Running shoes are constantly evolving. And thanks to the continual ebb and flow of creative innovations, bizarre fads, and leaps in science and our understanding of the human body, they will continue to do so as long as humans are lacing up shoes and running for competition and recreation.
Landmark athletic events such as the Olympic gold-medal marathon of Joan Benoit Samuelson, the record-setting double-gold medal performances of Michael Johnson, Usain Bolt’s outrageous speed, and Eliud Kipchoge’s boundary-pushing world record inspire us to want more—from ourselves and from our shoes.
At the same time, fitness and cultural trends come and go, and these too have a powerful influence on shoes. The original running boom—and the performance-oriented shoes that accompanied it—eventually morphed into a more relaxed approach to running. That generation of “look at me” recreational runners led to the development of visible technology in running shoes. By the 1990s, how shoes looked and the range of what you did in them became more important than how they performed or how fast you could run. By the 2000s, however, running shoes were trending back toward their primal roots of functional performance. They took a sharp turn toward minimalism before reverting to comfort and casual appeal. It’s been a wild ride.
So where are we going next?
Coinciding with the rise of athleisure shoes and a trend toward less-sophisticated fitness running, there has been a decline in race participation for the past several years, according to the “State of Running” report released in spring 2019. Despite big growth in Asia, ebbing participation in running events in North America, Europe, and Australia has led to a worldwide decline of 13 percent since 2016, when a peak of 9.1 million runners finished a race. By 2018, participation had fallen to 7.9 million, a significant reduction (although that total is still 58 percent higher than 2008 when there were 5 million). Those declines may eventually mean more competition and more consolidation among shoe brands.
Jay Dicharry, director of the REP Lab in Bend, Oregon, and shoe company consultant, believes the future of running shoes will continue to involve personalization and customization, which he insists are possible even for the masses. Right now when you go into a running store, whether you’re a 110-pound woman who runs marathons or a 205-pound man just trying to get in shape, you could wind up with the same model. Most shoes aren’t commensurately tuned to match the body mass, gait, and running economy of an individual. If you’re prescribing the same model to each person, Dicharry says, there’s a good chance you’re fitting one person with the equivalent of a bedroom slipper and the other with the equivalent of a brick. Could running shoes instead be tuned to a runner’s individual mass, gait style, and comfort preferences, allowing the right amount of cushion, firmness, protection, and stability based on that runner’s stride?
“It’s a math problem, and it’s simple to do,” Dicharry says. “There is a way to tune a certain model of a shoe within ranges and eliminate a lot of the misinformation out there now. I don’t know why shoe companies aren’t doing it.” (A likely answer is that it would force a shoe brand to ditch its legacy models and years of marketing investment for what might seem like a homogenized product.)
Hoka’s Jean-Luc Diard thinks that looking at innovation differently is the way of the future. “If you look at the evolution of running shoes compared to other products out there, not much has really changed over the past 30 years,” he says. “A running shoe from 1980 and one from 2010 look very similar if you consider they both have layers of foam and rubber and textile. If you look at other sports equipment or cell phones or cars, the spectrum of variations is much greater. That suggests there is much more innovation ahead in running shoes.”
One of the constants, Diard says, is that human anatomy won’t evolve anytime soon, meaning our feet won’t suddenly develop an opposable big toe to change how they interact with the ground.
“The foot is what it is; we can’t change it,” Diard says. “But we can change the interface between the foot and the ground, and that’s what’s important. If you look at a shoe purely as an extension of the foot, you limit yourself in your thinking. But when you look at it as a piece of equipment that can offer a dynamic blend of attributes—how it provides comfort, how it contributes to performance, how it interacts with terrain—then you start to push the boundaries of how shoes can be designed.”
In 2018, Inov-8 unveiled two models with outsole rubber made from graphene, a strong and lightweight derivative of graphite. Lab tests have shown that the new Graphene Grip outsole rubber on the Mudclaw G 260 and the Terraultra G 260 is more than 50 percent stronger, 50 percent more elastic, and 50 percent harder-wearing than Inov-8’s previous outsole materials. In practical terms, that means lighter, more flexible, more adhesive, and more durable outsoles—and potentially trail running shoes that will hold up considerably longer.
Adidas continues to push innovative “woke” concepts with its FutureCraft Loop, a model it calls the world’s first 100 percent recyclable performance running shoe. In 2019, Adidas planned to produce 11 million pairs of shoes containing recycled ocean plastic from plastic waste collected on beaches, remote islands, and coastal communities.
“What happens to your shoes after you’ve worn them out? You throw them away—except there is no away,” says Eric Liedtke, executive board member at Adidas responsible for global brands. “There are only landfills and incinerators and ultimately an atmosphere choked with excess carbon, or oceans filled with plastic waste. The next step is to end the concept of ‘waste’ entirely. Our dream is that you can keep wearing the same shoes over and over again.”
Meanwhile, Nike has developed a shoe that it claims will greatly reduce the rate of common overuse injuries. “For forty years, a high percentage of runners have gotten hurt. We think we can help change that,” said Scott Gravatt, Nike’s specialty running sales director, explaining Project Fearless, as the project has been known internally, to a gathering of retailers in June 2019. “We believe through innovation and technology and science, we can completely solve for injuries. And yes, it’s a big, ambitious goal.”
The project is ambitious, to be sure, but it is not without a scientific foundation. Over the past several years, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has put hundreds of runners through prototype versions of the shoe and compared the results to those of other stability shoes, helping Nike refine a shoe that will help keep runners aligned with the natural movements of their own running gait.
If you’re skeptical, it’s understandable. The injury rate has remained the same for more than 40 years—with no brand, shoe, or common design understanding making a difference in reducing it—yet now Nike has figured it out? My first inclination is to roll my eyes, wait to read the reports, run in the shoe, and see how it works after dozens of runs. But, as Gravatt reminded the group of retailers, Nike was greeted with plenty of doubters and skeptics when it unveiled the original Vaporfly Elite—that is, until all of the records were broken.
Whether this shoe lives up to its promise of drastically reducing injuries remains to be seen. But if nothing else, it’s a sign that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Nike’s earnest endeavors and continuing push for innovation, mixed with a swirl of marketing pixie dust, is what the running shoe industry has always been built upon.
One of the world’s newest running shoe brands, Enda, has emerged in an unlikely place in perhaps the most modern way possible. Founded in 2015 on the heels of a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, the brand was started by Kenyan Navalayo Osembo and American Weldon Kennedy as a social change enterprise organized on the premise of sharing Kenyan running culture with runners around the world while also creating sustainable jobs and social benefits for Kenyans. Its first model, the Iten, a trainer/racer named after Kenya’s distance-running capital, was designed and manufactured in Nairobi and eschewed fancy technology in favor of a back-to-basics, lightweight, low-to-the-ground design that embraces a runner’s natural movements. Its second model, a lightweight, softly cushioned high-mileage trainer called the Lapatet, debuted in the spring of 2019, and the majority have been sold to runners in Kenya and the United States.
Enda’s story is a reminder that running shoes aren’t what set us apart; rather, they’re what bring us together. Running is a primal act that people in all cultures all around the world engage in, even if in different ways for different reasons. And while nearly everything about running shoes may have changed through the years—how they look, what they’re made of, how we buy them—the way they inspire us has remained the same.
Adapted from Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture & Cool of Running Shoes by Brian Metzler with permission of VeloPress.