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SPECIAL FITNESS ISSUE: THE FOOT

Better, faster, smarter

Today's shoes do everything except talk--and that's on the horizon.

January 01, 2007|Marnell Jameson | Special to The Times

ATHLETIC footwear's come a long way from the days when runners strapped pieces of leather to the bottoms of their feet.

The biggest improvements now and on the way involve new mechanisms in midsoles -- the slice of protective cushion between the shoe's upper and its outer sole -- to better absorb impact; shoes that sense the pressure you need and let you "adjust your ride"; and smart shoes that incorporate computer technology and provide feedback about your performance.

Soon, even smarter shoes than today's may strike up conversations with you -- telling you how to avoid an injury, when you're off balance or to pick up your pace.

"Everyone making athletic shoes is out to accomplish the same goals: absorb impact, give runners a plush ride, and take the strain and stress off their bodies," says Patrick O'Malley, vice president of product for Saucony, an athletic shoe company in Lexington, Mass.

Breakthroughs usually hit running shoes first, and then basketball shoes. "Runners and hoopsters tend to be the early adopters of new technology," says David Cornwell, lead patent attorney for Adidas, which owns Reebok.

But if you're a baseball or soccer player don't despair: Eventually, the technology will percolate down to your footwear too. "Every serious athletic company is making great shoes. Athletes can and should expect a great fit and better protection," says David Jewell, director of running for Road Runner Sports, a San Diego-based chain of running stores.

The hard part for buyers, he adds, is choosing. There is so much product on the shelves that knowing what to select can be overwhelming.

As shoes keep getting smarter, consumers will have to as well. Read on for a look at what's here and on the way.

Midsole makeovers

The midsole is where most of the improvements -- and current hype -- abound. Almost all running shoe midsoles today are made of blown-in ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), a foam that provides a great cushion. But EVA's drawback is that it breaks down quickly, so athletes soon lose the benefit of the cushion.

Foam breaks down after the first 1,000 steps, says Peter Foley, chief operating officer for Skydex Technologies, a Centennial, Colo.-based company that develops foam alternatives. The average runner takes 1,600 steps in a mile. "I always tell people to enjoy their first mile," he says. "The shoes are really shot after 200 miles. But people still run in them."

As a result, innovators have been moving toward air, gel and other mechanisms that are thought to absorb shock better -- an especially important factor for people who are getting older or are heavy.

But the real trend in athletic footwear is to replace foam with mechanical systems that do the same job better. (Currently, more than 80% of running shoes on the market have EVA foam midsoles, but Nike Air shoes, for example, feature an air-filled midsole, and Asics is known for its popular gel-filled midsoles.)

"The key is to create the ideal mix of cushion, rebound and durability," says Mark Nenow, vice president of footwear for Brooks Sports in Bothell, Wash.

Saucony's answer to a better midsole is ProGrid, a net-like structure in the midsole that provides support and rebound, O'Malley says.

"We looked at the sweet spot on a tennis racquet, the place that gives a great return on impact, and tried to replicate that in a gridded midsole that lets the foot down gently and rebounds back well," he says.

ProGrid, a rubber-enhanced EVA grid embedded in the midsole over a pocket of air, absorbs 10% to 15% more impact than EVA, gel or air in tests. It theoretically won't break down as fast as EVA and thus should offer more joint protection.

The company developed its grid technology in the '90s, but ProGrid is the latest evolution: It debuted in Saucony's Triumph 4 shoe last month. In June, Saucony will release Grid Sinister, which will incorporate the new grid technology in a track shoe. A plate in the toe of the shoe will help sprinters push off and bound faster.

Skydex has also developed an alternative to EVA foam midsoles comprised of a novel shape of plastic urethane. To explain the technology, Foley says to imagine a tennis ball cut in half. Then take the two hemispheres and reverse them so the bottom and top are touching to create a spring.

An independent lab has tested Skydex's midsoles against foam ones and found that after a million impacts, foam lost 40% of its cushion and 20% of its thickness while Skydex lost just 9% of its cushion and 4% of its thickness.

When Skydex midsoles were compared with gel and air midsoles, they also fared better. On a scale in which a smaller number indicates more durability, gel midsoles registered 13.3, air midsoles 12.1, and Skydex 10. Those may not seem like big gains, but "we've all gotten so much better that incremental gains in this industry mean a lot," Foley says.

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