The Evolution of Running Shoes

The Evolution of Running Shoes

To whoever says that running shoes aren’t rocket science, you obviously haven’t paid attention to the latest innovations in shoe design! Carbon fiber plates act like diving boards to give runners a little extra spring, while new foam cushioning with high energy return makes shoes both more comfortable and more responsive. Then, there are heel-to-toe offsets to make running easier, but even there, we don’t see agreement — some runners choose low to no heel offset shoes, while others seek out the exact opposite. It’s a lot! So, how did shoes get to this point of complexity?

Some say heel offset (the heel resting higher than the toe) in running shoes has its origins in horse riding boots, as they have extra material in the heel to sit in the stirrups more comfortably, which eventually translated into extra cushioning in the back heel for running.

Others believe that it’s based on the the Spencer Shoe (pictured above), an early example of a transition from classical dress shoes to active wear. The Spencer Shoe provided extra traction with spikes on the outsole similar to modern-day track spikes. The heel was taken from dress shoe design, with the heel giving the wearer a height increase, projecting wealth and strength.

Although these are strong theories that have plenty of truth to them, they don’t quite fit with running shoes and the development of the heel offset. The Spencer Shoe wouldn’t have made sense, as that was a shoe designed in the early 1860s, and running was nowhere near common enough to warrant a shoe company to start designing running shoes, especially with how the marathon did not become an Olympic sport until 1896. At the time of the 1860s, the most popular distance event was known as Pedestrianism — think of the Indy 500, but walking for six days straight, which I hope is the basis for the next Talladega Nights movie. 

Secondly, the design of both horse riding boots and the Spencer Shoe wouldn’t be practical for running. Asphalt roads were developed in 1870 and running became a sport in 1896 — asphalt roads would make running in boots or spiked shoes uncomfortable or even unbearable. For the sake of history/science I attempted to run a mile in pure rubber and leather boots (originally designed for style purposes) on both asphalt, track, and dirt surfaces at a 5k pacing. Surprise, surprise — it was not comfortable at all, and I’m used to running in bare minimum sprint spikes. 

So, what shoes were the first to be designed with distance running and athleticism in mind? That shoe would come from a company called Plimsoll. The Plimsoll shoe had rubber bottoms with a canvas upper originally designed for beach wear, all the way back in the 1830s. When introduced to the running community years later, the sound of running was practically silent compared to dress shoes, which gave rise to the term “sneakers”. 

For the most part, the design remained the same through the decades, with some exceptions like track spikes, all the way up to Bill Bowerman. Coach Bowerman is most notable for the start of Blue Ribbon Sports, which we know today as Nike. We can also attribute the popularization of jogging and the introduction of the heel offset in running shoes to Coach Bowerman .Bowerman popularized jogging with his book titled Jogging, (that one took a lot of thought!), where he detailed his visit to New Zealand and Arthur Lydiard. Coach Lydiard had shown Bowerman his new training method called jogging, where a person trains between the speeds of walking and running. This allowed the trainee to progressively grow and develop to be stronger and healthier, with some even becoming competitive and signing up for races.

This inspired many to pick up jogging, but as its popularity increased, so did the number of injuries that were foreign to athletes and sports medicine. Jogging is very different from traditional running — to jog, Bowerman said that one must land on the heel and transition to toe-off for an easier flow and to minimize exertion when jogging. This was very different from the traditional running form of landing along the mid-forefoot and propelling off the toes; because of this, when landing on the heels, new injuries appeared that the shoes of the time were not designed to handle. That led Bowerman to design the Nike Cortez in 1972, which was unique in its incorporation of foam cushioning rather than rubber midsoles. This, however, did not entirely work, as there were still complaints of injuries and discomfort, which led to ever higher heel offsets.

From here on out the rest is just revolutionary design and competition between brands leading to current models we see today with newer and more revolutionary technologies.


Hanft, Adrian. “Boston’s Evolution: 1897–2018.” The Boston Marathon Project. Medium, February 16, 2019.

Larson, Peter. “Lord Spencer’s Shoes: The First ‘Specialized’ Running Shoes Ever Made (from 1865).” Runblogger. Runblogger, June 14, 2012.

Latham, Alan. “The History of a Habit: Jogging as a Palliative to Sedentariness in 1960s America.” The history of a habit: jogging as a palliative to sedentariness in 1960s America. US National Library of Medicine, January 22, 2015.

“Let’s Do a Quick Run Through: The Evolution of the Running Shoe.” Let’s Do a Quick Run Through: The Evolution of the Running Shoe | Injinji Blog. Injinji, July 14, 2014.

Lydiard, Arthur. “Jogging the Lydiard Way.” Jogging the Lydiard Way. Lydiard Foundation. Accessed April 30, 2020.

Staff, NPR. “In The 1870s And ’80s, Being A Pedestrian Was Anything But.” NPR. NPR, April 3, 2014.

“US4128950A – Multilayered Sole Athletic Shoe with Improved Foam Mid-Sole.” Google Patents. Google. Accessed April 30, 2020.

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