Newton: The Most Innovative Running Brand?

By Tom Demerly for TriSports.com

Newton is known for their "Land, Lever, Lift" approach to running shoe design. There is, however, so much more to know about Newton shoes.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61CzCl1JVCQ[/youtube]

It’s rare for a running shoe brand to cut a shoe in half to show us what’s really in their midsole. Most brands prefer we didn’t know.  Almost every Newton Dealer has a pair of Newton’s cut through the forefoot to demonstrate how their “Land, Lever, Lift” actuators work. The technology is so unique is patented.

The bottom line for most runners is, do Newton’s make you run faster? Fair question. Individual answer. And while that smacks of a cop-out the unique nature of their designs isn’t debatable. The cut-in-half shoe demo shows the Newton sole is tangibly different. The more you look at their cutaway shoe the more elegant the idea behind their designs become. It’s like Newton’s Third Law from which the inspiration came: elegant, simple, seemingly obvious.

Newton, however, is a victim of being pigeon-holed into a niche category. A big part of Newton Running’s notoriety was built by user generated banter on Internet forums. Any skilled forum user knows that media is double edged. Forums, by their nature, seek the long way to the short answer. As Newton has matured their story has become more significant than, “do they make you faster?” and their patented “Land, Lever, Lift” technology.

Newton got an early edge on market share when top regional athletes like TriSports.com's Leo Carrillo (left) became early adopters and media about more natural, forefoot running became popular.

As the “natural running” boom ignited Newton may have failed to grab customers by the throat the way trendy “minimal” shoes with individual toes did. Those shoes looked weird so they must do something different. Newton’s technology, while unique enough to earn patent protection and valid enough to win multiple Ironman World Championships, didn’t hunt as well as caveman-monkey shoes. But Newton remains utterly undaunted in pursuit of better running designs.

Industry insider Matt Steinmetz shows the shoes that won the Ford Ironman World Triathlon Championships on the feet of Craig Alexander. Photo: Courtesy Newton.

In many ways Newton is to running what Cervelo is to cycling; both companies are innovation driven. Both feel their best marketing is the validity of their products and race results, not necessarily sponsored athletes. Neither company employs a big-budget Madison Avenue approach to advertising. Both companies gained big market share in triathlon. Both companies were founded by a pair of complimentary personalities. And while Newton started as a set of technologies that founders Danny Abshire and Jerry Lee tried to license to a larger running brand, Abshire now asserts an acquisition isn’t part of the plan. Cervelo, however, was just acquired by PON Holdings. Will Newton’s Abshire change his tune about acquisitions? Only time will tell.

“The manufacturing processes aren’t simple. The midsole alone goes through more assembly processes, almost double that of a normal [running] shoe.”

Kara Henry, Newton Running.

Newton Running intends to remain positioned as a valid technology leader. Since it is more expensive to develop and implement valid technology than run a vigorous marketing campaign, Newton shoes aren’t cheap. I asked Kara Henry of Newton why the shoes are $150+; “The manufacturing processes aren’t simple. The midsole alone goes through more assembly processes, almost double that of a normal [running] shoe.” Henry also added, “Our shoes last longer, almost one and half times the lifespan of a conventional shoe.” My tests of Newton Running shoes confirm Henry’s claims. They do have a longer lifespan on the road and seem to “wear in” to the individual geometry of your stride then stay “tuned” for you.

Newton's unique sole technology takes longer to manufacture and is more expensive. A. Firm EVA midsole. B. Hollow space inside actuator. C. Engineered polymer laminate layer to manage deflection on footstrike. D. Flexible membrane to control response of actuators. E. Newton actuator.

Newton’s technology still speaks most prominently to the early adopter, the sideways thinker and the trend leader. That accounts for much of their success in triathlon. It’s an axiom that triathletes are rampant technology buyers and early adopters. Newton is a natural product for them. The bigger, future Newton market may reside with the middle of the pack injury frustrated runner who is tired of clunky, conventional training shoes in their fourteenth version. That runner is looking for something fresh, something that may help them go faster, even if the biggest change in their stride isn’t on their feet, but between their ears.

Not all of the Newton story is about laws of physics and patented technology. Over this last year Newton has added a “zero-pitch” geometry shoe called the MV2. The MV2 is also very light weight at only 6.4 ounces measured weight in a size 9.5. The shoe uses an unusual open mesh fabric over its entire upper. A series of anatomical wedges are supplied with the shoe to facilitate gradual acclimation to its level heel-toe geometry. The forward section of the actuators on the new MV2 are also radiused, a departure from the original Newton actuator tuned specifically for race speed.

It isn's just the actuators: Newton has designed their new MV2 for a level ride, ultra light weight, superior ventilation and drainage. Even if you removed any benefit from the actuators it would be a solid race shoe.

Newton continues offer new approaches to running shoe technology beyond their original Action/Reaction technology. While that technology is tangibly unique, it isn’t the entire story. The bulk of the Newton story has been rethinking the shoe for the way people actually do run, a larger amount of runners than most people may imagine. Newton Running’s Kara Henry drew a deep breath and said, “The truth is most people do run the way our shoes are built for, especially at first.”  Henry’s assertion got me thinking enough to put on a pair of Newtons and go for a run. It only took about seven minutes and one mile marker to understand she is probably right.