50 years of running shoes

A history of 50 years of (mostly) fantastic footwear innovation.



by Jonathan Beverly

1966-1970

The First Flats

In the beginning there were racing shoes. But they were not terribly good. ‘Very few running shoes were available, if they could be called that,’ says running-shoe collector Dave Kayser, who started running in 1966. ‘They were heavy and stiff, usually with leather or canvas uppers.’

RW contributor Amby Burfoot, who raced on the nascent road running circuit of the mid-1960s, remembers the New Balance Trackster. Introduced in 1960, it had a leather upper and rubber ripplesole, and was ‘ideal for practically any running surface’, claimed the ads. ‘It had a palpable amount of cushioning’ Burfoot recalls. ‘The minute somebody offered us a shoe with a little cushioning from road shock, we went in that direction.’

By the time of the 1968 Boston Marathon, which he won, Burfoot had switched to the Onitsuka Tiger Marathon, which many remember fondly for its lightness and comfort. Tiger’s training shoe, the Road Runner, had a built-up heel and foam rubber midsole. ‘That was one of the first shoes that felt like a real road-running shoe,’ says Burfoot.

Burfoot bought his Tigers from Jeff Johnson, the first employee of a new company called Blue Ribbon Sports, founded by Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, which was importing shoes from Japan and selling them from the back of vans at races. More about them later…


1971-1981

Enter Cushioning

In July 1971, Runner’s World released a 46-page booklet called All About Distance Running Shoes, which gathered opinions from 800 readers. The average respondent was a 29-year-old, 5΄9¬ 10st 5lb man who had been running 50 miles per week for six years.

Readers named a whopping 66 models from 32 brands, but the vast majority wore Tiger, Adidas or New Balance. In fact, more than 60 percent ran in Tigers and their models topped the popularity lists in both training and racing.

Tiger’s Marathon won praise for its glove-like fit and flexible, ‘barefoot’ feel. But their top training model, the Cortez, offered something groundbreaking: cushioning. The first shoes designed for American runners by Bowerman, the Cortez had a sponge-rubber midsole, with a wedge-shaped second layer of cushioning under the heel to absorb impact and reduce stress on the Achilles tendon. In 1972, the Cortez became the flagship shoe of a new company founded by Bowerman and Knight – Nike

The Cortez’s immense popularity established that runners wanted cushioning. And it wasn’t long before shoe designers found a superior material to provide it. ‘I received a phone call from a guy named Marty Liquori, who was a world-class runner at the time,’ says Jerry Turner, who was then president of Brooks. ‘Marty had seen our attempts at jogging shoes and wanted to discuss them. He gave me an education.’

Turner took Liquori’s suggestions to a representative from the Monarch Rubber Company in Baltimore, Maryland, US. ‘I wanted more rebound, better shock absorption, lighter weight,’ says Turner. ‘The guy said, “I think I’ve got just the thing for you. I’ll be back tomorrow.” And the next day he comes back and shows me EVA.’ EVA, or ethylene vinyl acetate, an air-infused foam, is still the primary ingredient in most running-shoe midsoles. Brooks put EVA in their 1975 Villanova, and other companies quickly followed suit. Then, in 1981, Nike released the first shoe with a moulded midsole made out of Phylon, a compressed form of EVA developed by toy company Mattel for use in bath toys.

In this era of innovation and flair, companies also started tinkering with other parts of the running shoe. In Oregon, Bill Bowerman melted some rubber in his kitchen and the ‘waffle’ sole was born. ‘The waffle sole defined not only grip but also flex characteristics and to a large scale, the cushioning, which it was quite effective in providing,’ says podiatrist and shoe-design consultant Simon Bartold. Other brands followed with similar designs and the influence can still be seen in outsole design.

Nylon uppers largely replaced leather by the mid-1970s, with mesh options also starting to appear. And women’s shoes were no longer just ‘shrink-and-pink’. ‘By the early 1980s, most larger brands were using women-specific lasts,’ says Dr Martyn Shorten, biomechanics researcher and director of the Runner’s World Shoe Lab.

THE RW GUIDES

As options continued to grow, Runner’s World consulted podiatrists, runners and shoe manufacturers to create a list of criteria for what makes a good running shoe. The rankings favoured shoes that had thick, durable soles and a high heel lift, while still being lightweight, and with a flexible forefoot. It also gave points for a strong heel counter, arch support and pliable uppers.

