Since the dawn of humankind, we’ve been able to run, but would you believe the activity’s popularity as a go-to fitness discipline is less than 75 years old? Yes, the sport that’s given us plenty of cardio-boosting benefits, sleek apparel options and more is younger than you'd think — and the activity’s signature equipment, the running shoe, has a similar history.

Before we all started viewing running and jogging as a healthy way to spend our mornings and afternoons, the activity was reserved for elite athletes in the throes of competition. Even still, the sneakers donned by these physical champions were not of the same quality we’ve come to associate with today’s racing shoes. Often featuring rigid midsoles with little cushioning, as well as heavy leather uppers, these kicks had more in common with your typical work boots than structures designed for fitness-related endeavors. So, how did we go from less-than-comfy track shoes to the stylish, cozy sneakers now filling sporting goods stores across the world? To answer that question, we need to look at the activity’s evolution throughout the years.

Running’s growth as a fitness discipline for the masses really started to take hold in the 1970s, and as such, our idea of the “modern” running shoe has its roots here, too. In the following decades, both the equipment and sport continued to advance through innovative practices and advancements, all designed to give athletes of the time the tools they needed to keep moving forward, ever faster.

Naturally, though, the silhouettes seen in today’s running landscape didn’t hit the streets overnight. The technological breakthroughs leading up to our go-to kicks have spanned decades, so to gather a heightened appreciation for where we are today, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Starting with the 1970s, we’ve outlined the biggest breakthroughs the sport has seen over the years, as well as the game-changing sneakers that have made running one of the most popular fitness disciplines of today.

denver post archives
As running gained popularity amongst everyday athletes in the 1970s, footwear options became more accommodating to their needs with added comfort and more.
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The 1970s: Laying the Groundwork

The 1970s saw the first true boom of running being considered a general activity rather than a competitive sport. No longer was this discipline reserved for track athletes, and in response, the gear offerings began to cater more to the everyday devotee. Uppers began to shed their heavy leather aesthetic, and profiles started to plump up the underfoot cushioning with new, advanced materials. Even the rubber outsoles experienced some tinkering, highlighted by a profile that gave rise to one of running’s most dominant names (more on that later).

While the running shoe landscape was less varied than it is today, a handful of silhouettes clearly won over the hearts of many. Yes, there plenty of room left to grow into the “modern” running shoe, but if this decade proved anything, it’s that the seed of running’s popularity had been planted, and the budding interest was soon to blossom into a fruitful industry.

Nike Cortez

nike cortez

It’s hard to begin a history of running shoes without acknowledging one of the sport’s most-recognizable brands — Nike. When Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight adopted the “Nike” brand name in place of its original moniker, Blue Ribbon Sports, in 1972, the Cortez became the flagship profile and immediately had an impact on the landscape.

The Nike Cortez featured a sponge-rubber midsole with a wedge-shaped second layer of cushioning under the heel to absorb impact and reduce stress on the Achilles tendon, establishing the value of underfoot comfort amongst athletes. This upgrade set in motion the industry’s search for a lightweight yet soft material, but cushioning innovation wasn’t the only thing brought to the table by the burgeoning brand.

Nike Waffle Trainer

nike waffle trainer

Around the same time, Bowerman and his team were “cooking” up an advanced outsole technology by melting rubber across their home waffle irons. The result? One of the most influential patterns in footwear history, one that graced several Nike silhouettes moving forward, including the iconic Waffle Trainer.

Not only did this waffled pattern across the bottom of the foot improve traction across track and pavement, but the separated lugs also gave the shoe a heightened ability to flex with the foot through transitions. Having the lugs raised off the footbed helped improve cushioning to a degree as well, furthering the notion that comfort and shock absorption were among the decade’s defining principles within running shoes.

Brooks Villanova

brooks villanova
Rewind Running

While Nike’s impact on the running shoe landscape is quite strong during this decade, it was Brooks that essentially set the standard for midsole cushioning in the years moving forward. The Brooks Villanova profile was the first sneaker to use ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam in its midsole construction, resulting in a lightweight, soft, bouncy ride that runners soon came to adore. The Villanova’s innovations provided a clear picture of what a running shoe could provide to athletes — a notion that still drives the Brooks brand to this day.

“It’s our North Star — it defines our innovation pipelines, or principles in terms of what we bring to market,” says Carson Caprara, the brand's SVP of Footwear. “It’s really an obsession with how the body moves and trying to refine that and understanding the power of a running shoe in the sport of running and linking those together.”

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The 1980s marked a clear shift in the discipline as more brands became enamored with how the body moves and how to best support each stride.
Scott McPartlandGetty Images

The 1980s: Behold, Biomechanics!

As running continued to grow in popularity, so did brands’ interest in understanding the motion of the human body. The emphasis on biomechanics and developing sneakers that complimented the natural running motion soon became the central theme of 1980s running shoes. In this timeframe, athletes encountered a slew of innovative silhouettes designed to “stabilize” your foot for the sake of improved performance, protection and comfort, as well as a few profiles that continued to push the boundaries of training and race-day comfort. Many of the stabilizing components developed in this decade gave way to the industry standards of today, too.

Due to the popularity of stability running shoes, selecting a pair took on this doctor’s visit-like aesthetic, where you were more invested in matching your footprint to your footwear than ever. The understanding that excessive pronation or unnatural steps led to increased injury risk put everyone on notice, so it made sense to invest a little more time in your gear selection rather than just grabbing a shiny new shoe off the shelf. The sneakers below not only looked good but felt good as they defined what a quality running shoe meant throughout the decade.

Adidas Boston

Adidas Archive/Studio Waldeck

As one of the most comfortable silhouettes of the 1980s, the Adidas Boston quickly earned high remarks for being fast, supportive and lightweight. This blend of features made the iconic profile a go-to for both training endeavors as well as race day. The desire to give runners a well-to-do sneaker that catered to differing needs was not a stretch from the brand’s roots, however, as the Germany-based manufacturer had continuously aspired to produce sports equipment that benefitted athletes first, regardless of the sport.

“We’ve always tried to get the best shoe for the athlete, that was always the thing Adi Dassler worked for,” says Sandra Trapp, senior manager with the Adidas history management team. “So, for every Olympics, for every World Cup, there had to be a new innovation on the market so that athletes could get the best equipment possible.”

Nike Pegasus

nike pegasus
Mr. Porter, courtesy of Nike

Another widely popular silhouette saw its inception in the 1980s, in the form of the Nike Pegasus. Designed as the brand’s first air-cushioned profile with a performance-based ride, the Pegasus served as an approachable running shoe silhouette thanks to its premium underfoot feel and cost-effective price point. The profile also showcased a more universal fit than other kicks on the market, allowing more athletes to lace up this signature sneaker.

The popularity of the Pegasus continued to grow throughout the years, and it is still one of the go-to profiles for daily mileage. Now in its 40th iteration, the new Pegasus profiles offer a great example of yesterday’s advancements meeting today’s landscape. The shoe still offers plenty of colorways and notes of comfort, yet also showcases a lightweight build and secure lockdown made possible by the textiles and design aesthetics of today.

Brooks Chariot

brooks chariot
Brooks Running

When speaking about the stabilization craze of 1980s running shoes, it’s difficult to not mention the Brooks Chariot. The Chariot helped support pronation and inward foot roll thanks to its industry-first Diagonal Rollbar Technology, an angled wedge of harder-density foam in the midsole that created a tapered sensation from the inside of the foot outward. This notion of controlling foot roll was a breakthrough for the category and eventually led to future designs we still see in the medial post builds of today.

While the Chariot is a clear standout across the brand’s history with stabilizing profiles, Brooks still has a firm grasp on this running shoe category. However, the brand hasn’t gotten too caught up with trying to complicate what constitutes a solid stability shoe. Rather, they’ve rolled with the findings for the sake of athletes everywhere.

