Photo courtesy of Icebug
More cushioning in footwear is encouraging consumers to seek variety and customization in aftermarket insoles.
By Thomas J. Ryan
The insoles category, continually bolstered by those enduring injuries, has been expanding smartly for years. But the minimalist craze – with its attention to barefoot-feel – worked against the supportive message insoles promised. Now, with the shift back to cushioned and even maximalist models such as Hoka One One, the insoles category is gaining renewed respect.
More and more runners (not to mention walkers, skiers, cyclists and others) are seeking to find the functional support an aftermarket insole can provide. “As the pendulum continued to swing away from the minimal footwear trend, interest in the aftermarket insole category has been on an upward swing,” said Matt Gooch, Superfeet’s product development and education manager.
Gooch said that today runners seem to be more focused on the importance of comfort in their footwear experience. A number of midsole materials that have launched successfully over the last 12 to 18 months have been successful primarily based on the “feel” they deliver, and that’s creating opportunity for the insoles category to deliver more options to consumers.
“The idea that there isn’t just one ‘right’ product that is ideal for everyone is starting to be more widely accepted and is certainly reflected in the way that we are developing new products,” said Gooch. “Being able to provide an insole product line that features multiple shapes and features an array of different materials that enable the consumer to select the right fit, function and feel for themselves is going to be critical to long term success in this industry going forward.”
Pam Gelsomini, OrthoLite’s president, said the minimalist running craze of the past few years created a need for insoles that provided high levels of cushioning in very thin applications and even, in some cases, creating the underfoot cushioning in the strobel layer with no post-applied insole. She added, “The latest craze of maximal cushioning begs for uber cushioning underfoot with foams like X40 high rebound OrthoLite that create an intense cushion experience for the user.”
But Gelsomini believes the major overall shift in the industry with regard to insoles is footwear manufacturers finally focusing on the inside of the shoe. Traditionally, athletic companies were the only ones to focus on performance inside the shoe, but she sees a greater focus across all categories, including work, dress and kids.
“When shoes are not equipped with a comfortable insole, the consumer will look elsewhere for a replacement which has also resulted in a surge in aftermarket insole offerings,” said Gelsomini. “Ultimately, the brands are trying to create a complete product that they can market with optimum comfort which starts next to the foot in the insole.”
Jeff Antonioli, Spenco’s VP of sales and marketing, pointed to the many new aftermarket insoles companies arriving in the category as a sign of overall strength in the aftermarket insole category. “Athletes want a customized product that fits their unique needs,” said Antonioli. “They’re looking for diverse options to solve a particular problem or enhance their physical talents. That’s why we offer many different insoles ranging in stability from lightweight cushion to high rigidity.”
Evan Wert, president of Icebug USA, believes that while the insole category did lose some ground when the barefoot or zero-drop craze arrived, consumers understand that underfoot support is not a bad thing. However, Wert believes there are still “a lot of misperceptions” with many stores not recognizing that one insole doesn’t work for all feet.
“We feel retailers should carry at least three brands to cover most feet,” said Wert. “We see this as a new era of innovation and growth in the insole channel.”
Beyond run, insole vendors are seeing strength in the ski, hike and cycling areas while exploring new activities such as hunt. The popularity of CrossFit and functional fitness overall is underscoring the need for supportive insoles to handle activities such as weight lifting. Walking and dress are much bigger categories that many insole vendors are capitalizing on, and interest in women’s-specific models is emerging. However, injury remedies and prevention still drive much of the innovation in the space.
CurrexSole, Europe’s leading athletic insole brand that quickly established a foothold in the U.S. over the last two years, is focused on its RunPro and ActivePro insoles both priced at $50. Worn by World-Class marathoner Gilbert Kiptoo and U.S. Olympic marathon hopeful Becky Wade, the RunPro is designed to fit the wearer’s foot profile and a runners motion patterns. Available in three profile heights (High, Med, Low), the RunPro includes a deep heel cup and triple layers for moisture wicking with a mid-layer to reduce blisters. Other features include 3D DAT for natural foot guidance, PROPO+ for rebound, and medium Rebound Poron to support initial foot contact.
