MBT, the original rocker-bottomed shoe returns with new running models.
Back in 1996, long before Vibram Five Fingers, before even Nike Frees, a Swiss engineer named Karl Muller introduced a new brand of shoes he called “Masai Barefoot Technology”. Unlike the barefoot shoes that would emerge in the late 2000s, these shoes were not minimalist footwear, but what we now dub maximal: thick-soled, highly-cushioned behemoths with rockered bottoms that created an unstable platform you had to balance on. The original MBTs were intended as fitness and walking shoes, and the rocker-bottomed idea migrated to other brands. Many consumers first heard about them from the negative press over unsubstantiated health claims – which, it should be noted, MBT never made, nor were they involved in or affected by the lawsuit.
Flash forward to November 2012: A Singapore-based company acquired the MBT brand and running became a key focus, says Bob Dyer, the new CEO. Engaging two design firms and working with the Heeluxe footwear lab in Santa Barbara, California, they set out to construct a shoe that built on the MBT heritage and delivered a smooth running ride. They emerged with three models with different stack heights: a Lightweight Profile, a Performance Profile and a Cushioning Profile. We wear-tested the performance (GT 16) and cushioning (Zee 16) models that share much of the same DNA.
Before even putting them on, some characteristics of the MBT design are obvious. Three colours identify different densities of foam running diagonally across the thick midsole. In the GT 16 model, these range from softest under the heel to firmest under the toe, with the intent of creating a cushioned landing yet a firm, fast toe off.
In the Zee 16, the middle layer is the softest. This layer is bigger and takes up more of the bottom than in the GT – to provide maximum cushioning when landing on the midfoot. Looking at the bottom it is clear you are supposed to land on the midfoot in these shoes: a large “Pivot Strike” zone is the lowest point on the rocker and is filled in for support on both the arch side and the outside of the foot.
What you don’t see is the nylon shank built into the top of the midsole. This skeletonised support plate keeps the foot in a neutral, flat position above the rocker-shaped bottom. Between this shank and the thick midsole, the forefoot has zero flexibility, nor is any intended – the shoe rolls through the stride like a wheel with the foot on top of it.
It’s impossible to consider these shoes without addressing the elephant in the room: Even if MBT came first historically, in the running world Hoka One One has become synonymous with the oversized category. Dyer points out numerous differences between the brands – the “true rocker” of the MBT, with both heel and forefoot curved up, the shank, and the wider platform – but says mostly that they have a “very different feel” and runners will have to experience that for themselves and see what they like better.
How did they feel on the run? Decidedly different and surprisingly spry. The Zee 16 delivers the complete, exaggerated MBT experience, with the feeling of balancing atop the big, soft landing zone under the midfoot. The sharply-rockered shape – curving up in both the front and back – makes it nearly impossible to heel strike and your foot starts rolling off the high point onto the toe from the moment you touch down. The shoe demands that you run tall and balanced, with a short, quick stride. Once you find this rhythm, the ride feels smooth and far removed from any surface shocks. But you still feel that your foot is engaging with what is beneath it – that just happens to be the shank and the shoe, not the ground.
The GT 16 rides considerably firmer and faster, with less rocker than the Zee16 but more than found in most other oversized shoes. With a sturdy, well-padded upper and the thick, wide sole, it provides a supportive ride but delivers on the promised performance, particularly if you stay off the soft, rounded heel and keep forward-balanced on the firmer midfoot and quick-rolling forefoot.
Both shoes seem better suited for recovery days and longer runs than speed workouts, with our lab measuring stack heights greater than equivalent Hokas (the Zee16’s heel is thicker than the Stinson 3, Hoka’s most maximal model). On easy days when my legs were beat up, however, I found the run went by quickly in them and they enticed me to add on a few miles.
The GT 16 retails for A$220, the Zee 16, A$240. Both models are available now at select specialty stores and mbtshop.com.au.