Material Matters: New Balance Fresh Foam
During the mid-1980s, the evolution of sneaker sole technology hit a fork in the road. Some designers aimed to engineer support into the midsole’s structure, while others focused on creating rubber compounds for better cushioning. New Balance, on the other hand, not satisfied with the ‘one or the other’ route, blazed their own trail through the subsequent decades. The Boston-based brand’s dedication to pushing the limits of innovation and technology produced revolutionary results in the form of ENCAP, ABZORB and Fresh Foam technologies.
The recently revealed 574S is the perfect example of New Balance’s ongoing quest to break ground by rolling cushioning and support into one. Using their cutting-edge Fresh Foam compound as a base, designers have retooled a performance platform with a lifestyle twist to give us a new perspective on casual comfort. But the tale of Fresh Foam goes back further than you might expect – in many ways, the 574S has been decades in the making.
Although New Balance have been in business for over 110 years, they hit their stride in the mid-70s thanks to an athletic boom that fuelled a massive increase in sales. Their Boston locale enabled the brand to cater to a growing group of joggers who were starting to get serious about their new leisure-time activity. Most running shoes of this era featured die-cut ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) midsoles, like the wedge soled 320, which didn’t offer much in the way of variety.
In its most basic form, EVA is made by combining two different plastics. It’s then expanded – that is, made into a foam – to produce the squishy stuff that makes soles. Each step of the process can be tweaked to give the final product slightly different properties. For example, one manufacturer might use different ratios of the two primary ingredients while another might mix in some additives. Then there are all kinds of ways to mould the plastic and expand it into foam, each of which produces a slightly different product.
The fledgling sole tech did, however, leave a lot to be desired. Despite tweaks in the formulas, the single slab and wedge design of the era wasn’t always the most stable, particularly if you wanted to turn corners.
In the mid-80s, New Balance introduced their ENCAP sole technology. This new design allowed them to encapsulate a specially formulated EVA wedge in a polyurethane (PU) shell. By wrapping the softer foam in a sturdier compound they were able to provide unparalleled stability without sacrificing cushioning.
By the start of the 90s, New Balance had refined the structures they used to combine compounds of varying properties; the new approach favoured injection moulding and the fusing of different components. It was time for NB to find something new to work with, and so, with the help of American chemical manufacturers DuPont, they created a new isoprene rubber named ABZORB.
The following years saw the top-tier foam undergo various enhancements to produce options such as ABZORB SBS, DTS and FL – the whole time adding and removing various structural elements to alchemise the desired ride. It wasn’t until 2011 that New Balance’s arsenal of sole materials received its next addition – REVlite. This lightweight, springy foam was a long-distance road-runner’s dream – it’s also what caught the eye of lifestyle sneaker wearers.
In 2013, New Balance lit a rocket under the hard-core performance running market by introducing Fresh Foam, the ultimate refinement of material tech and structural finesse. Two elements in particular make Fresh Foam truly exceptional. First is the EVA compound. Thanks to modern technology, New Balance were able to work at the most nitty-gritty level to adjust the chemical properties and achieve the necessary characteristics. The fine-tuned formula produces a foam both springy and stable. The raw material is then injection moulded in a heat press; in addition to moulding the soles, this second round of cooking makes the material lighter and springier. Second is the three-dimensional structure of the sole, or the mould itself. Using modern computer modelling and design software, the midsoles use convex and concave shapes to create different zones, altering levels of compression and resistance under impact.
Fresh Foam was first available to the public on the sole of the 980, released early 2014. Magazines and websites raved about the lightweight shoe and the running world responded enthusiastically. Soon the top-tier of New Balance’s performance category was filled with Fresh Foam, with styles like the Zante, 1080 and Boracay all getting in on the action.
Every category of performance shoe has benefited from the tech, from track to trail, marathon to mountaineering. But with all the fuss around Fresh Foam, it’s remained relatively untapped by the lifestyle market. The few times it did appear, it came in the form of an existing sole unit fitted onto a casual silhouette, meaning that the non-runners among us were missing out on the nuanced nature of Fresh Foam comfort.
When New Balance revealed the 574 it was clear the release was going to change the way we see Fresh Foam. For starters, the new lifestyle model has a 10mm heel drop, unlike the 4mm or so on a running shoe, which allows the foot to sit in a more relaxed position for all-day wearability. Beneath the heel is a crush pad – a structural feature inspired by the 576 – made from ABZORB foam to provide dual-density comfort. The concave triangular pattern on the lateral midsole cushions the heel-strike while leading the impact to the crush pad, while a convex pattern in the medial side provides extra support. New Balance have added a sliver of Acteva Ultra Lite to the forefoot, further emphasising the drop and to keep the foot in a natural shape.
In 2018, New Balance elevated Fresh Foam to its greatest heights yet with the debut of the brand new LAZR. Featuring data-driven cushioning inspired by runners, the silhouette came with slip-on bootie-style construction for a custom fit while an Achilles pocket helped to lock the foot in place for a more comfortable and secure run.
The hallmark of the design, however, was its innovative laser-cut Fresh Foam midsole, which was created from a single piece of foam to provide a more plush and natural ride. That cutting and engraving also allowed NB to keep bulk to a minimum while offering the most precise, targeted fit yet. The laser-cut Fresh Foam tooling proved so successful that New Balance brought it back for another go around in 2019, updating the look ever so slightly with additional engraving on the exterior and coupling it with a new Hypoknit upper for a more dynamic fit.
The LAZR marks the beginning of a new chapter in the Fresh Foam chronicles. As New Balance continue to optimise their cutting-edge performance styles with the high-tech squishy stuff, feet on the streets will finally feel the benefits of new-gen tech. Next time you head to your local sneaker boutique, soak up the perks of New Balance’s unparalleled commitment to support and cushioning and let Fresh Foam carry you home.