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Neil Featherby: A history of the running shoe explained

A small part of Neil Featherby's personal shoe collection at Sportlink. Picture: Neil Featherby

A small part of Neil Featherby's personal shoe collection at Sportlink. Picture: Neil Featherby

Archant

Whilst running has consumed a big part of my life, it was my obsession with running shoes which first took me into the sports/running retail trade.

I have had a fascination with running shoes which goes right back to my school days what with always wanting to find a shoe which would feel so light and comfy on my feet that I would be able to run forever in them. With that in mind I now have my own little collection and museum of old trainers which dates back into the 1970s.

Athletes and shoe manufacturers have for many years looked to find a perfect running shoe, but it was the late 1970s and early 1980s when it really took off with new materials for midsole protection and cushioning being developed to help reduce the many stresses from the impact forces which are applied during each foot strike when running.

Whilst now well into the second decade of the 21st century and shoe technology now at another level, I am pretty sure the advancements were at their greatest during that period which existed between the late 70s and 80s.

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Modern day technology has helped keep people of all ages and shapes and sizes on the road with a reduced risk of injury whilst also being able to run with more comfort. We actually had a bit of boom a few years ago with those who suggested that we should go back to basics and take up barefoot running or wear minimal shoes which allowed for a more natural footstrike.

From a personal perspective, I have always liked the more lighterweight shoes and can somewhat agree with the theory behind what is considered to be natural running, but it really does need to be practised and in truth something that has been done from a younger age.

Nevertheless, would we be better for it if we never put a pair of shoes on? Talking to many an expert, the answer is yes for which we would all walk and run in a more efficient manner and potentially have stronger bones and joints, but man must have put shoes on his feet in the first place for which I assume it to be to protect himself.

Therefore and delving into a little bit of history, when did man actually first put a pair of shoes on his feet to run in?

Well, the earliest form of footwear which was supposedly used for running was discovered in a cave (in Oregon) which dates back 10,000 years. The likelihood is that man and indeed women were wearing something on their feet before that though as whilst these shoes were actually used for running, they were also used to hunt or indeed run away if being hunted themselves.

The ancient Greeks with their love of sport took this much further and with the first ancient Olympics being held in 776 B.C the name of the winner of the first footrace is still known to this day, Koroibos of Elis.

As with any Olympic Games winner be it modern day or indeed ancient, this was the highest sporting achievement a person could attain.

Whilst the racing distances differed greatly to today’s modern day athletics events, much of this was based upon distances used by those who were also used as messengers for carrying the orders or news from battlefields with of course the most famous being Pheidippides who ran from the Plains of Marathon to Athens to carry news of the Athenians victory over the Persians before collapsing and dying.

Needless to say there are lots of theories as to the factual content and distance ran, but no one disputes that he did exist and did indeed make a very long run.

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Footwear for running and organised footraces continued to evolve through the following centuries albeit using the most basic of materials whereby the word pump was first used to denote a slipper like shoe in the 1500s.

However, it was in the 1800s when the plimsole first became used and even more so by the 1900s. Leather spiked shoes had also been developed with the first being around 1865 in England for which these type of shoes were used in track and field meets during this period and of course with the rebirth of the modern day Olympics in 1896.

There was also a marathon and ultra-marathon running boom during that era (funny how things have a habit of repeating themselves). Whilst the use of rubber shoes were a more comfortable option to the more traditional harder leather type models, durability was also a problem.

As the years went by during the 20th century, footwear technology for running and athletics really was taking off with further development here in the UK, Germany, the USA and as far away as Japan particularly after the Second World War.

New designs were springing up with regularity for which Asics or as it was back then Onitsuka, even producing a shoe in the 1950s which was based upon the foot which would not look out of place in today’s minimal running shoe markets.

However, footwear was still pretty basic and whilst comfort and fit was important, they were more about performance. Then in the mid to late 1970s things changed somewhat with the emphasis being more towards protection against the forces of impact and repeated foot strike by way of countering a person’s biomechanical imbalances.

This became even more common by the running explosion of the 1980s whereby the biggest advancements yet were to be seen.

The materials used in the midsoles for shock absorption and support were now at another level as were the materials in the uppers for better fit and breathability.

Thirty-plus years on, I do actually wonder where it will all finish as each year there are new advancements, but at the same time it is still good to know that whilst man has been running since standing up on two legs, he has at the same time always been looking for the perfect running shoe as opposed to relying on just his own two feet.

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