Road Shoes

6 Patents That Changed Running Shoe Design

The six most influential patents that have changed running shoe design since the mid-1970s.

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Stan Hockerson has spent his career examining, innovating, and selling shoes. After running competitively and studying kinesiology in college, Hockerson worked in some of the first running shops in California in the mid-1970s and started looking at shoe designs with a critical eye. He began sketching ways to improve the functionality of shoes and received his first patent in 1979 at the age of 24. He has worked for several brands and continues to consult with shoe companies while also owning several running stores. Here, he describes what he believes are the six most influential patents that have changed running shoe design since the mid-1970s.

Bill Bowerman’s Waffle Outsole

Nike Waffle Racer
Nike’s Waffle Racer pays homage to the 1977 original and utilizes the classic waffle outsole.

When Bill Bowerman created the waffle outsole for Nike, everyone had to make their own version of it because it improved traction and cushioning and was so visually striking. Not long after Nike’s waffle with the square lugs made a splash on the market, Puma came up with a version with round lugs, Saucony made triangle lugs—and so it went. The waffle outsole was what’s called a “disruptive patent” because it disrupted the industry and forced other brands to follow a new way of doing something.

Nike’s Air-Sole Cushioning System

Nike Air Max
The Air Max 270 React ENG showcases Nike’s innovative design with a large heel window.

The Air bladder midsole concept that Frank Rudy designed and licensed to Nike was unlike anything before or after it. It immediately spawned new midsole ideas and innovations from other brands. Nike grew enormously after it perfected the ability to put Air packets in the midsoles of its shoes, and the evolution of the Air Max and the cross-training category that followed were a big part of that. Nike hit the market at the right time, with innovation that made everyone else react.

Stabilizing Midsole Design

New Balance 860 v10
A notably stable shoe, the New Balance 860v10 is just one of countless others to utilize a standard foot-wrapping midsole. Photo: Hannah DeWitt

“I filed this patent in 1979 for a supportive midsole design that came up around the side of the foot and eliminated the collapse around the void between the heel counter and the flare of the midsole. When I tried to sell the patent in 1980 to 1982, there wasn’t much interest. I remember the letter that Jeff Johnson [Nike’s first employee, who served many executive roles with the brand] sent me telling me it was ‘cosmetically unsound,’ which meant it looked ugly,” Hockerson says. But as running changed and people started craving one shoe that could do more than just run, brands started to design with a midsole that wraps the foot for more lateral stability. The Air Max and crosstrainers were two initial ways it was used, but there’s not a shoe made today that doesn’t use this design.

Barry Bates Pronation Plugs

Asics Gel Nimbus Lite
ASICS has an online pronation guide, recommending the Gel-Nimbus Lite for neutral pronators. Photo: Hannah DeWitt

Barry Bates designed and patented shoes for ASICS in 1980 that had midsole inserts with varying levels of firmness to cater to the rate and severity level of pronation. A footwear guru from San Francisco named Jeff Sink was doing it before Bates, but he didn’t put the patent out there the way Bates did. Ultimately, it changed the industry, and every brand wound up creating its own version of multidensity midsoles and, later, more dynamic midsole designs that could avoid inserts altogether.

Decoupled Outsoles

Nike Free Flyknit
The grooves on Nike’s Free RN Flyknit 3.0 are designed to mimic barefoot running.

South African Johnny Halberstadt (who cofounded the Boulder Running Company stores in the United States) was the first to create and patent a decoupled outsole with a longitudinal groove under the heel. The design created a left and right side of the heel, allowing the shoe to compress into that void. This changed how shoe developers thought about how to disperse heel impact forces because it segmented the heel for the first time. “I took it a step further by putting sipes all the way across to create small independent squares that allowed a wide range of natural movement that a structure or posted shoe could not, and that wound up being a big part of how the Nike Free was designed,” recalls Hockerson.

Articulated Toes by Vibram FiveFingers

Vibram Five Fingers Classic
Love it or hate it, the classic FiveFingers design put Vibram at the forefront of the minimalist running movement.

FiveFingers, with its low-to-the-ground design and individual pockets for each toe, disrupted the industry big-time, whether good or bad. “I thought it was a good thing because it made shoe companies aware that shoes had gotten too high off the ground, disallowing feet to move naturally. At the time, designs were hiding air and gel packets, and shoes were really high off the ground. Now, running barefoot was a dangerous thing. We’ve been wearing elevated shoes our entire adult lives, so trying to go down to zero probably means you’re going to get injured. Still, in my opinion, FiveFingers were good for our industry because they led to the minimalist movement and forced everyone to think differently,” Hockerson says.


Adapted from Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture & Cool of Running Shoes by Brian Metzler with permission of VeloPress.