8 Ways Running Shoes Have Changed
Photo: Ryan Lawrence/Aric Van Halen

A revolution, a backlash, and new materials and processes have transformed your running shoes in the past decade

If you’ve been running for a while, no doubt you’re aware that running shoes have changed considerably in the past decade. In the early to mid-2000s, shoes were generally more structured, less responsive, and often over-designed to highlight superficial technologies and features that made the shoes heavy and clunky.

But in the ensuing years, the industry went through a minimalist revolution, a fascination with maximalism and, perhaps equally as important, an evolution of materials, manufacturing techniques and design ethos. All of those factors have contributed to the current era when running shoes have become lighter, more energetic, more comfortable and more inclined to help a runner’s feet move naturally through the gait cycle.

Here are eight ways running shoes have morphed during the past decade.

Nothing is “Normal” Now

If you asked someone to draw a running shoe 10 years ago, everyone would have known how it should look. Not only did all running shoes look much like each other, they looked pretty much the same as they had since the invention of the modern running shoe in the late 1970s. That was about to change. Look at a shoe guide from 2007 and you’ll find, amid the myriad Brooks Adrenaline clones, mentions of new “Free” shoes that had funky, flexible soles and sock-like uppers, and hints about some shoes “beyond free” that simply covered your feet. The minimalist revolution was about to explode. The shoe revolution that occurred in the late 2000s, however, wasn’t just minimal. During the same era other companies experimented with ultra-thick, oversized midsoles, they changed the shape of shoes to better match feet, they put forefoot lugs and cannoli-like pods on the outsole. All of these ideas and more persist today and have influenced shoe design throughout the industry. The result is a more diverse selection of running shoes than ever before, differing not only in appearance and materials but also in design and function, reflecting different ideas of what a shoe is supposed to do.

Posts are Passé

A decade ago the primary way of differing between shoes was whether or not they had a firmer material under the arch—called a “medial post”—and how long, high and hard that post was. The post was intended to provide stability, which traditionally meant controlling the foot to avoid over-pronation. In the past decade, a growing chorus of voices from science and medicine has shown that pronation is usually not as dangerous as we once thought, and when runners do need help slowing it, shoes do a poor job of controlling motion. You’ll still find shoes with posts, but stability is no longer the first question to ask when buying shoes. When stability is addressed, the conversation has expanded to include multiple design elements of the shoe, including the width of the shoe, the midsole height under different parts of your foot, the shape of the midsole, grooves in the outsole, and how the shoe wraps and holds your foot.

Drop the Heel

While the minimalist fad rose and fell faster than skirt lengths, it introduced ideas runners hadn’t thought much about before and which continue to inform shoe design and selection long after we retired our last pair of Vibram Five-Fingers. One of these is heel-toe drop. Minimalists argued that the built-up heels of traditional running shoes put the body at an unnatural angle and encouraged an overstriding, heavy heel strike. To get back to a natural posture, they argued, requires “zero drop” from heel to toe, a term introduced by Altra, one of the brands that has survived and thrived post-minimalism. While today only a few brands have zero-drop shoes, heel heights tend to be lower across the board than they were a decade ago and runners can find models at whatever height best suits their stride, from 4mm to 12mm and everything in between.

Rockers Rule

Once upon a time, experienced runners would grab a shoe off the shelf, hold it at heel and toe and try to flex it upward to judge how easily it bent. Few of today’s shoes would pass this test. Instead of flexing at the toe, most models now roll. The trend grew with the advent of maximalist shoes that had soles too thick to flex. The height of the shoe, however, allowed space for the material under the toe to be cut away in a “rocker” shape. The king of maximalism, Hoka, distinguishes between models in their line by the location and angle of this rocker. Other models, without the sole thickness, create a rolling effect by curling the toe up in what is call “toe spring.” Not every shoe uses a rocker; a few models still flex under the ball, most notably those utilizing new “energy return” foams.

Everyone’s Got Bounce

A decade ago, every midsole was made of some form of EVA, a foam that can be created soft, where it excels at absorbing shock, or firm, where it provides rebound. Thus, before 2012, runners had to choose between cushioning or responsiveness. Enter the Adidas “Boost” material, a PU-based foam which compresses to cushion admirably but then bounces back quickly, providing a springy platform for push-off. Not only did the foam revitalize the Adidas brand but it revolutionized midsole foam. Now every company has some type of their own “energy-return” foam (for example, “Everun” from Saucony, “DNA AMP” from Brooks and “EGO” from Altra) or, in the case of the Swiss-made On shoes, compressible outsole tubes (or “Clouds”) to create the same cushioned-landing, firm-push-off effect. These new foams are used either by themselves or in myriad combinations with other foams to provide runners with a wide array of rides from which to choose the one that feels right for their stride.

Smooth Operators

While midsoles were transformed by new materials, uppers have been revolutionized with new processes. Gone are the once-ubiquitous layers of fabric and synthetic leathers, cut and stitched together. Today shoe companies create support layers either by printing patterns over select areas, or, increasingly, by knitting different densities and stretch qualities into seamless, integrated uppers that wrap and support the foot. The result is an end to chafing from seams and stitches, and lighter, more adaptable, better-fitting shoes.

Keep it Clean

Another effect of knitting uppers is the ability to create clean designs that appeal to today’s young, fashion-conscious consumer. Gone are the visible overlays, the garish, clashing colors, racing stripes and NASCAR-ed uppers plastered with technology-touting badges. Today’s running shoes tend to have simple palettes and smooth lines, highlighting fabric textures that feel and look as much like apparel as they do footwear.

One Shoe to Play Them All

The newly clean design lines of running shoes not only match today’s fashion mandates but they meet the demand for running shoes to transcend the workout and work 24/7. Reflecting the increasing number of recreational runners, who view the sport as one of many fitness activities they do, the newest trend is to build shoes that don’t scream “running shoe” and are, instead, as comfortable and appropriate at the gym, in a pick-up ballgame, at the coffee shop, in the classroom, at your workplace and even in a bar as they are on the track and roads. (For example, the “Revel” from Brooks, “Road Hawk FF” from ASICS and “Hupana” from Hoka.) This idea, of downplaying uniqueness of a running shoe, may be the final, most significant impact of the last decade’s shoe revolution, backlash and integration. It recognizes that a shoe isn’t a prescription or a prosthetic, it can’t correct you or fix you—its purpose is to work with you and support you and should do so effortlessly in any context. These seemingly simple shoes of today, underlain by advanced materials and design, fit right, roll right and quietly work to let you run and play comfortably all day long.

Jonathan Beverly

Jonathan Beverly served as the editor in chief of Running Times from 2000-2015. He is the author of “Your Best Stride: How to Optimize Your Natural Running Form to Run Easier, Farther, and Faster—With Fewer Injuries” (2017, Rodale) and “Run Strong, Stay Hungry: 9 Keys to Staying in the Race” (2017, Velo Press).