History of Running Shoes

The History of Running Shoes

The running shoe (or trainer) is a relatively new invention (just over 200 years old). The resurgence in running brought about by the English in the18th century meant the development of a light weight shoe which could grip the ground. However, initial attempts at a running shoe were made from leather which unfortunately had the tendency to stretch when wet.

In 1832 the first breakthrough was made when Wait Webster patented a process whereby rubber soles could be attracted to leather shoes and boots. This led to the creation ofPlimsolls, which were widely worn by children. It wasn’t until 1852 when another Britain (Joseph William Foster – the founder of the company Boulton, now known as Reebok) had the “eureka moment” and decided to add spikes to the bottom of the plimsols and created what we now know as running spikes.

The next big development was vulcanization, which revolutionized shoe manufacturing. Vulcanization is simply the process of melting rubber and fabric together. This molten mixture was then molded to create a sole for shoes that had a tread design. This design revolution made shoes lightweight, quiet, and flexible. This led to the creation of Keds: canvas and rubber shoes in 1892 by the manufacturer Goodyear. It wasn’t until 1917 when Goodyear made the correlation and started to advertise Keds as an athletic shoe. They eventually became known as sneakers, because of the rubber sole, they could ‘sneak’ around silently’.

The father of the modern running shoe was Adolf Dassler who began making shoes in 1920. Each shoe design had a special hand forged set of running spikes and each design was made especially for a certain running distance. This was the first time designs were focused on whether the runner was a sprinter or a long-distance runner. By1936 his shoes were internationally acknowledged as the best and were worn by athletes of the calibre of Jesse Owens.

After the lean war years he continued to progress and developed the training shoe made from surplus tent canvas and rubber from fuel tanks. In 1948 he founded Addas but the company was soon to split into Addas (later known asAdidas) and Puma. To give support to the running shoe Dassler added three side strips to the shoe which first appeared in 1949.

Whilst on the other side of the world a new era of sportswear manufacturing began in 1949, whenMr. Onitsuka started Onitsuka Co. Ltd. Looking stunned at post World War II Japan with its huge numbers of homeless children he asked himself: “What can I do to give them a better future?” His love for sports led him to the right answer: That sports would be the best starting point to achieve this goal. ASICS was born.

Throughout this post war period the demand for leisure footwear grew. The fitness craze of the 30s meant sneakers became associated with sports and leisure activities. In 1936 the U.S. basketball team adopted the Converse Chucks as the official shoe. In the same year Dassler’s running shoes were worn at the Berlin Olympics. By the 1950s famous runners were supplied shoes free. At the discretion of the athlete, they either wore socks or not. This would imply the shoe was a very tight fit.

In 1962New Balance introduced the first scientifically tested shoe and this weighed 96 grams. In1968 brush spikes were introduced and replaced the traditional four spike running shoe.

Phil Knight, a business major at the University of Oregon and a miler on the track team was unhappy with the types of running shoes that were currently available. In the early 1960′s he decided along with his coach Bill Bowerman to form a company to market a shoe that Bowerman had designed. The shoe was lightweight and comfortable in running conditions. Bowerman and Knight did the only marketing in person. The pair traveled the country to track meets selling their running shoes and becoming more and more successful and well known. The shoes were first known as Tiger Shoes and their defining characteristic was a cushion heel wedge designed by Bowerman. The company, originally called Blue Ribbon Sports, became known as Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory.


Demand for the specialized shoe showed that consumers were ready for further innovation in footwear. The first big innovation for Nike came in 1972 when Bowerman poured rubber into a waffle iron in his kitchen. This was the birth of the waffle sole as well as the best selling running shoe in the country. Later on that year Bowerman paid a student $35 to deign a trademark for the growing company. He wasn’t thrilled with the “swoosh” that the student came up with but it was to later become the backbone of Nike advertising, a status symbol, and a cultural icon. Nike soon became by far the leader in athletic footwear sales and design.

NASA was not only making strides for the space program during the late 20th century, but was also working with Nike to develop the first air cushioned athletic shoe. Frank Rudy from NASA brought the idea of bags filled with pressurized gas that compress under impact to Nike. The bags absorb shock and cushion the foot. The cushioned were placed in the soles on Nike shoes and are still used today, twenty years later.

The 1976 Montreal Olympics was the first time an athlete was photographed endorsing his running shoes after winning 10,000 meter race. Such public endorsement was well rewarded by the companies which produced the goods.

The first Olympics to be televised wasMexico and promoters wasted no time displaying their brand insignias on the champions for the world to see. Before this; shoe advertisements showing Olympiansreceiving their glittering prizes and wearing branded shoes had to have their faces blotted out. The sight of Tommy Smithphotographed in his Puma Suedes giving the Black Power fist was a powerful image closely identified by many young people around the globe. At this time it was alleged track athletes were given monetary rewards for wearing certain competition shoes.

In 1973 track athlete Steve Profontanebecame the first major track person to wearNikes. When the aerobics explosion took place Reebok saw the market potential and began to make trainers in softer materials and in colours appropriate female tastes. The shoes were less rigid in construction.

During the 1970s running shoes were designed based not only on the type of running the person did, but the running style the runner had. The three running styles that shoes were designed for included neutral runners, supernation runners and pronation runners. The final advancement that running shoes received during the 1970s was the use of ethylene vinyl acetate, also referred to as EVA. This material added an air cushion to the design of a running shoe providing runners with extra cushion and shock absorption when they ran.

1980′s & 1990′s

Nike took advantage of big name sports stars during the 1980′s and 1990′s. Endorsements from people such as Michael Jordan accompanied with the feeling of movement produced by the “swoosh” and the catchy phrase “Just Do It.” The television commercials for Nike portray the same feeling of movement that was the desired effect of the “swoosh”. By choosing sport super stars Nikeappealed to the younger generations who idolized these figures and aspired to “be like Mike”. Nikeadvertising helped to boost sales and create some of the most effective and memorable advertising seen thus far. Athletic shoes were becoming more of a fashion statement than an athletic item.


Today there are many running shoe companies, most with running shoes to suit all styles, surfaces, distances and speed. Some brands make shoes available in different widths to ensure the perfect fit.

Currently, the biggest players in the running shoe industry are: NikeAdidasAsicsReebokNew BalanceSauconyMizunoBrooks and Puma.

Probably the most iconic image of running shoes and running spikes in recent years is Usain Bolt’s GoldenPuma Spikes the Complete Theseus II.


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