Friday, November 30, 2012

Top Running Shoes of All Time: 1970's-1980's

Sneaker Report has an incredible "museum "of their picks of the top 100 running sneakers of all time. Runblogger one of my favorite sites made his picks: Nike Free 3.0 V1, Brooks Launch, and Saucony Kinvara, all fine, very recent shoes.

I am now in my 40th year of competitive running and depending on decades have worn many of Sneaker Reports picks especially those from the 1970's and early 1980's and those from the last ten years. Quite frankly, I did not run as much from the mid 80's through about 2000 and even when I did looking at the shoes from that period they are not exactly memorable: heavy, over built with lots of "control.

The 1970's : Light, Low Drop and Fast. Sound Familiar?
Before the early 1970's running boom running shoes were leather, heavy and clunky. I was lucky that my hometown had not the only East Coast sales guy for the iconic Onituska Tiger Marathon and trainers but the same fellow, Jeff Johnson along with Phil Knight both went from being Tiger distributors to starting Nike. Jeff Johnson located original Nike R&D facility in my hometown of Exeter NH.
Tiger Marathon (
#1 Most Important Running Shoe of the 1970's: Tiger and Nike Marathon.  The earlier minimal Tiger Marathon and the almost identical 1972 Nike Marathon #70 were the shoes I and just about everybody else raced  track and cross country in and even trained in. The key innovations were nylon uppers instead of leather and a very minimal one piece midsole outsole combination.  The #6 Nike Waffle Trainer and #15 Cortez were also key early light weight dedicated distance shoes and deserve their rankings.
Nike Boston circa 1973
My #1 All Time Best Racer: With Nike innovating in town I tested versions of the  Nike Boston, # 31 on Sneaker Report's all time list. Mine were blue and as I recall had somewhat more midsole than the yellow model above from 1973.

This shoe while still light was a big improvement over the Marathon as it had some cushioning. I suggested to Nike they waffle my Bostons, and they did, and this is to this day it is my favorite all time racing shoe, great from short muddy cross country races to marathons. Not really much different than today's minimal Brooks Pure Project, Saucony A4, Inov-8's, etc...Note the low drop and roomy seam free toe box.

Most Timeless Running Shoe: Brutting Lydiard Marathon and Road Runner How about a running shoe that remains totally unchanged since about 1970 and is still on sale? Arthur Lydriard, the famous New Zealand coach designed a shoe in collaboration with a small German shoe maker Brutting sometime in the late 1960's. Very lightweight, made of natural materials with a supple suede (kangaroo then ouch!) leather and gum rubber outsole they are still handmade on a crescent shaped anatomical last.  I had several pairs of these in the 1970's and they were fantastic trainers and racers, stylish then and now to boot. They can be purchased from Manufactum in the UK
EB Lydiard Marathon (Manufactum)
EB Lydiard Road Runner (Manufactum)

The 1980's: New Materials and Technologies
1979-1981 were big years for running shoe innovation. Nike's Exeter labs came up with 2 shoes that should be on anybody's top 10 list of greatest running shoes. Both shoes addressed the issue of compacting of the midsole and cushioning, yet in different ways. Early midsole materials compacted very quickly. Hard to imagine this today with the various EVA's, gels, plastic plates etc... allowing shoes to appear almost new after hundreds of miles.

The Nike Tailwind (not on Sneaker Report list) , with a retro reintroduction in 2012,  was the first shoe to incorporate Nike Air. I had several pairs and they made big miles day after day far less painful.
Nike Tailwind (Nike Inc.)
Nike Terra T/C (sneakerreport)
The 1981 Nike Terra T/C # 36 on the Sneaker Report List was also a revolution as it introduced Phylon a midsole material which did not compact as readily as previous foam and the midsole was I believe made of a single material instead of being of glued wedges. I had several pairs of these versatile trainer racers. While I don't have the weight (light) and they were not "low drop" these kicks were really no different than the #2 all time pick, the Saucony Kinvara which came out...30 years later. One might call this one of the first "modern" running shoes.

