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A sprint through history

January 01, 2007|Marnell Jameson

Running shoes have evolved greatly since the 1970s, when running and jogging first became popular. Here are some of the historical highlights.


At the start of the decade, running shoes are made of leather tops, rubber bottoms and no midsole. The foot and the body provide all the cushioning.

As running becomes popular, shoe manufacturers add a midsole, which results in fewer stress fractures and less joint pain. Runners get better because they can train more.

By the end of the decade, shoe uppers have gone from leather to nylon, which is lighter, less binding and more breathable. This reduces blisters and allows the foot to move more naturally, which helps runners go faster.

In 1978, Nike comes out with the first non-foam midsole, which uses air instead. Nike Air shoes cost twice as much as other running shoes -- but they change the industry.


Manufacturers continue to develop midsoles that absorb shock better and don't break down so fast. Polyurethane offers a good durable cushion, but is heavy. Once wet, shoes feel as if they're filled with cement.

Midsoles containing EVA -- ethylene vinyl acetate -- improve a lot. They go from being stamped out of sheets of foam to being compression-molded, which offer shoes with a more contoured ride.

Looking to make shoes lighter, manufacturers remove the heavy outer sole material in the midsection of the shoe, beneath the foot's arch. They replace it with a shank or lightweight arch support. This makes shoes lighter and provides good arch support. Shanks remain a staple in shoes from now on.

In 1989, Reebok launches the Pump, a shoe with an inflatable upper that helps athletes tailor fit.


Focus turns to fit. New Balance ushers in multiple widths. Asics later will offer shoes from AA to EEEE widths.

Shoe comfort improves, and runners begin to expect shoes that have "out of the box function" -- no breaking-in required.

Upper materials, such as synthetic meshes, make shoes lighter, more breathable and more resilient.

Visible technology appears, as makers put in windows that show a shoe's inner construction. This offers more novelty than functional advantage.

Midsole technology develops further. Companies other than Nike start putting air in midsoles. Asics adds gel midsoles to its line. Reebok launches its DMX airflow system, in which air flows back and forth in the midsole and adjusts to the runners' gait, weight and pressure. EVA foam becomes injection-molded -- the standard in midsoles today.


This is the decade of differentiation. Serious shoes get more serious: Performance running shoe companies -- Brooks, Saucony, Pearl Izumi and Asics -- start making shoes for more types of runners: trail runners, racers, road runners, walkers, track athletes, javelin throwers.

In 2001, Nike comes out with Shox -- midsoles containing foam rubber springs -- which become popular in many groups, from elite athletes to school kids. Companies work on developing mechanical midsoles, made with substances more durable than foam.

Smart shoes emerge, among them the Nike+, which rolled out last year and has a computer chip in it to log running data.

-- Marnell Jameson

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