In 1975 Runner’s World released the first of its annual Shoe Guides, with the Adidas SL-72 taking top honours thanks to its rigid heel counter, soft nylon upper and flexibility.

Then, to increase the reliability of the rankings, RW hired Peter Cavanaugh, director of the biomechanics laboratory at Penn State University, to conduct the very first objective measurements of cushioning, flexibility and durability. Cavanaugh’s invaluable data first appeared in 1977. A panel of 10 experts also ranked the shoes subjectively and these marks were combined with the lab data. The Brooks Vantage topped the 1977 list, standing out as the first shoe to try to control the inward rotation – or pronation – of the foot. Taking the advice of podiatrist Steven Subotnick, Brooks had inserted a wedge so that the runner’s whole foot slanted slightly outward.

In 1978, with more and more quality models becoming available, the magazine abandoned rankings and initiated a one-to-five star system. Some companies objected to the scoring, and Nike actually pulled its advertising for several years, feeling the company and its products were being treated unfairly, but the magazine stood up to the pressure and held firm. ‘I think it was a very important part of the magazine, and very important to the whole running scene,’ says RW founder Bob Anderson.

‘It helped companies understand what runners needed. We set the stage.’


1982-2003

Age of Control

Following the success of the Brooks Vantage, other brands began to incorporate more aggressive motion-control features into their products. In 1982, two shoes simultaneously introduced a new idea that would represent a sea change in running-shoe design. The Tiger X-Caliber GT featured a ‘stabilising pillar’ under the arch side of the heel, while the Brooks Chariot featured an angled wedge of harder-density foam in the midsole, thicker on the inside of the shoe and tapering toward the outside. Both features were representative of the ‘medial post’ that is still built into stability shoes today.

Stability quickly became a prime consideration for runners. ‘People were making a strong link between pronation and injury,’ says Bartold. Choosing shoes became similar to getting an eye test for glasses, a process of matching the level of support that was necessary for your pronation problem.

The Chariot would evolve into the Beast, and the X-Caliber GT morphed into the Asics Kayano – both of which live on today. With the defining characteristic of shoes now established, little of significance happened for the next two decades. Materials improved, but there was no game-changing innovation. The focus shifted to marketing.

Shorten points to the first ‘visible’ Nike Air Max shoe, in 1989, as the turning point. ‘From then on, everybody had to have visible technology. Whether it was gel, grid or hydro-flow, everybody had to have their little bit of goop and it had to be visible.’

More was more during the 1990s. ‘The more bells and whistles you could put into shoes, the better,’ says Shane Downey, global director of Brooks Heritage. Turner recalls the era as delivering ‘an awful lot of hype, but nothing functional that improved the ability to run.’

THE RW GUIDES

When Amby Burfoot became editor-in-chief of Runner’s World in the US in the mid- 1980s, he discovered that the shoe industry was seriously questioning RW’s evaluation methods. ‘They pointed out that the shoe is an entire system, with all of the pieces working together,’ says Burfoot. ‘On top of that, you throw in the individual characteristics of the runner.’

Burfoot’s deputy editor, Bob Wischnia, agreed: ‘Machines don't wear shoes, people do, and how can a shoe be number one if it doesn’t work for everybody?’ So, RW beefed up the wear-testing process and, reflecting the industry emphasis on pronation, the new guides presented shoes in categories of Motion Control, Stability, Neutral-Cushioned and Lightweight. These categories were widely adopted by manufacturers, influencing how shoes were marketed to runners and presented in running stores.


2004-2011

Great Disruption

In the early years of the new millennium, there were rumblings in the shoe industry. Researchers like Bartold and biomechanics expert Benno Nigg reported that they had failed to find a connection between pronation and injury. Others, like Peter Bruggeman, were finding that feet get stronger when you remove highly supportive shoes. Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman published an article in the journal Nature that helped popularise the idea that running is natural and that we need no additional support.

In Italy, Tony Post, who worked for sole maker Vibram, saw a concept shoe that fi t like a glove. Post was a longtime runner trying to recover from knee surgery; at the time he could not run in traditional shoes for more than three miles without feeling pain. He took the FiveFingers out for a run. The shoe forced him to run more lightly, with a rapid stride. After three miles his knee felt fine.