The Late 1980's, 1990's, early 2000's
I ran less in these years and looking at Sneaker Reports many top shoes from this period I quite frankly don't remember any of these increasingly heavy and clunky shoes as memorable. Mostly cartoonish design statements. And while Sneaker Report has done an admirable job in creating this running shoe  top 100 list it feels their choices are heavily influenced by the retro collectible fashion market and not performance innovations as many many top shoes are from this "dark" period of overbuilt shoes. Witness their #1 overall pick the 1995 Nike Air Max 95
Nike Air Max 95 (

In my next post I am going to roll forward to the last 5 years or so. After a good 20 years or so of stagnation the wonderful increasing popularity of running, coupled with recent innovations and changes in running shoe design and running philosophies have us in a new golden age of running shoe choice, much like I saw in the earlier 1970's running boom.

Update: Here is my post about the top trends and shoes of what I am calling a new Golden Age of Running and... shoes.


Dan Hollingshead said...

Hard to believe shoes were better designed in the early 70's than all through the 80's, 90's and most of the 00's. Here's the evidence though.

Jim Hansen said...

I loved the Tiger Marathon. My first running shoe after first starting to run x-c with Adidas Gazelles. I also loved the Nike LDV and the Elite racers. I am one of the few that didn't like the Terra TC. I didn't like the way the Phylon felt.

StuMac said...

When I started running track in 1974, my first shoes were ugly purple Converse All-Star basketball shoes! After completing my first track season in those, my folks rewarded me with a pair of Onitsuka Tiger Marathons. Whether or not they were the best shoes I ever had, they were the ones I remember the most fondly since they were my first real running shoes. I ran in them until they literally fell apart!

Another great shoe from the mid-1970s were the Onitsuka Tiger Jayhawks (mine were yellow with blue stripes instead of the white with red stripes version). I would LOVE to have a pair of these now!

Thanks for the great article!

Reenie Zeff said...

How fun it was to read this article! Jeff Johnson coached the Girls' Cross Country team at Exeter Area Junior High (1973?)and we all got red trainers with a blue swoosh!
I've thought about them many times over the years and wish I'd held onto them. I had no idea Jeff played such a big roll in the company.
Thanks for a great article, Sam!

Sam Winebaum said...

Thanks everyone for commenting. You're bringing back yet more great shoes and memories, Tiger Jayhawk wasn't it a bit like the Nike Boston? Jim, was the LDV a bit like the waffle trainer? Jeff Johnson was not only in charge of the initial operations but a great talent scout and coach as Reenie remembers. I believe he coached Cathy O'Brian who set and still holds the HS marathon record of 2:34 and went on to 2 Olympics. I believe Jeff still lives in the Upper Valley of NH and his latest talent find was Andrew Wheating who in about a year went from soccer player to the Olympics in the 800 as an Oregon freshman Jeff is also a great track photographer. Given the Nike connection in Exeter except for the Lydiards I was Nike all the way. Why not? Any runner in town had the latest and greatest and they could cook up modified versions literally overnight. The lab had a mini shoe manufacturing operation with real old time shoe makers. Innovation happened minute by minute. No long wait for a sample from Asia as today. Big reason for these golden shoe years. There were tons of great runners in town including Jim Crawford a Texas miler who if I recall correctly had the world indoor mile record for a few days. We had a great time with Jim because in winter when it was icy with his elegant forefoot stride he couldn't stay on his feet.

Jim Hansen said...

The LDV was heavier, stiffer, and had a wide heel than the Waffle Trainer. i went through many a pair. I bought a pair of remakes of the Waffle Trainers and the LDV a few years back. The Waffle trainers gave me blisters inthe same spot when I ran in them that they did back in the day. The LDVs felt nothing like the originals.

Jim Hansen said...

OK, so I had some fun and put together my own top 5 list:

Rich Diaz said...

