Physical Therapists Using Clinical Analysis To Discuss The Art And Science Behind Running and The Stuff We Put On Our Feet

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Zen Running Club: 
"Made from Good Decisions"
Doctors of Running Sustainability Project, Volume 3

By Bach Pham, Content Manager

In our third edition of the Doctors of Running Sustainability Project, we spoke with two of the three founders of Zen Running Club about their unique take on tackling sustainability. Richard Rusling, Andy Farnworth and Dominic Sinnott started the company during the pandemic. Their team features a combination of 20 years in the industry, from design to marketing to athletics. We discuss the founding of the company and their unique backgrounds and how that's shaped their work at Zen Running.

About the Doctors of Running Sustainability Project

In this long term series, we'll be talking with companies, researchers, and forward-thinkers on the subject of footwear sustainability. In 2019, it was found that over two billion running shoes were purchased in the calendar year. With running shoes as popular as ever, they bring a unique problem as far as waste is concerned. While clothing tends to have ways to breath new life through repair and reuse, footwear currently has a fairly definitive end-of-life. Sustainability, however, has quickly become the focus of footwear brands in the past two years as more and more new materials and technology have entered the market in an effort to tackle the issue.

Editor's Note

This discussion was not a sponsored piece with Zen Running Club. We appreciate Richard and Dominque for their time and willingness to talk about their work and challenges with us.

Interview with Dominic Sinnott and Richard Rusling, Cofounders of Zen Running

Doctors of Running: To start things off, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Your history before Zen.

Richard: So there are three founders. We came together during COVID. We all had backgrounds in the sports industry, in having worked brands from Nike to Adidas to Puma to Converse, consulting in-between. Personally, I have more on the product side, working with the lab testing shoes for Adidas back in 1999. I have a background in Sports Science and I'm a real nerd about why things do what they do and how they can be better. I have lived around the world working for different brands.

Andy Farnworth, our other co-founder, was a high level running at middle distance. Really started on the athlete services side, so working directly with athletes; giving them product, selling technical products to retailers.

Dominic: I met Richard 20 odd years ago, late 90s - 2000. We were both young and ambitious men, just starting our career at Adidas - at the headquarters in Germany. There, I worked in-house at Adidas in the running shoe department - running design department - and since then with other brands. For a long time in recent years I've worked for my own consulting agency, building the story, advertising and designing the stores and everything. I've always been a keen runner, and like Richard obsessed with all things sneakers, running shoes and the way they work and the sort of detail in everything.

It's great to know that both of you have been doing this for awhile, and I think it shows in your first piece of product from Zen Running. Before we dig into the ZR-01, can you elaborate more on how Zen Running Club began?

Richard: During COVID - middle of 2020 - we were kind of bored of what we were doing. We kicked around ideas of what we could do; we could consult or take opportunities to work on some innovation projects. We finally said why don't we try to do it ourselves? We didn't decide to go down the easy path; we set ourselves on a really ambitious target - focused on the tomorrow's running brand.

We said what does tomorrow look like? Sustainability wasn't the base of why we started this, it was just a given. We wanted to prove that sustainability wasn't an excuse. It didn't need to be expensive, uncomfortable, bad-performing - it's actually something that you can achieve. You can make a decent running shoe at a competitive price that can go up against more traditional oil-based running shoes. It was more of a challenge from the start. It became a fun, cool exciting project that gathered momentum the deeper we dove into it.

Dominic: The deeper we dove into it, the more we couldn't escape from it. We were too committed to the process, and then like Richard said it becomes an obsessive thing, pushing this thing. It's not even the case of trying to make a decent running shoe, it's trying to make an excellent running shoe that has all these sustainable components in it without it being any disadvantaged or creating any questions that would put people off choosing this over a traditionally made petrol model.

Let's start with that sustainable aspect of it. How did you decide on materials for the ZR-01? Was starting point materials, or design?

: We worked from designs, then overlaid materials as went along. We wanted to put a stake in the ground and not use recycled plastic. It's where a lot of the brands are going right now. It's a gray area, where the recycled plastics come from. We have had suppliers who have told us that people will make bottles and then recycle them without using them as a bottle, which uses more energy than using raw plastic. We then started looking into recycled bottles and foudn it can actually be recycled into another bottle and the recycled content should be 30-40%. But then you don't know: there's only so many times you can recycle it without losing structure, rigidity, or performance. We just thought okay, screw it let's see how far we can go without using these materials.

We found a bunch of midsole materials and started playing around with them. For this first shoe we really wanted to build that shoe for everybody. We wanted that democratic experience for the brand.

