Since Bill Bow­er­man’s first waf­fle iron ex­per­i­ment, run­ning shoes have de­vel­oped some defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics. Here are the high­lights...

Trail Running (UK) - - The Science Behind... -


‘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

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