The ActivePro is Europe’s top soccer insole and worn by the players on several MLS and Premier League clubs. ActivePro claims to be the only insole engineered to fit precisely with athletic cleats to help enhance performance and prevent injury.
“The latest scientific research shows that comfort is the most important factor in choosing a running or athletic shoe,” said Lutz Klein, CEO and president of CurrexSole Americas. “This is because footwear comfort is one of the few areas that science can prove a direct correlation to injury prevention. This marks a shift in the footwear industry as a whole way from a ‘corrective’ model and instead focused on consumer comfort based on intuition, personal preference and overall experience.”
Hickory Brands NB (New Balance) Supportive Cushion, $45, features Abzorb cushioning pods with Poron Urethan Technology for shock absorption at the heel and forefoot. Abzorb is lightweight, durable, and does not harden like PVC or breakdown like latex.
“The contoured shape of the metatarsal arch rise redistributes pressure and can help prevent or provide relief from plantar fasciitis, Morton’s Neuroma, and Metatarsalgia and other common running pain,” said Jenny Holmstrom, sales and marketing specialist, Hickory Brands Inc.
New Balance also offers the NB Motion Control, $45, with a deep heel cup, external heel stabilizer, arch and metatarsal supports that help stabilize and support the foot.
Hickory Brands earlier this year reached an agreement to distribute FootBalance customizeable insoles in North America. A signature item is the FB Dynamic Blue, $90, which offers shock absorption and moderate support.
Hickory’s in-house brand, 10-Seconds Arch 1000, $35, is finding strong appeal. The anatomically shaped arch support and deep heel cup combine to deliver support and stability. Poron cellular urethane provides shock absorption for the entire foot. By controlling the amount the foot slides across the insole’s surface, the anti-friction top cover helps prevent blisters and moisture management.
Icebug, the Swedish footwear brand, offers the Slim, $47, designed for lower volume shoes and ideal for running, cleated shoe sports and cycling. A double-arc heel design cups the foot and reduces pressure on the plantar fascia. The low friction top cover is longwearing and easy to clean.
For maximum cushioning and shock absorption, the Fat, $47, features an extra layer of open-cell Poliyou foam and ideal all high volume shoes.
Icebug’s insoles feature Arch Flex System technology developed in collaboration with Ortolab, Sweden’s leading orthotic lab.
Icebug had launched the insole under the ArchFlex name several years ago but it has rebranded to Icebug.
Icebug’s Wert said Icebug insoles address all three arch foot types. Most only focus on two, whereas Icebug’s insole addresses the metatarsal arch, which helps with forefoot comfort and shoe fit, especially for over-pronaters.
“Icebug insoles really fit with where we are going as a company,” said Wert. “Our desire to build and develop products to get them outdoors, on feet and engaging with nature. This means running, walking, hiking, at any level. Consumers are looking for products that help them stay healthy and comfortable, and that’s what Icebug is all about.”
Masterfit will launch the EZFit collection, Version 3.0 of its popular EZFit cut-to-fit insole collection. Now called EZFit QF (QuikFit), both the Snow, $40, and Universal, $39, models have improved Auto-Adapt arch molding. They are also available in regular and low volume models to fit the complete range of arch shapes. New graphics and packaging are part of a robust upgrade to the collection.
Also new is a microwaveable custom arch version called EZFit+ that uses Masterfit’s InstaForm Gel, a heat-moldable gel composition. EZFit+ can be pegged for do-it-yourself sales, $50, or fabricated in shop.
“With our heritage rooted in custom insole making, Masterfit is committed to providing a degree of custom moldability in every product we make,” said Steve Cohen, Masterfit’s CEO. “Even our base model EZFit QFs provide heel and arch moldability through our Auto-Adapt technology.”
Masterfit is also introducing its new AirVac Insole Molding System, its redesigned custom molding system. The molding capabilities and on-board analysis tools open the custom insole molding market segment to a wider spectrum of footwear retailers. When teamed with Masterfit’s Instaprint QF no-glue, no-grind insole liner, sales techs can make hi-definition custom insoles in about 15 minutes with minimal training.
