Takeover Tuesday: Running shoe design throughout the years

The next in our Takeover Tuesday series - Interior Designer and marathon runner Evie discusses the evolution of running shoes through history.

Late in May, I ran the Edinburgh Marathon. In the run up to it (no pun intended) I have to admit I was obsessed with all things running, reading countless articles on preparing for a race, recovery and the best gear. While trawling the web for new information I was amazed at the design features of running shoes. In any list of ‘top 10 running shoes’ (there’s a lot of these articles!), there would be a few that I would deem an 'ugly' shoe. So, I decided to investigate the history of running shoes, better understanding their origins to see if they have always been shoes that you ‘don't quite want to wear in everyday life’, and how the lines between sportswear and streetwear have become blurred.

The first running shoe was created in 1865 in Northampton, a well known town for shoemaking in this era. The design was basic, a leather shoe with studs in the bottom of the shoe – it looked almost like an old school football boot rather than a running shoe. However, its design would have been important for runners as before the creation of surfaced running tracks, runners would have needed help with grip. 

It then took a while for designs to progress past this point. The modern footwear for running that we would recognise, made of rubber and canvas, was created by Adidas founder Adi Dassler in the early 20th century. Still studded, but only towards the toe, Adidas were renowned for being the best running shoe of the time. They featured at numerous Olympic Games, including the 1936 Berlin Olympics, famous for Jesse Owens who donned the studded design for his races and went on to achieve a fourth Olympic medal. 

50 stunning Olympic moments No6: Jesse Owens's four gold medals, 1936 |  Olympic Games 2012 | The Guardian


The look of the shoes around this time was basic, with the focus on development of function rather than look. However this accidentally changed when Adi Dassler added three stripes to a pair of trainers. Although they were added for support purposes, these three stripes became the trademark of Adidas shoes and integral to the Adidas brand.


Adidas brown leather shoe


It wasn’t until the 1960’s that running became a popular pastime. This changed shoe designers' focus from performance to comfort. Most people were jogging as a hobby rather than sprinting competitively, and companies found that comfort benefits seemed to have more appeal. It was around this time that people began to wear trainers as everyday casualwear too. Suddenly the look was as important as the tech as sportswear converged with streetwear.

 Also in the 1960’s, Bill Bowerman co-founded Nike Inc. His work as a track coach had led him to understand the needs of athletes and his innovations paved the way for the modern running shoe. His ideas, including developing the tech behind the Tiger Cortez, were designed with athletes in mind - such as cushioning to the heels and toes and support for the foot arch. Tech aside, the timeless design of the Cortez means it is still a popular streetwear shoe today.

How the Onitsuka Tiger Became the Nike Cortez | The Sole Supplier

Bill Bowerman continued his innovation, and in the 1970’s he changed the design of running shoes and trainers forever. He was searching for a way to make athletes shoes lighter when an epiphany hit whilst he was eating waffles for breakfast. He realised the grooves from the waffle iron could be an ideal grip for the sole of a shoe. He effectively put some rubber in his waffle iron to trial it with great success (for a prototype, at least). This allowed him to remove the studs from professional athletes’ shoes allowing light yet grippy trainers. This was a huge turning point in running shoe design.


Fast forwarding to the 21st Century and modern-day running shoes, running popularity has continued to grow. Accessibility to elite running gear has increased, and sportswear companies are clamouring to stay on top of the technology. At any race now, you are bound to see the elite (and wannabe-elite) in Nike’s Alphafly with their instantly recognisable, unique shape and the inclusion of a carbon plate in the sole. These trainers are all about shaving those extra seconds off a race time. Nike’s Alphafly became infamous after Eliud Kipchoge achieved a world-record marathon time wearing them. Nike released the shoes to the public and they have been in constant demand ever since. Although they are clearly not an everyday shoe, they have been designed with performance and aesthetics in mind. Standing out at the start line, these shoes are a status symbol for runners.

Nike shoes design

The historic overlap between streetwear and sportswear has provided some cult classic trainer designs that have remained their popularity, such as the Cortez. What is interesting to see is that modern running trainers are now being used in the same way. Runners, influencers and hipsters alike are all seen wearing ASICS’ Gel Kayano, a long-established running trainer. 

Much has changed since the early days of running shoes, however trainer design and technology is still a huge focus for sportswear companies. It could be said that streetwear trainers have previously championed aesthetics and trends, whereas tech for running shoes remained the priority. However, this does seem to be changing, with younger brands such as Hoka becoming popular for the look as well as the technology. Some smaller or older brands may have to adapt their focus to both areas to remain relevant. But for now, for me at least, running shoes remain running shoes. And who knows, in 35 years’ time, we could be wearing Nike’s Alphafly as a classic streetwear piece instead of the Cortez. Or maybe not…!

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