A DECADE OF CHANGE: THE EVOLUTION OF RUNNING SHOES
Brian Metzler, author of Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes, takes a retrospecitve look at the ten grand and subtle changes in the world of running shoes that led to the amazing new styles of 2020.
As we enter the dawn of this new decade, running shoes have never been better. They’re generally lighter, more comfortable and allow you to run more efficiently and faster than ever before. But it didn’t happen overnight, so how’d we get here?
Here’s a look back and 10 ways running shoes have evolved in the past 10 years
TEN YEARS AND TEN WAYS RUNNING SHOES HAVE CHANGED
1. The Minimalist Movement
Ten years ago, the running world was immersed in the minimalist revolution. Thanks to “Born to Run,” the New York Times best-seller by Chris McDougall, and those crazy “toe” shoes Five Fingers, running in footwear that was minimally designed became all the rage. Suddenly, every brand was making low-to-the-ground shoes with very little cushioning, allowing a runner’s feet to flex and move naturally without any inhibition. (And, um, very little protection or cushioning.)
2. A Renewed Focus on Running Form
For years, it seemed as if running form was taken for granted. But the advent of minimalism put more focus on how a runner’s feet interact with the ground and dictate how the rest of their body moves. Ultimately, it brought about a renewed focus —and heated debates — on running form to prevent injuries and improve efficiency.
3. The Launch of HOKA ONE ONE
At the height of the minimalist revolution, Frenchman Jean-Luc Diard and Nico Mermoud unveiled a new shoe brand based on shoes with copious amounts of foam in the midsole. HOKA ONE ONE spawned maximalist movement and reminded us that almost every runner appreciates and enjoys some amount of soft cushioning in their shoes. At first, HOKA's super-cushy shoes seemed one-dimensional in their approach, merely offering a softer, more protective ride. But in the ensuing years, materials, shoe designs and the brand itself evolved into every aspect of running.
4. What Minimalism Left Behind
About as fast as the minimalist movement sprung up, it was gone. While featherweight, low-to-the-ground shoes still exist, the trend has flipped back to shoes with cushioning. But all is not forgotten. The best aspects of the minimalist movement — that shoes were light, agile and allowed a runner’s feet to move naturally — started to appear in more cushioned models
5. More New Brands
HOKA wasn’t the only footwear brand to rise out of the minimalist movement; others included Newton, On, Altra, Vivo Barefoot, Topo, Skechers Performance and Oofos. Each offered a new approach to shoe design, running form and footwear functionality. Their innovations gave runners more choices and forced the major existing brands to evolve and innovate.
DATA AND TERMINOLOGY IN INDOOR ROWING
6. Adidas Boost Foam
When Adidas unveiled Boost foam in 2013, it proved to runners that a shoe’s midsole could both dampen cushion and return a high rate of energy. Boost, made from TPU pellets thermally welded together, was the first midsole foam to serve up high levels of both shock-absorbing cushiness and bounce-back responsiveness. It also set off a foam war among brands with every company scrambling to develop new, dual-purpose compounds. HOKA ONE ONE (RMAT), Saucony (Everun), Brooks (DNA AMP), Puma (Ignite), Altra (EGO), Nike (React) debuted multi-compound materials that combined traditional EVA foam with rubber, polyurethane and air.
7. Reinvention of Uppers
While a lot of attention has been given to the midsole foam of running shoes in the past 10 years, the reinvention of the uppers of a shoe — the mesh material that covers the top of your foot — has also been a huge catalyst in the evolution of running shoes. As materials have gotten lighter, stronger, more flexible and more dynamic with fewer thick, heavy overlays and less stitching. No-sew designs with heat-welded support straps and fully knitted uppers offer more dynamic flexibility and support. They allow shoes to be much lighter and they look much cleaner.
8. The Quest for the Sub-2-Hour Marathon
As world-class runners continued to run faster, the once impossible dream of a sub-2-hour marathon suddenly didn’t seem so impossible. Wearing Adidas with Boost foam midsoles, Wilson Kipsang (2:03:23 in 2013) and Dennis Kimmeto (2:02:57) helped stoke the fire in the running community and in the research and development of big shoe brands. Nike and Adidas both launched sub-2 shoe development programs, reinvigorating their decades-old rivalry and fueling a innovation fervor throughout the industry.
9. Carbon-fiber plates
Using carbon-fiber in shoes isn’t a new concept; Reebok first incorporated a lightweight carbon-fiber support bridge under the arch of its Graphite Road shoes in the mid-1990s. In the early 2000s, Adidas built a carbon-fiber propulsion plate in its ProPlate racing flat, while Zoot Sports used one into its Ultra Race triathlon racing shoes in 2007. Still Nike made a huge splash in 2017 with a carbon-fiber plate in its first Vaporfly as Eliud Kipchoge came up short in his first contrived attempt to break the 2-hour marathon barrier (2:00:25). But when it unveiled the Vaporfly 4% in 2018 (and Kipchoge wore it to set a new official world record of 2:10:39) and the Zoom X Vaporfly Next% in 2019 (and Brigid Kosgei wore it to set the new women’s record of 2:14:04), it launched a new paradigm of super shoes that featured firm, almost inflexible carbon-fiber plates embedded in thickly cushioned midsoles. HOKA was next with its Carbon Rocket and Carbon X models in 2019, followed by New Balance and its Fuel Cell 5280 middle-distance racing flat and ASICS GlideRide shoes late last year.
10. 2020 and Beyond
The future is here! In 2020, Nike has already released its dynamic React Infinty Run shoes aimed to reduce injuries. Saucony, Brooks, ASICS, Adidas, New Balance and 361 Degrees USA will launch innovative long-distance racing models with some sort of rigid plates that elite runners will wear in the U.S. Olympic Trial and the Tokyo Olympics and recreational runners will use to chase new PRs.
NURVV Run has just debuted removable footbeds with 16 electronic sensors to track a wide range of data that can help a runner improve technique, run faster and reduce injury risk. Reebok plans to unveil shoe made primarily from plant-based materials.
Whether or not Nike will release its controversial Alphafly shoe in 2020 — that’s the one that Kipchoge use to run a still-unfathomable 1:59:40 in an experimental marathon time trial in Vienna last fall — expect more innovations and developments to continue into 2021 and beyond.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: BRIAN METZLER
Brian Metzler is the author of “Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes” (2019, VeloPress). He has run races at every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of shoes, is a three-time Ironman finisher and occasionally participates in the quirky sport of pack burro racing in Colorado.
He's the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, is a former senior editor at Running Times and editor in chief at Competitor Magazine. He's the author of “Running Colorado's Front Range” and the co-author of “Natural Running: The Simple Path to Stronger Healthier Running” and “Run Like a Champion: An Olympian's Approach for Every Runner.”
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