The Complete History of Cushioning Technology in Sneakers

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Complex Original

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Today's athlete has a pretty wide variety of options to choose from, most important of those decisions relies on how much cushioning is needed for an optimum performance. Sneakers are equipped with midsoles built to guide, stabilize, support, and energize the feet. Runners can

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Converse All-Star

Year: 1917
The shoes known today as Chuck Taylors were first produced in 1917 for basketball players with a classic rubber sole and canvas upper. As the first mass produced basketball sneaker, there was a lot to build on as the midsole was a thin rubber layer. The first basketball shoe to bare a player's name and built for specific activity, the Chuck Taylor was a game changer that spawned generations of performance footwear. 


Nike Breaks the Mold

Year: 1974
Bill Bowerman breaks the mold by pouring liquid runner into his waffle iron, creating the waffle outsole and forever changing the future of performance sneakers. The Waffle Trainer was introduced in 1974 to become a top seller. This experimental approach to sneaker design paved the way for decades of air bags, foam innovation, and mold building and re-building, as the grippy waffle sole differentiated the rugged outsole from the cushioned midsole and later giving way to a revolution. 


A Little Wedge Makes a Big Difference

Year: 1972
Sneaker cushioning gets an upgrade in the form of a foam wedge. The Nike Cortez is unleashed with a spongy, full length midsole sandwiched between a lightweight upper and a durable outsole, creating an time tested running classic. The spongy midsole was Phylon, made of compressed ethylene vinyl acetate foam pellets that were expanded by heat and cooled in a mold, used by Nike for years, Lunarlon is today’s form of Phylon. This first modern “running” shoe was a groundbreaking product. The same year the Marathon debuted with a raised heel to protect heels and joints in an effort to absorb shock.


Enter Air

Year: 1979
Air-sole technology was invented and used in the Tailwind, the first running shoe to feature the hidden pocket of pressurized gas. From a modest start, the Nike Air technology had started it’s journey in the running world.


Fulcrum Forward Footwear

Year: 1980
Karhu collaborates with the University of Jyvaskyla to discover “Fulcrum” technology, ditching its former Air Cushion technology as their belief rested with the idea that running was about moving forward, not up and down.


Onitsuka Finds a Natural Ride

Year: 1982
If this concept seems a little familiar, look at your Nike Frees. The X-Calibur featured a flexible sole similar to what Nike would unveil 22 years later. Air Flex canals cut into the midsole to create a flexible ride from heel to toe in spite of the extensive cushioning, and a plastic medial post was inserted for pronation control which was a big leap in the evolution of stability sneakers.


The Era of Customized Cushioning

Year: 1986
Customized midsoles were all the rage in the late ‘80s, the adidas APS was supplied with anti-pronation and shock absorption supplied with a twist of a key. This manipulated the midsole lugs to control the hardness or softness of the shoe in an effort to match the cross training competitors of the time. The same year, adidas released the Fire and the LA Trainer based on a similar concept. The Fire featured removable pads while the LA Trainer featured a peg system designed to customize shoe to wearer.


Midsole Technology is Revealed

Year: 1987
Midsole technology was exposed with a innovative idea developed by Mark Parker and executed by Tinker Hatfield, the Nike Air Max 1 was unveiled with a visible Air bag. We don’t have to tell you the impact this had on the future of midsole technology. Inspired by the Pompidou Center in Paris, seeing the inner construction of the shoe opened up a world of opportunities for the brand and the look of performance footwear.


The Reebok ERS

Year: 1987
Reebok Energy Return System, or the ERS was created in 1987 to compete with Nike's Air Max for the cushioning crown. Eventually used on the ERS 1000 and 2000 running shoes, the ERS was also used in the Reebok Pump, Pump Twilight Zone, and Pump Omni Zone basketball sneakers. After Hexalite arrived, ERS was slowly phased out, but the return system is definitely worth a mention as it held its own from 1987 to 1991.


adidas Torsion Sole System

Year: 1988
adidas launches Torsion sole system that is still used today with the ZX8000, designed specifically to support the midfoot and allow a refined heel-to-toe stride. The original torsion system boasted flexibility (that by today’s standards aren’t all that flexible) but most notably supported midfoot integrity with a two pronged design. Seen here on Grete Waitz’s running shoe for the brand, Torsion was a major selling point in adidas’ basketball collections as well.

Honeycomb Cushioning

Year: 1990
Reebok HexRide cushioning technology was created to provide a cushioned, lightweight ride with a pattern of hexagonal recesses. Within this honeycomb structure is an impact resistant polymer film that guarantees a cushioned ride, ensuring shock absorption with 4 times the durability of EVA foam. Unveiled in the Court Victory, Pump Aerobic Lite, Pump AXT and Pump SXT cross trainer, hexalite is best known when it was exposed in the Allen Iverson's signature basketball collection.


Karhu Measures Level of Pronation

Year: 1990
Karhu’s Ortix shoe collection was build to measure the level of pronation in a runner’s stride. The program was a fitting system that comprised of analyzing a runner’s gait to identify what type of midsole cushioning was needed.


