AN ANATOMY OF RUNNING SHOES
Since Bill Bowerman’s first waffle iron experiment, running shoes have developed some defining characteristics. Here are the highlights...
‘BRANDS ARE LOOKING FOR ANY MARGINAL GAINS THEY CAN MAKE’
‘revolutionary’ science, whether it’s Hoka One One’s heel-to-toe rocker, Adidas Boost cushioning or On Running’s cloud pods. Gel cushioning, foam cushioning, Kevlar fabric, fast-release laces, waterproof linings, sock linings; the list of new and innovative technologies is constantly growing with new research and new marketing initiatives. Picking out the right shoe for you amidst all the noise is no easy feat.
“Shoe manufacturing is a massive business,” observes Paul Hobrough, founder of Physio & Therapy UK in Corbridge, Northumberland. “What’s happened now is that brands are catching up with each other’s research and are looking for any marginal gains that they can make.” That’s why new styles of shoes are launched each season, to keep pace with fellow sports brands. The crucial question, really, is just how much better are the shoes getting with each upgrade? Have shoes really improved all that much in their short history?
Falling into the progress trap
The answer depends on who you ask. For Paul, it’s more nuanced than it first seems: “Listen, if you put Mo Farah in a pair of Clarks school shoes, he’s still going to beat me regardless of what I’ve got on my feet. When it comes down to marginal differences for top flight athletes, though, I would imagine that it does make a difference.” Basically, spending an extra £50 for limited edition shoes isn’t going to turn you into a world champion, but it might make a difference for an athlete looking to shave half a second off their 1500m pace.
For Asher Clark, Design Director at Vivobarefoot, it’s a different story. “People buy into cushioning and all these fancy underfoot technologies purely on the premise that if you don’t invest in them, you’re going to get injured,” he says. “It’s interesting to assume that nature got it so bloody wrong.” Barefoot advocates like Asher take the stance that the technologies used within modern running shoes are massively over-engineered and can be detrimental to foot health, posture and fitness. Which is, needless to say, a world away from other brands constantly striving to innovate and improve their designs.
“After millions of years of evolution and roughly 300,000 years of homo sapiens as it is now, our feet are perfect bits of kit. Running shoes have been around for about 0.001% of that journey.” It’s the classic evolutionary argument for barefoot and minimalist shoes: essentially that running shoes impinge on our body’s natural mechanisms and weaken them, rather than improving performance. Vivobarefoot’s shoes, in contrast, are designed to provide protection for the foot while allowing it to do its own thing, without interference from cushioned soles, motion control rockers or any other invasive technologies.
Designers have been continually developing and innovating trainers since the dawn of Nike, and they show no signs of slowing down now. That near-constant evolution has transformed running shoes from minimalist leather designs to modern, cushioned, supportive shoes brimming with technological advancement; and alongside these developments have come new records in human performance.
Whether the science inside running shoes can be thanked for those advancements in performance or not isn’t an argument that’s been settled, or is likely ro be settled any time soon. But if the past 60 years are anything to judge by, the next few decades will spin an even greater story.
Top: behind the scenes at Salomon’s factory in Annecy, FranceBottom: the very first Inov-8 shoe – the Mudroc 290 – launched in 2003