Monday, January 27, 2020

On Cloudracer

IN DEPTH: On Cloudracer

On is a relatively new name in running shoes. However, a single glance shows that they are not just another trainer-clone, but are based on a different approach to how the foot strikes and then pushes off from the ground.

Put simply, the trainers have lugs on the bottom of the sole that are designed to deform on impact with the ground. Sounds similar to systems like those of K-Swiss and their blades? Well, yes and no.

The lugs – or as On calls them, CloudTec Elements, are designed to first deform (thus cushioning the vertical impact and also providing a more gentle horizontal deceleration) but then ‘teeth’ on the insides of the lugs lock, giving a more powerful push off forwards (think about it, without the teeth, you would lose energy as the lugs deformed in both directions from the strike to the push).

The theory is that these CloudTec Elements help prevent injury by reducing the shock and impact of each foot strike, but also reduce fatigue through the course of the run, especially in the calves.

As someone who has suffered their fair share of knee issues, On’s UK distributors offered me the opportunity to test a pair of the lightweight On Cloudracers, to see how they performed against my usual preferred shoes.

The Cloudracers are the lightest shoes that On markets, designed as a racer with a limited lifespan of just 250 kilometres or so.   The shoes aren’t quite Adidas Adios featherlight, but have a very lightweight upper and feel quite minimalist when on the feet.  For day-to-day training, On offers a range of other trainers which are heavier and with more pronounced lugs.

First impressions

I’ll admit it; the first time I wore the Cloudracers, I wasn’t sure.  They felt quite harsh and ‘slappy’ – almost the polar opposite of what I was expecting.  But after 3-4kms my opinion started to change and I began to appreciate the feel of being connected to the road surface, but with a definite cushioning effect.  What had changed in those first few kms?  I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has something to do with the lugs and how they encourage you to adopt a mid-foot strike (they have a 5mm heel to forefoot drop).  I think in the first few kms I was simply not landing as the shoes ‘wanted’ me to.  Any change in foot strike was mostly unconscious – I certainly have no recollection of making any decision to alter my foot strike anyway!

I had the same experience the second time I wore them, but from the third run onwards, they felt natural and comfortable.  Now I’ve never tried running in Newtons, and I’m not suggesting you need to adopt any kind of adaption phase if you want to try the Cloudracers – I’m just saying don’t necessarily make your mind up on one run alone.

Getting used to the Cloudracers

As I’ve said, the Cloudracer is billed as a lightweight racing shoe – and it definitely encourages you to run fast. But that said, it must be an endorsement of the shoe and the technology to say that I found them perfectly comfortable to wear for all kinds of runs, from long slow runs right the way through to sprint reps.  Obviously you need to be mindful that as a racing shoe, they are not designed to rack up massive mileage, but they are not the kind of shoe you need to save in the closet for race days only.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the Cloudracers is to say that, if I want to come home at the end of a run without knee pain, I now reach for the Cloudracers…  Despite every gait analysis I’ve had in the last 18 months telling me I need a supportive shoe, the pared-down racer approach adopted in the Cloudracer seems to suit me and generate less knee pain than the trainers supposedly designed for my ‘needs’.

Racing the Cloudracer

I’ve only had a few chances to race in the Cloudracers so far – a couple of park runs and an aquathlon (as a warm up to the triathlon world champs).  Much as I’d like to, I can’t report that they knocked any time of my PBs, but I certainly can report that they felt comfortable and as fast as anything else I’ve worn (stating the obvious, a 5km race really isn’t long enough to test the claims of reduced fatigue on the calves etc – I think you’d need to find at least a 10km, if not half-marathon to test that).

The Cloudracer in triathlon

The On shoe has already found some favour in the triathlon world – with both Olympic distance and long distance pros choosing to use the shoes (David Hauss wore them in the Olympics and Caroline Steffen wore them to Silver at Kona this month).  And I can see why they are popular – the lugs really do work and if you’re already tired from the bike leg, why wouldn’t you want a shoe that promises to reduce further leg fatigue over the run?!

I do, however, have some reservations.  Mostly these revolve around the ultra-thin and light tongue. For some reason I don’t understand (no doubt On have their own reason), the tongue is only connected to the main shoe upper on one side.  This does mean that when you’re trying to put the shoe on in a hurry, there is a tendency for the tongue to fold over on itself. Now, some might argue that because the tongue is so thin, this doesn’t matter, but personally I didn’t like it. If I had a hotline to On’s product development people, a proper sockless liner/tongue would be my #1 request.

The second issue was that I just didn’t find the shoe as quick to get on (even with elastic laces fitted) as my normal Adidas Adios or Saucony Kinvara racers.  I think this is connected to the tongue issue (the shoes do have heel tabs, but in my experience these are redundant), but could also be a by-product of the way the eyelets are placed.

Now, let’s make something clear. If you’re a long-distance athlete then taking a few extra seconds in transition #2 to make sure the shoe is fitted right and that the tongue is in place could well be time well spent if it subsequently helps you run a faster half or full-marathon. But for a sprint or Olympic distance athlete, it’s a tougher call.   That said, the shoes are perfectly comfortable to wear sockless.

Verdict

I really like the Cloudracer shoe. I’d be interested to try some of the more high-mileage shoes (the Cloudsurfer, for example) to see if they have the same benefits, but from wearing the Cloudracers for six weeks now, as a pure running shoe they’ve won me over (my triathlon-specific gripes aside).  Despite being minimalist racers, I get less knee pain and I feel like the shoes encourage me (but not force me) to adopt better form when running.  In short, I feel good wearing them.

At over £100 a pair, they’re almost Newton-like in cost, and therefore you aren’t going to want to wear them out too quickly, but if you suffer pain in the knees or calves when racing then I think they are well worth a try!