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Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” So, in 2009 when Christopher McDougall published his New York Times best-selling book, Born to Run, in which he told the story of an ancient running tribe called the Tarahumara and suggested that running shoes were the root cause of many running-related injuries, it was impossible to foresee the ripple effect he would have on redefining modern footwear.
In the book, McDougall referenced a 2004 study by Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, Ph.D., titled “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo.” In the study, Lieberman argued that human beings are evolutionarily built to run long distances and have been doing so for nearly 2 million years—long before running shoes were invented. This leads to the notion that running barefoot is in our DNA and, therefore, more natural and better for us. And, just like that, the minimalist-footwear era was born.
Trendy? Yes, but the minimalist movement was rooted in weak scientific claims. The idea that running barefoot or with minimalist footwear reduced injuries because it caused runners to land more on their forefeet was largely anecdotal. The American Podiatric Medicine Association was skeptical, too, putting out a statement saying: “Research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice.” Then came the nail in the coffin for the movement: Vibram, the maker of the minimalist shoe, FiveFingers, agreed to a $3.75 million class action settlement for touting unfounded claims about the benefits—including that they strengthened feet and leg muscles—of running in their footwear.
“Before the minimalist boom, there were a lot of shoes that were clunky and heavy, and the materials weren’t that great,” says Brian Metzler, author of Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture & Cool of Running Shoes. “I remember running in 2005 and thinking, ‘These [shoes] are horrible. They are just so heavy.’ ”
It was a French brand, Hoka, that forced the next big adaptation in running footwear when it ran away from minimalism and introduced the first maximalist shoe, the Bondi, in 2009, which was lighter and more cushioned.
What was clear was that there was no one best running shoe for everyone. Each movement or fad laid the groundwork for further innovation. Over the next decade, running shoes would transform from a piece of gear that protects the foot to a tool that helps you run faster and more smoothly. Here, we outline the three most significant innovations in the past 10 years.
Cory Smith is an athlete based in Santa Barbara, CA, who has been running at an elite level for 25 years, an online running coach (runyourpersonalbest.com), and a journalist specializing in running- and climbing-related content. Head to storiesbycory.com for more of his work.
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