Footwear Insights from New Balance Shoe Savant Claire Wood

Photo: Yoon S. Byun

From her days working in a local run specialty shop through high school and her collegiate track career, Claire Wood has always been intrigued by running shoes. After her competitive career ended at James Madison University, Wood scored a tech rep position with Mizuno—basically a regional brand ambassador job to help with sales and events in running stores—that gave her some initial insights into the running industry. The now 34-year-old from Boston got into the product side of the business while working at Brooks a few years later, then she moved on to New Balance, where she’s been for the past seven and a half years, and is currently senior product manager for performance running footwear.

What do you do in your role at New Balance?

I work with designers, developers and engineers and bring together all aspects of global running market needs. I have to know what’s going on in the performance running market and share that with our team. Our goal is to be on the leading edge of trends and deliver shoes our customers want, when they want them. For shoes, we work with about an 18-month window from inception to reality.

You ran in college, now you work for New Balance. How does running fit into your life?

Running is a huge part of my life. I run five days a week. Always have. Running is almost twofold for me. It keeps me grounded and focused for the day. Then other times I’m really focusing on the footwear. I may not be running competitively anymore, but I do have a personal rule: If I see someone running in a non-running brand on the Charles River trail, I have to pass them.

What trends have made a big impact in running shoes?

More people now understand the importance of mixing up the shoes they wear throughout the week. The idea that you shouldn’t run the exact same pace or do the exact same workout every day because it isn’t good for your body also applies to footwear. The position your foot is in, the materials your foot engages with underfoot—it’s good to mix it up.

What have you learned about making shoes with newer, simpler, cleaner designs?

They are some of the most costly and challenging for us to make! It’s tricky and complicated and there are always so many moving parts necessary to make innovative, enhanced products. We don’t add pieces just to add pieces. Our goal is for all of our shoes to have smoothness from top to bottom, plus a truly fluid and uninterrupted ride. Marrying science and math—essentially looking at data at a microscopic level—with a strong sense of form and aesthetics is what brings New Balance styles to life.

How does 3D printing fit into shoe design?

We were the first to make a 3D running product available to runners in April. But it isn’t just that “we made a 3D printed shoe.” We started with it in 2011 by printing track plates for our professional runners. What we learned during the process inspired Fresh Foam. We also use 3D printing to help inform macro-level design changes.

How do athletes contribute to product design?

Our athletes are official wear testers and their feedback plays an important role in the process for our design team. We stay close to them during hard training cycles and talk to them, but it often happens through something like a random text, email or a picture with comments that make a big difference. That level of athlete is putting shoes through incredibly strenuous activities. If they can work for them, we believe they can work for anybody.

What does New Balance have in the works for the Olympics?

As a brand we aren’t allowed to mention that specific event, but you will see some preview products of our Spring 2017 track and field line at key races this summer. We have updates to the MD800 and the LD5000, our middle and long distance shoes. Our sprint shoe, the Vazee Sigma is also amazing and has a really unique closure that we developed with Boa. It all ties in with our new race kit through a cool color story.

What drives you nuts about shoe reviews?

If we get a bad review for a shoe that running specialty stores and our customers love, it makes me think the reviewer wasn’t in the right shoe for them. We absolutely do not go to market with a product that has not been deemed ready by an incredible amount of testing. We’ve gotten a lot of awards lately, and those are consistent with market data, sales and our research.

Do you have a favorite shoe?

I have a soft spot in my heart for all of them. But, Fresh Foam 1080 has been a really symbolic style to me, from teamwork to design. I look at that shoe and don’t see any BS. I love shoes that look good and make running better.

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