As a running shoe geek for over 30 years, with a heavy preference for Nikes and particularly airsole shoes, I feel compelled to add my two cents. My first running shoes were Waffle Trainers, followed by LDV's. The LDV may have had a slightly wider heel than the WT, but the LDV was actually introduced as a narrower-heel replacement for the LD-1000, which had a ridiculously wide flared heel. My third pair were the original Tailwinds; Nike produced a research report that you could request (I did) "proving" that a 2:09 marathoner could run 2:05 in Tailwinds, due to the supposed energy return. In later years, I owned both the Sock Trainer & Sock Racer, but my favorite of that genre (and perhaps my all-time favorite racing flat) was the Air Sock, which was a late-'80's baby blue & white evolution of the Sock Racer that had traditional laces. Among my all-time favorite training flats was the Nike Vengeance, a stripped down, lighter version of the more popular Vortex. I'm barely scratching the surface of the Nikes I owned -- Air Safari, Columbia, original Mariah, Vendetta T/C, Spiridon Gold, Skylon Triax, those distance spikes (whatever they were called) that looked like a Gatorade label, and many I'm sure I've forgotten. After years away from the sport, I'm running again, and have picked up five new pairs of Nikes in the last year: two pairs of Tailwind 4's for training, Free Run 2's as "in-betweeners," and just in the last two weeks, Flyknit Racers and MayFlys for racing. I just ordered the MayFlys today; I didn't know they existed until I saw the Sneaker Report top 100, but I love the MayFly concept.

Rich Diaz said...

I want to make a separate comment about the Terra T/C's. Although I never owned a pair, several of my friends did, and I tried them for a few runs. It is not true that the Phylon midsole compressed more slowly; on the contrary, the rapid compression was the major failing of that shoe. My friends' Terras always needed replacing after 300 miles or so (which is okay for a dedicated racing flat, but no good for training in). I later owned two pairs of Vendetta T/C's, which were an evolution of the Terra that had firmer Phylon in certain parts of the midsole, and were more suitable for training. The Vendetta replaced the Vengeance (an airsole shoe) in Nike's lineup, but the Vendettas didn't last nearly as long as the Vengeance, again due to compression of the Phylon. I also owned a pair of Spiridon Golds, which were a Phylon-soled racing flat. I naively thought I could train in them, but they were shot after about 200 miles (everything was fine except for the Phylon midsole). I think I got 1,000 miles out of the Vengeance, and maybe 500-600 from the Vendettas.

Rich Diaz said...

Just one more comment; I did rin in a few non-Nikes over the years: Etonic Stabilizer & Eclipse (training & racing, respectively), Karhu Navy Star & Stardust (again, training & racing respectively), Brooks Nighthawk, original Reebok Racer X, some early Asics that I can't remember the name of. However, my favorite non-Nikes were early Asics Gel-Lytes. I had the first generation and probably the 2nd or 3rd. They had a wide toebox and fit great, even better than any Nikes, but I always came back to airsoles due to the longevity of the midsole.

Sam Winebaum said...

Hi Rich,
It was a while ago... but you may be right about the original Terra Phylon midsoles compressing. I remember them as being so much more cushioned yet lighter than what came before. 300 or so miles out of a pair of shoes was not bad for those days if I remember correctly. The midsoles got very hard .While the air units stayed good "forever" on many Nikes I remember the surrounding foam collapsing. I wish Nike was clearer these days about which shoes have air and which don't.

Sam Winebaum said...

Thanks for contributing to shoe history! The youngsters need some old timers' perspective on the long road we have traveled and enjoyed over the years.

Rich Diaz said...

Sam, you are absolutely right about the Terras (and the other early phylon shoes) setting a new standard for superior cushioning combined with light weight. Those shoes were the holy grail right out of the box, but the honeymoon faded very quickly. When you say the midsoles got very hard, that is exactly right, and it was due to the phylon compressing. I was running 50 miles or so per week back then, so the degradation happened very quickly. The Spiridon Golds degraded noticeably within a few weeks, and were totally useless after 200 miles or so. In fairness to Nike, they were meant to be racing flats, and would have been fine for that dedicated purpose. The Vendetta, meant to be a sturdier training version of the Terra, didn't last as long as I would have liked, but I still liked them enough to buy a second pair. You're right about the foam around airsoles eventually breaking down, too, but overall, the cushioning of airsole shoes was more consistent over the life of the shoe, compared with other midsole materials that steadily degraded over time. I'm still a big airsole fan, but it's hard to find a reasonably light trainer with full air. The Tailwind 4's are pretty good, but still a little beefier than I would like.

