Running Shoe Trends 2020: So Many Shoes!

We always say that it’s a great time to be a runner because of all the great footwear

THE BEST SHOE ‘TECHNOLOGY’ EVER…OR, AT LEAST THIS WEEK

Get ultra flexible barefoot shoes! 

Get stiff carbon racing shoes! 

Nah, stick with old tried and true designs!

No wait, get mega cushioned shoes! 

We always say that it’s a great time to be a runner because of all the great footwear options available.  But it’s also a very confusing time to be a runner because of all the great footwear options available!  The irrepressible running shoe market always seems to be up to something new.  As seasons go by, we face the unyielding onslaught of the next best thing to buy.  In almost two decades assessing runners at SoleFit, we’ve seen too many of those runners that have become injured by running in the wrong shoes.  For something like running that humans have been doing since the dawn of our existence, it’s quite something that we haven’t come to a consensus as to what kind of shoe is best!

Since the dawn of our existence, some things have definitely changed.  Our environment is no doubt different – no savannah plains, lots of roads.  Our lifestyle has changed – less hunter-gathering and more emailing, texting, and sitting.  And our bodies have changed (to a new environment and lifestyle) which sets most of us up to run a bit differently.  So, it makes sense then that we periodically would go back to the drawing board to find the ‘best’ shoe design to accommodate these changes.  Are we getting any closer to the ‘best shoe’ with the current trends that we’re seeing?  Let’s explore the answer.

…it’s quite something that we haven’t come to a consensus as to what kind of shoe is best!

In the past few years, we have seen some major changes in the trends of running shoe designs.  In addition, there has been major growth in research into running injuries.  This research has led to  insight into the possible correlation of those injuries to our chosen running style, shoe type, surface choice, etc.  All of this has challenged the running shoe industry to rethink some of the ‘traditional’ materials, contours, and foot positions they had first envisioned decades ago.  A deeper bio-mechanical and evolutionary anatomical understanding stirred up the pot of what might help runners run better, with less stress and eventually faster. (Spoiler alert: many of the best researchers out there still debate and disagree on what we know.) 

Anyone who has been running for a few decades can attest to all the trends that have come and gone and that pattern doesn’t seem to change!  Anyone remember the shoes we would ‘pump’ up when we put them on?  Likewise in our pedorthic care setting, we have seen it all too!  What sticks with this pattern of ever changing recommendations of what is the latest ‘best’, is our attempt to help runners understand their individual needs without getting swept up (and often onto the injury sidelines) in the latest hype.

FROM SIMPLE, TO COMPLEX, TO AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE, AND BEYOND

In tracking shoe trends over the last 30 year, we could say that it’s gone from influence-heavy, to influence-minimally, to influence-uniquely.  A brief history in the running shoe design space might rudimentarily be summed up like this;

1970's - 1990's

Running shoe design booms with sport popularity.  Foam midsoles, air bag cushion, and addressing needs to absorb impact is all the rage.

1990's - mid 2000's

Structured midsoles with variations of density, plastics, and other stiffening strategies are recommended to ‘control’ the foot’s instability and mechanics.

2005 - 2015

Vibram Five Fingers, Born To Run, and research on natural barefoot mechanics exposes the need to look at running technique and bare feet.  Minimalist shoe design becomes a major influence in market trends.

2009 - 2020

Ultra cushioned shoes enter the market in the ultra distance running community.  Anecdotes for the 'ultimate in joint sparring protection' creates major popularity in brands like Hoka and others.  This spurs a trend in providing a large amount of cushion into midsoles (this Pedorthist remembers a trend of the Moon Boot in the 90s too, but I digress.)

2017 - 2020

Nike begins the sub 2 hour marathon project and looks into the effects of stiff carbon shoes on running speed and economy to the elite class of competitive runners.  Shoes are designed with carbon plates to induce a spring-loaded toe off motion to ‘augment’ propulsion.  This is the newest trend facing the everyday runner.

This is quite a broad stroke of the trends which included lots more ‘innovations’ such as pursuits of the bounciest foam, micro-chips within the shoe to adjust cushion and stability on the fly, and shoes with the heels cut down to dissaude heel striking to name a few.  Needless to say, the ongoing measures of what’s necessary to improve running, decrease injuries, or improve our running remains a roller coaster ride.

KEEP IT SIMPLE, BEING AN INDIVIDUAL

The answer to the question of ‘what’s the best shoe?’ appears to be a straightforward one but then opens to complexity.

It really depends.  Everyone has different needs as a runner and a different physiology.  As these ‘trends’ or ‘technologies’ come and go, let’s take a closer look at which are most prevalent running shoe types on the shoe wall in 2020 and who they might suit best:

Conventional running shoes

What are they?  Though a ‘convention’ to shoe design is not the greatest term, for the last ~30 years, running shoes have had a similar design described as heavy cushioning (high stack height) below an elevated heel (larger heel drop). They can also include various stiff materials to support degrees of instability (associated to degrees of foot pronation or supination).  These are still the most abundant types of shoes on the market.

 

What do they do?  The premise (though arduously debated) is that they help a heel strike pattern to be more cushioned and guided from start to finish.  Low to high degrees of ‘correction’ levels across the board for different foot types are conveniently categorized to guide a consumer, salesperson, or even healthcare provider.  Cushioning is implemented to mask the impact of heel striking and often various proprietary gels or other materials claim to absorb more ground forces.

