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Mind Over Matter: Investigating the Mental Advantage of Today’s Most Innovative Running Shoes

These new shoes make you believe you can run faster—so you will.

Slipping into a pair of running shoes can have a magical effect, whether it’s first thing in the morning or long after the day is done. Your feet feel protected and light, like they have been transformed into super bright little machines, ready to hit the road.

A fresh pair of sneakers is the best thing in the world for most people, but for myself it’s always been a mixed bag. I became a serious runner in college to challenge myself, I loved the simplicity of a sport that only required a well-maintained playlist and a solid pair of shoes. Running is a solitary sport that offers both a physical and a mental challenge. When it’s just you and the open road, the right song can give you the mental edge to go the distance. For all the high-tech engineering that goes into the physics of running shoes, they can do as much for your mind as they do for your feet. Hitting the road on a daily basis takes mental discipline. Your music and shoes become the motivators that make you believe you can push through mile after mile. The Foxy Brown cuts on my iPod never got old, but my shoes would only last three months before it was time for a new pair.

Purchasing the next pair of running shoes was a huge expense I tried to unload on my parents whenever I went home. My dad, forever my shoe shopping buddy, believes that sneakers should be durable, supportive, and above all, of a modest design. His opinion remains, “People should notice you first, not your shoes.” And so crisp, white motion control Sauconys with a baby blue accent were my mainstays from childhood to adulthood. When I got back to school with them I’d pick up a few pairs of neon laces to give them a kick. I was burning through them so quickly it didn’t matter anyways: a shoe is a shoe, right?

It wasn’t until I moved to New York and got into the sporting goods industry that I started experimenting with the sneakers my athletic friends swore by. They were beautiful with their suspension soles, layers and layers of transparent mesh, and super bold colors. I immediately got a pair of Nike Frees, drooled over my friend’s Mizuno Wave Prophecys, and beefed up my sock game with anatomical fits and breathable knits. I hadn’t completely entered into the world of marketing hype though, maintaining my Saucony habit on the DL for long weekend runs and saving the Frees for casual wear. What mattered was how I felt about the shoes, not what the shoes were actually doing for me. No matter what new pair I had on, my personal best wasn’t going to improve unless I took the incentive to train smarter and work harder.

“Your music and shoes become the motivators that make you believe you can push through mile after mile.”

But I have to admit the new kicks did make me feel amazing; looking sleeker and sportier definitely boosts morale. When you look like you belong to the local running club, you’re more likely to go. When you feel like you’re running better, faster and smarter, you probably are. The running shoe industry knows this, which is why they tend to embrace trends fast and hard, whether it’s the amount of cushioning, a creative new midsole, or an eye-catching print. At the first sign of an innovative idea, designers tend to translate the concept into a dramatic new shoe with sizable claims, which is why there are so many me-too concepts in the market.

Some ideas continue to resurface, most notably the subject of energy return. Mentioned in this article from the New York Times in 1988, the idea of the efficiency of rebounding has been experimented with continuously for the past two decades. The adidas Bounce featured horizontal tubes offering more oomph per step, the Nike BB Shox were almost banned in the NBA due to their perceived performance advantage, and one company has literally installed metal springs into their shoes. More recently, adidas has released two shoes this year that both offer a bit more help with each step: the Boost and the SpringBlade.

The adidas Boost Energy is built on a styrofoam-looking midsole composed of TPU capsules that have been expanded and fused together to create a more responsive midsole than traditional EVA foams. So far, the new material has held up longer in tests than traditional foams, so the durability factor has definitely taken a step in the right direction. When you slip into a pair you do feel a bit more bouncy, which can translate directly into your run. If you believe you’re running more efficiently thanks to an extra spring in your step, chances are you will. When someone passed me in a pair of Boosts last week, I immediately attributed their accelerated stride to the speed-boosting technology of their sneakers and not the fact that they were simply running faster than I was.

The SpringBlade takes a different approach to running efficiency, relying on a system of 16 diagonal blades made of an extended polymer and designed to propel runners forward like rows of individual springs. The shoe is currently the most expensive adidas runner on the market at $180, but it’s expected to be a success due to the powerful suspension system. Wearing a shoe like this demands excellent performance, as all eyes will be on you and your feet. They may not be as controversial as double amputee Oscar Pistorius’ Olympic gear, but the soles do bear a passing resemblance to the shape of his “Flex-Foot Cheetah” prosthetics. And while high-def cameras concluded that the “Bladerunners” offered Pistorius no unfair advantage, they certainly seemed to work for him. We can only trust and believe that the SpringBlade does the same.

Another company to tackle the trend is On Running, a Swiss company that relies on a system of vertical tubes to rebound from impact. According to the promo copy: “The Clouds act like tiny stability balls, responding to every movement of your foot. They activate your postural muscles and enable you to stabilize your foot strike without support, you are back in control.” It’s doubtful whether most runners ever go full OOC on the track, but the idea of a cloud supporting your feet is a comforting one.

“When you look like you belong to the local running club, you’re more likely to go.”

Today’s runners expect more out of their shoes than ever before. We expect them to count our steps, keep our feet from smelling, and help us run faster and more efficiently. While other benefits can be proven or not proven to various scientific degrees, the one thing that we can count on is the way running shoes make us feel. Whether it’s a flashy new technology that gets you moving like Ludacris in ‘02, or simply an updated version of your old favorites, it’s all about your state of mind. Maybe if I had told my Dad about energy return or progressive propulsion he would have let me get a flashier pair—but the fact that he believed the shoes were the best for me made me believe it too.

Calvy Click is the Editor-in-Chief of Sneaker Report. When she isn’t writing about performance footwear and apparel, you can find her running around Manhattan to Rick Ross anthems. 

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