Running shoes do not have too long of a history, with the first pair being developed around 200 years ago. They were initially made from leather and each decade brought a number of changes, such as the rubber soles and spikes. Companies began manufacturing sneakers in the 1930s, with running shoes being used by athletes from all over the world and in major competitions, including the Olympics. In the 1970s, Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike, one of the major names in the industry, changed the world of the running shoe forever. And it all started with a waffle iron.
The waffle shoes, the first pair of running shoes from Nike
Imagine Bill Bowerman having breakfast in a kitchen typical for the 1970s. While looking at his waffle iron, he suddenly decided that the grooves inside the device could actually be used to create a mold for a pair of running shoes. Bowerman had already presented interest in developing running shoes, wanting to come up with something innovative, lighter and faster than any other shoe on the market. In that morning, Bowerman came up with the rubber mold, which served as inspiration for one of the best-selling pairs of running shoes. They were known as the waffle trainers, being made available somewhere around 1974. And they made history, with the soles mimicking in the side of the waffle iron (same grooves).
Were the other running shoes on the market already outdated?
Bowerman was working as a coach for the University of Oregon when he founded the company we know today as Nike, together with a former player of his, Phil Knight. The main desire was to create a running shoe that was light and fast, not to mention capable of providing increased traction. The need for more traction appeared as artificial surfaces began to be used for the running track; the traditional running shoes presented an increased risk for slipping. Moreover, Bowerman had noticed that traditional running shoes did not provide as much speed as it was necessary. Being quite heavy, many shoes of the time were also responsible for various foot conditions ranging from mere blisters to plantar fasciitis.
Innovative footwear, a result of curiosity and perseverance
The dissatisfaction with the existent running shoes at that moment stimulated Bowerman to come up with the innovative mold for the waffle shoes. The majority of the running shoes at that moment had spikes on the soles, being made from a combination of leather and metal (hence the increased weight and reduced speed). All he wanted was to reduce the time runners would need to win a competition, but he managed to do so much more. He came up with the first popular running shoe, one that would manage to redefine the footwear universe entirely.
Before the waffle shoe, Bowerman had already patented a number of running shoes, including the Cortez. He continuously worked to improve his patents, adding external heel counters and improving the placement of the spikes. Moreover, he was the one to come up with what was known as the cushioned spike plate. All of his ideas and endeavors were geared towards developing a running shoe that was lightweight and fast at the same time. In creating innovative footwear, Bowerman dabbled with a lot of notions, including those related to human anatomy and biomechanics, traction and cushioning.
When he came up with the waffle iron idea, the first material that he used for testing was melted urethane. Initially, the result was not that impressive, as he forgot to previously grease the iron. But he persevered and he managed to come up with a rubber material that was lightweight and with the patented grid pattern, which would finally provide the traction he wanted. The waffle shoe slowly began to be used by professional and amateur runners alike, not to mention by other athletes. They easily became the best selling running shoes, putting Nike on the map for innovative footwear.
The custom-made shoe, making a difference in sporting competitions
For a runner, time is of the essence. Being well aware of the need for cutting back on time, Bowerman worked continuously to reduce the weight of the running shoes and add speed. His custom-made shoes were lightweight, thanks to the innovative materials that he used. Also, the design of the waffle shoes reduced the risk of blisters; at the same time, it required less energy from the runner, while providing the opportunity for enhanced performance. He continued to improve the design of the shoe, putting his own health in danger; in the end, he was unable to run in the shoes he had created, as he suffered from severe nerve damage. But he never gave up, as he strongly believed that his custom-made shoes would make a genuine difference for athletes taking part in various sporting competitions.
The world of running shoes changed completely the moment Bowerman developed the Waffle Trainer. The running shoe was suitable for a wide range of surfaces, including those that were uneven. It was also one of the first shoes to absorb shocks not only at the level of the midsoles but also on the outsole. At that moment, many of the running shoes present on the market were heavy, with a flat sole and they were quite close to the ground; all of these characteristics slowed down the runner and brought down his/her performance. The waffle shoe had an interesting sole, higher from the ground and capable of guaranteeing an efficient traction (extra grip). Given all of these features, it should come as no surprise that it revolutionized the industry.
You never know where inspiration can come from and the story of the waffle shoes is the perfect example. These are indeed the first popular running shoes and the ones that have turned Nike into the successful company of today. The waffle sole was later on used on other sneaker models, given its impressive features. And we should all remember that, long ago, a man looked at a waffle iron and felt inspired. He came up with a pair of running shoes that helped millions of professional and amateur athletes do the thing they love the most. This is what innovation is all about!