The first shoe designed specifically for running hit the market in 1832. Wait Webster affixed rubber soles to Plimsoll shoes and, just like that, the proverbial horn sounded, and the race to design the fastest, smartest pair of sneakers began. In 2020, a dozen or so brands lead the charge in running shoe technology that stretches far beyond what Webster imagined (among them Nike, New Balance, Brooks—heard of them?). From pace-pumping carbon plates to 100 percent sustainable soles to injury-preventing ergonomics, sneaker brands are pulling out all the stops to vie for stronger strides in the future.
Already valued at $1.3 billion, the global running shoe market has clearly taken off since the 19th century. Before a pair of sneakers winds up on a splashy billboard, in your neighborhood sports store, or on your feet, however, it’s just a collection of materials including rubber, leather, polyester, eva foam, and cotton. Just like baking has three essential ingredients (sugar, butter, flour), all shoes hail from a few basic materials. What comes after that is an amalgamation of innovation and imagination.
Below, we take a look at the smartest, flashiest, sport-bending sneakers the running industry dreamt up in 2020. We’ve come along way since basic rubber soles. Who knows what 2021 has in store?
2020 running shoe technology to note
1. Hoka X All Gender, $180
Hoka OneOne has a singular reputation for making the bounciest, softest shoes around. And for the first time this year, the brand combined its beloved marshmallow wear with a one-millimeter carbon fiber plate. Since Nike co-sponsored a study that found a 4 percent increase in runner performance in participants who wore a carbon-plated shoe, many brands have equipped their shoes with the carbon plate. This technology, combined with Hoka’s “meta-rocker” technology (which supposedly provides support through your natural gait), makes this shoe one-of-a-kind.
Shop now: Hoka X All Gender, $180
2. Nike Air Zoom Tempo NEXT% ($200)
Nike deems this shoe its “fastest shoe for training runs”—and it rocks the carbon plate and literal airbags to help you make your dream pace a reality. Two “Zoom Air pods” sit beneath the forefoot of the Tempo NEXT% and squish and expand to provide you optimal energy return with every stride. A collapsable heel also allows athletes of all abilities to easily insert their feet before they move.
Shop now: Nike Air Zoom Tempo NEXT% ($200)
3. On Cyclon, $30 per month
On Cyclon’s sustainability model lands it a spot on this list. Rather than buying, wearing, and tossing a pair of sneakers, On sets you up with a $30 per month subscription that sends you a pair of sustainable shoes made from castor beans. When you’ve logged 600 kilometers on that shoes, ask On to send you a brand-new pair of super-light kicks. When you return your old, muddy sneaks, they’ll recycle them into new gear. No waste. Only miles.
Unlike the other shoes on this list, On takes the no-muss, no-fuss, eight-millimeter drop. So for those who are interested in running with minimalist shoes, this subscription was practically made for you.
Shop now: On Cyclon, $30 per month
4. Brooks Hyperion Elite 2, $250
Brooks nitrogen-infused DNA Flash midsole technology is the most feather-light cushioning in Brooks’ Rolodex. It also (surprise, surprise) contains the oh-so-popular carbon fiber propulsion plate to keep you bounding forward.
Shop now: Brooks Hyperion Elite 2, $250
5. Saucony Endorphin Pro, $200
Earlier this year, the Saucony Endorphin Pro launched with the brand’s new signature Speedroll technology. True to its name, the new powers your stride through an S-curve carbon plate sandwiched between two layers of foam to offer each stride its own momentum.
Shop now: Saucony Endorphin Pro, $200
6. Allbirds Tree Dasher, $125
From loungewear to footwear, Allbirds has all your style bases covered. Earlier this year, the brand launched the Tree Dashers: a stabilizing running shoe with geometry on its side. The foam in the shoe comes from sugarcane, a self-sufficient plant that makes for really sustainable footwear.
The pentagon-esque shape of the shoe’s heel keeps your ankle from sliding from side to side.
Shop now: Allbirds Tree Dasher, $125
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