This is an exciting time to be a runner. Not long ago, every brand seemed to make the same shoe, with minor modifications year after year. Then came the great disruption, a battering of the status quo from minimalism, maximalism, innovative new materials and an increasingly overwhelming body of research that says shoes don’t work like we used to think they worked. Now, every year we see radical new designs. Here are five exciting new models that win our recognition for their innovation.
Salomon Predict RA
Weight: 9.4 oz (M); 8.0 oz (W)
What’s Innovative: The Predict RA reimagines how a running shoe interacts with your foot, creating stability through geometry rather than density. Truth is, shoes themselves are largely responsible for instability in running: A bare foot on a firm surface is the most stable you’re going to get. But we need cushioning to protect our feet from hard surfaces and that cushioning platform introduces distance from the ground and squishiness underfoot, which contrive to torque our feet out of their stable paths. Most shoes to date have tried to reduce these forces by blocking them with firmer materials in strategic places. The Predict RA, instead, removes the torques by “decoupling” the sole with deep grooves on both the outside and inside of the shoe that echo the major joints of the foot. The result is a sole with 10 “platforms” that can adapt independently, cushioning and supporting when needed as forces change throughout the stride—just as the foot does.
How They Ride: The shoe seems to deliver as promised. The feel is firm underfoot, but not stiff, making the shoe supportive while not at all controlling, with a comfortable, smooth ride from landing to toe off. One tester who has had ankle and shin pain found no trace of it running in the Predict RA. The segmented sole shines the most during the transition from mid to forefoot, where the arch is supported independent of the ball of the foot, and each toe feels cared for and engaged in the stride—all the way from the first to the oft-ignored 5th one.
Other Highlights: The comfortable heel is a form-fitting cup, molded in a bra factory.
Skechers GORun 7 Hyper
Weight: 7.8 oz (M); 6.1 oz (W)
What’s Innovative: The GORun 7 Hyper moves Skechers to the forefront of innovation due to its new, ultra-light, ultra-bouncy HyperBurst foam. HyperBurst begins as EVA foam, the same material that has been cushioning running shoes since the 1970s. But Skechers saturates the EVA with heated and pressurized liquid CO2 that then returns to its normal gaseous state, expanding the foam by creating thousands of gas-filled bubbles trapped within the midsole. “The larger-than-typical bubbles is what makes this foam so light, since the large bubbles displace the solid mass of more typical EVA,” says Kurt Stockbridge, Skechers footwear development vice president. “Also, thicker than normal cell walls are what provides the runner with higher resiliency and durability.” Skechers molds the foam into a simple, single-density design with a low heel-toe drop and a pronounced rocker shape from heel to toe.
How They Ride: The HyperBurst foam feels different than anything you’ve tried before, even to the touch. It reminds us of high-end packing materials you’d find around expensive scientific instruments, materials that cushion while holding their shape to protect the sensitive cargo. On the run it provides this sensation for your feet, coddling the contours without sinking in too much, with a quick, bouncy return that, combined with the toe rocker, gets you off the ground and back in the air quickly. Bottom line: you fly. “The cushioning was just right,” said a tester. “It was enough to protect impact without losing the feel of the road.”
Other Highlights: The booty-like upper stays out of the way, and coddles your heel and ankle.
Under Armour HOVR Infinite
Weight: 10.75 oz (M); 8.75 oz (W)
What’s Innovative: Under Armour introduced their HOVR technology last year, but it comes into its own in the Infinite, which uses more of the energy-return foam in a full-length mid-sole layer. The holy grail of midsoles is to provide both a soft cushion and a firm platform for stability and push off. HOVR technology creates this effect by encasing a light, soft foam inside a mesh fabric “energy web” that keeps it from losing its shape on compression so it bounces back quickly. This webbed foam is then surrounded on the bottom and sides by a firmer “carrier” that enhances stability and transition. Together, the midsole promises a “zero-gravity,” floating-over-the-ground feel.
