Thursday, January 28, 2010

This shoe and I are starting off on the right foot

I don’t really believe in magic. Not when it comes to running, and certainly not when it comes to running shoes. But so far, after more than three weeks of road-testing, I do believe in Somnios.

First off, let me make it clear that I’m no shoe authority. Heel, arch, toebox, midsole – I can point out where those things are on a sneaker. Put me in one and ask me how it feels, though, and I struggle to answer. “Good? I dunno. OK ... I guess?” What am I supposed to say? I mean, it feels like a shoe! I can determine whether it's too big or too small. Beyond that, I’m at a loss.

All I can tell you is this: Pre-Somnio, I was experiencing nagging IT band pain and battling an increasingly sore left calf. The first time I ran in them, none of those issues flared up. The second time, nothing. The third, zip. In fact, after more than 100 miles in the Somnio Exact Change stability shoe ($140), I’ve experienced pain a total of zero times.

And to be honest, I was pretty skeptical when I first heard from Somnio rep Chris Phillips. Using a combination of footbeds, wedges and cushioning inserts that I can’t even begin to understand, these are in exactly the category of shoe condemned by author Christopher McDougall in his bestseller “Born to Run,” which I finished a few days before my fitting at Run For Your Life in Dilworth. (The book was so convincing, I had been THIS close to buying a pair of Vibram FiveFingers in late December.)

According to the Somnio Web site, its shoes “were designed in the lab and on the road with the idea that we can improve individual’s biomechanics through adjustability of key components of the shoe.” They are, in fact, customizable in 648 different possible configurations.

The fitting process I went through with Phillips involves a tool that uses laser sighting to measure pronation and an "arch ball" to determine ideal arch height, among other things. (Click here for more info on the fitting process.) After putting me through some single-leg squats, Phillips then had me run on a treadmill several times, making adjustments based on a video gait analysis.

When I asked him how I ended up with what I did, he said (deep breath): "You are in our stability shoe with slightly more varus on one side, because you have a different gait pattern right to left. We are able to put you in two totally different shoes to fit each foot. You showed more pronation on one side. The '+++' footbeds give you the maximum amount of arch support for your arch height. The orange durometer in your heel was our way of softening the heel to allow you to control your pronation by making you stiffer in that forefoot and softer in the heel -- based on the way you looked on the RFYL video analysis -- to put you in a more neutral position."

If it sounds complicated, well, it is. So complicated that Run For Your Life last year sent employees from its Dilworth and University locations -- the only two stores in the Charlotte area that are carrying Somnio right now -- to the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado to be trained on this unique fitting process. (FYI: Vac & Dash in Albemarle also is an authorized retailer.)

I did notice on my first run, a 7-miler, that the shoes feel heavy. The feeling hasn't gone away. Weight estimates vary from about 12.5 ounces to a Wired review pegging them at 14, while the Mizuno Wave Riders I'd been wearing tipped the scales at just 11.3. On the one hand, the bulkiness hasn't stopped me from cranking out three good speed workouts in the Somnios; on the other, I really wish they had a lighter feel. They're also not among the more attractive-looking footwear I've worn.

Still, I can't help but think these shoes have had more than a little to do with my aches and pains completely vanishing. If Somnios aren't a magic running shoe, they're certainly something pretty darn close.

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The following are excerpts from a recent e-mail interview with Somnio rep Chris Phillips:

Q. Who exactly is this shoe for?

This is definitely for the masses. We don’t sponsor high-profile athletes for that reason. From walkers to beginning runners hoping to stay injury-free to marathoners, we are a good option.

Q. What’s the No. 1 reason runners are buying these shoes and what kind of feedback are you getting from customers?

Most are in need of a shoe that adapts to each foot, [or they come to us] because they have nagging injuries. Go to our Web site and see just a few of the testimonials about injuries, aches and pains that go away.

Q. What’s the No. 1 reason runners who get fitted for these shoes do not buy them?

The biggest complaint I get is that we only offer the red/black/silver color scheme!

Q. What can we expect from future Somnio models?

We have been asked to come out with a lighter-weight shoe, and in March Run For Your Life will have our new Pacemaker 9.5-ounce trainer in stock. We're also coming out with another stability shoe that’s lighter [the Self Control] and a trail shoe [The Westridge]. ... I’ve seen pics of the 2011 models and they look unbelievable! We’ve been 100 percent technical- and function-driven; now we’re looking to add some new styles for aesthetics as well.

