Running shoes have undergone constant evolution over the years

With the cooler weather, I started rummaging through the closet to change from summer clothes to fall clothes. Under a shelf on the floor and behind some accumulated stuff, I found my old pair of wrestling shoes. Then, after digging more, I found a pair of old running shoes. Running shoes date back to the late 1950s. Some of the older runners will remember the three stripes down the side, a curved toe box, and a thin rubber sole. How, or why, I still have them is unknown unless I used them as an example when teaching sports history in an introductory class. It got me thinking about the evolution of athletic shoes and how the black Converse Jack Cramer high top shoes were the one and only all-around shoe for any sport.

For running shoes, it all started with the wide-soled Nike shoe to help prevent overpronation issues. Next, Brooks released a fluid insert in the sole to absorb shock. It took a few years, but when shoemakers realized there were more women running, they modified the shoes to fit women’s feet. New Balance started making shoes that included not only the shoe size but also the width of the shoe. This helped runners with a wide foot not have to sink their feet into the standard width shoe.

As running became more popular and more running studies became available, changes were made to reflect the findings. Terms such as pronation, supination, heel striker, toe striker, and running flats have become part of shoemaking. The heel soles had a softer material on the outside to absorb shock and the inside of the sole was harder rubber to prevent overpronation. The outside of the sole at the heel that hits the ground first was usually the first part of the shoe to wear out. The companies have added a little hard material to help prevent wear and tear on this part of the shoe. For runners who competed in the 5k and 10k races, a “running flat” shoe was developed that had less weight by removing much of the extra shock absorption in the heel and thinning the sole . I remember the first time I wore a running shoe, the difference between the heel height of a training shoe and the heel of the running shoe caused my calf muscle and tendon to stretch. Achilles and resulted in a painful walk the next day. The biggest change was in pole vaulting when the pole changed from bamboo to fiberglass and the landing pit changed from sawdust to thick foam. It is now a different event from the past.

Running wasn’t the only sport to see advances in shoe design. Basketball saw more cushion in the shoe and some almost ski-boot like on the upper to help prevent ankle sprains. The outer edge has become slightly rounded to prevent the edge of the sole from catching and turning the ankle. The football had different sized cleats on the bottom of the shoe to suit the surface of the pitch. The artificial grass needed a different sole for traction. Baseball had the same problem when some teams had an artificial surface. The ball bounces differently and the traction of the shoe is different. Pitchers needed an extra piece of leather on the toe that trails to keep that part of the shoe from wearing out. Then add in any additional equipment the player uses today compared to past players to include batting gloves, upper arm, elbow, shin, foot pads, and helmets. Changes were made to consider safety and injury prevention in the game. Tennis needed to change the sole of the shoe to help a player on different surfaces. Tennis is played on grass, clay, asphalt and indoors. Each surface required a different shoe design. And if wearing different shoes made a difference, the racquet design was a drastic change. From the old wooden racquet used by Rod Laver which had a service speed of around 80 miles per hour. Today’s snowshoes have service speeds in excess of 160 km/h. The size of the court didn’t change, so how a player served faster needed some tweaking. I had a friend who played against Arthur Ashe when I worked at West Point. He said the best way to return his serve was to stick the racquet to the side and hope Ashe would hit it.

I can’t imagine putting on those old running shoes and going for a run today. No cushion, no anti-pronation and a narrow sole would make running difficult. Looking back on all the improvements and changes in the sport, you wonder how we survived to be old ex-athletes.

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