‘I’m thinking, Was my form bad? Was all that cushioning interfering? Maybe this is my solution,’ says Post. ‘Then I started thinking, Maybe there are other people like me.’

Meanwhile, designers at Nike were constructing a shoe that would simulate a ‘free’ feeling while still providing protection. Elsewhere, runners were trying out novel ways to address persistent problems.

In Utah, US, former high-school cross-country champion Golden Harper put his shoes in an oven so he could pull them apart and remove the built-up heel. In France, adventure-racer Jean-Luc Diard applied ideas he learned designing ski equipment and bike wheels to running shoes, coming up with a fat, tyre-like shoe. In Colorado, Danny Abshire, ultra-runner, running coach and custom-orthotic specialist, was working on a new shoe that would reward a forefoot-oriented stride.

Consumers were after something new, too. ‘We were in an innovation vacuum – companies were adding stuff and making everything heavier,’ says Bartold. ‘Everybody was tired of rigid shoes. It was the perfect storm.’

That storm broke in the form of minimalism, which achieved the status of religion. Chris McDougall’s Born to Run was its bible and overbuilt shoes were the devil. Sales of Vibram FiveFingers skyrocketed. Every shoe company scrambled to introduce their own minimalist offerings. But the trend wasn’t just for less shoe, it was also for a wider opening of minds as to how running shoes could look and act. Those innovators around the world gave us Newtons, Hokas and Altras – shoes with pods on the bottom, huge rockered soles, wide forefeet.

‘Minimalism made everybody sit up and pay attention, and made the big five [Adidas, Asics, Brooks, New Balance and Nike] get off their bums and stop being so lazy,’ says Bartold. The result was a boon for runners.

THE RW GUIDES

By the mid-2000s, with the internet adding to the barrage of content available to runners, RW set about raising the bar (again) in independent, objective shoe testing by employing biomechanist Ray Fredericksen to set up the Runner’s World Shoe Lab. ‘Now we had an objective measure that fit like a spine to anchor the subjective comments of the wear-testers,’ says Fredericksen.


2012

Age of Comfort

Minimalism exploded like a supernova, but then burned out. It promised too much and failed to deliver. People still got injured. The shoes didn’t turn us all into David Rudisha. It ended badly. When Vibram was sued in the US in 2012 for false advertising, the heel-striking masses were gleeful. More than 150,000 claims were filed in a lawsuit.

However, while the fervour died, some of the ideas lived on. Shoes got lighter and simpler. Heel-toe drops came down, even as the pendulum swung back toward thicker, ultracushioned soles. Many of the new companies that were born in the great disruption thrived.

Companies are using materials such as expanded thermoplastic polyurethane foam in a bid to improve rebound, creating a bouncy feel runners appreciate, as proven by the success of Adidas’s Boost models. And designers are creating uppers with innovative knits, redefining running-shoe comfort.

Perhaps soon, companies will be able to print and knit shoes to account for asymmetries in each runner’s anatomy and stride, as well as personal preferences. We’re not there yet, but in the current expanded universe of models – from max-cushioned to minimal, soft, firm or bouncy ride, traditional fit to high-top knit, and shapes for all sorts of feet – it’s hard to imagine we can’t all find one to take us on hundreds of happy miles.

THE RW GUIDES

With minimalism disrupting design and new materials changing performance, the categories that had served well for nearly three decades began to feel inappropriate. So, in 2009, Martyn Shorten, who had run the Runner’s World Shoe Lab in Portland, Oregon, since 2008, began a study to group runners using easy-to-identify characteristics such as body mass index, years of experience and how prone they were to injury.

In 2012 the results of this study led to a flowchart that opened RW Shoe Guides by asking runners questions about themselves and their running, and directing them to appropriate clusters of shoes arranged from ‘more shoe’ to ‘less shoe’. In 2015, we refined the questions again and added a cushioning dimension to the way shoes are arranged, providing more-nuanced clusters of models with similar performance characteristics.

And at the RW Shoe Lab in Portland, all shoes are weighed, their tops are cut off and they’re pounded and flexed by machines taking precise measurements.

This combination of data with wear-testing feedback is the most effective way to help you find the best shoes for you. They’re still the most important purchase a runner will ever make.


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