A Step Through Time – The Evolution of the Running Shoe
The earliest running shoes probably date from the late 19th century where cross country running was part of the gruelling curriculum on the playing fields of English public schools. Then, leather spiked shoes were the norm but as track running developed so did the need to have faster, lighter shoes. Enter Joseph William Foster who designed spikes for the 1924 British Olympic Team. His innovations were later handed down to his grandson of the same name who founded Reebok in the 1950s.
Across the pond in North America, track running was also popular and in the 1930s New Balance developed the Trackster with a ripple sole for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) track team. Based in Boston, New Balance was founded in 1906 as an arch support company and in the 1950s introduced multiple width shoes – which those with ‘generous’ feet are forever grateful for even to this day.
Meanwhile in Europe. two brothers were feuding it out over how to run their shoe business. The Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory dates from 1924 and by the 1936 Olympic Games Adi and Rudolf Dassler’s track shoes were being worn by gold medal winners including Jesse Owens. They decided to part ways in the 1940s with Adi launching adidas and Rudolf, PUMA. They continued to battle it out on the soccer pitches where their football boots became the footwear of choice for soccer legends. But both continued to make an impact in the running shoe market.
Mizuno was founded in 1906 in Japan as a sporting goods store and specialized in baseball uniforms before expanding into the running market in the 1920s. Other sports had a hand in how running shoes evolved – the Chuck Taylor Converse All Star basketball shoe was a precursor of the modern running shoe as were various tennis shoes. Both basketball and tennis shoes used EVA in the midsole – the material of choice in many of today’s running brands.
The Dassler Shoe Factory from 1924.
PUMA’s current headquarters.
As companies developed running shoes, finding a way to get them into the hands of the consumer was the next task – it wasn’t unusual to see shoes being sold out of the back of a van. “There was no distribution set up, but people were still wanting shoes,” says Rob Reid, founder of Frontrunners and co-owner of New Balance in Victoria. “As consumer demand increased during the 1970s running boom we saw the rise of the specialty stores. With that came the R & D into shoe technology.”
The shoes in the 1970s and 1980s were constructed simply, says David Korell, Category Manager – Performance, New Balance Canada. “They were a simple one-piece foam with solid rubber outsoles, stiff, hard underfoot with the upper a suede or mesh.”
“Shoes went from sheet EVA material that was cut and shaped for the midsole to different strengths to support the foot in different areas,” says Reid. “That is when you had Nike going the Air route and Asics with the Gel. It gives energy back to the foot and helps toe off.”
With running specialty stores on the rise in the 1990s consumers realized that they could get expert advice and shoes that fitted properly. “The industry was consumer led. Stores would prescribe shoes for their customers and ask themselves, what are their expectations and how can they meet them,” says Ben Kotanen, Territory Manager, Western Canada, Mizuno. It was in 1997 that Mizuno introduced their first Wave shoe. “It was our first big technology into making shoes faster and lighter.” The Wave Rider won the 1999 Editor’s Choice Award in Runners’ World which put the brand on the map. The Wave Rider is now on version 25 and is Mizuno’s best seller.
Technology had a hand in the PUMA DISC SYSTEM, developed in 1991, which replaced shoelaces with a disc and compression unit. Worn by Olympic hurdler Colin Jackson in 1993, the disc consisted of an adjustable closure disc on the top of the shoe, a compression unit that replaced the tongue and a side unit that adjusted the shoe to the foot.
The last two decades has seen more advances in foam technology. ‘Super foams’ are denser and more durable, lighter in weight yet offering the same compression. Carbon plate technology offers some rigidity and stability particularly in the heel and ankle.
Brands now use the term ‘energy return’ in their marketing which simply means you as a runner are using less effort when toeing off thanks to the advances in the midsole materials. adidas has gone one step further. Their new 4DFWD features a lattice midsole that minimizes the impact between the foot and the ground. “adidas 4DFWD really does take 4D technology to the next level, enabling us to design in a way that conventional foam midsoles do not allow,” says Charlotte Heidmann, Product Manager, adidas Running.
Saucony’s Endorphin Series also features a similar technology. The shoes feature a lightweight PEBA based foam and Speedroll Technology. “This means the shoes roll forward a little faster than a standard running shoe. The effect helps create a quick and smooth feeling from stride to stride,” says Chris Mahoney, Vice-President of Design, Saucony Canada.
All of PUMA’s new models, Deviate, Velocity and Liberate, feature their new foam technology NITRO which is infused with nitrogen gas. The Deviate also has a composite carbon fibre plate that acts as a lever to propel the foot forward.
Plated shoes have become a hot trend in recent years says Laura Tingle, Product Manager, Newton Running. “In 2021 we rolled out NRG foam and a PA11 plate in our new Gravity+ model. The PA11 plate is made from castor beans, it has improved the performance of our shoes, as well as decreasing our impact on the environment.”