Akshat said...

I love always the zig-zag pattern shoes with attractive color combination. Buying shoes online

Unknown said...

I have no idea why, but for some reason I began to think of one of my old pairs of running shoes...and on your wonderful blog I found the Lydiard shoes that I owned as a teen runner back in the '70's. So cool!

Mac Martin said...

Wow, is this a blast from the past. I ran XC in the town next to Exeter, Kingston, NH, and met the Nike guys when I was in 8th grade or 1976. My father was the XC coach in Kingston NH and so I met Jeff Johnson when he was coaching the Exeter girls XC team. Several of us in the area went to the AAU Age Group Nationals and Junior Olympics. I remember testing Tailwind prototypes that I got from Steve Burris. Actually was out on a run with them and i stepped on a nail and the hole shoe went flat. After that they modified the design so that wouldn't happen. Regarding the Terra we nicknamed it the "bleeding skunk" and I never liked the shoe because of phylon was almost too soft and the weak heel counter was a problem. For ALL my XC meets there was only one shoe to race in and that was the Nike Oregon waffle, next was the Nike Waffle Racer and we used Elite's for a light training shoe.

Sam Winebaum said...

Hi Mac, Thanks for commenting. Those were the days, incredible times for local runners. Many sub 2:20 marathoners in the area, local race winning times so fast. I was a bit before you graduating Exeter in 1975. I am in touch with Steve Burris via Facebook. He is still in the shoe business, but consulting now. If you are on Facebook you may want to follow RoadTrailRun there. Just search in FB for " I post more fun stuff over there, keeping the site for the "serious" stuff. Sam

admin said...

In the '80s, testing a new material from a different industry was rare. The T/C stood for training and competition, and was the first running flat designed for both. It’s one of those shoe that I’ll likely still be talking about for decades to come.

Mark - Runners choice

Lauie said...

Hi! Can anyone comment on sprint trainers or spike shoes? I'm writing an historical drama about the golden era of running and youth age track clubs, nationwide. For my part, I remember brooks, and blue leather addidas spikes, white ascics I think. Nike zoom came later in the 80's as per my use and recollection. I didn't know, Sam, that the 70's was officially called the golden age or era of track, but I use that phrase in my pitch! Just looking for appreciative minds and any input is great! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great nostalgia! I joined an athletics club in 1980 (Tonbridge AC, UK) during the Moscow Olympics and the Coe V Ovett rivalry, both sponsored by Nike. Naturally, that's the way I went with LDVs (flared soles!), then Tailwinds (so expensive, so cool looking) and Triumphs for the track (the Vainqueur had more of a heel). Terras for a PB 10 mile run. Now I prefer stripped down shoes with roomy toe box like the Saucony A9.


Sam Winebaum said...

Hi Phil,
Thanks for those memories of fine shoe indeed. That period was truly a golden age of running shoes! This said I think the last year and the next to come will truly be a second with the Vapor Fly launching the innovation which had been lacking for decades with their competitors just now hitting the market with great shoes: Saucony Endorphin ( do try the Speed in particular when it launches this summer but we have already tested and reviews are below at the link?, ASICS and their MetaRacer, New Balance and the TC (more a trainer), and Skechers.
am, Editor
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Anonymous said...

I had a pair of Nike shoes that that collapse when you took them off . The upper part was just nylon fabric

Anonymous said...

Running track in All Stars sounds horrific. 😂 I went jogging in a pair of comfycush Vans once (it had been years and i no longer owned running shoes that fitted) and it was an apalling experience... I went and bought New Balance runners the next day.

Unknown said...

Oh... those Nike Terra TC's.
Great for staying on your toes. 1 mile to 5K. Have a pair that haven't been on my feet since
1983. Went on to Marathons. I look at them and think of how fast I was in the short races.
So light. Great shoe.