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Getting a grip

The development of spiked shoes for athletic competitions.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Mitchellgunn |

Having to run a race in shoes that gave insufficient traction has almost certainly been deemed a curse by many athletes since organised competitions began. Things started to change in the late 1890s, when Joseph William Foster (the founder of British company JW Foster and Sons and a man who reportedly had a passion for running) wanted to develop a shoe that would help to increase his speed. While shoes with spikes protruding from the outersole to provide grip had been used for a number of applications for some time, Foster is generally recognised as the father of the spiked shoes that are today worn by athletes around the world.


Ville Ritola and Paavo Nurmi running at the 1928 Olympic Games

These original athletic shoes resembled men’s dress shoes with metal spikes stuck in the sole. Compared to today’s brightly coloured, lightweight footwear, they were rather heavy and quite hot to run in. Nevertheless, these cowhide leather shoes, featuring six spikes in the forefoot, were a revolutionary introduction for track runners and helped them to significantly increase their speed. It was no surprise that once athletes could see how much faster they could run in spiked footwear, they wanted shoes that weighed even less. Softer and more lightweight kangaroo hide was introduced as the next step towards the ideal track shoe.

In 1925, a German shoemaker named Adi Dassler – the founder of adidas – decided to take spiked athletic shoes (often simply called ‘spikes’) a step further. He recognised that a range of shoes for different distances was required, and so set out to create a collection for specific applications. For example, sprinting spikes had very little heel and only spikes in the front, while shoes for high jumpers had spikes at both the front and the back. Dassler also used hand-forged spikes and the latest materials available to make them as light as possible.

Spikes in the international arena


Jesse Owens won four gold medals during the 1936 Olympics

Many of the runners in the 1928 Summer Olympic Games held in Amsterdam wore the newly designed adidas spikes. However, it was at the Berlin Olympics eight years later, when American Jesse Owens won four gold medals in adidas spikes, that Dassler’s creations really captured the attention of the athletic world.

The late 1960s saw the next big revolution in the world of running, when new materials started to be used by manufacturers of track spikes. Plastic bottom plates were added to toe area into which the spikes were screwed. Soon thereafter, leather uppers were replaced by synthetic and mesh materials, making the shoes even lighter. Today, there are a number of international companies which design and produce track and field shoes.

It was the transition from cinder tracks to all-weather, rubberised tracks beginning in the 1960s that gave the use of spiked track shoes even more importance when it came to enhancing athletes’ performances. The older track surfaces could not provide the best traction for spikes, whereas the new surface – with more energy return and greater surface resistance – could provide increased traction and not slow the runner down. Out of necessity, spikes became smaller, so that they would not tear up the track.

Specific requirements

In addition to technological advancement in lightweight upper materials, athletes can select from a variety shapes for the actual spikes protruding from the bottom of the shoe. As Adi Dassler discovered all those years ago, some spike designs and layouts are more suitable for sprinting, distance running or field events than others.

Most spikes are between 5mm (3/16 inch) and 12mm (1/2 inch) long, the most common being 6mm (1/4 inch). Blanks may be used in a spike well where no spike is required. There are a number of modern spike designs, including ‘pyramid’, ‘needle’ and ‘Christmas tree’ (see box 1).

Box 1: Popular spikes

Pyramid spikes (figure 1) are conical in shape, taper to a sharp point, and normally have a maximum diameter almost equal to the diameter of the thread on the spike. They provide bounce to the runner and are commonly used in both track and cross-country races (although longer spikes are sometimes used on really grassy cross-country courses.

Needle (or ‘pin’) spikes (figure 2) also have a sharp point, but a thinner cone diameter.

Christmas tree spikes (figure 3) feature a terraced cone shape with a flat end which compresses the track rather than penetrates it, and use the track's reaction force to return energy to the runner. This style of spike is also said to also reduce track wear and cause less serious injuries to other runners.


Figure 1: A pyramid spike

In the 1990s, lightweight metal composites were first developed for the aerospace industry, and a number of companies realised that these substances had other commercial applications. One of these applications was for running shoe spikes, as a composite spike weighs one-third that of a steel spike. Since then, ceramic spikes have been developed, and now technology has progressed to the point where specialised spikes made for the world’s top athletes can be made from ‘nanomaterials’.


Figure 2: A needle (or pin) spike

Shoe design


Figure 3: A Christmas tree spike

The toe of a typical spiked sole has a rigid or semi-rigid plate which contains threaded holes called ‘spike wells’. The chosen spikes can be screwed into these wells with a spike wrench. Track shoes generally have no spike wells along the mid-foot or heel, although high jump and javelin shoes normally include them in these locations. Some shoes have ‘fixed’ spikes which cannot be removed.

Shoes for track events are very light – some weigh less than five ounces (142g) each. Usually, this low weight is achieved by a reduction in the amount of material used in the soles and sidewalls. As a result, spiked shoes generally provide a lower level of support and cushioning than a standard running shoe does. Regular use in training may mean that these shoes may not last very long.

In the majority of spiked track shoes, the toe region bends up in order to allow space for protruding spikes, in addition to encouraging the athlete to run on his or her toes. This upward angle is known as the ‘taper’ and is intended to maximise the efficiency of energy transfer involved with each stride. The taper varies considerably, depending on how the shoe is intended to be used. Shoes with a large taper are termed ‘aggressive’.

Image © Nike

Shoes for field events incorporate a variety of spike layouts – or no spikes at all (far right)

Spiked shoes for sprinters often feature a zip-up cover instead of – or in addition to – laces to try to provide an aerodynamic advantage. Sprinters’ shoes normally fit more tightly than regular athletic shoes yet still be comfortable enough to run in. If the footwear is too loose, the runner will almost certainly lose power and speed.

Image © pjmorse

A needle spike fitted into a spike well

By comparison, shoes for long distance running normally incorporate fewer spikes housed in a more flexible spike plate which has less taper. Because of the longer time the shoes are worn in a race, mid-foot and heel support is important. Such shoes generally have a softer and more durable sole – especially in the heel region than used in sprinters’ shoes. Although still reasonably tight, spiked shoes for distance running are generally slightly looser than for sprint spikes.

Middle distance spikes are designed to meet yet another set of requirements. These shoes are almost a mid-way hybrid of a sprint shoe and a distance shoe, and feature a certain level of taper, as well as support, cushioning and spike plate rigidity. Hurdlers often favour spiked shoes designed for middle distance races because they include a relatively steep taper which allows for sprinting, in addition to a cushioned heel that absorbs some on the shock caused when landing.

Cross-country runners generally choose shoes with no more than six spike points and which are similar in many respects to spiked shoes for distance running. One import feature for cross-country shoes is the inclusion of a more durable rubber sole and supportive mid-foot in order to provide a reasonably high level of stabilisation and cushioning. This is due to the wide variation of terrain that is often encountered when engaging in off-track events.

There are many different field events in athletics, and the requirements of a field athlete’s footwear will vary, depending upon the specific demands of each sport. A long jumper’s shoes, for instance, are similar to sprinter’s spikes so that the athlete can reach a good speed before taking off. Shoes for the high jump may feature flat bottoms and heel spikes to allow energy transfer through the entire foot. Hammer throwers, shot putters and discus throwers need to be able to slide, so their shoes have flat rubber soles with no spikes at all.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 10 of the January 2015 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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