Q. Will the number of authorized Somnio retailers grow significantly in 2010?

We certainly hope to bring more dealers nationally on board. ... We feel Run For Your Life will be a great partner for us in the Charlotte market. We also have great options across the country, with several physical therapy clinics either stocking our shoes or using our gait analysis software to fit people in our shoes. We have them all listed on our Web site.

Q. I’m sure you know of Christopher McDougall’s "Born to Run," which accuses modern running shoes of being over-engineered to the point where they’re doing us more harm than good. Where does Somnio stand on "minimalist footwear," and what’s its response to that accusation?

I do believe that running shoes have had many design elements that serve no real purpose other than just a justification for a higher price. The running shoe industry has had zero innovation in over 20 years, and it's the same brands all selling the same shoes -- which clearly don’t work for a large part of the running population. What Somnio is doing is bringing an entirely different approach to running shoes, and also to the fitting/assessment process. The response we have gotten and the response to the "Born to Run" book illustrates the desire by so many runners to find a better solution. I think the idea of barefoot or minimalist running makes sense, but as with anything, in the right amount -- which will vary from one runner to the next. ... ["Born to Run"] was a great book and story, and any best seller that gets people interested in running is a great thing in my opinion.

Q. Do you suspect other major shoe companies to follow suit in the future, by making models with a greater level of customization options?

Yes. Our founder, Sean Sullivan, says in five years this is how running shoes will be sold. Sean comes from Specialized, where custom fit is how you buy bikes. He says that innovation always comes from a leader outside the establishment. Look at who changed the music industry -- Apple, a computer company. We are a leader in this industry, and people are taking notice of this little shoe company!

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Anonymous said...

You got me interested, but I have a few questions. This is a more detailed process than just opening a shoe box and trying on a pair of generic shoes. How much time is involved in the in-store building of the shoe? How long would I have to allow myself in order to be fitted and have the shoe built? Hoe do prices for this shoe compare to your Mizuno or any other comparable shoe?

Anonymous said...

I am interested as long was the break in period? Good review!

Anonymous said...

Same thing would happen if you bought custom arthotics...and you could get any neutral show you wanted.

Insurance will usually pay for them if you are injured when you see the foot doctor.

I had knee, IT band, and achilles problems that all went away when I got customs.

I've got over 1500 miles on my orthotics I got at Carmel Foot and they are not wearing down.

Also with customs, you wear them all of the time, not just when you run.

Scott said...

30 - 45 minutes....between $110 - $140.

Anonymous said...

I hope they at least gave you free shoes for plugging their product in your blog.

This is really just a way to get you to pay 140 dollars for 80 dollar shoes. Just throw in 10 dollars worth or orthotic adjustments and there you go.

Customs are the way to go. They last forever, can be worn in any shoe, and are fitted by doctors...not shoe salespeople.

I've been told by people working at running stores over the years that I have high arches, I have low arches, I am neutral, I need a stability shoe, etc...seems they always had a 120+ dollar solution. The whole fitting process is part of the sales routine.

Your pains going away are also because your body is adapting to running longer distances. With two marathons under your belt now, your body is adjusting to it.

Anonymous said...

Running shoes are such a subjective topic. The Sominio shoe is one of the first new designs I have seen in years. Everyone has a different opinion. I have been to several different running stores, carrying the same shoes, and have been told that I need a different type at each store. If you rely on Runners's World for recommendations, they never print a negative review. Only that some shoes are better than others. (Don't want to make a shoe maker mad. May no longer advertise there. One shoe saleman told me.) Buy what you like, what fits and fits in your budget. Look to the internet and to friends for more objective comments. After you run on your surface of preference, you can tell if it is the right shoe or not.

Walk Without Pain said...

As a shoe retailer that focuses on pain relief, Somnios immediately caught our attention. 2 of my staff members received sample pairs, customized the shoes and reported that they felt much better when they ran. I was recently visited by a colleague (marathoner) who has been battling chronic hip pain. She customized her Somnio shoes (asymmetrically) and her hip pain disappeared.

We haven't received the shoes yet, but the concept makes perfect sense, and I will be blogging the results as we get more user feedback.

Here's a link to the marathoner's experience in Somnios: