Shoe technology past, present and future

Running shoes. So many brands, so many options and so many features! Nathan Kwok, manager at Sports4, was kind enough to share his insights on current running shoe technology and trends past, present and future. This is his personal interpretation of the direction the running industry is going in, based on his experience with his clients and the products that seem to resonate with them. 

Like many things in life, running shoes are very much a subjective experience. There are very few overarching generalizations we can apply with regards to which shoe is “the best” for any given individual, however that very notion is what keeps people curious and open minded to the shifts we experience in the athletic footwear industry. In order to understand the most recent trends in running footwear, we must first reflect on the past decade and the trends that have led us to this point, beginning with the notion of minimalist/barefoot running and its relation to the principles of maximalism that seem to be the popular trend of recent years.

Less is more

As implied by their categorical names, minimalist/barefoot shoes opt for a design that discourages reliance on external cushioning and supportive mechanisms, while maximalist shoes apply the opposing principle of highly cushioned designs to help reduce force to the joints typically impacted by running.

While minimalist footwear gained mainstream popularity sometime around 2011, the notion of running in bare feet or minimal shoes is not a new concept, with notable athletes such as Abebe Bilkila, Zola Budd, Shigeki Tanaka, and Roger Bannister all achieving some of their greatest competitive feats in either barefoot or minimal shoes. The idea was to reduce the amount of cushioning and support in a shoe with the intention of strengthening muscles that would otherwise be neglected due to the supportive nature of conventional running shoes, and to reduce the risk of injury by mitigating the amount of impact loading generated by a heel strike.

Though there was data to support these claims, the movement fell out of favor almost as quickly as it rose to prominence due to the number of stress related injuries incurred by the lack of protective properties in the footwear. 

More is more

From the ashes of the minimalist movement rose an intriguing opposing force appropriately labelled as the maximalism which maintained the lower drop properties of the minimal shoes, but opted to increase the cushioning stacks to near comical levels of thickness.

Within the maximalist segment of footwear, Hoka One One (pronounced Hoka ‘oh-neh oh-neh’ from the Maori language) is the leading brand, having pioneered the concept as early as 2009.

This brand has released several iconic models, such as the Clifton, Bondi and Speedgoat, that have since become household names and conversation starters due to their unique design cues, comfort focused ride quality, and most notably the aforementioned high-stack midsoles featured throughout the entire fleet. 

All that being said, while the robust amounts of cushioning are certainly the most notable points with products in this segment, there are several other benefits that have encouraged the rising popularity of these shoes, and subsequently the increasing number of major brands that have decided to dip their proverbial toes into the maximalist pool. Some of these notable features typically include a broad, straight lasted platform (a heavier, more supportive area at the base of the toe box helping to control the excessive inward collapsing motion that can follow a foot strike), lower offset profiles, and a unique rocker design that reduces flexibility in the forefoot region of the shoe. However these traits may vary depending on the model, especially with regards to the level of offset and last profile (essentially the mold that dictates the physical properties of each shoe).

When it comes to the shoe’s platform, a straight last configuration (a configuration that is symmetrical relative to a line drawn on the bottom of the shoe from the middle of the heel to the middle of the toe), found in many of the Hoka and New Balance maximalist options, will not only accommodate a flat to low-arch foot profile but also provide a more stable foundation for those using customized orthotics. As there are many runners who utilize some form of supportive insole in their shoes, this feature could be beneficial to the large number of athletes who rely on custom insoles in addition to improving the overall stability of the shoe.

Another unique feature found in many maximalist shoes is the firm rocker sole that significantly reduces the flexibility of the shoe’s forefoot area and combines it with a pronounced toe spring curve for a smooth, rolling toe-off. This design can also be beneficial for those experiencing discomfort and a significant loss in mobility of the toe joints due to conditions such as arthritis and bunions, as it helps reduce the amount of extension and flexion in the toe joints, unlike most conventional running shoes.

On the topic of the highly cushioned midsole and lower offset profiles, the maximalist segment’s most prominent feature, there are certainly many benefits and notable findings that athletes should take into consideration before training with these shoes. Regarding the benefits, a thick stack (27mm of thickness or greater for the purpose of this article) combined with a lower heel-toe offset (8mm or less) means a more even distribution of cushioning which may help alleviate stress related aches, or other conditions affecting  the forefoot such as metatarsalgia. The lower offset can also help promote a more mid-foot strike pattern which is also beneficial for reducing impact forces. 

For reference, a study published in 2014 compared a series of 49 runners, who were experiencing pain in the lower extremities, as they ran on a force sensing both with shoes, and without them. During the barefoot phase of the study, the participants received real time instruction on midfoot striking technique, and it was found that impact forces were significantly reduced when the techniques were properly applied, which may imply the possibility of injury mitigation. Coupled with the significant increase in forefoot cushioning, maximalist shoes combined with a mid-to-forefoot strike pattern may provide a formula to address many impact related lower limb ailments commonly experienced by runners, though nothing is guaranteed.

A more “natural” design

As the maximalist movement continues to pick up steam and we look towards the future of running footwear, I believe the next phase in running shoe development will see less adjustments to the cushioning levels and more adaptations to the fit profile. Runners are now  more informed about the products they put on their feet with the increases in accessibility to information. 

With longevity and foot health in mind, I believe the next big trend in running shoes will be led by brands such as Altra and Topo Athletic who have developed products that mimic the shape of our feet, as opposed to the traditionally pointy toe boxes we tend to force our feet into. Both brands have found their proverbial stride in recent years, and have produced class leading products that are changing the way we view footwear design. With catalogs that cover both the minimalist and maximalists categories, I expect both Altra and Topo to grow their market share immensely over the next few years, and for some of the big players to follow suit and embrace the benefits of naturally lasted shoes.

Thanks to Nathan for sharing his knowledge about the past, present and future of running shoe technology.