“Stability is continuing to evolve in terms of what that means,” says Caprara. “But for us, it simply means a shoe that works with you as an individual and enhances the way your body naturally moves.”

Asics GT-II

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Sure, biomechanics were the big theme of the decade’s running shoes, but that doesn’t mean cushioning advancements weren’t afoot as well. Originally released in 1986, the Asics GT-II earns a spot in this timeline for one key feature — Gel Technology. This innovative material gave each stride an added sense of shock absorption that helped improve comfort and coziness as running shoes slowly became go-to silhouettes for everyday wear.

The Gel Technology featured in the GT-II also found its way into other popular Asics profiles throughout the decade, include the Gel Lyte, which set the standard for lightweight stability sneakers. Still, these silhouettes wouldn’t be possible (or still in rotation today) if it weren’t for the innovations brought to market with the GT-II.

Adidas ZX 8000

Adidas Archive/Studio Waldeck

As every brand marked the 1980s with different forms of stabilization tech, the Adidas ZX 8000’s torsion technology stands apart thanks to its unique approach to supporting your steps. According to Trapp, Adidas worked with university-led teams to develop the stabilizing component, which allowed the front and back of the shoe to operate independently on uneven terrain. Even with this front-to-back torque, the Adidas silhouette still kept your strides well supported and protecting from excessive inward roll.

As is the case with other stabilizing components, the Torsion Technology explored in the ZX 8000 still carries influence in today’s running shoe landscape.

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Despite world leaders and other important figures embracing running, the 1990s left something to be desired in terms of sneaker innovations.
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The 1990s: Catering to the Masses

While the 1970s definitely paved the way for running’s popularity among the fitness-oriented crowd, the 1990s really saw the discipline go mainstream. U.S. presidents got in their daily mileage while also addressing the press. Some of the nation’s favorite talk show hosts shared their marathon training progress and subsequent weight loss to millions. If you had to attach a ’90s saying to this decade of running, you could classify it as must-see TV.

Yet despite running becoming a more popular fitness discipline, the innovations and advancements across running shoes seemed to slow slightly during the time. The study of biomechanics — and translating those findings to products — was still in its infancy, and brands were still relying on trusted materials for the sake of composition without really pushing too many boundaries. Still, a few notable profiles emerged during one of the sport’s biggest peaks in terms of viewership, participation and interest.

Saucony 3D Grid Hurricane

saucony 3d grid hurrican

While this shoe is the first Saucony silhouette to appear in this history lesson, the brand's influence cannot be understated. After all, Saucony is one of the oldest running companies in the nation and has given plenty of athletes reason to rejoice over the years.

“The running booms, and there have been a few, have certainly introduced our brand and others to new and larger audiences” says Brian Moore, Saucony senior vice president of global apparel, footwear and accessories. “But with each new wave of runners comes a new set of expectations and problems to solve, and for Saucony, that has unlocked innovation in our brand’s own unique way.”

The 3D Grid Hurricane became a fixture for runners everywhere due to its unique blend of max cushioning and ample stabilization. The shoe was paired with a fantastically simple slogan, “Don’t Stop Training,” an aspiration many athletes of the time thought achievable with the help of this sneaker's combo of coziness and support underfoot.

Brooks Beast

brooks beast
Brooks Running

Building upon the popular Chariot silhouette mentioned above, the Brooks Beast took stabilization to its max thanks to improvements across the Diagonal Rollbar Technology as well as reimagined geometry across the midsole rocker. The Brooks Beast was highly recommended for ’90s runners suffering from shin splints, too, and it’s one of the brand’s signature stability profiles even to this day.

Sure, modern Beasts are far removed aesthetically from this original iteration, but according to Caprara, that simply speaks to how the brand aims to nurture a relationship with runners and ensure their trust.