Asics Introduces GEL Cushioning

Year: 1987
Just take a look at Asics today to see the impact that GEL cushioning has had on the Japanese brand. First focused on maximum comfort, today’s GEL technology is still focused on shock absorption without all of the weight over former models, such as the Freaks jogging shoe shown above.

Saucony Lays Out the Grid

Year: 1991
Saucony launches the Grid Cushioning System using Hytrel filaments to guide heel through first impact with a blend of cushioning and stability. Think of it like a tennis racket, deflecting impact and protecting the body from force. Still used today, the grid concept is a timeless one.

The Evolution of Air

Year: 1992-97
Tinker Hatfield unleashed the Nike Air 180 as the first 180 degree visible air unit. The progression of the Nike Air Max technology was a natural and steady one, first concealed in the midsole of the ‘7TK Windrunner peeking out with the Air Max 1, and traveling up to the forefront of the Nike Air Max 95, this model was a transitional sign of things to come for full-length technology. Just two years after being introduced to the forefront, Nike layered Air Max from heel to toe in the AM ‘97. This was the first Air Sole developed specifically for running, which puts this in the books along with the Waffle Trainers as a leading developments for nike in the performance.

Converse's REACT Juice Technology

Year: 1993
Trusted by Grandmama herself, the Converse REACT Juice relies on a "radioactive"liquid technology that was used in every Converse performance shoe that year.


Hello EVA

Year: 1993
Saucony releases the first molded EVA dual density midsole, which is the firmer density of EVA that is located on the medial side of the midsole that control the maximum angle of over-pronation. This is pretty much the industry standard for stability trainers as it’s a pretty simple concept,  the stronger material guides the foot into a more neutral position. Shown about on the Men's Omni 11.


Air Zoom System

Year: 1997
The Nike Air Zoom System was introduced with the Zoom Spiridon that allowed feet to glide through a comfortable ride, the Zoom Air technology is a bit lower profiled than the ultra-pillowy Air Max. Developed in the same year that Nike brought out the Air Foamposite One and the Air Pippen, Zoom Air would later go visible in Pippen’s PE sneakers.

Reebok's DMX Technology

Year: 1997
DMX stands for Dynamic Motion X, comprised of three separate cushioning components. The Max, a hollow two-pod system that’s medial movement goes along with each individual stride, the Shear, a unit that helps negate stress at heel strike by distributing force vertically and horizontally for less stress to the foot, and the Foam, a durable, consistent, and dynamic proprietary material. With support from Allen Iverson and Venus Williams in 1999, the main message behind the DMX technology was to increase air flow (as shown in this odd commercial) and stabilize the feet.


Saucony Grid Goes Pro

Year: 1998
Saucony introduces revolutionary ProGrid Cushioning System, taking Grid a step further, as it’s built closer to the foot for maximum support and durability. ProGrid is created with Respon-Tek, Saucony’s latest impact deflection technology made from a bend of foams and synthetic rubbers, as a platform to reduce shock impact for a smooth heel-to-toe transition.
Mizuno Wave Rider

Year: 1998
The first Wave technology shoe weighed in at 12.8 ounces, with today's 16th edition of the sneaker whittled down to 9.9 ounces and an undated heel counter. The wave technology is inspired by the waveforms that spread and dissipate energy quickly, reducing impact away from the feet much like your car's suspension system.

Converse's Helium Technology

Year: 1999
Converse went against Nike's past decade of flaunting their Air technology with the All Star He:01 technology, built on the lightest periodic element, Helium. The lightweight component was stored in the midsole in the heel, a truly experimental play by Converse.


Shox Brings a Bounce

Year: 2000
Nike Shox brought the millennium with a bang. The responsive technology was introduced by Vince Carter jumping over Frederic Weis at the Sydney Olympics, this “Bounce” concept had been in development for 16 years when it finally made its debut. The idea behind the Shox relied in a responsive cushioning system supplied by a flexible Air-Sole unit and the Shox for extra bounce.


Rocker My Sole

Year: 2005
Masai Barefoot Technology, also known as MBT, was the first generic rocker sole shoe for the mass market made to “simulate the challenge of walking barefoot on soft earth.” The trend peaked in 2005 with brands popping up with their own re-conceptualized versions of rocker soled shoes like Reebok’s EasyTone and Sketcher’s famously Kardashian-approved Shape-Ups.

Barefoot Nation

Year: 2005
The same year that maximum soles were all the rage, sole supplier Vibram released the FiveFinger shoe as a glove for the foot. First designed in 1999 from a design student who wanted to find a way to move around in nature more efficiently, the Vibram FiveFingers were originally marketed as a boat shoe with toe separation and ample grip for slippery situations. The concept of using them for a more athletic purpose came from Ted McDonald, better known as “barefoot Ted” and as the author for barefoot running bible Born to Run. Debates ensued followed by a suits against the company for false medical claims, but the minimal trend had begun and Vibram lead the way.


Viva Barefoot!