More and more companies are encompassing sustainable materials in their shoes. In 2020, On Running launched their fully recyclable shoe, the Cyclon, also made from castor beans. This year, Newton’s entire shoe line is made of recycled materials (there are four plastic water bottles in one pair of Newton shoes) and a biodegradable sole. HOKA has implemented more sustainable fabrics in their uppers particularly in their SKY trail shoes. The Trail Glove – a collaboration of Merrell and Vibram – is a sustainable trail shoe that includes 65 per cent recycled materials in the upper, 100 per cent recycled laces, 100 per cent recycled webbing, and Vibram EcoStep 30 per cent recycled rubber.
Trail shoes have also undergone a transformation over the decades. For companies such as The North Face the outdoors was always rooted in their DNA, and they built their reputation on providing hard wearing and durable climbing boots and apparel. “We aren’t the first when you think of trail shoes, but we have evolved and are now well known to those who like our brand,” says Nick Boulton, National Account Executive.
The North Face hass developed a new technology – Vectiv – which integrates deep lugs in the outsole and carbon plates in the rocker midsole allowing for a smooth heel to toe off. This technology can be found in their everyday Infinite shoe as well as the more advance Flight series.
To offer more cushioning some brands are increasing their stack height. HOKA was a forerunner in this but now New Balance Fresh Foam with a 34 mm heel height and 4 mm drop is competing in the market. “Elite runners like maximum cushioning so we felt the need to introduce a stack shoe,” says Korell.
Shoes are subject to regulations but only in elite competition. Think Vaporfly and we all remember the controversy about the carbon fibre plate and the ‘three-minute’ advantage. More recently Vienna Marathon winner, Derara Hurisa of Ethiopia was disqualified because his shoes were one centimetre thicker than allowed by World Athletics. Shoes must have a maximum stack height of 40 millimetres to be eligible for records.
Giving consumers options is key in today’s competitive shoe market. By offering sizes from 0 to 20 and in six widths, New Balance may have a slight edge over its competitors. A company such as Altra is addressing those with foot issues by having a wider toe box allowing the foot to splay out naturally. “It’s about aligning your body naturally. By taking out the elevated heel you can still have the same amount of forefront cushion,” says owner Brian Beckstead.
A wide toe box is also a feature in Xero Shoes, which started making a DIY barefoot sandal in 2009. Consumer demand led them to making running shoes. According to Steven Sashen, CEO, Xero Shoes, it is all about a natural fit, motion and feel. “Shoes have a non-elevated (zero-drop) heel for proper posture, they are super flexible to let your feet bend and move naturally and low-to-the-ground for balance and agility.”
Vibram popularized the minimalist five-finger shoe, and although it is certainly not for everyone, their V-Run weighs just 4.8 oz. Their partnership with Merrell in 2011 produced the Barefoot Collection, a minimalist trail shoe. “Vibram’s expertise in barefoot running and fitness, allowed us to introduce the ideal barefoot designs for all outdoor activities,” says Rory Lauder, Field Marketing Specialist, Merrell.
So, what does the future hold for the running shoe? Faster, lighter, higher? The industry is moving towards the sustainable route using environmentally friendly materials and recyclable products. Korell thinks that the plate technology in running shoes could influence everyday shoes. He also predicts that foams will get lighter to allow for more stack height.
Kotanen says the future will be consumer driven. “One of the biggest shifts in the industry is how we have changed the way we fit shoes.” For companies like Mizuno their models sell better in speciality stores because that is where runners like to shop. With myriad options to choose from it is an exciting time for the shoe industry, and demand doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
The Shoe Rundown
This is the sole that strikes the ground and can vary depending on the type of running shoe. Usually, the material is a durable rubber. Some companies collaborate with brands such as Skechers, which has Goodyear rubber outsoles that offer good grip and traction. Trail shoes have lugs which line the outsole to provide added traction.
This lies between the outsole and the insole and provides the cushioning you need when striking. EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) has been the material of choice for decades, but you can also find cell-based foam. The addition of a carbon plate in the midsole offers stability for the ankle and can enhance energy return. A rocker is the curved part of the midsole at the top of the shoe which helps with toeing off and can produce a more efficient stride.
These are made from EVA with some soft, comfortable fabric for the feet. If you find the insoles that come with the shoe don’t offer enough support, then looking at inserts like Superfeet may help, or custom orthotics.
The upper part of the shoe is usually a fabric or mesh material that have become lighter and more breathable over the years.
We often judge the fit of a shoe by its toe box and many brands fit differently. They can be quite snug although companies like Altra offer a wider toe box so the foot can splay out naturally.
The difference between the forefoot and heel height is called the offset or heel drop. Typically, there is a 10 – 12mm drop which helps cushioning. Minimal shoes have zero drop. The stack height is the thickness of the midsole.
Then and Now – The Evolution of the Sneaker
Mizuno’s first Wave Rider shoe was launched in 1997 – winning the Runners’ World Editor’s Choice award in 1999. The shoe is their number one best seller and is now on version 25.
New Balance shoes have always had a classic look about them. During the 1970s running boom the 320 was a top seller.
In 1982, the 990 was launched in a stylish grey suede and available in multiple widths.
Today’s Fresh Foam shoe is an everyday trainer offering maximum cushion and width.
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