Saturday, December 01, 2012

Top Running Shoes of All Time: Another Golden Age?

Sneaker Report's Best 100 Running Sneakers of All Time  got me thinking about the last 40 years of running kicks, that's how long I have been a competitive runner and shoe junky. In an earlier post I concluded that the 1970's running boom produced a wave of innovation and great shoes.

The 1980's through about 2000 was really a dark age as shoes became heavier, more gimmicky, larded up with all kinds of control mechanisms. Just contrast what Sneaker Report considered the top shoe of all time, the 1995 Nike Air Max 95 with some of my early favorites the 1973 Nike Boston, the  1981 Terra T/C and today's Vibram Spyridon,  Saucony Kinvara, and Hoka One One Tarmac. We are lucky to have so many quite different but in many ways related choices!

1970's and early 1980's
1973 Nike Boston ( 

 1981 Nike Terra T/C (

1980's- 2005
 1995 Nike Air Max 95 (

2005- Present

2012 Saucony Kinvara (
2012 Hoka One One Tarmac (

We're in a Golden Age of Running: The first since the 1970's

There is no question that 4 factors have us firmly in another Golden Age of running participation and innovation: the book Born to Run, the Vibram 5 Fingers craze, the popularity of trail running, and the dramatic increase in women runners, now around 50% in most races. The first 2 factors brought into question the need for all the over built control of most running shoes of the 80's, 90's and 00's.  The increase in participation and interest in shoes to practice "new" forms of running allowed smaller companies to spring up and invest in innovation. In a nutshell the new paradigm became:
  • a focus on reducing heel striking and running more naturally
  • lighter shoes: seamless uppers, lighter midsoles, less stuff in general
  • lower heel to toe drop ratio coming down from the long standing 10mm+ to 0 to 8mm.
  • completely new ways of thinking about running shoes
This is not to say there weren't alternatives to the clunkers of the 1980's through about 2005. Training in racing flats would have met many of the elements of the new paradigm but few runners went this way.

The Innovators:  These small companies in my view became the equivalent of Nike, the nimble start up innovator of the 1970's, running so to speak with the trends.
  • Vibram-Near barefoot running
  • Newton Running- actuator lugs leverage the mid foot, educated the runner on natural running.
  • Inov-8- lighter weight, more anatomical trail shoes, purpose built for terrain and distance
  • Hoka One One-oversized, super cushioned natural running, another way to the same goal.
Nimbler larger companies followed. Saucony with their Kinvara was the first to understand the trend and really capitalize on it. Brooks with their Pure Project  took a systematic approach with an entire line. Merrell and New Balance have come on strong too focused on the minimal side. Nike realized that their really quite old Free line was something more than an occasional form training tool.

As this is a top shoes post I guess I have to decide. I will break my rankings into 2 sections, most influential and my personal favorites from the recent past.

Most Influential:

1) Vibram Five Fingers, or your bare feet. You won't ever see me running the roads in these but clearly practicing with what we were given was a radical shift from orthodoxy.
2) Saucony and Kinvara. Not really a great innovation but just the right combination of lightness, low drop, and cushioning to jettison the old clunkers for many. First company to "drop the heels" on most shoes.
3) Hoka One One and Tecnica. A radical take on more natural running for trail and now road. Low drop at 5mm, oversized footprint, rocker profile really gets you on the mid foot, light(ish) despite appearance, superb cushioning even on rough terrain.  For long miles and for an aging running population, absolute heaven for legs and feet. Still a work in progress but getting better all the time.
4) Inov-8. Far lighter purpose (terrain and distance) built trail shoes. Got runners away from over built near hiking boots or road running shoes with a heavily lugged sole. Now innovating on the road.

My Recent Favorites: 

1) Hoka One One Tarmac (road) review  Tecnica X-Lite (trail) review
2)  Inov-8 Road-X 255 (road) review:  2007 Inov-8 RocLite 315, F Lite 300 (trail) review
3) Brooks Pure Flow (road) review; Newton Gravity (road racing)

Yours? Please comment.


Andrew Barnes said...

The running shoe market in the USA is supposedly worth upward of 6.5 billion dollars a year. Right now about 15% of that is ascribed to "minimalist" shoes. It interests me that many of these new minimalist shoes are brands that traditionally haven't featured strongly in the running arena. Brands like Merrell, Skechers and Vivo. With this wave of innovation in running shoes it is evident that the old "trusted" brands are under threat and that new brands are able to make significant inroads. The old "trusted" running brands are unlikely to maintain their strength and dominance in this new market. In effect, the new brands "leap frog" over them and move market perceptions to such an extent that the old brands are never able to re-establish their same level of credibility in the new market, defined by new runner demands. The running shoe market has changed and the supremacy of Nike, Asics, Brooks, New Balance etc is diminishing.A good example of this "leapfrogging" is the Apple Iphone. While the mobile phone market was languishing in a quagmire of dullness, it took a new entrant, Apple, to effectively change the rules of the game with a new device that was so significantly different and better than traditional hand held phones that the market was redefined. The running shoe business, I think, is pretty similar right now. The rules of the game are changing, and the old players will not be the winners in this new minimalist move. The new entrants have already "leapfrogged" their way to prominence.

Check out this site for some interesting new shoes: or go here to see the amazing T. Rockets:

Hafeez said...

I can't say much about the Golden Age of Running claim, since I myself only started running competitively 2 years ago. On the running shoes front, terms like lower heel drop, mid foot running, barefoot running, bears no significance to me until I actually took some time to read on it. I can say that thanks to all these technological innovations, runners nowadays are benefiting a lot from it - to which I say could also be one of the factors that contribute to the higher participation in running races, yes?

And speaking of innovative running shoes, have you given the On Running shoes a try? I believe this Swiss company also deserve a mention.


Unknown said...
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BP said...

Thank you for the very interesting article. I 100% agree with you on the influencing factor of the book "Born to Run". After reading it, I was hooked on long distance running. Likewise, the Hoka shoes are manna from running heaven. Just got my new pair of Hoka Evo Tarmac and I enjoyed it, better feel than my Saucony Kinvara and Adidas Energy Boost but with lots of cushioning. Can't wait to use the Hoka for an 80-km ultra around Mayon Volcano this coming weekend. Running is sweet for me and it gets sweeter each time I get to commune with runners around the world like you.