Year: 2003
Vivobarefoot launched with a minimalist shoe on a patented, ultra thin puncture resistant sole that offers a maximum sensory feedback and protection from the elements. The idea behind the brand is “70% of your brain’s information for movement comes from the nerves on the soles of your fee. The more you can feel the ground, the greater your body’s understanding of its surrounds and natural movement.” This zen approach is a sign of the times in this mimimal decade of athletic footwear.


adidas Supplies an Ultraride

Year: 2004
The Ultraride was adidas’ attempt to build a foamless sole. The TPU material doesn’t break down as quickly as the traditional foam structure and the horizontal tubular structure ensures a similar responsive ride. Other renditions of this concept have existed, adidas and K-Swiss have also made variations of the hollow tubular theme.

Nike Breaks Free

Year: 2004
Nike Free technology was introduced, bringing the concept of barefoot running to the mainstream. Designed by Sasha Kerigaysky and innovator Tobie Hatfield, the concept was inspired by watching Nike sponsored track stars training barefoot. The Nike Free 5.0 came out a year later, with a range of 3.0 to 7.0 following, and many copies after that. This was Nike’s approach to paring down the traditionally cushioned running shoe to build muscles in the runner’s foot, formerly pampered by larger cushioning systems.

Air from Every Angle

Year: 2006
Nike Air Max 360 is released as the first shoe with a foamless midsole. The visible Air component is visible from every angle, offering a smooth and durable ride on a full-length bed of pressurized air.


Newton Running Changes the Game

Year: 2007
Newton Running brought a new form of “barefoot” to runners looking for something new. The Newton theory strives for stride efficiency by placing a lug in the forefoot of the midsole to inspire a toe strike. By forcing runners to reconsider their stride by adjusting the heel to forefoot drop, Newton Running created a game changing product.

A Midsole for the Environment

Year: 2008
Brooks launches BioMoGo as a first ever biodegradable athletic midsole, which breaks down 50 times faster than traditional cushioning materials.


Nike Introduces Lunarlon

Year: 2008
Nike introduced the Lunarlon technology in the form of the Lunar Racer. Today’s version of Phylon has been applied to almost every performance shoe from Nike, succeeding Air as the midsole of choice. Inspired by space travel, Nike developed Lunarlon to feel like running on marshmallows, finishing with a product that was 30% lighter than the standard Phylon foam and contained the dual-density construction that stabilizes shoe by dissipating initial impact.


Brooks Running Gets Smart

Year: 2009
Brooks releases the DNA cushioning system, the first ever “smart” cushioning midsole to provide custom cushioning for runners of all types and sizes. Made of a non-Newtonian liquid, the midsole can disperse pressure placed by the foot just by gauging the amount of resiliency needed. Considered “smart” as you know when to expect a softer ride and firm when the going gets tough.


Balance Pod Technology Starts a Toning Craze

Year: 2009
Reebok launches EasyTone footwear with a proprietary technology supplied by a former NASA engineer with balance pod technology to keep athletes and casual wearers on their toes. Three years later, after a string of unforgettable commercials, Reebok was called out by the Federal Trade Commision to refund over $25 million to consumers over false claims the toning footwear made in advertising. The concept of the EasyTone was similar to the effect that is achieved when training on a balance ball, which Reebok continued to stand by after the big refund.


Reinventing the Zig Zag

Year: 2010
Reebok launched ZigTech in an effort to recycle energy expelled with each heel-to-toe stride with a soft, springy ride. The geometric shape of the sole was built to absorb the impact of heel strike and send a wave of energy along the length of the shoe to help propel athlete forward with each step. The shark tooth inspired rubber sole is designed to feel smooth one way and rough on the other with 20 degree angles supplying the “zig” for a secure and durable ride.


Mizuno’s Dramatic Approach

Year: 2010
Suspension soles got a sexy look with the Mizuno Wave Prophecy. After seven years of research and development, the Wave Prophecy’s full-lenth Infinity Wave plates were built to propel you forward with a smooth stride whether you landed on your heel, midfoot, or forefoot. Blending the science of mechanics with the art of shoe design struck a balance with the Prophecy.


Reebok’s RealFlex

Year: 2011
Reebok launches RealFlex to promote natural movement while running and training. The 76 independent sensors on the sole are strategically positioned to twist, bend, expand, and support the feet to move with being hindered by a clunky, rigid construction. And who could forget these little guys...


Barefoot Running for All

Year: 2012
adidas approaches the minimal trend with this something-for-everyone approach. The Adipure Motion, Gazelle and Adapt sneakers make up the first “natural running” collection by the brand, ranging from an 11mm heel drop to 4mm. The midsole is flexible in the Motion and Gazelle, and seeminly non-existent in the Adapt, reflecting barefoot trends.

Air Max Flexes

Year: 2013
While the full length air midsole has been around for six years, it has never been this flexible. The Hyperfuse and Flywire equipped upper bends harmoniously with the Max Air unit, minimized to increase airflow. The internal tube are manipulated to move with the foot, allowing the most flexible Air Max yet.

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