On the surface it's a really simple concept, but people don't understand it. We get these questions through social media all the time: How do they taste? Do they smell like vegetables?

For the first shoe we agreed that we'd start on an even-keeled, mass market product for everybody. We found the materials we were using were the right materials; they offered a secure fit - not too tight, not too loose. It structures nicely to your foot after you put it on for the first 20 minutes. The sugarcane midsole is slightly firm, but it's big enough that it's soft.

I'm impressed by how much you dialed down the amount of material to make the ZR-01.

Richard: We wanted to pair it back to the basics. There's a lot we found coming from the industry. We're not saying they are doing wrongs, because they are doing many things right. We found that the shoe number one has to have certain features and benefits right? The consumer expects those, plus something else. In six to twelve months time, brands are forced to release an update. It is whatever it is two, and it's a bit more shiny and there's a couple more pieces on it. And then the consumer wants three which is a couple more pieces, and it just turns into this kind of addition mentality. We just wanted to strip everything back. My favorite thing about this shoe is that you can step on the heel (counter) and wear it as a slip-on after running.

Can confirm: converts into slip-on!!
Dominic: If you look at the upper as well, in terms of materials and construction there is a new built simplicity to it. With the digitally-knitted upper there's no off cuts or wastage. You can get your breathability zones, you can get your structure and durability zones around the toebox, mudguard and everything else is a denser weave. The stretched collar: there's no interlocking, it's just stitching and weaving that's causing that flex. It's an interesting game to play to play figuring out where everything needs to be, but you are just doing it from two pieces of different color frame. They cut off at the end of the weaving process and that's it, there's no wastage. If you look at the outsole of the four colorways of this shoe, they've all a dark grey outside to play a modular theme to use the same component through the shoe. There's also the lack of branding. There's a silhouette of the shoe with the big block of color with these two stripes and the big white cushion, and you've got the silhouette immediately. There's no need for a logo other than the molding in the outsole and printing on the insole. The idea there being, to add in an extra logo on the sustainability front would kind of be pointless. So the minimalism is stripped back to be purposeful and creates this story of intricate detail and clean aesthetic that we really like and people are responding to.

Richard: The interesting side of the proposition right is that it is not branded like a traditional shoe. It doesn't look like a traditional shoe, and actually we found people from runners to people who work in fashion retail wanting to wear this shoe because it looks different and it looks cool. It's kind of that; it was one of the earlier questions was where the name came from. We wanted to create this intriguing brand that was the opposite of everything out there today. Normally you take two words and put them together to create a full four/five letter word. Zen Running doesn't work like that, but we've received a couple of reviews from branding agencies about how this is eye-catching.

It's a shoe we saw consumers, especially during COVID, people were being outside socializing. We saw this new social life coming together. People running together and hanging outside together. It was more this social club. It's what we wanted to see out of the shoe. Something that performs the way it's supposed to perform, but also looks good when you go for a coffee or chat afterwards. It's that kind of inclusion we wanted to bring to the table.

One thing I'm glad you do talk about is marketing sustainable shoes. We poll our audience often about sustainability, and it can be a little 50/50. Can you talk about how you talk about it with your audience?

Richard: What's important is that we see our competition as running shoes. We don't want to be the best sustainable running shoe. We don't want to be this sub-category; we want to have a shoe to perform. It's great that it is made from sustainable materials, but we're not going to hang our hat on that and use it as an excuse to not perform. From a development process, that's really important for us.

We looked at all-around shoes like the Infinity React as an example and kind of said we'll go after that kind of consumer. If we're talking apples to apples, this is definitely not a Vaporfly or anything. That's like comparing a hybrid car to a Lamborghini right now, right?

We do have more sustainable goals to achieve; we'd love to have a shoe that you can bury and compost in your garden naturally. But we're also working with an investor who is a top orthopedic surgeon to see how far we can push shoes on a performance level as well. So definitely we can't make carbon fiber plates out of plants yet, but we're finding replacement materials and ways we can chase that performance dream.

It's important to stick to our mantra "Made from Good Decisions" which keeps us true. Right now, we can't make a 100% plant-based shoe. We could, but it would last 15 minutes. Even if you used glue, the natural rubber would last 5 kilometers or so. We're really looking at the right balance; we're as close as we can right now. We're at the most advanced from a materials perspective, where we are today, but there's a long way to go.

"We don't want to be the best sustainable running shoe. We don't want to be this sub-category; we want to have a shoe to perform. It's great that it is made from sustainable materials, but we're not going to hang our hat on that and use it as an excuse to not perform."

