face a marketing challenge. I envision changes we may see in future models, models with rounded edge lugs and stiffer soles. The current versions would be marketed as the “racing” or advanced user line of shoes. It would be easier for the average customer to connect with the technology that way.
If On Running can develop the marketing and sales part of their business as well as their engineering they will sell a lot of shoes. The single largest hurdle they face isn’t designing a shoe that works- they’ve done that- it’s getting people off the try-on floor in the shoe store and below a 9:00 minute mile pace to really experience the benefits.