The Way We Were
by Claudia Piepenburg
Heavy cotton T-shirts and stiff cotton shorts in summer. Sweatsuits over long underwear in winter. Shoes made from a piece of wooden board and a black leather upper. Yeah, a whole lot has changed over the years in the world of running apparel and footwear...and thank goodness it has!
Put Your Left Foot In, Put Your Left Foot Out
The advances in running shoe technology over the past forty years or so are simply amazing. Thanks to the hard work of many researchers and scientists, the running shoe evolution has had as much impact on our sport as the development of MP3 players have had on the way we listen to music.
Pre-1967...Those Were the Days, My Friend
Throughout the 1800s and the first half of the 20th century, shoes for sprinters and distance runners alike, had uppers ranging in materials from plants to leather, and soles made from either wood, cork or rubber. The earliest uppers were made from the leaves of plants; by the end of the 19th century they were made from cowhide. Cowhide uppers soon evolved into cotton, but those wooden soles provided no cushioning, so someone (maybe a distant relative of a Nike exec?) came up with the idea of using cork. This idea was an improvement, but a minor one (imagine running on a bulletin board) and finally someone else developed rubber soles, which combined with leather uppers (featuring a split toe design), adorned runners' feet up until several years before Bill Rodgers won his first Boston Marathon.
1967...It Was a Very Good Year
In 1967, Nike introduced the first running shoe with a nylon upper, and what an impact it had! Nylon was lightweight, dried quickly and unlike leather actually allowed the runner's foot to breathe (preventing a lot of future blisters).
1970s...You Say You Want a Revolution?
The decade saw a true technological revolution. Uppers were designed in one piece rather than split-toe, providing more protection. Manufacturers began experimenting with shoes designed for stability that featured slightly flared heels. In the mid '70s the first shoe with a rubber outsole plug appeared on the market-designed to prevent excessive heel wear. And finally in 1979 air-sole cushioning was introduced to thousands of delighted runners who were taking to the pavement in droves following Frank Shorter's Olympic Marathon win. Although early air sole prototypes tended to break, and the shoes were relatively unstable, Nike kept refining the technology. "Air" is now recognized as one of the most significant technological breakthroughs: offering everyday runners much-needed support and maximum cushioning.
1980s...Born to Run
Midsole technology took center stage in the '80s. Manufacturers experimented with materials like phylon, blown rubber, polyurethane and EVA, each substance an improvement over the last in terms of responsiveness, durability and lightness. Probably the most important midsole development of all time occurred in this decade: motion control. Brooks introduced their famous Chariot in 1982- revolutionary shoe featuring Diagonal Rollbar technology.
Other shoe companies quickly followed suit, realizing that overpronation was proving to be one of the leading causes of running injuries. As the '80s gave way to the '90s, manufacturers began experimenting with shoes designed for specific types of runners, such as shoes for heavier runners or shoes for runners who prefer wearing a lightweight racing flat while training.
1990s and beyond...Taking it to the Streets
During the final decade of the 20th century shoe companies introduced several new technologies, all developed to improve cushioning, support, durability, breathability and overall comfort. From ASICS' Gel to Mizuno's Wave, New Balance's ABZORB to adidas' adiPRENE, plus biomorphic fit and flex grooves...each new development gives runners a wide range of categories, brands and styles to choose from. In the world of running shoes, the future is truly now!
Running Against the Wind
Although most runners are quick to embrace new footwear technologies, some are still reluctant to fork over nearly $200 for a GORE-TEX jacket or over $50 for a heat-generating shirt. Perhaps those runners who don't want to pay for the benefits of high-tech fabrics are the ones who started running because they figured it was a cheap sport-all the equipment you need to run is a pair of shoes. The fact is, compared to most other sports such as tennis, golf and skiing, running is inexpensive, and those folks you occasionally see slogging and sweating through their run in a cotton T-shirt and shorts on a hot, humid day are suffering unnecessarily.
Although it may seem like all those moisture-wicking, breathable and cooling fabrics have been around for a long time, it wasn't so long ago that Henry Ford's axiom about the Model T ("you can have it in any color you want as long as it's black") applied to running apparel: "you can wear anything you want as long as it's cotton." Runners ran in cotton, a great fabric for white dress shirts or sheets, but not so great for running-when cotton gets wet it stays wet, becomes heavy and uncomfortable, and rubs and chafes the very skin it's supposed to protect.
The first move away from cotton occurred in the mid-'70s, with the introduction of nylon running shorts, which were lighter than cotton and didn't absorb as much moisture. By the end of the decade, clothing manufacturers had hit upon an innovative concept: that skiers (particularly cross-country) and runners had something important in common; both groups were participating in activities that caused their bodies to heat up and perspire. Out of this notion came the first line of technical running clothing - lighter weight fabrics that wouldn't absorb sweat. The company who sold the tops and long-john type bottoms to retail outlets was Helly-Hansen, a ski clothing supplier.
Polypropylene was the new "high-tech" fabric that kept runners warm, didn't absorb moisture and was relatively light. Although it was a vast improvement over cotton, it had some definite drawbacks. Ask anyone who ran in the early '80s: polypro (as it came to be affectionately called) was scratchy, and tended to absorb perspiration odors. Worse, it got even scratchier and smelled worse after only a few washings, and it had an unfortunate tendency to melt if put in the dryer. Still, it wasn't cotton!
GORE-TEX appeared on the scene about the same time as polypro. Ideally suited to runners in colder, wetter climates Gore-Tex proved to be a winner: it kept a runner dry even in the most torrential downpour. Twenty-five years later the WL Gore Company is continuing to improve on its earliest technology, with innovations like Gore-Tex XCR (more breathable and stretchy), Paclite (lighter weight) and WindStopper (total wind protection).
Fabric technology made giant leaps in the '90s and into this century. Warm, non-chafe and soft microfiber works as well in a pair of shorts as in a fleecy winter pullover. Fabrics like moisture-wicking, quick-drying CoolMax keep you dry and cool in summer and dry and warm when it's colder. Dryline, Supplex...the list goes on. Recently introduced technologies include fabrics that heat up, are woven with antimicrobial silver to stave off odor and regulate your body temperature.
What's next in the world of running footwear and apparel is anyone's guess. But you can be sure that whatever the good scientists come up with will be innovative, exciting and fun. The future of running shoes and clothing is so bright...you gotta wear shades!
About the author: Claudia Piepenburg has been running since 1981, so she (all too clearly) remembers cotton T-shirts and shorts, and heavy shoes with thick yellow rubber soles. She writes about running and fitness for several magazines.