“[Runners] want to make sure they’re evolving and putting the best thing under their foot, so once you give them the security, like, ‘OK, your basic needs as a runner and the basic expectations are taken care of,’ then they’re open to exploring new possibilities,” he explains. “And so, by anchoring in a core franchise, it gives them the permission to say, ‘OK, let me see if there’s a new version of that.’”

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Shoe silhouettes in the 2000s were a direct result of the advanced understanding of biomechanics and what’s best for the body in motion.

The 2000s: A Glitch in the Matrix

In the new millennium, many runners felt an intense desire for innovation. For the past few years, their favorite shoes had been simply repainted, touched up and weighed down with little advancement. Then came the barefoot movement. Sparked by research findings that stated pronation was not connected to potential injury, minimalism proclaimed running to be natural act that did not require additional support or correction. As a result, a number of small brands began flooding the streets with profiles only offering some rubber outsole protection without the "unnecessary" geometry or cushioning. Additionally, the barefoot movement left the big-name brands in a frenzy trying to strike while the minimalist iron was hot.

The minimalism era not only serves as a unique trend in 2000s running, but also as a pivotal influence on how we see the equipment today. The idea of what a running shoe should offer changed dramatically in this decade thanks to barefoot enthusiasts, which ultimately led to new brands taking bold new approaches to shoe design with sky-high stack heights, wide forefeet, interesting midsole geometries and more.

Vibram Five Fingers

vibram fivefingers v run

If one silhouette embodies the barefoot craze of the 2000s, it’s the Five Fingers profile from Vibram. Essentially a beefed-up toe sock, these kicks provided little more than a rubber outsole, which perfectly aligned with the minimalist-minded trend. The design originally intended for water was not merely unique-looking, however — it perfectly accommodated the barefoot movement’s philosophy thanks to the impeccable ground contact experienced while keeping your underfoot protected from varying terrain.

Plenty of debate continues to surround the notion of minimalism and whether its perceived perks are worthwhile for athletes to adopt, but the “innovation” at play in this easily-recognizable silhouette cannot be overlooked when reviewing the history of running shoes.

Nike Free 5.0

nike free 5

Perhaps spurred by the Five Fingers, Nike sprinted toward the forefront of the minimalism trend, albeit with a less intense profile. Thanks to data generated from athletes at Stanford University, the Free 5.0 silhouette epitomized what a minimalist sneaker could offer to your gait without the exaggerated aesthetics. The Free 5.0 was also a great introductory sneaker for the barefoot curious, as the profile still included some underfoot cushioning, allowing for a comparatively gentle adjustment to the new sensations of more ground contact.

Other brands were also quick to jump on the barefoot trend, each with their own notions about the benefits of natural motion and freedom of movement. The Free 5.0, however, was perhaps the most recognizable entry, and by far one of the most popular.

Saucony Trigon

saucony trigon
Swag Kicks

The Trigon surfaced in 2003, and while the shoe didn’t fit the minimalist mold, this sneaker featured plenty of forward-thinking innovation in terms of customization.

“We basically modeled Goldilocks and made a version with Light Cushioning that was intentionally softer, a standard version that we called Responsive Cushioning and a firm version for those who either preferred a firmer ride or crushed their shoes and wanted to extend the life of them,” says Moore.

This Custom Ride Management lineup allowed for easy personalization and eventually led to the creation of two of the brand’s most popular silhouettes.

“As supportive cushioning became a trend, the variable cushioning proposition evolved into a shoe that was focused on the Ride, while the companion would add some guidance as well — the Guide,” Moore notes.

nike breaking2 sub two marathon attempt
With shoe stereotypes shattered, the 2010s were wrought with innovation and breakthroughs across the running landscape.
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The 2010s: To the Max

Outside of the 1980s, the 2010s is probably the most innovative decade of running shoes, with no shortage of new materials, design aesthetics, improved biomechanics and more driving the advancements. Running sneakers became lighter, more comfortable and more catered to different disciplines such as trail running. The breakthroughs seen in the decade are a true testament to running’s relationship with science, as none would have been possible if not for a dedication to chemistry and biomechanics.

