For a brand all about being in the game, all about championing performance and the will to compete, Under Armour found itself in an uncomfortable and ultimately untenable position on the sidelines in early 2021.
As other running footwear brands hustled into the “super shoe” race, pairing bouncy midsole compounds with carbon fiber plates to escalate performance, Under Armour had nothing comparable to offer its sponsored athletes, let alone the everyday runner. The landscape was shifting with new technologies promising to give athletes a competitive edge. Or as former Under Armour elite athlete-turned-Under Armour sports marketing employee Will Leer put it: “The feeling of fast has changed.”
Under Armour, though, hadn’t changed with it.
Though Baltimore-based Under Armour had continued innovating, bringing unique, performance-oriented technologies like the Flow midsole-outsole hybrid and the uber-lightweight WARP upper construction to market, and also demonstrated a resurgent commitment to the performance run marketplace and run specialty retail, in particular, it remained conspicuously absent from the super shoe wars.
“We didn’t have that extra notch, that extra gear,” admits Doug Smiley, Under Armour’s global product director for performance run footwear.
And that reality needed to change — and change in tangible, real ways by the start of the World Championships in Eugene, OR, in July 2022.
A Deliberate, Intentional Process
As races resumed in 2021 from their pandemic-era depths, Under Armour did something drastic. The brand discarded normal footwear development timelines and marshalled the extensive resources of Under Armour – still one of the globe’s largest athletic footwear and apparel enterprises despite encountering business headwinds like revenue declines and an aborted deal with Major League Baseball – to embark on a super shoe adventure.
“This is a highly competitive landscape where everyone is bringing their best and we needed to do that, too,” Smiley says.
Throughout the first half of 2021, Under Armour supercharged its development efforts, eager to equip its athletes, both on the road and on the track, with the best possible product as quickly as possible. It tore into research about the underfoot experience and its impact on athlete performance. It launched into design ideas. It queried its elite athletes for perspective and insights.
“We prioritized this above all other things,” Smiley says.
With rampant testing and iteration, Under Armour developed early prototypes of a marathon race-day super shoe and a middle-distance track spike before lining up members of its North American pro run teams – Dark Sky Distance, Baltimore 800m and Baltimore Distance, now known collectively as UA Mission Run – for wear testing and feedback. Notably, Under Armour introduced more sizes for testing than ever before to collect deeper athlete feedback. Rather than developing the typical two sizes, the brand invested in multiple last molds to cover eight unisex sizes for early prototype wear testing, thereby accommodating approximately 70 percent of its pro athlete roster.
“We had to get validation from athletes,” Smiley says.
Informed by ongoing testing, Smiley and his team dissected every element of the marathon racing shoe, well aware of the scrutiny their initial entry into the super shoe category would bring. The same deliberate approach extended to the track spike Under Armour developed in parallel.
“We were mindful and intentional,” Smiley assures.
Putting Inventions To the Test
In October 2021, Under Armour hit a key milestone in its enterprising super shoe project. Over three consecutive days, 29-year-old orthopedic surgeon Jordan Tropf – a “friend” of the brand married to a sports marketing manager in the company’s running division – completed the Baltimore, Chicago and Boston Marathons in 2:27, 2:31 and 2:32, respectively.
Tropf’s 7:31:30 total across the three events, a 2:30:30 average, established a new Guinness World Record for the fastest combined time for three marathons in three days, breaking the previous mark by some 40 minutes.
Tropf’s record-setting performance provided Under Armour an undeniable jolt of marketing electricity. It generated headlines and posts on social media and popular running websites, many openly wondering about Tropf’s curious choice of footwear — the still-in-development marathon super shoe. For Smiley and his crew, however, Tropf’s moonshot represented something else: a meaningful validation of the footwear’s ability to deliver on the road without battering Tropf’s legs.
“He hit a consistent performance over three different courses,” Smiley says of Tropf, who wore the same exact pair of shoes for all three marathons. “His form was consistent and he was running across the finish line with confidence. It was a strong data point on our journey here.”
Under Armour’s momentum surged again in November when Weini Kelati won the U.S. 5K Championships in New York City’s Central Park in an event record 15:18. Weeks later, Kelati smashed the course record (22:55) at the fabled 4.748 Manchester Road Race in Connecticut. At both events, Kelati donned the second-version prototype of Under Armour’s super shoe.
“People take notice when your athletes are out there breaking records,” Smiley says.
Inspired, Under Armour dashed forward.
Fueled by ongoing athlete feedback and energizing momentum, the brand continued tinkering and fine-tuning its super shoe. It lightened the upper with a new version of WARP – the aptly named WARP 2.0 – and further sculpted the midsole geometry.
With enough data points and insights in hand, Under Armour then readied the super shoe for a modest commercial release. Navigating supply chain challenges and factory shutdowns, it successfully hit the 2022 World Championships target it set a year prior.
Last June, Under Armour unveiled a limited North American release of the Flow Velociti Elite on its website. The $250 marathon racing shoe, bolstered by a full-length carbon fiber plate, supercritical Flow foam and a TPE sockliner for enhanced bounce, sold out in three weeks.
Committed to Athletes
At the same time, Under Armour introduced the 4.5-ounce Shakedown Elite, its 1500-10,000m track spike featuring a full-length Pebax plate, a thoughtfully constructed midsole foam geometry and WARP upper. Under Armour athletes Neil Gourley and Katie Snowden sported the Shakedown Elite at the World Championships, both advancing to semi-final rounds of the 1500m in Eugene.
While a full-scale global launch of both the Velociti Elite and Shakedown Elite will come next spring, Smiley says Under Armour is pleased with its ambitious efforts to create both performance-driven models. It opened up the brand’s aperture on a higher level of thinking and demonstrated the power of the Under Armour engine to folks inside and outside of the Under Armour orbit.
And to be certain, the Flow Velociti Elite, specifically, also pulled Under Armour off the super shoe sidelines. Now, Smiley says, the brand can better outfit athletes and compete in a hyped-up footwear category.
“The work we’ve done spells out our commitment to run and who we are in the space,” Smiley says. “It signals a complete commitment to athletes.”