Designing a Running Sneaker for Everyone

The making of the Adidas Solarboost.


 “I have friends at other brands and I want to show them this product so bad,” says Chris Ekman, Adidas Senior Product Manager. “But I can’t because I know they’d use it for evil.”

Ekman is addressing a group of 20 media members and runners at a private dinner in Nuremberg, Germany, just about a 30 minute drive from the company’s global headquarters. The product he’s referring to in his welcome speech, which was followed by other non-professional athletes sharing their personal stories about why they began running, is the Adidas Solarboost.

It’s a little over a month before the running sneaker will be officially unveiled and no one on the media side of the room has seen the sneaker yet, but as referenced in his toast, Ekman can barely contain his excitement. As an employee of the company for over a decade, Ekman has seen his share of wins and losses when it comes to the brand’s main competitionNike.

“I've been with the brand for 11 years and the first six or seven years were some difficult conversations,” he said. “Then Boost comes out in 2013 and it’s this holy grail of cushioning.”

After five years of making sneakers with the foam that was developed by BASF Technology, Adidas is refreshing the sneaker line that started it all. Solar isn’t meant to trump the Ultra Boost, the pinnacle silhouette that debuted in 2015 and was touted by the brand as “The Greatest Running Shoe Ever.” It’s a revamp of the original Energy Boost line and is an exercise in simplifying running shoes.

Adidas Solar Boost Sketch
Original Solarboost renderings

Aside from the Boost cushioning, which it uses slightly less of than what’s in a pair of Ultra Boosts, the Solarboost debuts a new stitching technology called Tailored Fiber Placement. Aramis data imaging, the same used by NASA, is used to precisely place fibers in the upper to make sure not one stitch is unnecessary. Parley yarns, made of recycled ocean plastic, are also used on the upper.

“No bullshit, it’s daringly simple,” Ekman said reciting a tagline from the shoe’s marketing campaign. “We’re stripping away the stuff you don't need and there is beauty in that simplicity and there is beauty in that functionality.”

Inspiration for that functionality came from studying space shuttles. Adidas designers even used NASA’s graphic design manual for reference, hence the name Solar.

Adidas Boost Ball
Adidas Boost in its raw form

“The space shuttle is this super confident statement for a journey and this is how we see the shoe as well,” Senior Designer for Running Falk Bruns said. “This is the vehicle for the runner’s journey and so it worked on a lot of different levels for us.”

At first glance, it may resemble the shape of the Ultra Boost, but designers actually used the first Boost running sneaker as a base. Instead of Primknit, the upper harkens back to the original Energy Boost with a flexible stretch mesh that’s made to have a more universal fit for runners with wide feet.

However, there were elements of Ultra that were incorporated and built upon in the final version of Solar, which went through hundreds of iterations. For example, the heel was modified to offer greater range of motion of the Achilles tendon and a more universal fit, and articulated pockets of foam padding were added in the tongue that’s different from other sneakers in the Adidas running line.

“We have these iconic parts and pieces that worked so well on the Ultra from a performance perspective,” said Marius Jung, Adidas Running designer. “By implementing them and fine tuning them, we were able to build a new holistic concept.”  

Adidas Tailored Fiber Placement Technology
First samples with Tailored Fiber Placement

Unlike Ultra Boost, Adidas is targeting a different type of runner with this offering. Solar isn’t made for an ultramarathoner or someone who wants to set a new personal record per se, but someone who just wants to get out there once or twice a week as a social activity or maybe even for the first time.

“This is for runners in the middle. It’s for normal people,” Ekman said.

With Nike launching new innovations focused on pro runners such Zoom X, Flyprint, and React within the past year, Adidas is hoping the “normal” people messaging and updated technology will give them a universal appeal in the market.

For all intents and purposes, Nike’s React foam felt like a reaction (pun intended) to Adidas’ Boost. The brand with the Three Stripes even conducted internal research comparing energy return on both foams which claims that Boost had a higher score.

When asked about their reactions to React, Adidas’ running designers played their cards close to the vest.

“In general, we tend not to look so much at competitors because it will distract us from our vision,” Jung said.

Adidas veteran senior product manager looked at Nike’s moves as a cause for confidence.

“We are actually at the front of the trend and I hadn’t experienced that until recently,” Ekman said. “I think it’s cool to see that we are not following, but leading. It’s scary, but it’s cool to be at the front of the pack right now.”