The 2010s also unleashed quite possibly the greatest (and most controversial) advancement in racing with the introduction of “super shoes.” Utilizing unique geometries, lightweight materials and carbon plates for added forward propulsion, these sneakers gained a ton of notoriety throughout the decade as marathon records were broken and some of the sport’s greatest athletes adopted the latest tech. While plated running shoes were by no means new to the scene — with early offerings dating as far back as the 1980s — this timeframe saw the technology and science truly come to fruition.

Hoka Bondi B

hoka bondi b

Serving as the brand’s first road-specific profile, the Bondi B represented a collection of everything Hoka had learned from its efforts in trail running, most notably how to curate a rocker in the geometry of a midsole for the sake of more efficient movement and how to maximize foot protection through ample cushioning. Given the timeframe of Hoka’s launch, it would appear that the design of the iconic max-cushioned sneaker was a direct counterpunch to the barefoot movement, but according to the brand’s vice president of product, Colin Ingram, the truth is actually quite the opposite.

“The impetus behind minimalism, actually, is still seated in how Hoka was born,” he says. “The idea was how can you let your foot be a foot in the most protected, comfortable and easy-rocking way possible.”

Adidas Energy Boost

adidas energy boost
Adidas Archive/Studio Waldeck

As stated above, since its adoption in the 1970s with the Brooks Villanova, EVA served as a standard material for most running shoe midsoles up to the 2010s. Despite the cushioning and comfort underfoot, however, brands struggled to strike a balance between coziness and responsiveness. That is, until Adidas stepped in with one of the most recognizable shifts in footwear manufacturing — BOOST Technology.

“BOOST was really the first innovation that brought these two worlds together,” says Moritz Hoellmueller, vice president of the brand’s running design team. “You could have something that’s responsive while it’s super comfortable under your foot, and this was a groundbreaking innovation for us back then and still continues to be at the top of our innovations.”

Apart from the midsole, the Adidas Energy Boost profile won high marks for its glove-like upper, durable outsole and 10.5mm heel-to-toe drop. The BOOST technology is still featured in a number of silhouettes today and marks the start of the arms race for brands to develop their own cushioned-yet-responsive midsole components.

Nike Flyknit Racer

nike flyknit racer

A running shoe's underfoot components had long been prioritized when fine-tuning ride quality, but aside from the shift to more fabric-based textiles in the 1970s and ’80s, not a lot of attention had been paid to what a sneaker’s upper could provide. Introduced in 2012, the Nike Flyknit Racer changed that paradigm with its single-piece upper made from a continuous fiber strand. The sneaker quickly gained popularity thanks to its sock-like fit and impressive weightlessness.

Flyknit technology was first intended for competitive runners, as illustrated by Team USA’s Olympians donning the Flyknit Racers at the 2012 London Games, but the tech has since infiltrated many footwear sectors, including soccer, football, basketball and (of course) daily training.

Nike Vaporfly 4%

nike vaporfly

While the “max” moniker of the 2010s often alludes to the abundance of cushioning technologies brought into the landscape, it also refers to how “max performance” got redefined through one standout silhouette — the Nike Vaporfly 4%. Thanks to its integrated carbon fiber plate and all-new ZoomX foam midsole, this signature sneaker revolutionized what was possible for distance runners and served as the catalyst for the “super shoe” boom of recent years.

If there’s any question as to the impact the Vaporfly 4% had on the running landscape, just consider Breaking2. This ambitious Nike project aimed to help a runner complete a marathon in under two hours, and this shoe was the tip of the proverbial spear.

