Performance Footwear Revolution: The Intersection of Innovative Material Science and Technology

In Bill Bryson’s 1999 book, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” the humorist writes that his son is a runner with a “conservative estimate” of 6,100 pairs of running shoes owned. He described them as amazing and noted a host of innovative technologies and peak material science that was imbued in their designs. “Alan Shephard went into space with less science at his disposal than that.”

While the author was joking, 25 years later, science has caught up to his fictional satire.

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In recent years, the convergence of innovative material science, 3D printing, 3D sizing, AI-powered design and rigorous field testing has transformed the performance footwear market, which includes running (trails, tracks and long distance), basketball and tennis, among other sports.

Industry experts estimate the global athletic footwear market at around $128 billion and see it growing steadily over the next five years. Driving the market is greater consumer demand for footwear with improved performance features, better construction and improved fit. Other factors fueling the market is increased participation in high-performance fitness activities, as well as the continued growth of athleisure, which blurs the lines between casual wear and fitness.

In addition, expanded channels of distribution, such as e-commerce and direct-to-consumer, as well as the popularity of mobile shopping, are also driving sales. And the transformation of physical stores into places to experience your favorite brand and commune with fellow athletes and industry experts has bolstered demand.

Meanwhile, innovations in material science and the rollout of new technologies have further catapulted the market. Lightweight and breathable fabrics along with high-performance cushioning has also been transformative. This includes Boost technology from Adidas, which touts the tagline, “On the track, in the streets or at the club. Adidas Boost gear takes what you put in and returns it with endless energy that matches you stride for stride.”

For its part, Brooks offers cushioning in its DNA Loft that has been infused with nitrogen, which utilizes “large-cell foaming for optimized responsiveness and cushioning — which means DNA Loft v3 is softer, lighter and more responsive than DNA Loft without sacrificing durability.”

Other industry innovations that are game changers include more durable and grippy outsoles that outperform other designs in a greater variety of terrains. For example, Hoka’s redesigned Challenger ATR 7 is a versatile running shoe for all terrains. It combines cushioning and durability for smooth road runs and confident off-road exploration. The updated midsole provides a plush ride, while the outsole features strategically placed lugs for grip on both pavement and trails. The breathable upper ensures lightweight comfort.

Meanwhile, advanced 3D printing has opened the door for more customized shoe designs across the market. Seamless uppers have made for improved fit and greater comfort. And integrated support systems have transformed traditional designs by adding enhanced stability.

And then there are the smart technologies, including sensors for tracking performance measures such as foot strike, speed and distance — data which is used for coaching and personal benchmarking.

Additional tech innovations of note include more personalized sizing approaches and orthotics that address foot pain and other issues. With orthotics, for example, Upstep has customers fill out a brief, online questionnaire. Then, in a few business days, the customer is sent an impression kit. After making the impression, the kit box is sent back to Upstep, which creates a fully customized insert. The company has several versions specifically designed for different types of use — and it is all backed by science.

On the sizing front, footwear and technology firm Aetrex is helping to improving user’s health. The company offers four different in-store scanners and a mobile app that can create 3D images of a person’s foot. The technology is quick and accurate, and the data generated is used to help customers select the right insoles and footwear. Additionally, it also helps retailers optimize their assortments, and manufacturers are integrating the data to improve their product development.

So, what does the future hold?

Emerging trends in performance footwear technology includes bioprinting and AI-powered design. And deploying more sustainable practices too. Regarding the latter, Nike is already ahead of the curve.

Last year, the footwear giant launched ReactX, which the company said “is engineered to cut down its carbon footprint in a pair of midsoles by at least 43 percent [compared to Nike React foam] due to reduced energy in the manufacturing process, and increase energy return by 13 percent.”

But these environmental gains don’t come without sacrificing performance. Nike said in a statement at the time that ReactX foam “is a feat of sport performance engineering.”

“The industry has two traditional methods of making foam, which can be summarized as either injection or compression molding,” Nike said. “The overall process for injection is simpler, and thus carries a lower carbon footprint — but it also tends to have lower energy return and a lower performance benefit. On the other hand, compression molding delivers more responsive foams with higher energy return, but also creates more waste and uses more energy to make it.”

It’s important to note that ReactX took five years to develop “to craft a formulation that hits the sweet spot between performance and environmental impact. After all, as famed basketball coach John Wooden once said, good things take time.

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