How They Ride: Because they have to bounce back at the precisely right time, energy-return foams are by nature more finicky than cushion foams. Tester experience in the Infinite reflects this. One found the sole firm and stiff, another said it was “a little on the squishier side.” One didn’t feel any responsiveness, while most agreed with the tester that described it as, ‘“Lively—it put noticeable energy into my stride.” The shoes inspired testers to use seemingly contradictory terms to appreciate them: “Stiff but flexible,” “Firm yet comfortable.” In general, the ride leans toward bounce over cush, with little displacement and a fast-cadence feel, while still well-protected from the ground. Among the increasing number of “energy–return” foam options on the market, the HOVR technology provides a unique sensation that is worth trying.
Other highlights: For no additional cost, the shoes have a built-in sensor that syncs with a free MapMyRun app and automatically records the time and distance of your runs, plus reports data like cadence and stride length.
Puma Speed 500
Weight: 10.9 oz (M)
What’s Innovative: One of the big challenges of creating a running shoe upper is that feet differ, not just in length and width, but in subtle but important ways such as the height and shape of the instep or the relative length of the arch and toes. When you don’t know where the metatarsal heads (ball of the foot) lie along the length of the foot, it’s hard to create a shoe that holds without constricting. You want it to lock down right behind the ball to prevent side-to-side slippage and make the shoe move with the foot. Too far forward toward the toes, however, and you interfere with flex and splay; too far back toward the ankle, the footplant gets sloppy and you can constrict how the arch forms.
Puma’s NETFIT technology solves this problem by letting you customize the placement of the laces nearly anywhere across the upper. So a runner with slightly longer toes, for example, can move the start of the laces back, exactly where she or he needs them. You can further customize the fit by wrapping the laces farther down on the medial or lateral side, or place them closer together or farther apart at different points.
How They Ride: This version of NETFIT seems to work better than previous models, given the thin, stretchy, highly-flexible inner bootie that adapts in shape to however we laced the NETFIT saddle. After some experimenting, testers were able to dial-in a customized, foot-hugging, supportive fit that flexed in the right places. The smooth, thin, high-top ankle collar also holds and moves comfortably. Underfoot, the new ProFoam EVA is lighter and firmer than Puma’s ignite, giving a connected, responsive ride.
Other highlights: The PROPLATE, A thin, y-shaped plastic piece embedded in the forefoot, loads when you flex your foot and releases on push off, adding a small propulsive “pop” to your stride while still bending easily enough to not feel like a stiff track spike.
Price: $150What’s Innovative: Since its founding, the Swiss brand On has used mechanical “clouds” to create what we call “energy-return” but is more accurately “less-energy-loss”—regardless of the foam or technology. What the clouds provide is a combination of cushioning (when the clouds compress) and responsiveness (when you push against the firm platform of the bottomed-out clouds). With the Cloudswift, On is introducing a new, proprietary foam, Helion, that has its own energy-return properties. Helion makes now-familiar claims of providing both cushioning and bounce back while retaining its characteristics in heat or cold and over time—yet it is lighter than most competing foams, with a unique feel underfoot. The new foam is also shaped in On’s signature cloud shapes, multiplying the cushioning and rebounding effect.How They Ride: The clouds on the Cloudswift are larger than those on many On models. They collapse diagonally to reduce horizontal forces and they don’t seem to bottom out as easily. The sole has a wider base than most Ons, and the fit seems more generous, with more plush, step-in comfort. All that combines to make the ride feel a bit more mainstream, for better or worse, but making it perhaps a good model to start with in the On line. Testers in general found the sole quite firm, yet one gave a contradictory report—as happens with energy-return foams—and felt the heel sunk in too much. All reported the ride as light, responsive and adaptable, with individual clouds compressing under force and rebounding as the foot moves through the stride. The Cloudswift provides a distinct ride not found elsewhere and is worth exploring in the quest to find the energy-return system that’s dialed to your stride.
Other highlights: At the heart of every On is a resilient plastic “Speedboard” that provides a smooth transition through the stride, as well as flexes and rebounds, enhancing the spring of the toe-off.
This article originally appeared here.