Running shoes are a ubiquitous part of our culture these days. From top of the range running shoes used by the world’s top athletes, to brand name trainers worn as a fashion statement, to comfy off-brand trainers for everyday wear or going to the gym, running shoes are everywhere. But of course there was a time before running shoes. Let’s take a look at where running shoes originated and how they became the trainers we know and love today.
Running shoes started right here in England in the 18th century. There was growing interest in running for health and sport, and so the need arose for a shoe that could be worn for running, a shoe that would grip the road or pavement and make running easier. The very first running shoes were a far cry from today’s trendy trainers. Made of leather, early plimsolls had hard soles and, being leather, a tendency to stretch when wet.
Things started to change in the early 1800s when an inventor named Walt Webster found a way to bond rubber soles to leather running shoes, creating the very first plimsolls (a name many of us recognise from the black plimsolls of our PE days). Early plimsolls were still very different from today’s running shoes.
By 1892, an inventor named Charles Goodyear had pioneered a process that would revolutionise the running shoe: Vulcanisation. This process simply refers to melting fabric and rubber together, but it changed running shoe manufacture. Now instead of unforgiving leather, runnig shoes could be made of a much more flexible canvas, with a rubber sole bonded to it. Goodyear named his shoes Keds, and in 1917 he started selling them as athletic shoes. It wasn’t long after that that an enterprising marketing man coined the term “sneakers”, a reference to the way the rubber soles let the wearer sneak round silently.
In the 1920s, the German Adolf Dassler started manufacturing his own sports shoes. Dassler would eventually go on to found Adidas who are now one of the best-recognised brands of running shoe in the world. Dassler’s shoes were designed with a precision and attention to the needs of the wearer that hadn’t been seen before.
As well as starting to manufacture different shoes for men and women, Dassler recognised that the needs of the wearer were different depending on whether they were a sprinter or a long distance runner. He started designing different shoes accordingly, and before long his shoes were recognised as a high quality product that was suitable for serious athletes. When Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics wearing Dassler’s running shoes, athletic shoes really came to the world’s attention.
During the post war period and through to the Baby Boomer period of the 1950s, interest in both sports and in leisure footwear continued to grow. As manufacturing processes were refined and improved, so running shoes became ever lighter and better fitting. Athletes on both sides of the Atlantic were frequently given free shoes by manufacturers, which helped raise brand profiles and increase demand for running shoes. This demand was met in the 1960s when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman patented the low-cost high-technology shoes that would eventually go on to become the globally-beloved Nike trainers.
By the 1970s, cushioned soles had become a staple of running shoes everywhere, and manufacturers were starting to create shoes based not only on comfort and fit, but on different running styles. Jogging became a popular past time during the 1970s, and running shoes by this period were widely available and affordable for most people.
When the 1980s arrived with its vibrant, sharp fashions, running shoes began to take centre stage in the fashion world as well as on the track. With celebrities from the sports and pop worlds alike seen wearing their favourite trainers, the shoes soon grew to cult status.
The running shoe has come a long way from its humble hard-soled beginnings to become a mainstay of sport, leisure and fashion around the world. With new designs hitting the market on a regular basis, the trainer looks set to last a good few laps yet.