Cohen believes skiers have always been open to the concept of insole upgrades “because ski boots are the harshest footwear fitting environment and they are keenly in need of adaptability to provide a baseline comfortable fit environment and improve performance.” But he believes there’s a growing awareness and appreciation of the performance and comfort advantages upgrade insoles bring with runners and hikers as well. Cycling has become Masterfit’s second largest market for custom insoles after snowsports.
Cohen further noted that Masterfit built custom orthotics for two New York Yankees this season, Brian McCann and Stephen Drew. Cohen added, “In McCann’s case, his new orthotics relieved underfoot pain that had him seemingly destined for a stint on the disabled list. Both players also experienced improvements at the plate after being fitted with Masterfit orthotics.”
For the OEM market, OrthoLite continues to innovate to develop more sustainable products and introduced a new version of the popular X40 High Rebound insole called EcoX40. Gelsomini said EcoX40 provides high levels of rebound and cushioning and replaces 12 percent of the petroleum used to make the traditional foams with a bio-based formulation made from castor beans.
The Patchwork OEM line uses the waste layer foam from its production to create a cool visual effect on the top or bottom of any insole. The multi-color waste foam layers are dye-cut into small shapes such as flowers, stars, or any logo design and then molded with a base of regular foams for performance.
OrthoLite’s original 3D Skive ‘egg-crate’ design has been extended to a new 3D Skive design called Wave. Gelsomini stated, “The new 3D Skive Wave is made with the same cutting edge technology and has a wavy groove design for a unique cushioning experience.”
Powerstep, which is owned by Remington Products Co., recently launched the Pinnacle Plus Full Length Orthotics, $38. With the added benefit of a built-in metatarsal cushion to spread and cushion the metatarsal heads, the Pinnacle Plus helps alleviate plantar fasciitis, Morton’s Neuroma and ball-of-foot pain. It also features dual layer cushioning with firm but flexible arch support and a heel cradle for motion control.
“No more is an insole just about adding cushioning to the shoes – there’s an increased interest in functional support,” said John Blankenship, Powerstep’s sales manager. “At Powerstep we are focusing more on those conditions which affect runners, such as plantar fasciitis and Morton’s Neuroma. We have an entire line of supports and compression for daytime and night time plantar fasciitis therapy, with our clinically-proven orthotics as a key element in effective relief.”
Sidas, the French company celebrating its 40th year, is introducing the 3Feet Active line of insoles, $50, designed for sports involving dynamic forward foot flexion. Available in three styles to fit a range of foot shapes, from low to high, 3Feet Active series features a specially designed shell to support low, medium and high arches, a gel pad under the heel for cushioning, forefoot perforations for breathability and construction for dynamic action to aid forefoot propulsion.
“We are excited about the new 3Feet Active as it allows us to match the arch height to the athletes foot, creating better energy transfer and mechanics,” said Jay Taylor, president of TSG (The Soze Group), the North American distributor of Sidas. “It enables us to work with the individual to fine tune a product that enhances the fit of their footwear.”
Sidas sees momentum in functional fitness categories and alpine winter sports. Said Taylor, “The general trends in the category are to make the insole a more dynamic device to work with the foot rather than have the foot work on top of the device. Ultimately, the foot and the insole are one unit that need to work with one another.”
Sof Sole is introducing the Gel Heel Spur Pad, $13. Most common in people involved in high impact activities, a heel spur develops over time and is a small calcium deposit under the heel bone that causes pain. Sof Sole’s Heel Spur Pad disperses heel strike shock, relieving pressure and reducing stress. The dual-density foam and gel design provides strong relief for heel pain and other heel-related issues.
“We are excited to launch the Sof Sole Heel Spur Pad as we feel there is a need in the market for products that address specific foot ailments,” said Drew Davies, senior director and national sales manager for Sof Sole. “This is a great product that is built to address heel spurs along with many other types of heel pain the end user may endure.”
Sole, the Canadian-based insole specialist is showcasing the Softec Ultra, $45. A 3.2mm layer of Softec cushioning is added to the moldable EVA base layer and topped off with a moisture-wicking top sheet. The footbed is ideal for loose-fitting footwear or specialized activities where maximum cushioning is preferable. Benefits include equalized pressure distribution, reduced plantar fascia strain, increased balance, and improved natural heel cushioning.
