Can Better Shoe Lacing Make You Run Faster? BOA Thinks So. 

Study shows BOA’s dial-based fit system improves trail running performance

The first running shoes were created roughly 50 years ago. Compared to running shoes today, nearly everything has changed. Outsoles are thinner, lighter, and more durable; midsoles are far more cushioned and responsive; and uppers are no longer leather but crafted of thin, breathable, engineered mesh or knits. One element, however, has remained essentially the same: laces. Today’s shoes, by and large, still use a long, thin cord crisscrossed across the instep to tighten the upper over the foot.

With all the technological advances elsewhere in shoe design it’s hard to believe that no one has come up with a more effective way of securing and holding the foot than by yanking laces through eyelets and tying them in a complicated bow that we learned when we were in preschool. Not only is the method cumbersome and imprecise, but it is also unreliable, coming undone at inopportune times far too often.

Truth be told, new tech has been developed but not widely adopted. Designers have tried various Velcro-type closures and stretchy uppers or laces. Others have gone with pull-cord designs like the Salomon Quicklace system, where you tighten the shoe by pulling on a thin, slick lace and securing it with a clip. While all improve convenience, it comes at the cost of control and comfort for many runners.

One prominent alternative gaining traction is the BOA fit system that uses a ratcheted dial to pull thin laces through guides to tighten the upper. Having tried several trail shoes outfitted with BOA fit systems, I’ll admit I am a fan. In my experience, the BOA system addresses many of the limitations of traditional laces: tightening is convenient and smooth, with micro-adjustments dialed- and locked-in with precise clicks. And, rather than the traditional top-of-the-foot web of laces buffered by a padded tongue, the BOA system tightens panels—custom-designed for each shoe model—that wrap around the foot and hold it comfortably and securely.

Besides convenience and comfort, a new study—that was, it’s worth noting, funded by BOA and carried out by the BOA-sponsored Performance Fit Laboratory—suggests that better lacing can also improve performance. A peer-reviewed white paper published by Frontiers in Sport and Active Living details the study that revealed improvements in stability, agility, and speed on a technical trail when wearing a shoe outfitted with the BOA PerformFit Wrap closure system over the identical shoe with traditional lacing. Despite the conflict of interest and some inherent limitations in the methodology, the study seems sound, and the results are intriguing.

In designing the study, the researchers chose to assess performance in an actual trail-running setting rather than inside a lab. Thirty runners (15 male, 15 female) ran a one-mile loop of a technical trail in Red Rocks Park near Denver, Colorado four times—twice in a pair of La Sportiva Cyklon with the BOA wrap system and twice in the identical shoe retrofitted with traditional top-of-the-foot laces— in randomized, counterbalanced order. During each run, scientists used accelerators and gyroscopes, pressure-sensitive insoles, heart-rate monitors, and GPS trackers to gather biomechanical metrics on the runners. After the test, participants answered questions on the shoe’s fit and performance on each section of the trail.

I was curious who tied the laces and who controlled the tension on both laces and BOA fit system, so I asked Dan Feeney, the BOA-employed biomechanics PhD who directed the study. He said that, in keeping with the “ecologically valid conditions” of the study, they let runners lace their shoes to their preference. “This is more representative of what runners will experience in the real world, so we prefer to test that way,” Feeney said.

When the numbers were crunched, the wrap-equipped shoe was shown to increase ankle stability (reducing the velocity of inward rotation) by five percent, improve heel hold by two percent, and improve running speed on all sections of the trail (uphill, downhill, and level) by one percent—with no increase in effort. In addition, the test runners rated the wrap shoe a better choice for each section of the trail, and said it fit better and inspired more confidence.

Feeney wasn’t surprised by the results, crediting the improvement to the superior fit of the engineered wrap.

“The overlapping panels’ configuration that we designed specifically holds the foot differently from laces,” he said. “The targeted hold over the instep using a wider panel enables force to be spread over a wider area, reducing pressure points. This enables superior fit by pulling the heel back into the heel pocket and ultimately providing better foot-shoe coupling.” This better hold, Feeney believes, is what improved the runner’s stability and helped them to run faster.

Given my experience with BOA-equipped shoes, I too wasn’t surprised that they provided a better hold, but I wouldn’t have predicted the improved speed. It does make sense, however, that not slipping around in a shoe would make each stride more effective. Granted, a one percent improvement isn’t much, but, as we’ve learned with four percent, going faster without increasing effort is a path to PRs.

Before we get too excited, consider that the real-world structure of the study reduces control of all the variables and the likelihood that results can be reproduced. The paper also acknowledges the limitation that everyone involved in the study was aware of what type of lacing they were testing at all times, which could bias the results.

Even with the limitations and biases, however, this study is a reminder—in a world obsessed with the propulsive properties of foam and plates—that a shoe is a complete system and every element, even fit, affects performance. Rather than increasing midsoles to dangerous heights, perhaps designers could spend more energy improving the connection between the shoe and the foot.

BOA has made a good start, although there are some drawbacks. One limitation on the Cyklon and other one-dial shoes is the inability to vary the tension on different parts of the foot. With traditional laces, I can leave the lower eyelets loose while tightening those closer to the ankle—albeit clumsily and imprecisely. The BOA dial, in contrast, tightens the entire system at the same rate. While the independent wrap panels are designed to optimize the force on each section, they don’t allow for individual foot-shape variations and fit preferences (except on shoes with two BOA dials, where each tightens a different set of panels wrapping the top and bottom of the instep—a significant improvement in the technology in my opinion). BOAs are also more expensive than laces, and, admittedly, they look geeky and out of place if you’re wearing your running shoes for anything other than running, which most people do with their road shoes.

So it may be some time before we see BOAs on anything but high-performance trail shoes. But on my morning run today, as I re-tied my laces for the second time and still felt unhappy with the tension, I longed for a day when I could dial in the fit on all my shoes. 

posted Saturday September 16th