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October 27, 2009

ECCO BIOM Running Shoe Review

Of all the shoes I’m reviewing this fall, none are quite as intriguing as the ECCO BIOM.

Anytime a company brings a $220 running shoe to the market, there’s going to be immediate skepticism over whether the cost is justified. But when you consider how the shoe was conceived, and all of its unique design innovations, and its elusive combination of high comfort and high durability … you could make a compelling case in favor of it. At the very least, you know that ECCO is trying to earn your money honestly.

Most people know ECCO as the 45-year-old Danish company famous for its luxury dress shoes. The brand has sold footwear in US markets for nearly 20 years, and has even produced athletic shoe models for more than seven years. However, it wasn’t until the launch of the BIOM Project that ECCO had a product with enough unique features and major points of difference to distinguish itself from its major running shoe competitors.


The BIOM is designed as a natural running shoe, preserving the natural biomechanics of your foot and ankle as closely as possible. It is NOT intended to convert barefoot runners, or even to compete with minimalist footwear like Vibram or Feelmax. Rather, it represents a paradigm shift in the standard categorization of running shoes, with a fundamental concept inspired by barefoot runners.

ECCO is one of the very few running shoe companies who openly acknowledge that traditional technologies – cushioning, motion control and stability – have been largely ineffective to reduce the injury rates of runners. They saw an opportunity to reinvent the philosophical approach to creating shoes, with a design based not on correcting perceived shortcomings of the foot, but on mimicking the biomechanics of barefoot running.

(Somewhat related tangent #1: The name of the shoe is a shortening of the word “biomechanics”; as for why it’s capitalized, I have no idea – but I’m making some inquiries.)

(Somewhat related tangent #2: This isn’t some knee-jerk reaction by ECCO to capitalize on the Great Barefoot Craze of 2009. The BIOM is the culmination of nearly three years of design and production – so in most respects, the company was way ahead of the current natural motion movement.)

To that end, ECCO launched the BIOM Project with three main resources: 1) the company’s existing and ongoing body of research on natural foot structure, 2) a partnership with Dr. Peter Bruggemann, one of the world’s foremost experts in running biomechanics from the University of Cologne, and 3) collaboration with professional triathlete Torbjorn Sindballe as a real-world test lab. The result was an innovative concept with several unique features, which also meets the demands of a high-performance running shoe.

So what distinguishes this shoe from any others on the market? Here are some of the highlights:

· Instead of using a cookie-cutter straight last or curved last, ECCO created a true anatomic last based on the scanned foot profiles of 2500 runners.

· The anatomic accuracy is enhanced by a direct-injection process of polyurethane (PU) in the midsole. It’s an advanced construction method of bonding the upper to the midsole which also improves the shoe’s durability. The BIOM is the only running shoe on the market that is built using this direct-injection process.

· The entire midsole - and a significant portion of the outsole - of the BIOM is made of PU; there is no EVA in the shoe at all. (In the photos above and below, everything green is PU.) In lab testing, PU has roughly three times the durability of EVA – which means that the midsole breaks down three times more slowly, theoretically giving your shoe a lifespan that is up to three times longer. ECCO’s official claim is that the shoes can last approximately 1.5 times longer than traditional EVA shoes – but that factor alone could help justify the expense of this shoe.

· High-traction rubber outsole components (above photo) are placed strategically to improve grip, but spread minimally to decrease weight.

· The midsole sits lower than traditional running shoes, with a rounded heel construction to diminish rearfoot impact.

· Flex points (above photo) in the outsole mimic barefoot motion.

Furthermore, rather than classifying its models into traditional categorizations, ECCO differentiates the BIOM based on running speed. This makes sense when you consider the differences in your form between sprinting and distance running; as a general rule, when increasing your velocity, you shift more workload to the midfoot and forefoot regions, with less impact through the heel. (The classic example to picture is a group of world-class 100-meter runners; their heels barely touch the ground at all while racing.)


Consequently, the two models available are BIOM A (identified in photo above), intended for runners who frequently run a 6-minute mile pace or faster, and BIOM B, which is intended for the 6-to-10 minute miler. The BIOM A sits lower to the ground, with less slope from heel to forefoot than the BIOM B. Individual specs between the two are as follows:

BIOM A men’s - heel 20mm high, forefoot 12mm
BIOM B men’s - heel 24mm, forefoot 14mm

(a BIOM C, for “occasional” runners, and a trail running version of the BIOM are both in the works for 2010, but not currently available.)

Overall weight of the BIOM A is 10.5 oz, which places it higher than a racing shoe, but lower than the majority of traditional trainers on the market. The dense polyurethane midsole in place of EVA adds some weight, but the tradeoff is increased durability as described above.

In my testing, I tried a BIOM A – not because I’m a sub-6-minute runner, but because I’m coming to the shoe from the background of being a barefoot runner. I wanted the model as flat and close to the ground as possible, which could be a difficult adjustment for someone transitioning from traditional running shoes.

The adjustment period is a critical factor in a newcomer’s success with BIOM, and the company advises a six-week breaking-in period. One of Sinballe’s roles with ECCO was to create a training plan (posted on the website and in BIOM brochures) to ease customers into the shoe naturally.

Another design innovation that mimics barefoot running is a roll bar structure just forward of the heel, which serves as a pivot point to promote midfoot impact instead of heelstrike. If you’re already a midfoot striker, you may barely notice it, but if you’re a regular heel striker, you may initially feel like you’re rolling over the top of the shoe while shifting your weight forward.

Further enhancing the efficient energy transfer from heel to forefoot is a very rigid midsole shank from the heel to the forefoot. The shank opens up in the forefoot to allow the toes to spread slightly, providing a powerful pushoff. The rigid shank plus the dense polyurethane midsole might make the shoe feel slightly stiff during the first few runs, but I noticed that I settled into a nice midfoot strike and smooth transition through the ground contact phase of my running.


