The history of running shoes is a tale that dates back a relatively long time, for us, at least. Yet, when you think about how long humans have been around doing athletic events, it’s really not all that long at all. Shoes have been a major advancement on the days of old, allowing us to go longer and run faster than we ever thought was imaginable. Today, in this brief history of running shoes, we’re going to take a look back and see just how far we have come so far.
The very first pair of shoes that were made for the purpose of running burst onto the scene in 1832- so nearly 200 years ago. This was all because of man by the name of Wait Webster, who had devised a process that would take the leather upper of a pair of shoes and attach them to rubber soles. Prior to this, there would have been no such way to even consider doing something like this, so you would never ever think to try to run since it would be useless. About 20 years later, the true first running shoe was made when the founder of the forerunner of what know as Reebok now- Joseph William Foster– took spikes and attached them to the bottoms of the soles of regular shoes.
For decades, this would continue to be normal practice. The differences between regular shoes you would buy at the store and running shoes would only be apparent by the spikes affixed to them. There was little- in fact no- cushioning to them and they wouldn’t feel very good at all to run in. They were the same shoes you had in everyday life, only you were pounding the ground with them on. In 1890, Foster would further improve upon his invention to help shave time off of folks’ runs, making the first technological advancement of real note.
Tires or Soles?
Then, came the time of companies like Goodyear and Dunlop to get involved. Now known for their success in the tire industry, they became players in the shoe industry by manufacturing rubber soled shoes for use. This, of course, was not something the normal person could afford. On the contrary, these pieces of equipment were very expensive and became luxury items that only the wealthy could afford to have. But the beginning of the use of rubber had made a big change in not only the world but also in shoes. They were now lighter, more flexible, and had some shock absorbent properties to them. They would end up getting more affordable over time, too, and it wasn’t long until more and more people had access.
Adidas Bursts Onto the Scene
If you have never heard the story of the Dassler brothers, Adi and Rudolf, you are really, really missing out. The two brothers are responsible for the boom of shoes all over the world, and it’s a shame that many don’t know the tale. It was the 1920s and the pair had a store in Germany together that sold track and field equipment- namely footwear. Adi’s talent was that he was able to construct shoes for various purposes. Rather than just having one basic running shoe, he would tailor each one to go a certain distance. The shorter the distance was, the less material you’d have to have. Jesse Owens, the American star of the 1936 Olympics that embarrassed Hitler in Berlin, even worse his shoes, such was their prominence. That began a specialization of sorts in the world of shoes, and that has never slowed down. Today, we have tiny subsets of subsets when it comes to shoe types, all due to this brilliant tweak. Long story short, the two brothers ended up feuding, with Adi creating what would become Adidas and Rudolf forming Puma.
On the other side of the world, interestingly enough where the other defeated World War II party was, was a man by the name of Kihachiro Onitsuka, who founded what would later become Asics. He, too, sought to make advancements in the world of shoes, and his biggest, of many, successes was to use gel cushioning inside of the shoes to give them more springiness and forgiveness. About the same time, a company by the name of Brooks also began to make waves in this sort of area. The became the first brand to utilize the use of EVA in the midsole. What this did was take a shoe and make it both more shock absorbent and lighter than before. Previously you could do cushioning, but it would weigh you down. Such has been the success of EVA that it’s still around today as a staple of modern running shoes.
Nike also sprang up around the same time as the above two- around the 1970s- and it started to gain traction in the world of sports by going above and beyond. Before EVA and gel had been used, they had released the Cortez, which was one of the first with decent cushioning to be realized in over a century. But what they really do to drive the running shoe industry forward came in the same decade when they developed the ‘waffle’ sole. This design made the traction compound much lighter than before all while adding traction and tread to the equation.
Beginning in the 1980s, things changed drastically in the shoe game. Endorsement deals- major, high dollar ones- soon were the norm and they caused all sorts of games to be played by companies as they competed for top athletes to sign with them. During this arms race, though, there continued to be a work on advancing technology to win over those guys and gals. This way it could trickle down to all of us. No longer were running shoes- and other athletic shoes- made for just purpose. They were now hip and cool, desired by all, not just mere athletes. Perhaps the biggest advancement in this time came via Nike in 1987 when they released the first visible cushioning in their Air Max model.
With more and more running shoes hitting the market and more and more people taking the track and the road, there was a need to make shoe that were more stable and functional rather than just built for pure speed and performance. This began the stability craze, one in which has never really let up. All shoe producers today have at least one, if not many, stable options to help those that are bigger, those who train a lot, people who have sustained injuries, or beginners that need the extra help. Brooks and Asics were very big parts of this trend, but others also helped move the market in this direction.
What’s Old is New Again
Despite going through nearly 200 years of evolution, the 2000s began a craze to trend back toward the old. Many companies, including one known as Vibram, which is a renegade group compared to the big players out there today, are now going with what are called “minimalist” shoes. These are low to the ground and promote a more ‘primitive’ and instinctive style of running. They are more natural, the theory, says and thus conducive to how the feet are supposed to work. These shoes are essentially your bare feet with rubber beneath to give you minimal but necessary protection.
This has crossed over and influenced much of the recent developments. Nike has focused on going with very lightweight models in a response to this. They are super light, which also has the problem of them being less cushioned and protective. But this still persist in this arena. Others have offerings that seek to reduce weight as well. In the last couple of years alone, the use of flyknit fabric has only made shoes lighter. These shoes take away the harder edges of shoes to make them not only more flexible and comfy but also to take some of that additional weight away. While they were doing that, Adidas rolled out its Boost cushioning, in conjunction with chemical giant BASF, to make energy return a real idea and improve upon EVA after nearly four decades of it being at the top!
So, where are now? Back in 1954, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier for a mile. It was previously thought to have been impossible to accomplish such a feat. Some thought it could lead to certain death, even if it was. With that barrier broken down and even with new technology, we don’t have a ton more of progress in this area. We still run the same basic times. However, there is some hope in technology. Nike, with the use of ton of scientific research and a ton of tinkering to make conditions perfect, nearly saw a runner break two hours in a marathon in recent years. There is a capability there for us, but there are also limitations and trade offs. We’re only going to be able to go so fast without using a car or other means of transportation. The lesson here is that we go fast and stay healthier and more comfortable for longer. That’s how we really win!