In 2011, Know Obstacles was the first parkour company to create and sell a parkour-specific shoe. Called simply the "KO's," they filled a void left by the recently discontinued Kalenji Success. Launched on the heels of the world's first parkour television series, MTV's Ultimate Parkour Challenge, the KO brand was born.
While the release of the KO's was met with excitement by traceurs all over the world, people quickly realized they weren't perfect. Although the grip, fit, and breathability of the KO's surpassed expectations, the durability (or lack thereof) caused many to complain. This issue, along with an aesthetic design change, led to the creation of the KO "Gen II's" in 2011. The Gen II's improved durability by reinforcing problem areas and using slightly different materials. For some, the new design solved their issues - the Gen II's were now lasting two or three months, standard for a lightweight shoe under $60. But the community's tastes had changed. In the intervening years, the parkour community had moved on from the Kalenji Success to shoes like the Asics Corridos or Ultimate 81's. Smaller heels and less padding had become more popular. Even the K-Swiss SI-18, on the heavy end of the spectrum, was less padded and supported than the Kalenji Success or KO. Know Obstacles was criticized by several parkour organizations for propagating a culture of shoes with exaggerated heel padding, which was starting to be seen as detrimental to the health of practitioners.
The criticisms were noted and saved, but the realities of business had kicked in. Creating a shoe is a pricy investment, and KO had just produced two separate designs in two years. The shoes were selling well but the parkour community is small, and a third design in the next year or two just couldn't be justified financially. While the KO Gen II's were making their way to traceurs around the world, other companies started trying their hand at designing a parkour-specific shoe. A few years after the KO, Kalenji released their "Parkour Vision" running shoes in an attempt to placate all the requests for the discontinued Success. Apparently, they hadn't seen or read any of the community's critiques of the KO. The shoe was just as bulky and padded as its predecessor but without the improvements in weight and breathability that made the KO's popular. Next, 3Run surprised the community with a completely unique design for their shoe, the 3Run Volt. While they got credit for trying something new, the Volts ran into the exact same problems: too thick, too bulky, too clumsy. Same thing for Take Flight's first attempt. And Tempest. Even the crowdfunded Ollos. It seemed no one had gotten the memo. Everyone was flooding the market with the same product, ignoring a large group of athletes who just wanted something light and simple.
Why were people clamoring for shoes with less padding? Traceurs and freerunners are taking drops constantly, sometimes from extraordinary heights…surely having extra padding to protect the heel from injury is good, right? Well…the science seemed to say that wasn't necessarily true. Studies in the running community began to circulate, implicating elevated heels and heavy padding as a contributing factor to problems like Achilles strains and plantar fasciitis. On the flip side, it was found that athletes who had grown up wearing minimalist footwear developed stronger stronger stabilizer muscles in their feet and lower leg! In lieu of this new information, community leaders began to speak up.
Know Obstacles approached me to help them test and design a minimalist, zero-drop parkour shoe at the beginning of 2015. They'd looked at the critiques of the Gen II's and read the studies…now they wanted to go out on a limb and try something new. As a fan of "less is more" parkour shoes, I quickly agreed to be involved. I had as a mental model my favorite pair of training shoes, the Asics Corridos; so thin I could feel sidewalk cracks through the soles. For those of you who don't know, designing a shoe can be an arduous process. My job was easy - provide input on grip, padding, etc. then give each successive prototype a test run when it came in from the manufacturer. This is what most people tend to think of when they're imagining the work that goes into creating a new parkour shoe. What they don't imagine are the hundreds of late-night emails and calls with the manufacturer, haggling to get the best prices and materials for the best product. We all want an amazing, highly durable $30 training shoe…but the space between the concept and creation is bigger than most would think!
After five or six prototypes and hundreds of hours of discussion, the new KO's are finally finished. Deciding that one new shoe wasn't enough, we've worked together to design three with various levels of support and padding. The Drops are insanely light, with only 8mm between your foot and the ground, have phenomenal grip, and feature a near-zero (1mm heel-toe) drop design. The Gen III's have the same upper style as the KO Gen II's, but have replaced the Kalenji-style bottoms with a sole that has rubber from toe to heel. The Gen III's are a new-and-improved take on the classic KO's and should satisfy anyone who isn't quite ready to go for the minimalist Drops or Pres! The Pres (pronounced preez) are the middle ground between the Drops and Gen III's. The Pres are thin, with only 10mm of padding, but the padded insole and extra 2mm makes a substantial difference. They're thick enough for big jumps (as long as your technique is on point!) but you don't lose the sense of touch you have in the Drops. They're the closest thing to my beloved Asics Corridos that I've trained in! No matter which shoe you're interested in, I'd also encourage you to check out the new KO shoe club…for a small monthly payment, KO will send you a new pair of shoes every four months!
In the past few months, both Ollo and Strike Movement have released zero (or near zero) drop shoes. I'm excited to see other companies listening to the community, and even more excited to be a part of this whole process. By providing the community with three unique designs, each with different amounts of padding and support, I think KO is going to add quite a bit to the growing family of parkour shoes this spring.
I think the development of the new KO's shows a dedication to the community that is rare, even in parkour. I'm glad to be working with a company that listens to criticism and constantly strives to improve the way they do things. Know Obstacles is also taking steps to work and grow more within the community. Gyms around the world can now order shoes wholesale with their logo on the tongue. If you're a fan of the new KO's, selling these customized shoes could be a nice way to bring some extra income into your gym every month!
Whether you're looking forward to the minimalist KO Drops and Pres, or stoked to get your hands on a pair of the new Gen III's, we're confident you'll be pleased by the performance and feel of your shoes. Let us know in the comments below which type of KO you're most excited about and you will be entered in a contest to win a free KO shirt!