When I pinballed among the booths at 2021’s The Running Event, an annual trade show held in Austin, Texas, I was happy to see that the primary focus wasn’t on so-called super shoes. Yes, I talked shop about upcoming trainers that have a carbon-fiber plate, but the conversations almost always shifted to women runners.
The running shoe industry has long been criticized for “shrinking and pinking” men’s shoes and selling them to women. (Had I video-recorded all my conversations at this recent TRE, I could have made a “shrink it and pink it” supercut.)
The earliest purported women-specific running shoe was released in 1978. Incidentally, it didn’t have a feminized palette of pinks and purples. The blue and yellow Nike Lady Waffle Trainer was advertised with the tagline “There’s nothing more powerful than a shoe whose time has come.” A boastful statement, sure, but the ad even mentioned how the shoe was built on “a narrow last, especially suited to the bone structure in most women’s feet.” (Props to the marketing team for adding “most.”) Other brands followed suit and made shoes tailored to women, but over time the distinction faded, and running shoes most recently have been limited to the same construction for both men and women.
Asics is one of the companies that has different shoes designed for each sex, altering its Trusstic System—the middle part of the shoe made from a resin that stabilizes excessive foot twisting—to support a lower arch height. The women’s midsole is also different, with a honeycomb pattern embossed on both the heel and forefoot to absorb shock; there’s less of a honeycomb pattern on the forefoot area of the men’s midsole.
Altra is another brand that has continued to craft gender-specific lasts. “When we started the company, that was one of the things that kind of frustrated us,” said cofounder Brian Beckstead, referring to how brands tend to use unisex sizing when it comes to fit. “And so from day one, every single shoe we launched had a male-specific fit and a female-specific fit. We really were able to build it from the ground up with a last maker. We pioneered [the lasts] together from day one.”
If you look at an Altra men’s last and women’s last next to each other, the differences would be quite subtle. A trained eye will see that the women’s last accounts for a narrower heel, higher instep, metatarsal positioning farther back, and a greater Q angle (the angle formed by the quadriceps muscles and the patella tendon that affects pelvis, leg, and foot alignment).
Altra has evolved since its founding in 2009. To underscore how its shoes cater to a woman’s fit, the brand has used monikers like the discontinued Instinct/Intuition and Provision/Provisioness to differentiate the men’s and women’s versions. As the Provision was combined under one name, however, Fit4Her was introduced in 2017 to drive home the notion that all Altra shoes are women-specific. The brand is now phasing out this terminology, but the tech, Beckstead stressed, remains.
While brands like Asics and Altra have taken care to offer women’s models specific to their anatomy and biomechanics, my conversations with the product teams at the trade show made it clear that 2022 is the year of the woman across nearly the entire industry—at least from the marketing department, though it’s refreshing to see some actual product to support those efforts. This spring and summer, there will be a flood of women-centric running shoe releases.
Adidas, for example, has launched the Ultraboost 22, which was tailored specifically for women by an all-women team that combed data from 1.2 million foot scans—both men’s and women’s—across North America, Europe, and Asia. Nora Wilimzig, senior project manager of Adidas’s running division, showed me the new women’s last—the result of their exhaustive research—on a video call.
“You have certain goals as a runner and not as a woman or a man,” said Wilimzig. “And therefore, we knew we cannot change anything on the function of the shoe because the Ultraboost is locked for what it is and what it stands for: comfort, cushion, and responsiveness. But we can’t deny that we have gender-specific anatomical differences, that is obviously clear.” Analysis of the database confirmed what the Adidas team already knew about these differences, said Wilimzig. “That was just mind-blowing.”
Based on their findings, the team gave the interior of the Ultraboost 22 a major update. While there’s some overlap with the lasts other brands use for their women’s shoes—here, Wilimzig pointed to the accentuated narrow heel on the Adidas last—in contrast to Altra, Adidas’s women’s shoes have a lower instep.
Because a more exaggerated Q angle tends to cause overpronation, the medial side of the outsole was bolstered for extra stability. A closed rubber pattern makes the medial area stiffer and reduces stretching under the midfoot.
The UB 22 also has more foam in the heel and delivers 4 percent more energy return compared to its predecessor.
“We wanted to make an enhanced experience for female runners rather than actually have just a different shoe,” said Wilimzig. “This was something that I feel was influencing the whole process, and this is the first time that we were a completely female team on that.”
A re-engineered icon is an impressive endeavor—so is a women-only running shoe. Puma is intensifying its presence in the run space, sponsoring top 10 marathon finishers (Sara Vaughn, Anne Frisbie, and of course, Olympic bronze medalist Molly Seidel, to name a few), dropping shoes like the Deviate Nitro, which earned our Editors’ Choice award, and launching the She Moves Us campaign. Given all this, was I shocked by Puma’s announcement of the women-only Run XX Nitro? No. Am I eager to give the shoe a test run? Heck yes.
The shoe was validated through an independent study, which was conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and comprised 224 male and female participants across the country. (Men were included to gain insight on sex-specific preferences.) The majority of women testers praised the XX for its fit, comfort, and rebound, said Laura Healey, manager of footwear innovation at Puma.
Besides sculpting the shoe with the aforementioned attributes of a women-specific last, Healey said the team also took a deep dive into women runners’ comments and what they looked for in a running shoe. This feedback influenced the decision to implement a diagonal reflective TPU run guide across the ankle to promote stability and enhance visibility, and a higher arch for a closer fit. The Nitro foam (same compound in the Deviate Nitro) is also tuned to be firmer and provide more cushioned support without sacrificing high energy return.
“Often, shoe companies have one sample size and will test the majority of their development on that one sample size because making samples is very expensive,” said Healey. “And a lot of times that will be like a men’s 9 or a men’s 10. So, a lot of the testing and development of the shoe happens by men.”
Healey made it clear that the anatomical, biomechanical, and preferential differences of women shouldn’t be ignored. “[It’s important] to invest in opening more sizes and having a more inclusive kind of testing and development stage,” she said.
This is an issue we’ve run into ourselves with the Runner’s World shoe-testing program. Because of limited test samples, a couple of our runners wear-test the opposite gender shoe.
David Hinkel wears a men’s 7.5 but he tests a women’s 9 because our smallest men’s sample is a size 9. And Beth Levengood goes the opposite direction: She’s between a women’s 10.5 and 11 but tests a men’s size 9 because our largest women’s sample is a 10. Both runners have noticed that women’s shoes tended to be narrower and—you guessed it—more secure in the heel area. Neither had leaned toward men’s shoes or women’s shoes.
“As long as they are comfortable and have a good ride, the gender doesn’t matter,” Levengood says. “It’s all about the fit!”
The key takeaway here is gender-specific shoes aren’t gender exclusive when it comes to who can run in the shoes. In the end, Wilimzig laid out the easiest advice all runners should follow: Try shoes on until you find what fits you best and what you feel will give you the best running experience.