by Jacob Greski
Over the past few years, running shoe technology has experienced a significant and dramatic revolution. Today we have what are termed “super shoes'' that are scientifically proven to make the runner more efficient and help them along to a personal record. The idea of these shoes would seem utterly ridiculous less than 10 years ago, yet every running brand now has at least one of these to offer. These brands also create different shoes for what I consider to be different performance tiers. The super shoe tier are racers that are worn by the best in the world and designed to break world records. The tier below is what’s considered an uptempo daily training shoe for workouts or occasionally racing. This still is more responsive and efficient than shoes of the past yet is more durable than the racing tier and often feels less bouncy and unstable. Then we have the more classic daily trainer tier which looks, feels and performs like a classic running shoe (although even these are changing). Lastly there is the recovery shoe tier; typically these are higher cushioning, softer, and are designed to make your legs feel good after a hard race or workout. These four tiers I’ve mentioned covers the world of road running, as trail running has its own similar categories. A decade or two ago, the majority of amateur runners simply had a racing shoe and training shoe. Shoes have become more specialized for different runs, and of course it is all up to the runner from which tier they get their shoes from. As for the shoe itself, many design changes have been made over the past decade or so. Below I give an in-depth description of what makes shoes today drastically different than what they once were.
In the 1960s and 70s, a protective EVA foam was added to the sole to cushion the latest running shoes. Today this foam is the defining characteristic of all running shoes regardless of its purpose. With the exception of the barefoot running craze a few years ago, there was roughly the same amount of cushion for the decades that followed. That was the case up until about 10 years ago, when a brand called Hoka One One started creating “maximum” cushion shoes. Originally designed for ultramarathoners who frequently ran hundreds of miles, Hokas now can be found on any jogger, dog walker or anyone who wants the feeling of marshmallows on their feet. It was only the last 2 years where most brands have caught on to the popularity of these max cushion shoes. In parallel with this increase in sole thickness is an increase in shoe softness and decrease in weight. Each new model seems to be a little thicker but somehow lighter or softer.
A comparison between high and low cushion shoes. Above: New Balance FuelCell Supercomp Trainer (47mm in the heel) Below: Altra Escalante 3 (24mm in the heel)
Materials outside of foam are now being built into shoes to enhance performance. All of the super shoes I previously mentioned also have a carbon fiber plate built into the sole, which initially started with Nike’s Vaporfly 4% debuted during their Breaking2 project. Taking place in May of 2017, no athlete ended up breaking 2 hours in the marathon, however the benefit of the technology put into their shoes was self-evident. Today, different brands have different theories of what exact shape the carbon plate should be in terms of maximally improving the runner’s performance. Adidas, for example, has what they call Energyrods which are 5 carbon fiber rods along the foot which they claim improve performance more than a continuous plate would. As for what the science says, the carbon fiber mainly helps facilitate a greater energy return from the bouncier foam also found in these shoes. It’s not that the carbon directly provides a greater energy return and performance, but allows for the bouncy and responsive foam to push the runner forward. Some shoes in the uptempo daily trainer category have nylon or plastic plates, which is the same idea but offers a different feel from the carbon plates.
High Cushion Rockers
As running shoes become thicker, the shape of the sole has also drastically changed. One of these changes is what’s called toe spring or a rocker, or the amount of sole that is curved upward and elevated off the ground. This in turn lifts your foot and toes off the ground, and provides a rolling sensation as one walks or runs forward. This feature started out in racing shoes to encourage running on your toes. Today many high-cushioned shoes have varying amounts of toe spring at the front of the shoe, each giving a slightly different rolling effect. Rockered shoes can be greatly beneficial for some who have trouble transitioning from heel to toe while walking. Those with heel or achilles pain may also benefit from a rockered shoe as this lessens the amount of work done by the foot and ankle. A word of advice when first trying out these shoes - while it may feel strange and foreign initially, your body (and brain) will get used to this rolling effect quicker than you might expect. It’s an odd sensation at first, I remember feeling that my foot was almost rolling forward from heel to toe on its own.
These are just some of the technological advancements and design changes seen over the past few years. There has been cutting-edge work on creating running shoes that are custom-made, 3D printed, or made from recycled and more sustainable materials. Design changes and improvements are constantly being made to advance the runner’s experience with their shoes. I am excited to see what these changes will be over the coming years and once again change our perception of what a running shoe can be.
Jake is an elite runner, running shoe specialist, and student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Russell Sage College. His unique background makes him eminently suited to write columns for The Pace Setter that our readers will benefit from greatly.
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