While the 4%s weren’t the shoes that helped Eliud Kipchoge accomplish that seemingly impossible feat in 2019, the footwear that crossed that fateful finish line was the direct descendant of the profile that turned the racing world on its head. (Seriously, Kipchoge's performance in a Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% prototype actually caused World Athletics to ban competition footwear with a sole thicker than 40 millimeters or more than one carbon plate.)

daily life in london under second coronavirus lockdown
As more athletes than ever have adopted running as their go-to fitness discipline, it’s tough to tell which innovations will rule the roost next.
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The 2020s and Beyond: Pushing the Boundaries

As we gaze into the crystal ball and imagine what running shoes could look like in the near future, the 2020s have already given us a nice glimpse of the innovations to come. Brands continue tinkering with lighter foams and materials as they aspire to perfect the relationship between foot and footwear while keeping costs realistic for everyday athletes. Additionally, some brands are experimenting with advanced manufacturing procedures that could unlock even more inventive designs.

Still, it’s safe to say that the “next great running shoe” will be highly dependent on the needs of, well, us. Brands have learned that the best indicators of what innovations runners might embrace often come from the runners themselves. While biomechanics and underfoot comfort are sure to be present in these future offerings, it’s hard to predict how advanced the next silhouettes will be. But here are a few hints.

Adidas 4DFWD

adidas 4dfwd

In terms of looks, the Adidas 4DFWD screams innovation thanks to its 3D-printed midsole construction, but the bowtie-shaped lattice structure is not just for visual appeal. The design is intended to accentuate propulsion by compressing forward instead of vertically. This advancement in transitions emerged from digging into 18 years of real-world athlete performance data as well as over five million 3D midsole variations.

By changing the way weight is utilized in a given stride, Hoellmueller notes that this sleek Adidas silhouette also promises to help lessen the impact felt across the bones and joints, all while providing an underfoot sensation unlike any other sneaker. As 3D printing makes its way into more sectors of fitness, it’s interesting to see the possibilities unlocked for such a vital piece of training gear.

Hoka Tecton X

orange hoka tecton x running shoe

The “super shoe” category and integration of carbon plates across premium running shoes definitely has its roots in road racing, but going fast is an interest of all athletes, so it makes sense that the technologies would be tested by other disciplines, too. While brands began introducing carbon plates into trail running sneakers, adoption was slowed by the uneven terrain associated with the activity. In response, Hoka unveiled the Tecton X in 2022 with a unique independent suspension system of two carbon plates, giving runners a reliable blend of stability and responsiveness.

“The premise was to create two plates that allowed for front-to-back loading and the ability to have propulsion but also medial-to-lateral variability to allow for a bit more of swallowing the terrain underneath your foot,” explains Ingram. “Those initial premises, as we tested them out, have proven a lot of findings as far as A) did it work (the answer is yes), and B) how can we make it better and still improve that propulsive feel while maintaining that sound underfoot?”

Saucony Endorphin Elite

saucony endorphin elite

As the latest innovation of note in the running shoe landscape, the Saucony Endorphin Elite has quickly earned a reputation as one of the best marathon running shoes thanks to its unique foam construction and premium geometry. The sneaker is at the pinnacle of what the market has learned over the years, highlighted by its PWRRUN HG foam midsole.

“What we make foam out of, and how we make the foam, are both dramatically different from just a few years ago — the introduction of OBCs, TPUs and PEBAs have shattered the landscape,” says Saucony’s vice president of engineering, Andrea Paulson. “Amongst several things, density and energy return are major testing predictors. Simply put, we can get lighter foam that gives back more energy. We are at, or nearing, the upper limit for energy return, but I believe there is still some room to get lighter.”

Of course, this run through history only highlights a handful of silhouettes from a sea of efficient, eye-catching running shoe profiles. After all, if we were to feature every running shoe that’s hit the streets and trails over the years, this guide could have a scroll length that matches most ultramarathon races. Be sure to leave a comment if you have a historical kick that’s worthy of this list. More information simply adds to the notion that running has continued to advance and prosper over the decades, and the next big thing is always just around the corner.