One final distinguishing characteristic of the BIOM shoes are the uppers, which are available in two different styles for both the BIOM A and BIOM B: either traditional textile mesh (pictured above), or a breathable yak leather. While the use of yak leather initially raised some eyebrows, it’s really an ideal case of a company using innovation to enhance its social responsibility rather than worsen it.


The yak is a Himalayan pack animal raised for similar purposes as American cattle - primarily labor and milk, and then sacrificed for meat. However, unlike US livestock, yak hides are very thick and oily, and the leather is very difficult and expensive to tan. ECCO spent two years developing an efficient yak tanning process, and now buys most of their supply from Sherpas in the region who otherwise would simply discard it. ECCO is justifiably proud of its efforts to minimize material waste while providing a unique high performance material for its footwear.

As you would expect, there is a difference in ventilation between the open mesh of the textile version and the perforated yak leather, but it’s not as great as you’d imagine. I was fortunate enough to test both versions, and found the yak leather to be remarkably thin, super soft and surprisingly cool. The small sacrifice you make in ventilation with the yak leather is probably compensated by its improved durability compared to the textile upper. Again – if you’re paying a lot of money for these (and trust me, you are), you want them to remain in top shape as long as possible.

Which brings us to the matter of cost. The textile version of the BIOM A retails for $195, and the leather version sells for $220. While select models from other shoe companies (think Newton Gravity, Asics Kinsei, or Nike Air Max 360) are creeping upward into this neighborhood, BIOM has clearly established itself as the most expensive running shoe on the market.

It’s a pricing strategy that ECCO doesn’t apologize for; throughout its history, the company has staked its name on creating premium products at a premium price. They know that there is always a segment of the consumer market who wants the best and is willing to pay for it. I equate this to drivers who prefer driving a BMW when a Volkswagen will run just as far and just as effectively. Think of ECCO as the BMW of the running shoe market: you will undoubtedly get incredible engineering and performance, but whether that justifies the high cost is an individual decision.

Finally, a couple of considerations if you're looking to buy the BIOM …

1) U.S. availability of the shoe is limited to a “premier distribution” of approximately 50 running specialty stores. ECCO places a great deal of significance on supporting independent retailers, and developing their knowledge base and product expertise. It’s great for potential customers who have questions about the BIOM – but the downside is that if you want to try a pair on for a test spin, you might need to travel a ways. A list of vendors can be found on the BIOM Project site.

2) The fit of the shoe is slightly tricky in that it only comes in full sizes, and seems to run slightly big. I wear a size 11 US/44 Euro, which put me right between the BIOM size 45 (for US sizes 11 to 11.5) and size 44 (US size 10-10.5). The 45 was a bit roomy, and I had a better fit with the 44s. If you’re buying from the Internet and have questions about the sizing, it’s probably worth a trip to your nearest vendor to make sure the fit is correct.

Obviously, there’s a lot of information to chew on here … which is probably the way it should be if you’re thinking of spending over $200 for a pair of running shoes. The BIOM is definitely unique compared to any other product on the market, and ECCO deserves credit for rejecting the traditional models of shoe technology and developing an innovative alternative.


(Related post: read my interview with David Helter, GM of ECCO USA, here.

*footwear provided by ECCO USA
*See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at
info@runningandrambling.com.

13 comments:

Dave 10/28/09, 5:30 AM  

$220.00.....and 1.5 times longer.
New Balance 769.....$90.00...buy 2 pairs for $180.00 and last 25% longer than the $220.00 pair and save 40 bucks....I'm just saying.

Tuck 10/28/09, 7:35 AM  

Yeah, not too impressive as a minimalist solution. A minimalist shoe should have: no heel lift, no cushioning, and a wide enough toe box to allow splaying of the toes.

It looks like they're missing on two out of three... although it's tough to tell on the last one.

Jo Lynn 10/28/09, 8:12 AM  

That's some shoe! Wow, very different.
I got your package. THANKS!!! I'll let you know how I like it. ;)

Spokane Al 10/28/09, 8:28 AM  

Do they offer a matching yak leathered white belt to hold up my mauve colored pants which I wear with my smashing purple, open-to-the-belly-buttoned-shirt-to-highlight-my-gold-chains-around-my-neck disco ensemble?

Donald 10/28/09, 8:35 AM  

Quick response to some early comments ...

Dave: I don't think it's a straight math equation. There's also consideration of the shoe comfort and overall quality, as well as the whole "natural motion" aspect of the shoe that add value. And like I said, there's always a small segment of the population that's willing to pay top dollar for a high quality product.

Tuck: ECCO makes no claims to be a minimalist shoe. That's a whole separate category, so it's like comparing apples and oranges. Better to compare them to other "transitional" or natural motion shoes like Nike Free or Newton Gravity.

Anonymous,  10/28/09, 9:07 PM  

They look very promising to/for me. Couldn't find the stores on the link.
RA

Doug,  10/29/09, 11:15 AM  

Donald,

Great review:

How many miles did you run in them?

cheers
Doug

Donald 10/29/09, 1:50 PM  

Doug:; I got the textile version first, and have a little over 100 miles on them. Probably 70-80 on the leather version. No issues with durability so far, but it's still early.

Spokane Al 10/30/09, 8:04 AM  

P.S. I own a pair of Ecco shoes for work and they are the best, most comfortable shoes I have ever owned.

Notleh,  10/30/09, 10:40 AM  

These are definitely interesting and I would be willing to try them...but definitely not a mail-order shoes. Until I can try them in a retail store I will just read reviews.

Anonymous,  11/24/09, 7:52 PM  
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Anonymous,  11/26/09, 7:43 AM  
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