The future of running shoes: Market leaders, new technology and the rise of sustainability
Running shoes are the focal point of the footwear world's innovation and progression. Ever lighter fabrics, ever softer cushioning, and ever more responsive midsoles are sought and invented in order to shave valuable seconds off kilometre splits. The innovation is so constant that sometimes it goes too far – Nike's AirFly prototype was banned from the 2020 Olympics amidst claims of technological doping – as it tries to revolutionise the running world.
Nike's AlphaFly and VaporFly are the more acceptable, and available, versions of the AirFly, complete with carbon fibre plates and ZoomX foam. adidas' top-level shoe is the similarly chunky Adizero Prime X – which also uses carbon for responsiveness – and New Balance has the FuelCell SuperComp Elite v3. All three show the importance brands are placing on the foot's energy return, a focus for running footwear, and still the key piece of technology in increasing running speed.
This isn't the only area of innovation for running shoes. Under Armour – often overlooked in the field – is a leader for connected running shoes, which are able to collect a wide range of data on everything from stride length to running cadence. This data is then fed back to you along with suggestions for how to improve your form, and Under Armour claims that this technology improves speed by an average of 7% and distance by an average of 3%.
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Swiss label On has also reinvented running footwear through the use of its CloudTec cushioning. The technology, which gives On's shoes their distinctive sole unit, was created when the brand's founder Olivier Bernhard was experimenting with a garden hose. As he folded the hose, Bernhard came across a shape that offered the potential for a new type of cushioning. That, in turn, inspired the "clouds" used under all On shoes, which provide cushioning for the foot on impact, while also locking together to give a solid foundation as the wearer sets off on their next step.
Whether it's carbon fibre plates, constant data tracking, or specially-designed clouds, brands are finding a myriad of ways to push running footwear forward. The innovations aren't limited to functionality-first designs, though, and running shoes are also a new frontier in the fashion industry. There's a whole new wave of running brands that are equally influenced by fashion as they are by technical specifications and improving your split time. Satisfy – a Parisian label that has collaborated with Our Legacy and released a collection inspired by Sonic Youth – is at the forefront of this, and recently made the move into running shoes.
The brand partnered with norda in mid-2022, launching its own take on the Canadian footwear specialist's trail-inspired 001 silhouette. The design came in a "Jadeite" colourway with graphics inspired by Satisfy's "Peace and Silence" ethos. It combined this aesthetic focus with high-quality technical details – including an ultra-lightweight Dyneema upper and the use of Vibram on the midsole, soleplate, and outsole – showing how the new wave of running shoes are mixing functionality with fashion.
Satisfy isn't the only brand to have remade running shoes in a more style-conscious image. New Balance has taken two different approaches to its running division, on one hand working with cult LA-based running label District Vision for an all-new FuelCell RC Elite v2 design. The other side of New Balance's running work sees it tap into the fashion industry more directly. The brand has worked with London's luxury streetwear label Aries for a bright red Fresh Foam 1080v11 and enlisted legendary Italian label Stone Island for a number of running releases over the last 18 months.
Arguably the godfather of the running-meets-fashion crossover, however, is Gyakusou, Nike's running-inspired collaboration with legendary Japanese designer Jun Takahashi that dates all the way back to 2010. That line has consistently showcased Nike's cutting-edge innovations – including the VaporFly line – with new designs that draw on Takahashi's fashion expertise.
While the actual design of running shoes is being revolutionised, so too is their makeup. Major brands are championing their sustainable credentials, as both adidas and Nike offer the majority of their footwear range using recycled materials. Elsewhere, On launched its CleanCloud technology, produced using the brand's carbon waste in an attempt to reduce emissions, and launched it as part of the CloudPrime silhouette.
It's not just the big-name players attempting to redress the sustainability issues in the running industry. Independent brands such as London-based Hylo – run by Michael Doughty, a former professional footballer and Swindon Town's current Chief Sustainability Officer – are also putting sustainability at the heart of what they do. For Hylo, the message is simple: "there is no running without a planet to run on."
This ethos has been translated into the brand's first two silhouettes: the Hylo LIGHT and the Hylo RUN, both of which blend the sustainable focus with the need for high-performance footwear. The two silhouettes are certified vegan and are constructed using a range of bio-based materials – including sugarcane and algae – and fully recyclable textiles. It has also been designed with a focus on comfort and cushioning, aiming to prove that you don't need to sacrifice on performance to move to a more natural construction.
Whereas once your running shoes were about pure function and comfort, nowadays there are a wide range of different choices and options for your footwear. Maybe you want to put performance first and foremost and improve your speed or monitor your form. Maybe it's all about being the best-dressed person at Parkrun or finding footwear that aligns with your own sustainable lifestyle. Whatever it is you're looking for, the running industry is probably finding some way to do it.