Less Cushion for the Pushin

Posted inID Mag

By: Print Magazine | June 1, 2009

Ecco’s stripped-down BIOM running shoe does wonders for your stride. —— BIOM B By Ecco From $195 ——

Here’s a tip: If you’re one of about 100 runners asked to quietly review two pairs of not-yet-available shoes, don’t cart them to conferences populated by the design-curious. “Nice shoes, who makes them?” asked the editor of a progressive magazine, peering over his latte at my feet. “Hey,” gasped a runner as he waved to get my attention near Town Lake in Austin. “Those are cool”—heavy breathing, jogging in place—“where’d ya get them?” Everyone wanted to talk about the Ecco BIOM B’s flashy hot pink accents and sinewy styling, even the joyless employees of the Transportation Safety Administration (“These yours?” asked the agent as they sailed through the X-ray in their plastic cradle. “Those some hot shoes,” she said without smiling.) But ignore their paparazzi-ready looks for a moment if you can. The graceful construction of the BIOM actually represents something rather revolutionary for a running shoe: a stripped-away, biomimetic structure that wants to retrain the natural movement of your feet.

The 46-year-old Danish company Ecco approaches the BIOM from the perspective of a heritage shoemaker, not a sports corporation, says the company’s senior marketing manager Dan Legor. Unlike Nike or Asics, Ecco has complete control over the entire development process, from owning its own tanneries to producing its own custom lathes. When its in-house design team started to look at the world’s smartest running shoe, they zeroed in on the running world’s dirty little secret: “In the last 25 years, even with all the technology we have, there really hasn’t been a reduction in injury,” says Legor, noting a recent study tracking runners’ chronic injuries of the tendons, ankles, and hips. “We’ve gotten so far away from the body’s natural ability to run that we’ve done ourselves a disservice.” The thick soles of conventional running shoes actually absorb too much energy upon impact, requiring the foot to work harder—and more awkwardly—in order to leave the ground again. So Ecco worked closely with Danish triathlete Torbjørn Sindballe on a concept of “natural motion” that re-engages the biomechanical power of the tendons and ligaments disenfranchised by traditional shoes. “The foot should lead the shoe,” says Legor. “Not the other way around.”

Since this is the same claim of other “almost-barefoot” shoes on the market—like the Newton Neutral, Nike Free, and Vibram FiveFingers—I turned for guidance to Jeff Vannini, manager of the legendary Los Angeles running store Phidippides Encino (where I go for my own training tips) and fellow tester of the BIOM. “The nomenclature changes, but the concept is the same,” Vannini told me, acknowledging that a trend toward minimalism has been infiltrating running circles for the past 15 years. “But there’s definitely a material difference here,” he adds, noting Ecco’s use of the more flexible polyurethane, a material that’s notoriously difficult to work with. Ecco handles this challenge with a proprietary direct-inject molding method, which it uses for about 85 percent of the shoe. Most running shoes take the “more gel” approach, stacking layers of cushioning like pancakes on a stiff EVA midsole, which is all cemented to the upper. BIOM’s polyurethane midsole, which doubles as cushioning, is direct-injected in the shape of the entire foot (the company scanned 2,500 runners’ feet to come up with the right median curves). This single heel-to-toe structural piece is clamped around the length of the upper, mimicking the foot’s tendons and ligaments and bonding the thing together as one organic piece.

Because the shoes rely on kick-starting the foot’s natural mechanics, Ecco recommends a gradual training plan; it takes about two months to transition from clunkier shoes. Wearing the shoes, even while not running, for at least half of every day as directed, I started to feel the difference right away. First was one sensation that Vannini cautioned me about: These are flat shoes, and they’re extremely low to the ground, which gave me a perception of balance that made my other running shoes feel like platform heels. But the BIOM’s heel was so narrow and rounded, it almost felt like it wasn’t enough support. As Legor explained to me later, the shoe was training my heel to strike more at its center, creating better contact with the ground and allowing me to transfer to the front of my foot with more stability (as well as preventing my typical injury, the ankle-wrencher). As I ramped up my running, it felt increasingly awkward until I realized I could feel the shoes nudging me slowly into a different stride. I rolled with it, and while I can’t say for sure if this new step is more efficient, I’m much more aware of the way my feet make contact with the ground.

I also felt a real spring in my step, which Legor assured me was not my imagination. Polyurethane is “open-cell” foam, which has a better memory than EVA, meaning it quickly and responsively returns to its original shape. Running in the BIOM feels like bouncing on a trampoline. The truth is that polyurethane is “loaded” like a super ball, so coupled with the more efficient movement of your foot, the transfer of energy probably does occur more quickly. “We hear people saying, ‘I feel like I’m running faster,’” says Legor. “And, biomechanically, you are.”

Although I initially swooned over the beetroot color of the textile-upper BIOM B 1.2, the BIOM B 1.1’s white leather, which is also used for its lining, creates a snugger, more supple feeling, like that of a ballet slipper. The 1.1 also has a better story behind it: The Tibetan government approached Ecco to use the hides of yaks that were previously raised only for their meat. Yes, your runs can be powered by sustainable yak. It’s really no wonder I had such a blast running in the BIOM B 1.1: At around $220 a pair ($195 for the 1.2), they’re one of the most expensive running shoes on the market. Previously, the most I’d spent is about $85 on a pair of New Balance 805s. (The BIOM B Trail and BIOM C, for more casual runners, will come out later this year; the BIOM A, for 6.5-minute mile runners, is only available in men’s versions.) Doubling my shoe budget to avoid potential injury might be worth it, as is the unmistakable sensation that I’m leaping miles into the air with every step. But I can honestly say that the BIOM has changed the connection between my feet and the street. And of course, I’ve made a ton of new friends. Alissa Walker is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer and the author of City Walks Architecture: New York, to be published by Chronicle Books this fall. Photo by MARK WEISS