The Evolution of Modern Running Shoes

Steve Jobs once said, “You cannot connect the dots by looking forward; you can only connect them by looking backward.” So, in 2009, when Christopher McDougall published his New York Times bestselling book, Born to Run, in which he told the story of an ancient jogging tribe called the Tarahumara and suggested that running shoes were the root cause of many running-related injuries. It was impossible to anticipate the ripple effect it would have on redefining modern footwear.

In the book, McDougall referred to a 2004 study by Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman called “Endurance Running and Human Evolution.” In the study, Lieberman argued that humans were evolutionarily built to run long distances and have been doing so for nearly two million years — long before running shoes were invented. This leads us to the idea that running barefoot is in our DNA, and therefore more natural and better for us. And just like that, the era of simple shoes was born.

modern? Yes, but the minimalist movement was rooted in weak scientific claims. The idea that running barefoot or with simple shoes reduced injuries because it caused runners to land more on their front feet was largely anecdotal. The American Podiatric Association was also skeptical, issuing a statement that said: “Research has not yet sufficiently shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice.” Then came the nail in the coffin of the movement: Vibram, the simple shoe maker, FiveFingers, agreed to settle a $3.75 million collective action to promote unsubstantiated claims about the benefits — including that it strengthens the feet and calf muscles — of running in their shoes.

However, simple booms, shortcomings and all, have forced Big Footwear to rethink their running shoe case and wonder: If less was not the answer to improving running, what was?

“Before the bottom line boom, there were a lot of heavy, heavy shoes, and the materials aren’t that great,” says Brian Metzler, author of Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture & Cool of Running Shoes. “I remember running in 2005 and thinking, ‘Those [shoes] awful. They are just too heavy. “

It was a French brand, Hoka, that forced the next big adaptation in running shoes when it moved away from simplicity and introduced its first extreme shoe, the Bondi, in 2009, which was lighter and more cushioning.

What has been clear is that there is no better sneaker for everyone. Each movement or fad laid the foundation for further innovation. Over the next decade, running shoes will transform from a piece of gear that protects the foot into a tool that helps you run faster and smoother. Here, we identify the three most important innovations of the past 10 years.

Corey Smith is a Santa Barbara, California, elite-level athlete for 25 years, online running coach (, and journalist specializing in running and climbing-related content. Head over to for more of his work

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