“At Sole, we’ve always been committed to building a healthy planet,” added Mike Baker, CEO. “We’re excited to announce that Sole is now officially a member of 1% for the Planet, the world’s largest environmental network. Now, your feet and our planet are made better with Sole.”
Sorbothane, introduces the Women’s Ultra Sole, $26, combining a molded air-infused foundation for support with a Sorbothane heel inlay for shock absorption and impact protection. Sorbothane Gel forefoot pad adds cushioning and returns energy. A tapered insole designed with a narrower, cupped heel provides support and stability specific to a woman’s biomechanics.
“The Women’s Ultra Sole was developed directly from customer requests,” said David Church, president, Sorbothane Inc. “Our engineers were challenged to develop a premium Sorbothane insole specifically designed for a woman’s biomechanics. For over 32 years our focus has always been – and will continue to be – providing active consumers with quality American made Sorbothane insoles that add cushioning, absorb shock and provide comfort without sacrificing performance.”
Spenco teamed up with Unequal Technologies Co. to launch a new line of insoles for athletes wanting to reduce the risk of foot and leg impact stress injuries. Unequal patented vibration-absorbing technology is used in a variety of other products, such as protective head and body gear, worn by athletes competing at a national and worldwide level.
Early in the testing of Unequal Insoles, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX performed a blinded athlete study using approximately 60 soccer players. At the season’s end, team physician data showed the athletes who wore the Unequal Insoles had virtually no stress-related injuries as compared to the athletes who did not.
The co-branded Protective Insoles, $40, are available in two types: one for cushioning that provides ultra-thin comfort, and one for stability that has a lightweight orthotic cradle. The insole marries the cushioned heel, deep heel cupping, orthotic arch support, metatarsal dome, and a cushioned forefoot with protection and shock attenuation.
“This begins a new era for insoles,” said Spenco’s Antonioli. “Rather than just absorbing the shock that an athlete might experience charging up and down a field, our Unequal Insoles more safely distribute the vibration, impact and hot spots away from a particular point of impact on the foot.”
Superfeet created an insole specifically for the hunt market with the Trophy Series that comes in four insoles, each designed for the different hunting seasons. From early season, when hunters are ticking off trail miles scouting their routes, to mid-season, when more time is spent huddled in tree stands, the series features technologies specifically for each of these end uses, said Superfeet’s Gooch. For instance, ventilation holes in the forefoot eliminatep heat while odor-fighting technology wards away scent for multiple day use.
The Men’s Trophy Hunt, $40, has a top layer of Merino wool for warmth and cushion underfoot. Less rigid than Superfeet’s Guide insoles, the hunt version haS no break-in period but still provides arch and heel support. The Women’s version, also $40, features a narrower heel cup and a higher arch.
“All of the insoles feature Scentlok technology, high-impact waterproof foam, our Silent Step stabilizing shape, and Ground-Sense Impact Dampening technology,” said Gooch. “All of these features combine to provide hours of comfort for hunters of all ages and sizes while they are out in the field or on the trail so they can focus on the hunt and not on their feet.”
Other key Superfeet offerings include the Superfeet Trophy Guide, $50, which comes equipped with a supportive carbon fiber EVOLyte stabilizer and topped with memory foam that wicks, resists odor and fights bacteria. The Trophy Trail, $30, eliminates heat through ventilation holes in the forefoot with a microsuede moisture wicking top layer.
Built for outdoor enthusiasts looking to battle cold weather, ThermaCELL Heated Insoles, $135, have temperature settings controlled by a wireless remote control for temperature adjustment without removing shoes or boots. The remote allows users to choose from two temperature settings (Medium 100°F and High 111°F), or no heat. From Schawbel Technologies, ThermaCELL Heated Insoles are water resistant and tested by SATRA, the world leader in footwear research and development. The insoles are good for 500 uses, making them more affordable than disposable heat packs.
The ProFLEX ThermaCELL, $185, adds removable, rechargeable batteries, USB or wall charging, and polyurethane foam.