While walking around the vendor expo at the Kona Ironman triathlon last fall, I noticed one booth with some interesting-looking running shoes on display. And I mean interesting in a good way, not interesting like Hoka’s clown shoes.
The shoes were being demoed by the Swiss company On, and they were designed with input from three-time World Duathlon Champion and multiple Ironman winner Olivier Bernhard. Like many progressive running shoe companies, On focuses on pronation and strengthening the foot. But it does so while skipping all the “minimalist” and “maximalist” jargon, and by eschewing the corresponding design philosophies that currently dominate the running shoe industry. On’s shoes rely on a different design—a shock-absorbing cushioning system that lines the bottom of the sole. The series of tiny, arch-shaped springs give the shoe a profile that resembles a cartoon cloud. The company calls the cushion design “CloudTec.”
On Co-founder David Allemann talked me through the models on display at the booth and offered to send me some pairs to test. I was loaned the Cloudsurfer and the Cloud, two of the five shoes On makes. The Cloud is On’s premier lightweight running shoe, with a heel-toe offset of 6mm and a weight of less than six ounces. The Cloudsurfer is a more supportive running shoe designed for a target speed of 6.4 to 8-minute miles with a heel-toe offset of 7 mm. Runners seeking a racing flat for faster paces can look at the Cloudracer, and those needing a high-impact shoe designed for slower paces can look at the Cloudrunner. Finally, there’s also a beginner-level running shoe called the Cloudster.
Always the cynic, I was expecting yet another gimmick from the running shoe industry, but I was impressed when I took the Cloudsurfer out on some runs. Between the midsole and outsole is a speedboard made of a waffle-like material that’s intended to flex in certain ways as the foot moves through each stride. The plate is designed to promote proper form, guiding the foot’s movement from the outside rear edge, and rolling toward the big toe for the push-off. There’s a noticeable shock absorption effect in the shoe too—when the foot lands, the thirteen “clouds” that make up the outsole flatten into a “locked” position to cushion the impact.
Since I have a history of Achilles issues and plantar fasciitis, I found myself wary of trying a shoe with such a design for fear that it may hurt more than help, as has been my experience with zero-drop and minimalist shoes. I can honestly say that I felt the difference of a soft landing and strong push off in my first dozen strides. Subsequent runs in the Cloudsurfer have felt quick and light.
The company also sent me the extra-light Cloud to test, but I prefer to run in the Cloudsurfer. I have taken to wearing the Clouds around town, however, both for comfort and to help strengthen my feet.
So while running shoe industry searches for its next trend, I’ll continue to point people toward these odd-looking but entirely pleasurable Swiss slippers. One other thing I noticed while I was in Kona: just as many triathletes were racing in On shoes as in Nike shoes. That’s a trend that this reviewer and dog-loving Nike critic (Michael Vick? Really?) hopes will continue to grow.