Trends & Features

How has technology impacted the running market?

Anyone remember watching sport on Ceefax? Seeing those goals update within five minutes of being scored was the way for any self-respecting football fan to watch their match – if it wasn’t listening to the commentary on the single sports channel on the radio. Now we can stream live games to a three-inch screen in the palm of our hands.

How far technology has come since the heady days of Del-Boy’s mobile phone that we can now turn our home heating on from another continent, be recognised by a machine at airport security by a scan of our face or a wave of our fingerprints, grab a coffee with a swipe of an app (something my three-year-old mastered in just one outing) and pay for our our train travel with a tap of a bank card on a little yellow disc.

When it comes to running, we can measure our long Sunday runs to the nearest metre, or inform race organisers that they haven’t measured the course correctly because the watch on our wrist can tell us our location with satellite fuelled accuracy. And it can do that whilst streaming whatever playlist or podcast we desire to motivate us along the way.

Races can be entered online with minimal fuss, no stamped addressed envelope needed to receive your race number (other than the county XC champs, obvs). Friends and family can follow a little blue dot on a screen to see how we are getting on in that same race (but not the county XC!), and we expect results to be not just published on the race website within hours of crossing the finishing line, but most likely texted to us before we have even got our breath back. Even Parkrun – which is free remember – does that with the simplicity of a personalised barcode. And look at shoes.

When I first started in the running industry, “cushioning” was a mere elastic polymer added to an EVA or PU mould that would provide additional energy return. You’d need to get towards the top-end of the range to experience cushioned luxury under both your heel and your forefoot. Now even budget running shoes have those additional fabrics. And at the top of the tree, entire midsoles are constructed of fabrics so light and responsive they would have cost several hundred pounds ten years ago – even if those materials were available at all.

The three-way compromise between weight, cushioning and cost is no longer the overriding choice for today’s runner (or Running Store buyer). Perhaps this is partly responsible for the movement away from running shoes that look like something out of Star Trek.

For most brands, gone are the layers of plastic and additional gimmickry, which added supposed tech benefits, but also weight and clutter. The minimalism movement of zero drop shoes around 2010 has brought with it a new design principle for the innovative brands. You’ll find that the cost price of today’s running shoes goes more towards the highest quality components, midsole foams and upper textiles, than does a rigid midfoot shank or thermos-plastic wrap around the heel counter.

The consumer is offered a smoother transition between heel and forefoot as one piece midsoles become the norm. Those consumers want a great feeling shoe and a fast- looking shoe. Cosmetic cleanliness is now next to running shoe godliness.

And how about the shoe purchase? Instead of standing in the shop jumping from foot-to-foot, flexing a shoe in ways that she will never do again, the consumer can watch herself run from three different angles, witness how a shoe effects their running stride, measure over pronation to the nearest degree and then make a selection based on the repeat testing of a dozen different styles.

Does all this technology make our running lives better? Have we forgotten the simple pleasure of going for a run to get away from everything? Can’t we just buy (or sell) a pair of shoes because they look cool or feel comfy?

The answer to each of those is most likely, yes. But having the ability to do so simply gives the runner more options. Runners need options. Humans need options. Technology gives us those options.

I love knowing how far I have run on any given day or week, I love the convenience of entering a race online or following friends race via an app on my phone. But sometimes I ignore the watch, or I race cross country and send in the stamped address envelope. Each of those is my choice.

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