If you think about it, traditional shoe construction is still largely based on 19th century design paradigms. And yes, that includes running shoes.
Most running shoes have a midsole/outsole chassis that sits below the foot and an upper, secured by laces, that covers the top of foot. While considerable time, effort and money have been invested in developing fit and cushioning aspects of the bottom tooling through the years, relatively little has been done to put true performance-oriented features into uppers.
New materials and modern engineered knit and mesh uppers have evolved in recent years, but few innovations have helped really integrate the upper and lower portions of a shoe in a quantifiably more effective way. Mostly, the upper is an afterthought when it comes to performance and typically a billboard for a company’s branding.
That’s something Boa Technology is working to change.
Originally known for the development of lace-replacement, dial-closure systems since its inception in 2001, the Denver-based company has spent the past few years reorganizing itself to be an innovator of performance fitting systems for the high-end products of its brand partners. While it might seem like splitting hairs to differentiate between a technical closure system and a performance-fit system, the distinction is definitely in the data, says Brett Vladika, director of Boa’s new Peformance Fit Lab.
Boa debuted an elaborate prototyping workshop and a 2700-square-foot performance lab in its new headquarters in Denver’s RINO district in 2019 and it has expanded its team to include biomechanics research engineers so it can better understand and improve the performance aspects of athletic footwear, apparel and headgear.
To get baseline data and an understanding of how Boa upper systems can improve footwear fit and performance, the company worked with researchers at the University of Denver’s Human Dynamics Laboratory on a third-party validation study of the specific athletic movements of subjects’ feet inside a singular shoe model. It used lace-up versions of the Adidas Adizero Ubersonic 3 court sports shoes as its base model, but it also modified three versions of the shoe with different Boa Fit System solutions.
The study’s premise was that Boa technology would result in an improved fit, more consistent connection with the midsole, and the initial results showed 1.5-5 percent improvement by way of better agility, power transfer and endurance scores across five key athletic movements.
“Our goal with the work we’re doing in the lab is to understand and improve what fit is and what it will be as it relates to performance,” Vladika says. “We have seen indicators in every single one of the benefit areas that Boa Fit Systems are creating a performance fit and a performance advantage.”
One of the main goals of its intensive science-first approach is to use digital motion-capture data of trail running and how that relates to overall shoe performance, he says. An enhanced fit is crucial because of the dynamic movements of a runner’s feet amid ever-changing foot strike patterns on variable surfaces of a trail.
Boa’s Performance Fit Lab allows its research team to study four primary areas of footwear: agility, speed, power and precision and endurance and health. It is equipped with high speed motion-capture cameras and four force plates built into the floor, but it includes a force-plate treadmill and a 50-foot section of simulated trail that includes gravel, logs, boulders and inclines and declines over metal and wooden obstacles.
Data is recorded on the manmade trail via portable Bluetooth-enhanced remote-sensing insoles, but the Boa team has also taken that equipment outdoors to monitor runners in real-world conditions on rugged, singletrack trails in Boulder.
“Trail running, as compared to road running, requires a bigger agility factor because you need to adjust to different terrain,” Vladika says. “And so, in the lab, we wanted to bring the outdoors inside so we can look at terrain with unpredictable surfaces in a repeatable way so we can look at force pressures and angles of movement and the way the body is reacting to that in environments you would not just see in the outdoors.”
Both the indoor and outdoor trail testing has suggested that the improved fit with Boa fit technology can allow a runner to land more softly and decrease pressure on the first and fifth metarasals.
The key to maximizing the performance values in running shoes is starting the design process when a brand begins developing or updating a shoe, not as a last-minute solution, says Dan Feeney, PhD., one of Boa’s biomechanics research engineers. The company used its initial scientific learnings to work with New Balance (Fresh Foam Hierro Boa and 1500T2 Boa), Saucony (Switchback ISO), Adidas (Terrex Agravic Boa) and ASICS (GEL-451) to create next-generation Boa-enhanced shoes that hit stores in 2019. Additional models will be released in spring 2020.
Even preilminary wear-test sessions of the New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro Boa (by this reporter) bears out the advantages, as that shoe fits better and feels considerably more nimble and capable with Boa’s tri-panel configuration than the laced version over the same rugged trails in Boulder.
“I think the biggest takeaway is that the system has be developed intentionally for a shoe,” says Feeney, who is also an elite-level runner. “When we develop a fit solution with a brand, we very carefully prototype everything from the position of the dial to the guides, the length of the guides and many other details. If that’s not done well at the development phase of a specific shoe, just slapping on a Boa system after a shoe is designed won’t make it better. If it’s done intentionally, we see bigger magnitude improvements.”