The Evolution of Running Shoes and the Issue of “Technological Doping”

126th Boston Marathon, Hopkinton, MA. April 18, 2022

By Grace Donahue
Boston University News Service

Running is a simple sport — put on a pair of sneakers and get out the door. But, those who go on to run more seriously, though, begin to invest in what they put on their feet. Running sneakers and athletic shoes are a multi-billion dollar industry and new technologies are changing what runners are capable of. 

Sneakers have gone through various phases — all designed to support runners–so they can perform to the best of their abilities. Back in 1832, Wait Webster patented the process to use rubber soles within leather shoes. Vulcanization is the process of heating rubber and melting it with fabric, and it helped change how shoes were manufactured. The melted rubber material is then molded to create the tread design at the soles of shoes making them lighter and more flexible. 

The history of the advances in engineering helped create the basis for what is recognized as modern-day running shoes. In the early 1960s, Phil Knight, a runner from the University of Oregon, was not satisfied with the running shoes on the market, so Knight and his coach, Bill Bowerman, created a company to sell a shoe Bowerman designed. The design’s biggest characteristic was a cushioned heel wedge and their company would become Nike.

Nike dominated the running shoe market throughout the 1970s and is still known for its cutting-edge designs. They have collaborated with star athletes including Michael Jordan and have endorsements with top athletes in almost every professional sport like Rafael Nadal, Chris Paul, and Russell Wilson. 

Some trends in the running community include minimalism and maximalism, barefoot running and customization. Barefoot and minimalist shoes rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, when brands like Vibram released the Five Fingers shoe. These shoes gained popularity among runners because it allowed the foot to move naturally and feel the ground. 

More recently, companies like Hoka have embraced chunky midsoles with a lot of cushion made of Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) foam. EVA foam creates shoes that have more support and spring while being far lighter compared to models in years past. 

The International Association of Athletics Federation — now World Athletics — rule 143.2 says that “shoes…must not be constructed so as to give an athlete any unfair additional assistance.” The IAAF continues to say this rule includes any technology that could be advantageous for athletes. One shoe that is under intense scrutiny on whether it should be allowed in athletic competition: the Nike Vaporfly. 

In 2019, Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in under two hours. He was the first person to achieve this feat, and that could be partially attributed to the fact he wore the Nike Vaporfly. These shoes are made of multiple elements used in past running shoes: carbon-fiber plates in the midsole, a foam at the bottom of the shoe that will spring back more easily and a thick midsole. 

None of these elements on their own have raised concerns regarding World Athletics regulations, but Nike boasted that these shoes have the potential to shave three or four minutes off a runner’s time — a clear advantage which violates the World Athletics guidelines. 

The question of technological or mechanical doping is more nuanced compared to the issue of steroid use in sports. Shoes do not directly contribute to faster times, but the spring back that gives runners the ability to exert the same amount of energy while taking longer strides can be linked to shorter races, personal bests and world-record-breaking times. 

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