Dominic: But it's incremental gains. Again under the banner of Made from Good Decisions. When there's room to incrementally improve the shoe we do. The upper is entirely made from plants because this is eucalyptus, organic cotton. The sockliner is castor bean foam, eucalyptus, and cotton mix. The foam is where it becomes trickier; there's a mixed of recycled materials in with the natural materials. Incrementally there are better durability found in those materials over time which we're excited about. We're looking at building the range from our start point, so we're kind of in that mass market where people like shoes like the Infinity React and the Brooks Ghost and New Balance, etc. We're serving this to start with, then we start to move away from that with this gravel bike shoe, a plant-based, more performance shoe, etc. But from the point we're starting at, it's a democratic shoe for people to go out with superlative range that can sit and compete with brands out there today.

I'm appreciative of the design in that it competes with most things we're seeing in the market now. I do want to talk a little about challenges. It's only been two years since y'all started the company, made a model, and got things off the ground.

Richard: I think any startup will start you the same, but they won't tell anyone else what they are starting up. We built a great product we felt everyone would be interested in. That whole process of going from a really cool word-of-mouth experience to running a business where you have to come into work and do twenty different jobs - 19 of them you wouldn't even hire yourself to do.

Dominic: 19 of them are based around shipping [laughs]. That sums up our problems.

Richard: I think starting during the pandemic was challenging. Normally we would have spent a month in the factory. We tested prototypes where the shoe would not flex. We had one tester, the shoe flew off and landed in a pond when they were running past. There was not that nimbleness of development and speed. It blows our minds that it only has been two years, going from a phone call during isolation to where we are today. We've had a few missed steps. I do think trusting your gut is something we should have done more often. Everybody's got advice, everybody knows how to do things better than you do. It kind of went full circle. We went back to things we wrote about the brand at the beginning; nothing's really changed. We got a bit lost trying to embellish the story. It's just pure and simple content. We tried to push it more than it needs to be. We have to hold ourselves back a bit.

Dominic: Setting up in different countries. You learn from it all. A lot of people have said to us, friends that have been involved in startups big and small, kind of say that everything you done that has been a mistake is not. It's a valuable lesson to not to again. We've learned from tax law, about opening bank accounts in different parts of the world. Things that have killed us and pulled us away from the time we want to spend telling the story of the brand and creating more products. At the same time, this overview of everything you are doing is an invaluable lesson as you keep going.

Richard: In the last two years I've learned more than I have my entire life. Everyday there's something new. You have to master it in a short amount of time too. You learn about a shipping issue in the morning, and you have to be an expert by the afternoon to work out how to do it. Getting import/custom questions, bell curve sizes we need to order.

Dominic: That decisive mindset is good. It trains your mind into sort of a reactive ability that you then sort of have as an instinct because you're so used to waking up and knowing for eight hours before LA wakes up and they need an answer. That filters back to what we're doing with the product as well, so the decisions become much more refined and decisive. There's less dwelling on things and feed backs to what you are doing.

I used to write about food. Thinking about your story, I relate it a lot to a farmer; it's not just growing the food. It's about selling, handling transactions, shipping, connections. What seems like a relaxing job becomes twenty responsibilities.

Richard: I think building the shoe is like only really 10% of it.

Dominic: Yeah, that's the bit you know about. The bit you know about we don't have as much time to work on it as we like. We'd like to be laser focused on it. I like the restaurant/farmer analogy; loads of people's dream is to pack in their real job and open a cafe. We had kind of the same; to have control, control of all these different aspects.

Richard: It's like being a conductor to the orchestra. It's hard not to get sucked into the details because you kind of want to have control of the different parts. You know if one thing falls done; if the warehouse doesn't work properly, the website doesn't work properly, you're screwed. If one thing breaks, you kind of have to drop everything. No matter if it's a weekend, holiday or time off, you have to deal with it.

Dominic: The rewards are that when you first lace up a proto you have been working on and take it for a run. It makes it worthwhile I think. This idea of what we are sharing together and bringing to life. The number of hands that have to touch this thing to bring it to life as well shows you what our team that we put together have been able to do which is fantastic.

When did you first make connections to sustainability?

Richard: If I look at the last brands I worked for, it's been bubbling around, but I think people wanted to use it as a sales tactic. "How do we make this product 51% sustainable to say this is our sustainable collection?" It wasn't one of the conversations we had in starting. If we were going to make a brand, we can't talk about yesterday. We can't talk about the way shoes were made. In essence; since the 1980s not much has changed. If we started a car company together, we wouldn't talk about whether it was gasoline or diesel, or even a hybrid. We would be talking about alternative energy sources. It wasn't even a conversation about being sustainable for us.

