Understanding the Evolution of the Running Shoe
Did you know that running shoes as we know themaren't much more than 200 years old? While it makes sense that the modern trainer or "sneaker" as we know it wasn't always around, many people are surprised to learn that competitive running wasn't widely popular until the mid-1800s. People certainlystill ran and perhaps even raced each other in the more distant past, but there was little organisationand certainlyno concerted effort to develop footwear that was especiallysuited to running. That all changed in 19th century England as running emerged as a sport in its own right, paving the way to today's world full of marathons and runners in every country.
Those first running shoes are a far cry from the high-tech productions we wear on our feet today. In fact, if you were to look at photos of some of the earliest examples we have, they seempractically nothing like the shoes of today! The goal has always been the same, though: to protect the foot during running, to provide enough traction to grip all kinds of surfaces, and to provide support through the stride. Let's turn back the pages of history to examine the origins and development of the running shoe through to the modern day — and beyond.
The origins of the running shoe
Look at the bottom of your shoe, and what do you see? Some kind ofrubbery material, of course, but believe it or not, rubber-soled shoes weren't a reality until 1832. That was the year in which a process for mating leather and rubber together successfully was finally perfected, paving the way for a new kind of comfortable shoe. Not for another 20 or so years, though, did running shoes as we might begin to recognisethem emerge. In the 1850s, a man named Joseph William Foster (who would go on to found the company we know today as Reebok) had the brilliant idea to take one of the typicalleather and rubber shoes of the time and to affix spikes to them. Thus, the first running shoes were born.
Later in the 19th century, the process known as vulcanisationallowed for the creation of a new type of shoe. By using canvas and rubber together, a more durable shoe was formed— this eventually led to the creationof the still-popular brand known as Keds. These wereultimately the cause of the coining of the word "sneakers" because canvas shoes were so much quieter than other types of footwear. The rebirth of the Olympics in 1896 led to increasing demand for solidrunning footwear, a need that only grew well into the 20th century, up to and through both World Wars.
With running now firmly cemented as a serious athleticundertaking, more research focused on how to improve footwear. Stiff designs and running spikes became less common.Finally, in the 1960s, the company New Balance released what is now widely regarded as the first modern running shoe. Technologically engineered to provide better support to the feet and with a unique tread design, it set the stage for a revolution in the shoe industry.
Today, science is now the driving force behind all athletic footwear. From testing shoes on different types of surfaces to engineering designs that conform to every kindof foot shape out there, the shoeshave come a long way from their humble (and uncomfortable) beginnings. Besides the overall design and shape, though, the materials used to make these shoes havechanged immensely, too. How come we don't still use classy leather running shoes, for instance?
What fabrics have we used over time?
The primary problem with using leather, which early runners found out very quickly, is that it does not hold its shape well over repetitive, heavy use. Due to the way the foot moves during running, this means that leather shoes often wore out extremely fast. A shoe that fitsa runner one day might no longer fit him very well two or three months later. The turnover, therefore, spurred the move onward to more advanced materials. Whole rubber shoes weren't popularfor runners, but the vulcanisedrubber soles that provided more support on hardground were very welcome. Canvas, like those used in Keds and Converse, was also highly popular.
Today, canvas running shoes aren't very commonanymore, and leather is entirelyout of the picture. Instead, modern materials such as polyurethane ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) make up the bulk of modernsneakers. If you've ever been at a loss to describe what your sneakers are madeof, now you know! These lighter-weight materials are cheaper to produce and last longer than many other alternatives.
However, the most advanced shoes on the market today are in fact moving us back towards fabric-based shoes. Flyknit technology, which uses highly durable threads in a very stable arrangement after sewing, provides even lighter and more breathable shoes than ever before. Whereshoes on the cutting edge of materials science will go next is anyone's guess.
How technology has changed the shoe
When New Balance brought their scientific shoe to the market, it was a revolution. Before, the mainimportant factor in a running shoe was its ability to be mass-produced at a cheapprice. The shoehad evolved to provide more support, certainly, but it wasn't until sports medicine and exercise science combined that the modern shoewas born. Technology's role in our footwear has been immense. From allowing us to see the way our feet strike the ground to determining when a person over or under pronates, these advances offer a window into how to better shapea shoe.
Shoes today provide more support to our arches, ankles, and even toes than ever before. It's not only support, either: technology has changed the way we gain traction with shoes by paving the way to better tread designs. Some shoestoday even help to encourage innate corrections in running form, pushing amateurs towards a better way to run. More research continues to reveal that every aspect of the shoe can benefit from improvements. Firming up the outsole or providing wearers with a built-in air pump to be able to provide their feet with an added cushion are just a couple of examples of these efforts at work. As we head into the world of tomorrow, shoes are likely to become even more advanced than they are now. How?
Looking to the future: is there a perfect shoe?
Aside from materials advances such as Nike's Flyknit material, the shoe industry has one primarygoal that many companies work towards:the perfect-fit shoe. We all know the frustration of going to a shoe store, trying on many pairs, and finally settling for one that fits "well enough" but perhaps not perfectly. Adidas, and others investigating the potential for 3D printing technology,hopes to change that.
The basic idea is simple: take a highly accurate and likely computerisedmodel of a person's foot and use it to 3D print a midsole for a brand-new shoe right on the spot. It would then be placed into an existing template, providing a user with quality footwear that perfectly conforms to their feet. Adidas claims they hope to eventually roll out this technology in a "whole shoe" format, but for now, their focus is on a comfortable, well-fitting midsole. Nike has even floated the idea of allowing people to 3D print their ownsneakers at home. Imagine that: when one pair wears out, you don't get in the car to drive to the store. You download a file and let your personal3D printer go to work. In a few hours, you'd be ready to run again with a brand-new pair of kicks.
Taking advantage of these modern benefits
The "perfect" shoe might be just over the horizon, but one pair of shoes won't always be enough to get the job done. Our feet, and even the way we run, often changes over a lifetime. Responding to an individual's transforming needs will be one of the next bigsteps for shoe technology, even as they continue to become lighter and stronger with each year. We've indeedcome a long way from the stiff leather shoes of the 19th century — and our feet are thankful for those changes, no doubt! Next time you go shopping for a new pair of running sneakers, take a moment to appreciate just how advanced they now are.
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