 

Who are they good for?   Putting aside the challenges to the claims of the efficacy of the conventional running shoe, the various support levels and extra cushioning can potentially provide protection to a diverse range of runners and abilities. Those with shortcomings in their biomechanics would benefit to know at least which kind of these shoes could help in the short term while they work on fixing those issues. These are also the type of shoes typically paired with orthotics as they compliment that strategy to ‘brace’ the foot with support. Those looking for immediate, though potentially short term, effects on poor mechanics or injury is the market of these types of shoes.

Conventional running shoes typically have a large amount of cushioning and are divided into various support categories.

Carbon plated running shoes

What are they?  This newest trend of running shoes has a carbon fiber plate running heel to toe configuring a springy, stiff curve particularly where one rolls off of the toe (rocker sole).

 

What do they do?  The proposition of this new approach is improved propulsion and efficiency through the foot strike and transition to push off.  This demonstrated some energy savings which then became a mainstream shoe feature (at least elite marathoners being tested by Nike in a world record attempt). The shoe is ultimately very stiff, very curved, and otherwise low in support and weight.

 

Who are they good for?  This is a tough question.  The technology isn’t imperative for runners to be successful and certainly doesn’t guarantee any runner a PB or reduction in injury.  The aggressively stiff rocker sole and midsole certainly influence the gait pattern and for some this may not benefit them.  A runner with efficient run technique looking for another boost of performance are the main candidates.  What we see are mis-matched foot shapes, runners hosting poor form or possibly problematic feet, trying out these shoes and creating bigger problems.  This is a highly niche shoe and has some applications but at this point we would still consider a small population of runners or a small set of conditions that might actually benefit from a stiff rocker sole.

Carbon plated running shoes are the newest trend to the running shoe market.  The Nike VapourFly 4% shoe shown here was produced with an attempt to help facilitate the first sub 2 hour marathon (which they likely did!).  

Maximalist cushioning shoes

What are they?  Maximalist shoes essentially are a combination of conventional shoe features and flatter heeled shoes but with an extremely thick level of cushioning between the runner’s foot and the ground.  For sake of reference, midsoles of traditional running shoes typically average about 20-25 mm thick.  Maximalist shoes are in the ballpark of 30-40mm.

 

What do they do? These shoes started being popular amidst the ultra marathon crowd (races exceeding a marathon, typically 50km, 50 mile or 100 mile events) but soon got widespread attention.  In a marriage of a flat heel shoe (ideally intended to encourage a more efficient stride length and foot strike pattern) with as much padding as possible, they are the heavy cushioned version of a shoe trying to help with natural mechanics.  With all that shoe it can sound paradoxical, however many runners swear by them and most brands now cater to a maximalist shoe model offer.

 

Who are they good for?  Because these shoes have a few ranges of possibilities, we have grown more comfortable recommending them as a ‘why not see how it feels?’ suggestion. Temperamental joints may do well with them but it's a case by case basis.  They can work decently with those with good mechanics but also have a few features of structure for those used to shoes with support. 

Maximalist running shoes tend to have a very thick and padded midsole.  More and more shoe companies are coming out with their own versions of this type of shoe.

Minimalist shoes, barefoot shoes

What are they?  It's hard to miss these shoes as they seem out of place amidst the thicker cushioned shoes.  These shoes tend to be thin and flat with a light, ‘not much to them’ appearance.  The shape typically mimics the more ideal shape of a human foot (widest at the ends of the toes).  The drop height (height difference from heel to toe) and stack height (thickness of the midsole padding) are significantly lower than conventional running shoes.  There is quite a large range of what is considered a ‘minimalist’ shoe from five finger barefoot shoes to lower drop shoes with a bit more padding.

 

What do they do? Our feet play a vital role in providing the sense of how and where we move. This information is highly beneficial to our neuro-muscular entrainement.  Picture a toddler nimbly walking barefoot through the house versus doing a Frankenstein-ish walk in winter boots.  Untethered of structure around the foot, we gradually become more adept at being functional while barefoot, whether walking, running or otherwise.  However, living in a concrete jungle we could still use something to cover and protect our feet which is where these shoes find their mark. 

 

Who are they good for?  Minimalist shoes can be an effective step to help strengthen our feet and ‘get out of the way’ of proper run technique.  For those working to improve their functionality and running technique, minimalist shoes remain a method to help get you there by wearing them casually (check out our video on casual minimalist shoes here) and eventually to run with.  Feet with problematic joints or ongoing injuries need to approach this with proper timing and care.  While it’s almost always a good idea to work towards stronger bare feet, many individuals need to go at their own pace and consider the work necessary to improve their feet outside of just using a minimalist shoe.  .

Minimalist running shoes ideally will mimic the human bare foot condition as much as possible (square toe box, thin midsole, flexible).  Ideally, this is what we would work most runners back to being able to wear, but it can take a higher level of commitment to transition safely.

Like many aspects of health, it appears that running shoe selection is no different in that there is no ‘best’ shoe for everyone and instead, just a best shoe for an individual.  All of the shoe categories listed above have their place on the shoe wall and can match up perfectly to the runner with the right set of characteristics!  

We see a lot of runner’s coming through our clinic and take a lot of pride in helping them decide on the right (and left…😉 ) shoe for them. There really isn’t a ‘best shoe’ out there, but there definitely is a best shoe for an individual with their own unique set of variables (such as injuries, current run technique, performance goals, long term foot health etc)!

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