running shoe

Perhaps you’ve heard before that a carpenter is only as good as their tools. The same can be said for runners and their running shoes. Though the running shoe is a relatively new innovation, much advancement has been made over the years to perfect the form. While it may be true that one size doesn’t fit all, shoe designers of past and present have popularized the shoe based on timeless factors including comfort, durability, and style. For a full range of innovation over the years, let’s take a look back to get you up to speed.

Early Origins

Eighteenth-century runners realized the importance of lightweight footwear that would be able to grip the ground when running. While initial running shoes were made with leather that easily stretched out when wet, a breakthrough was made in 1832 when rubber soles were attached. Plimsolls, a casual, canvas shoe style, was developed in the 1830s by the Liverpool Rubber Company. While still a popular look today (think Vans and Converse), these early styles led to the process of vulcanization, a manufacturing technique that melds rubber with fabric.

Twenty years later in 1852, Joseph William Foster, the founder of what is now Reebok, would add running spikes to the soles.

Late 1800s to Early 1900s

Running became a popular sport once marathons were introduced to the Olympics in the 1896 games. Realizing the growing importance of appropriate footwear for the sport, shoe designers sought to make running shoes more quiet and flexible. In 1917, Goodyear began advertising Keds as “sneakers,” promoting the idea that runners could “sneak” about soundlessly.

1920s – 1930s

The 1920s and ‘30s saw many revolutions for running shoes. Most significantly, designers became focused on the nature of the sport and whether the runner was a sprinter or long-distance runner. In 1927, Adolf “Adi” Dassler, the man credited as the “father of the modern running shoe,” designed shoes customized to running distance. Dassler would later go on to create powerhouse athletic brand Adidas, and in 1936, Jesse Owens gave rise to the style when he wore a pair at the Berlin Olympics.

With the fitness craze of the ‘30s in full swing, other styles of athletic shoes popularized, too. Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars became the go-to style for professional basketball players after basketball star Chuck Taylor endorsed the brand. John Tate Riddell – founder of Riddell Sports Group, Inc. – invented a removable cleat and shoe style featuring a supportive ankle strap, which would later lead to the creation of other athletic equipment, including National Football League helmets.

1940s - 1970s

As trends in fitness and athleticism grew, more and more people began to view athletic shoes as a staple of everyday life. The difficulties of wartime also gave rise to the necessity of comfortable footwear. In Japan, many children were left homeless from the war and wandered the streets without shoes. Mr. Onitsuka, who formed ASICS in 1949, developed the brand as a way to give back to youth by instilling a love of sports, and with that, proper footwear.

New Balance, a brand known for their emphasis on arch support, sought to make athletic shoes more “comfortable and serviceable” than their competition, and in 1962, they introduced a shoe that weighed a mere 96 grams.

Perhaps the greatest athletic shoe innovation of the 1960s was the partnership born between University of Oregon business major Phil Knight and his coach, Bill Bowerman in 1964. As the founders of Blue Ribbon Sports, an original distributor of ASICS, Knight and Bowerman were on a mission to create lightweight yet strong running shoes. Their partnership would eventually become the stuff of legends, as the young student and his coach would go on to switch gears and establish Nike – with only $1,200 to their names.

Strangely enough, the first Nike shoes were born from Bowerman’s breakfast routine. With the vision of a running shoe sole that would grip, Bowerman took his inspiration from his waffle maker, creating the Nike Waffle Trainer, patented in 1976. Nike Waffle Trainers proved to be an enduring style as they are still sold by retailers today.

1990s – Present

Modern developments in running shoe innovations have capitalized on popular athletes’ abilities to influence consumers, with an emphasis on style and comfort. In 1991, Reebok released the Pump, a futuristic-looking style with customizable air chambers to adjust fit.

In 1996, sprinter Michael Johnson won three gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics wearing gold spiked running shoes. Johnson would go on to officially endorse the brand in television advertisements, popularizing his status at the time as “fastest man in the world”.

Recent years have seen the rise of wearable technology. In 2006, Nike partnered with Apple to create Nike+, an activity tracker that measures distance. Other developments include sensors that monitor a runner’s stride and record running milestones. For today’s runners, it remains to be seen what other athletic innovations may arise from the digital age.