Dominic: I think as well as the three of us are all fathers. Our children come home from school with so many brilliant ideas of how things can be better because they are taught now in school about the need for sustainability and a real view of how the world is now. Working with big brands and everything we are doing, my specific side of it was working with branding - my agency was working on branding, retail design, and everything.

Just looking at the projects we were doing, to put the amount of money in to have a beautiful bespoke window in a store in a big city for two weeks, and then it doesn't need to exist anymore. You think about the waste on every level, and then you move into product and it's a million times worst. The shoe mountains around the world; the sheer volume of material you see daily, you have to start wondering how to dig into that problem.

Richard: It's that planned obsolescence that we wanted to remove. We're working several planned other shoes and they all have, like Dom said, the same color outsole. We ordered the same rubber, same color sockliner. It's not color-matched like other shoes are. We wanted to make this straightforward, modern approach. Our midsoles are offwhite because we didn't want to bleach it or make it something else.

Dom really said it: my children get the brands in an instant, but you have to explain it to adults. I think it's that simplicity we want to keep. If we're talking about the way the world is headed, it's not the way the world was 20 years ago. We're going through the biggest change in the world we live in, in our lifetime that we have gone through in the last five years. We didn't even think about making the brand relevant for today. We were thinking about making it for tomorrow.

Dominic: You have to be honest with what you are saying, and if we are saying this is 100% made of plants, how many minutes before someone disproves it? We've got no interest fabricating this story, we've got interest in this Made from Good Decisions banner of putting out there and saying it's a branding beater. We believe this is the running shoe leader in sustainability and materials and is also a brilliant running shoes. Kids will look at it and say that's it brilliant and made of plants. The reaction we've had universally is really great, and like that people can join in with the story along with tips and suggestions. It's a chance they can help us incremental changes.

They might have a hybrid car and might think of an EV after that. They have their favorite running shoes and want to keep their favorite running shoes, but if you give them an alternative that becomes the EV of the running shoe world, then there's no barrier for them to join and do that.

Richard: But it's even better if there's not a compromise. You're not going to switch from your traditional running shoe to a shoe that's terrible.

Dominic: You don't want to wait to catch up. It's gotta be on par now and competes. Our aim is to have a shoe that competes and in our mind continue to make it better than what's out there. Also it being made by sustainable materials, because that's what it got to be these days.

Richard: For us all the midsoles are the same color for a reason. Every color, every color paint has to come from somewhere. Sometimes it's two trucks, or a different country. How do we make it easier? This needless over... this planned obsolesce right? You need to plan so there's one or two colors extra. We're trying to think in a different way.

About the future, as much as you can share, what are some sustainable goals you want to reach, especially about the end of life?

Richard: We're trying to work with partners that can create a positive end-of-life. Right now, like any plants, it will disappear quicker. You'll see any current day shoe will be stuck in landfills past our grandkids, grandkids, grandkids. You have an kind of estimation between 1,000 and 10,000 years, and that's pretty scary, right? If we are 50, 60, 70% reduced in the next decade that would be a positive, but that's not where we want to be. We kicked around ideas like seeds with the shoes so you can plant it in the garden and remember a certain period in your life, but then we'd have to be agricultural and have import licenses [laughs]. We're ultimately trying to get rid of everything we can and work with partners that find a positive end of life. Looking at the challenge from both ends.

I think people who take shoes back, what good does it do really? People are happy to talk about their carbon footprint, but then one brand said ship them back to us, and then we'll ship it back to the factory, which is completely backwards. And then you can't take it apart. You can make plastic bottle into a t-shirt and kind of extract it and put it back into plastic. You're kind of, rather than fueling that issue, we're happy to say we're doing the best we can. This shoe will degrade pretty quickly, a lot quicker than traditional shoes, but we are working on more and more plant-based solutions in both footwear and apparel. We work on some materials on the apparel side that do disappear pretty quickly. One material disappears in 300 days in the right conditions. That's something people are scared about too about biodegradable products. They are worried they are going to go out fully clothed and come back naked and half a shoe. It really does to be damp and dark, like it were buried underground.

We would like to thank Richard and Dominic for taking the time to speak with us about everything going on at Zen Running! To learn more about the brand and to find their ZR-01, visit the site here.

We also have a full review of the ZR-01 here if you'd like to learn more about the shoe.

If you would like to talk with the team about the Sustainability Project, email Bach Pham at

Editor's Note
This discussion was not a sponsored piece with Zen Running. Thanks so much to Richard and Dominic for their time and openness about the work going on at Zen Running

Past Feature

Volume 1: Reebok's Push towards a Ree]newable Future
Volume 2: Hylo Hitting Fast Forward on the Future of Running

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