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Rejuvenated MBT Brand Returns With New Running Shoes

The brand uses a rocker design to stand out.

Now that the running shoe revolution has died down a bit, MBT, one of the original innovators, is back with a variation of one of its original ideas.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, MBT debuted fitness walking shoes with a unique rocker profile. What’s a rocker profile? It’s a convex or outwardly curvy shape to the bottom of the shoe that creates a rolling sensation during a walking or running gait. In other words, the unique geometry of the underside of the shoe helps the foot immediately roll forward upon contact with the ground. The shoes gained notoriety and those who liked them swore by them. In fact, it helped spawn a trend, too. But some unsubstantiated claims related to the “toning shoe” fad circa 2009-2010 led to the downfall of the brand—and many others that made similar claims.

However, the premise of MBT—which originally stood for Masai Barefoot Technology in the brand’s original incarnation—was just as applicable to running and not just fitness walking when Swiss engineer Karl Muller conceived it. Rocker designs have emerged on several brands in the interim, including Hoka One One.

In 2013, a new organization bought the MBT brand out of bankruptcy and it has since been working behind the scenes to develop running shoes that utilize the rocker technology to serve up a soft, smooth ride. In March, it launched its first three models—the lightweight, race-ready Speed 16 ($110), the performance/cushioned GT 16 ($150) and the maximally cushioned Zee 16 ($170)—at and select running stores around the U.S.

MBT has made many types of casual dress shoes and lifestyle sandals, but the running shoes officially launched in early March. Although each of the three running models are distinctively different, each incorporates a rocker profile, a stiff nylon shank in the midfoot and a tri-density foam midsole that is softer in the heel, semi-firm in the midfoot and firm in the forefoot.

A few retailers think the new rocker-bottomed MBT running shoes could be an ideal solution for oft-injured Baby Boomers.

Competitor’s wear-test team has done preliminary testing with the shoes and has reported that the rolling sensation is very pronounced and creates a propulsive forward flow. Running in the shoes takes some getting used to—at least compared to what more traditional shoes feel like—but most our our testers appreciated the rocker concept once they found their groove. A few of our testers weren’t sold on the more thickly cushioned models, but the Speed 16 shoe ranked as the hands-down favorite.

“Each of the models is different, but they seem to distribute the weight more easily than most shoes. There are less pressure points that you’d find in traditional running shoes,” says Steve McCachren, footwear buyer for SageSport, which has stores in Boone, N.C., and Mt. Airy, N.C. “They have a unique design that seems to work well with a midfoot-striking gait or a slightly forefoot-striking gait.”

McCachren says SageSport has found that older runners and joggers who appreciate more cushioning trend toward the GT 16 and the Zee 16 models, while younger, faster runners seem to like the Speed 16.

Sue Orischak, C.Ped., a registered pedorthist and owner of Foot Solutions in Scottsdale, Ariz., agrees with the idea that the MBT shoes are ideal for older runners and walkers who might be suffering from a variety of foot, knee and back ailments. (There have even been studies to support that idea.) Foot Solutions was one of the original MBT dealers during its first incarnation and Orischak was eager to bring in the GT 16 and the Zee 16 this spring. She’s already sold through her inventory of those shoes and ordered more.

“With the aging of the (Baby) Boomers, there is a strong place that delivers the functionality and the soft ride,” Orischak says. “The stable rocker bottom helps off-load pressure from the lower back.”

MBT brand director Ken Ueda says the fact that the brand is offering something entirely unique gives it its best chance for success in a crowded running shoe marketplace. Ueda said the running shoes are off to a good start— 300 pairs of its running shoes were sold in its first two weeks and strong sales continued through the first two months. In the coming years, Ueda says MBT will roll out a stability shoe and a trail running shoe.

“We feel that we have a very impactful technology that really benefits walkers and runners,” Ueda says. “We’re trying to tell our story about being a new brand with new products, something different. In the running marketplace there is so much ‘me too’ product with similar types of foam with different names or stack heights. But with our tri-density construction, the nylon shank and the rocker profile, we feel like we have three unique things to talk about that really benefit runners.”