In any sport where there’s a need for speed, few things are as important as your contact point with the ground, be it wheels, spikes or tread. A well-made running shoe is no different. The best are a chassis of fine-tuned technology that’ll make or break your run. Perfecting it is no mean feat. Or, as Dave Dombrow, chief design officer at Under Armour has it, “It’s part science, part art form.”
So choose your shoes wisely and you’ll go further, faster. Choose poorly and you risk injury. But choose differently and things change altogether. That means it’s time to think outside the shoe box and experiment with the cutting edge in running tech. Your race times will thank you for it.
To that end, Dave Dombrow has opened the doors to the research labs at Under Armour. The study: finding the superlative running shoe. The test subject: you. As the Under Armour HOVR tech is set to knock the rest of the apparel industry off its stride, we unveil what you need in your next running shoe to step up and keep pace.
1. Look for brands that look to athletes
The men and women in white coats play an important role in shoe development. But it all begins on the tracks and roads and fields. “We always start with the athlete,” says Dombrow. “That’s at the roots of who we are, our performance DNA.” This athlete-first mindset allows for a problem/solution approach to product. “‘They might say something like, I want comfort. It’s our job to translate what that means – comfort under your foot, around your foot – and come back with a white space solution, something that hasn’t been done before.” Delivering what the athlete wants is the finishing line. Innovation is the only route there. “We deliver what they asked for in ways they might not expect,” says Dombrow. And you end up with a shoe shaped by pro athlete feedback.
2. Make comfort your priority
The best piece of apparel is the one you don’t notice while you’re wearing it. Running shoe comfort had ostensibly hit its high point in recent years and things didn’t look set to change for some time. But then they did. “You shouldn’t always take the linear path,” says Dombrow. “With HOVR, comfort was very important and we looked to different industries for a solution. We were particularly drawn to cycling chamois – the part you sit on. They have a unique build that delivers breathability; they’re lightweight but with extreme comfort.” But what does a comfy seat mean for your feet? “We built the inside of the HOVR shoe in a very similar way to a cycling chamois. We gave athletes what they wanted but beyond their expectations.”
3. Always run the numbers
Remember those men in white coats? Your shoe is a piece of engineering and you should only trust brands that treat it as such. “We have some of the world’s best biomechanists at our innovation labs in both Baltimore and Portland, Oregon,” says Dombrow. “We have data capture, motion capture. We also do perception testing, using subjective feedback from runner’s perceptions. These allow us to push millimetres and really refine what we’re doing.” Sport is a science. Study up.
4. Become a mathlete
“Offsets, weight, durability, breathability, geometres, softness – design geometry really matters,” says Dombrow. When running every calculation is important: if your shoe maker has messed up his sums, you’ll feel it in your shins and knees. “Geometry of the midsole and outsole plays a huge part in how transitions are going to happen,” says Dombrow. “Your regular runner might not be able to articulate how this or that millimetre helps with transition or pronation, but they’ll feel it. It does affect performance. It does matter. We prove it through testers and we prove it in the lab.”
5. Expect something back
Advancements in shoe technology are such that you should now expect some sort of performance pep-up from your kicks. “The HOVR shoes give you energy return,” says Dombrow. “The benefits of this are you feel like you could go faster, and because you’re getting energy back you have less fatigue, so you’ll be able to go further as well. We asked athletes what that means subjectively and they said the shoe feels alive. That’s really important. On the road that can push you over the hump.”
6. Know your strength
Comfort is vital to all runners, particularly if you’re a distance junkie. But without adequate stability you risk injury with every run. “We have a very soft material that we developed,” says Dombrow. “‘Energy Web’ is a fabric we use to control the displacement of that material, in almost a bellows effect, which sends energy back to the foot. It offers a calculated amount of stability with more energy.” It’s neither comfort nor rigidity alone but a smart alloy of both that makes for a truly game-changing shoe.
7. Choose your weapon
You should research the tech going into your shoes as fastidiously as you do the nutrients going into your body. Sure, food fuels your goal. But gear gets you there. “With HOVR, there’s the Phantom and the Sonic,” says Dombrow. “They’re different shoes: the Phantom is like a luxury car, with all that comfort. The Sonic is like a sports car: minimal, flat knit, extremely breathable. We really stripped away everything to optimise it; underfoot, geometry, how we’re using traction – everything has been considered for high performance. It’s also an ounce lighter than the Phantom.”
8. Meet your maker
A brand’s ethos will often determine the quality of the end product and ultimately what you’re lacing up come race day. “We always want to live up to our mission statement: Under Armour makes you better,” says Dombrow. “To do that we have to innovate. To innovate we have to challenge the status quo. “With HOVR, we wanted to build the best cushioning platform that’s ever been created. We wanted to create a disruptor, to take our new fabric and innovative Energy Web, a mesh web that contains and directs the force (or energy return) back to the runner’s stride. HOVR really is the embodiment of what we do at UA: innovate to deliver hyper performance.”
The Under Armour HOVR Phantom and the HOVR Sonic are available now to buy at underarmour.co.uk