8 of the most innovative sneakers of all time

The material wizardry that made us all believe we could make the NBA finals if we wanted

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The running shoe has been around for a little over 200 years, and while it appears little has changed over the two centuries (it still serves an identical purpose), the technology inside these shoes has improved dramatically.

Here, we’ve collected some of the most innovative sneaker technologies of all time. From Nike’s iconic Air Max to Adidas’ futuristic 3D printed sneakers.

1. Nike Air Max

The Air Max is a range of shoes, first released by Nike in 1987, that are famous for using a large air pocket to cushion impact when playing sports.

Original designer Tinker Hatfield wanted to expose “the guts” of the shoe, so the 1993 Air Max was the first to have an Air unit that was fully visible around the back and sides.

2. The Reebok Pump

In an attempt to improve the fit of athletic shoes, Reebok released the Pump on 24 November 1989. It was the first shoe to have an internal inflation mechanism, which allowed the wearer to control the air pressure in the lower and upper tongue.

This, in theory, provided a more comfortable and stable shoe. And in practice, it provided a placebo effect so that school kids everywhere could pretend they were Dee Brown.

3. Nike Flyknit

Nike’s Flyknit innovation was first developed when Nike's team of computer programmers, engineers and designers took a knitting machine for socks and sweaters and re-engineered it to produce the upper part of a sneaker.

The result was a mesh upper that felt like a sock but had the strength and support of the best running footwear.

The shoe excelled in terms of both performance and sustainable design, greatly reducing manufacturing waste in the process. It was a revolution.

4. Adidas Boost

Adidas’ quest for comfort (and its mission to beat Nike) led to the creation of Boost, an innovative cushioning technology using a material called thermoplastic polyurethane.

What makes Boost so innovative? It’s all about energy return.

Thermoplastic polyurethane compresses on impact and instantly bounces back to its original shape. This cushions your feet when running, and promises to give you an extra spring in your step.

Boost is thought to offer the highest energy return of any running shoe on the market.

5. Adidas 3D printing sneakers

Adidas has partnered with a 3D printing company called Carbon to 3D print a range of sneakers called Adidas 4D Futurecraft

Carbon uses a unique process to create the shoes, using light to fix the materials into lattice soles. The technology reduces the time it takes to print the shoe's sole from an hour and a half to an impressive sub-30 minutes.

In the future, this could allow Adidas to tailor-make shoes perfectly fitted to your feet, producing small production runs, limited edition shoes and even soles designed to fit your weight and gait.

6. Adidas SpeedFactory

This leads us on nicely to SpeedFactory, which demonstrates Adidas’ ability for small-scale, bespoke production.

At the end of last year, Adidas announced the AM4 (Adidas Made For) series, a range of trainers tailored specifically for select cities around the world.

Adidas co-creates the shoes using athlete data to help shape the design and development process, working closely with a group of consumers from the city.

Perhaps more importantly, the introduction of AM4 also sees the launch of Adidas' Speedfactory facility in Ansbach, Germany. This is a significant moment for the brand, beginning a state-of-the-art manufacturing process that enables Adidas to create tailored running shoes with unprecedented speed, thanks to the advanced robots.

This is just the start, with the end goal for Adidas to be to create trainers tailored to a specific individual's needs using athlete data.

7. The world’s first graphene shoes

This year, inov-8 launched the world’s first graphene-infused shoes – using the new wonder material to improve footwear as we know it.

Graphene is the thinnest material on Earth and is 200 times stronger than steel. This helps make the shoes extraordinarily flexible, with the ability to be bent, twisted, folded and stretched without incurring any damage.

Testing showed inov-8’s innovative outsoles last more than 1,000 miles, compared to the typical 300 to 500 miles. As well as having a massive benefit to runners, the increased lifespan of the shoes is likely to help reduce excessive consumption and waste.

8. Nike HyperAdapt 1.0

We all remember watching Back to Future and envying Marty McFly’s self-lacing sneakers, but it turns out that Nike has made this futuristic technology a reality. 

The HyperAdapt 1.0 feature a sensor under the midfoot that automatically tightens the system when a foot is placed in the shoe. Buttons on the side of the sneakers tighten or loosen for a customised fit.

Nike designer Tinker Hatfield explains that this also solves an age-old problem; the ability to make micro-adjustments on the fly. It reduces undue pressure caused by tight tying, as well as issues with slippage resulting from loose laces.

HyperAdapt 1.0, as the name clearly states, is the first step. The current limitations are clear – it's manual (you control the tightness) – but in the future, Nike envisions a symbiotic relationship with the foot and shoe.

“It is amazing to consider a shoe that senses what the body needs in real-time. That eliminates a multitude of distractions, including mental attrition, and thus truly benefits performance.” said Hatfield.

“Wouldn’t it be great if a shoe, in the future, could sense when you needed to have it tighter or looser? Could it take you even tighter than you’d normally go if it senses you really need extra snugness in a quick maneuvre? That’s where we’re headed. In the future, product will come alive.”

This article is part of our Tech Innovation for the Future series, brought to you in association with Honor.