History of the trainer

The Humble Trainer


The humble trainer – where would we runners be without it?  Much to the delight of Run Reigate’s founder Dave Kelly, one of the earliest recordings of organised running dates back to 1829 BC, the Tailteann Games, a sporting festival in Ireland in honour of Tailtiu, the goddess of butter … kidding.  These runners would probably only have had leather or animal strips covering their feet, if anything at all.  Today’s runners have an extensive choice of trainer, depending on their gait, ability and terrain preference.  Here’s more than you’ve ever probably wanted to know about the humble trainer…

Trainers that we know today were originally a British invention (of course), developed in  1832 by a chap called Wait Webster, who designed a process where rubber soles could be attached to leather shoes and boots.  By 1852 the plimsoll was born, widely worn by children.  The term plimsoll comes from the elastic band that joins the upper sole and resembles a “plimsoll line” on a ship’s hull.  Soon croquet and tennis players got in on the act and special soles were designed to provide more grip.  I’ve often had terrible slippage problems whilst playing croquet.  Then another Brit, Joseph William Foster (owner of Boulton which later became Reebok), added spikes to the bottom of the plimmies to make what we now know as running spikes.  

Next up came vulcanisation, a revolution in shoe manufacturing that had nothing to with Spock.  Vulcanisation is the process of melting rubber and fabric together, a mixture that then evolved to create treads and the start of the trainer as we know it – lightweight and flexible.  Goodyear, of tyre fame, started producing these shoes then known as ‘Keds’, in 1892, but it wasn’t until 1917 that they moved into the running field.  

Rudolf and Adolf ‘Adi’ Dassler from Germany started making their own shoes in their mother’s wash kitchen, after returning from the First World War and by the Second World War they were selling 200,000 pairs of shoes a year.  Post war they actually used surplus tent canvas and fuel tank rubber – now that’s what we call recycling!  As successful as they were, relationships turned sour during wartime and the brothers parted company, starting their own trainer-battle.  ‘Adi’ started Adidas and Rudolph opened Puma, building factories on opposite sides of the river in their town of Herzogenaurach.  Apparently they never spoke again, which must have made the family bbq’s tedious.

From the 50s onwards, trainers were not just for athletes, as all the cool kids were wearing them too.  “Sneaks” became all the rage, so named because they allowed you to sneak up on someone.  In the 60s Nike was founded in Portland, Oregon.  A combo of Phil Knight, an athlete, and his coach, Bob Bowerman designed a running shoe which was lightweight and comfortable in various running conditions.  They invented the waffle sole, after pouring rubber into a waffle iron… although a great idea, I can’t imagine his wife was best pleased.  NASA also got in on the trainer act, helping Nike develop the first air cushioned sole.

Jogging in the 70s propelled the design of trainers even further as manufacturers developed their comfort and flexibility and recognised the retail potential.  In the years between 1970 and 2012, models of trainers grew from 5 to 3,371.  These days each sport has it’s own preference and style, and in running is then even further subdivided depending on your gait, preferred terrain and running technique.    

With all this choice and modern technology, how do you get the right shoes for you?  We’d recommend a trip to Simply Sports who can help you navigate the spectrum of running shoes and assess your gait and style.  No need to twist my arm to go trainer shopping!  If your shoes are no longer good for clocking up the miles, but are still wearable, there are lots of charities that collect and send them abroad for those in desperate need.  Run Reigate will have a trainer bank on the race day, if you’d like to donate your old ones, even if they’re still moist!

So, that was a brief run through the history of the humble trainer.  A journey entwined with goddesses, croquet, tents, tanks, waffle irons and NASA naturally!