One of the best parts of the hyper speed of product development these days is that it drives innovation to places where it’s never been. Other times, that same speed and progression in development makes us look for the simple answer in our surroundings forsaking the latest and greatest for the simple answer. When Olivier Bernhard began looking to develop a new running shoe, he and his partners may have looked to advanced materials and engineering but found inspiration in the clouds and in a simple garden hose.
When On Running was introduced, and won “BrandNew Award” for innovation in sports at the 2010 ISPO and was pretty quick to be picked up by people looking for a lightweight shoe that offered a lot of cushioning. While those shoes certainly already existed, almost all of them focus on vertical movement of the foot. Olivier Bernhard wanted something that accounted for horizontal movement as well. In addition, the shoe that Bernhard was trying to build would not have such a “cushy” feel as to leave a runner digging themselves out of a hole, but rather, make the cushioning such that it would disappear by the time the runner wanted to push off again.
The key technology in On’s is their “Cloudtech”, a technology made of eighteen small rubber “pods” on the sole of the shoe. The idea, as I mentioned above, is for the pods to cushion while compressing upon landing. Once the weight of the runner is fully loaded onto the foot and the runner is about to push off the ground again, they provide a firm surface from which to do so. The pods on the forefoot of the outsole are a slightly thinner rubber and don’t protrude as far as those on the heel which are a bit thinker and of a heavier gauge (see image below)
Fitted with a very breathable upper, a wonderfully supple tongue and minimal if any additional material in the collar and throat, the shoe appears as though it would be right in line with the weight of other racing flats. However, assuming that the weight comes from the additional rubber from which the pods are made, the Cloudracer is actually a bit weight compared to its brethren (my size 11’s came in at 9.3 oz).
The concept Cloudtec pods are very smart, not only from a cushioning perspective but also when it comes to marketing. First, the marketing; people like to see a visible technology. Remember the Reebok Pump with the little basketball pumper and the visible release valve and Nike Air Max’s with visible air pods? Both of those sold – and in some cases, continue to sell – like crazy because people like to not only use the technology that they’ve purchased but also to show it off and to talk about it. The pods are visible from all sides – except the top – and even in my relatively short experience with them, are certainly a front-and-center topic of conversation.
From a cushioning point of view, the pods do – in my opinion – what they’re supposed to. The trick here is that they do it in different degrees. The forefoot pods on the shoe are fairly thin and while combining twelve of them certainly does make for a cushy ride, it’s not as much as you might expect. However, after reading a review from Pete over a Runblogger, I tried the experiment that he did with the shoe. Since the six pods in the heel of the shoe are more rigid and protrude further, I took a few strides with a deliberate heel-strike (which, if you know me, is no small feat). Upon doing this, the cushioning was much more noticeable. This was not only because of the heftier pods on the heel but also the additional EVA foam above them. Plenty of traction and no noticeable slipping of the pods that some might expect.
Often times I like to run with the sockliner taken out of my shoes. I find that this gives me a lot more ground feel which is something that I love. When I took the sockliner out of the Cloudracer, I first noticed that the sockliner was quite thick – as sockliners go. This was absolutely an addition to the cushioning that one feels in the shoe. Below that though was a VERY hard strobel board that runs the length of the shoe. This makes for a very receptive running experience and combines quite nicely with the EVA & Cloudtec underneath it for a good sense of the ground. With a 6mm drop (sockliner in) it is right at the threshold of what makes a “natural” running shoe.
The upper of the Cloudracer is wonderful to me. The material used is a fine mesh that allows for a ton of breathability but still a firm hold on the foot. As I mentioned earlier, the tongue of the shoe is made from a mesh-backed faux suede material that is a very nice and pliable way to let the blood flow on the top of the foot happen. Almost all of the strapping in this shoe is internal with stitching on the outside. This is great for a very sleek and clean look for the outside but I could possibly see the potential of a bit more rubbing on the foot than may be comfortable (I’m only assuming this though I didn’t personally experience any rubbing during my barefoot runs in this shoe). While the cushioning in the collar is minimal, the heel counter itself is rather stiff and certainly made for a ver secure feeling in the heel cup. The whole upper may be a bit minimal for some but with the removal of the sockliner, you’ll be able to bump the volume quite a bit.
Often times I look for something to compare a shoe to in my head when I’m making a call on how something feels to me. In this case, I did away with preconceptions and let the shoe do the talking. The ride is quite nice and I was pleasantly surprised at how “quiet” the ride was. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I didn’t feel any moving around or weirdness from the Cloudtec pods, simply gentle cushioning – especially in the heel. The hard strobel board made for a really nice ground feel to me and complimented the “cushiness” of the pods.
I enjoyed running in the Cloudracer quite a bit. While they were plenty for me, I do think that the pods on the forefoot could stand to be a bit “more” like the heel. Many people who are going to look at this shoe might be looking for something SUPER cushy in a smaller package but I’m not sure that they’d be as wowed by the cushioning as they’d want to be. However, the shoe does what it’s meant to do which, to me, should dispel the typical and inevitable gimmick talk.
According to the On website, the Cloudracer is meant to last 4-5 marathons so, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if there was some hesitation for people thinking about buying this shoe with its $129.99 price tag. I’m currently also wear testing the Cloudrunner which, though substantially heavier, has beefier lugs all around (more on that in that shoe’s review).
If you’re looking for cushion with good ground feel, try this shoe. It’s well worth anyone who’s looking to have their cake and eat it to to go to a dealer and try some on. You may be surprised what running on a cut-up garden hose can feel like.
*These shoes were provided by the manufacturer for review
Born and raised in the great state of Virginia, Brandon is a former opera singer (true story) who’s had the outdoors flowing through his veins since day one. Brandon now lives in Colorado with his daughter Sydney (AKA, Baby Gearist).