The Most Important Sneaker Technologies

Athletic footwear would not be where it is today without the constant innovation of technology by the major brands of the industry like adidas, ASICS, Nike and Reebok. Since roughly the mid 1980’s, when the various brands really began to compete with each other to have the best footwear with the most appealing designs, the technology of sneakers has improved by leaps and bounds. Think about sneakers before the athletic footwear industry boom of the 1980’s. The Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star, which had been around since 1917, was still one of the top options on the basketball court for roughly 60 years! Of course, Chucks are still around today, but you won’t catch them being worn as an on-court performance shoe.

Athletic performance models improved for every sport during the 1980's, but perhaps none more than the footwear for running, which is the sport that can be credited for the rapid advancement in sneaker technology. The running boom of the 1970’s created a demand for better quality, more cushioned, and lighter footwear—which made brands likes New Balance, Brooks, adidas, and the upstart Nike focus on constant innovation and improved designs.

Now instead of only a few basic options like canvas or leather and high-top or low-top, consumers have a plethora of materials, heights, cushioning systems, fits, degrees of stability and support, weights, etc. to choose from when purchasing a shoe. Let’s take a look at the some of the most notable advancements and basic concepts in sneaker technology that have gotten us to where we are today: a world where you can walk into a store and have literally hundreds of sneaker options to select from.

01
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Mesh

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Nike LDV circa 1978-82. One of the first Nike Shoes to utilize a mesh upper. via eBay

It’s a simple material, but a very important one to the advancement of sneakers. The inclusion of mesh allowed shoes to become much more lightweight and breathable—two important characteristics of any modern athletic footwear.

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Synthetic Materials

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Synthetic materials allowed adidas to create the lightest basketball shoe ever, the adiZero Crazylight. adidas

Much like mesh, the use of synthetic materials in footwear seems like a no-brainer now, but, of course, was not always utilized. The use of synthetic, plastic-based materials allowed significant weight reduction in relation to leather, while also being more durable and supportive than canvas or nylon. Today, the use of synthetic material for basketball shoes has become the industry standard, used on every top model.

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Nike Air

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Original print advertisement for the Nike Air Max 1, the first shoe to have visible Air. Zack Schlemmer

The most famous cushioning technology is without a doubt Nike Air. The Air system allows the wearer to literally walk on air, held within a plastic chamber encapsulated in the shoes midsole. Air cushioning debuted in 1979 in the Air Tailwind running shoe and then became visible in 1987, when the Air Max running shoe designed by Tinker Hatfield hit the market. Ever since that window allowed a look inside at the technology, visible Air has became the most recognizable cushioning system across the industry—and the motivation for every brand to produce their own visible cushioning technology.

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Reebok Pump

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The Reebok Pump basketball shoe from 1990. Zack Schlemmer

Reebok utilized air not under your foot like Nike, but around it to create a custom fit via an inflatable air bladder pumped up to your own liking. Introduced in 1990, the Reebok Pump technology has came and went, and came back again over the brand’s history. Despite its inconsistency, the Pump will always be one of the most iconic sneaker technologies.

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ASICS Gel

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One of the most popular ASICS Gel models, the Gel-Lyte III. Compliments of afew-store.com

Another one of the best cushioning systems in the athletic footwear industry is ASICS Gel. The technology features a soft gel-like compound within the shoe, designed to absorb impact and provide a smooth ride. What’s great about Gel is that it doesn’t break down or lose its cushion over time, providing the same feel from the first step to the millionth. ASICS can thank their excellent Gel cushioning for the brand’s loyal fan base of core runners throughout the years. Though it may not get the glory that more flashy cushioning systems like Nike Air receive, it’s certainly one of the best.

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Cross-Training Footwear

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The Nike Air Trainer 1 was the first cross-training shoe. Compliments phenomglobal.com

The brainchild of legendary Nike designer Tinker Hatfield, the concept of cross-training footwear allows for a multi-purpose shoe acceptable for wear in a number of sports. The first cross-trainer, the Nike Air Trainer 1, was designed to perform for running, basketball, tennis, you name it. It may not have been perfect for any one sport, but it allowed the option for one gym shoe, instead of multiple shoes specifically for every sport you may play. Tinker’s Trainer 1 launched a whole new category of footwear for Nike, and eventually the rest of the industry.

07
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adidas Boost Foam

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Boost foam. adidas

The adidas Boost technology has only been around for a couple of years now, but it’s already one of the most important cushioning systems ever. This revolutionary new foam cushioning features small, individual capsules of a proprietary foam blow-molded together that—unlike other foams on the market—does not break down over time and maintains its responsiveness. Boost is also not susceptible to hot or cold conditions, which can affect the feel of other types of foam cushioning. Introduced in running, Boost foam is now expanding into other sports, including basketball and training to become a top cushioning option.