Issue II Sports & Recreation Volume XIX

Sneakers as a Science: Engineering Fashion for Comfort, Support, and Style


Many of us wear sneakers for comfort, style, or athletics, but there’s a science behind these common shoes. Not only is there innovation behind the design and look of sneakers, but health-improving technology behind their feel, such as those of orthopedic shoes or sports performance. Sneakers are worn by millions all over the world every day, and in a world that is constantly changing, sneakers must improve with the times and provide wearers with the comfort, support, and style they are looking for. Ultimately, sneakers are more than just a fashion statement: they improve orthopedic health and drive athletic performances.

More Than Streetwear

Everyone wants to make a statement, whether it be with their words, their looks, or, especially, their fashion. Currently, streetwear is making a huge comeback, growing in popularity around the world. Sneakers are one of the most important aspects of this trend. Now, more than ever, people are using their sneakers to make a statement. However, for some, sneakers contribute more than aesthetics. For many athletes, sneakers make a significant difference in gameplay. Additionally, modified sneakers assist people with orthopedic issues or scoliosis, as the type of the shoe worn can greatly improve health issues that deprive mobility. Sneakers are not just fashion statements; their design can vary for other functional reasons, and the technology behind them allows them to transcend different markets.

The Sneaker-Engineering Revolution: Function Over Form

Although it may seem like a simple task, it is quite difficult to come up with a sneaker design that is stylish and functional. Sneakers require athletic functionality for walking and running; their rubber soles must provide their wearer more comfort than the standard shoe. The science behind a good sneaker balances aesthetics with technology in a harmonic design. Tinker Hatfield, known for Nike’s Air Jordans, is said to be one of the most influential sneaker designers of our time, changing the way people see sneaker culture [1]. For Hatfield, while it’s important to make a beautiful shoe, the shoe’s function comes first and incorporates relevant technological developments. An example of this is Hatfield’s electro-adaptive reactive lacing, or self-lacing shoes.  He believes they are going to change the way athletes compete with each other. Even in the design industry, engineering research is key, both helping sneakers perform better and providing their wearers with the comfort and support that they need.

Engineering Orthopedic Functionality

It is obvious that a lot of work, design, and innovation goes into creating fashionable sneakers, but sneakers do not just exist for style; some pairs genuinely help improve the health of those who wear them, such as orthopedic sneakers. For those who suffer from a variety of foot problems, orthopedic shoes, and more specifically sneakers, allow them to regain their mobility and live a more active lifestyle.

Orthopedic shoes are worn by people of all ages who suffer from poor foot mechanics, as the shoes are specifically designed to support the structure and mechanics of the foot, ankle, and leg [2]. Orthopedic sneakers are especially helpful for those with swollen feet, heel pain, flat feet & fallen arches, bunions, heel spurs, diabetes, arthritis, and those in recovery from recent foot surgery [2].

The making of orthopedic sneakers focuses on biomechanical design as a solution to the problems listed above; many different technologies combine to provide the right shoe. Orthopedic shoes feature removable insoles, extra widths, more sizing options than the normal shoe. They have uppers that can accommodate forefoot problems, easy fastenings for those who find it difficult or restricting to tie their shoes, and strong and supportive heels. Well cushioned out-soles and mid-soles with flex points absorb impact to reduce joint stress [2]. To obtain the many advantages of orthopedic shoes, podiatrists and sneaker designers work together to figure out the perfect combination of features to provide those in need with the shoe that will help them the most.

Currently most orthopedic sneakers look quite unattractive: they’re excessively chunky and plain colored. Many of them have childish looking Velcro straps, for those who have difficulty tying shoes, but could use an upgrade when it comes to their appearance. Although there is quite a way to go in getting orthopedic shoes to match the look and style of designer sneakers, designers are making progress as they try to get these sneakers for health to look just as good as their stylish counterparts for sports and fashion.

Engineering Athletic Functionality

There are also specialty sneakers designed for certain sports. Professional athletes use their bodies as their means of income, so they need to take care of them. Biomechanics experts at the Nike Sports Research Lab have testers to try their products for a better understanding of what sort of sneakers athletes need to prevent injuries and enhance their performance [3]. Elite athletes also take visits to the lab so that they can be studied and have specialty sneakers made just for them [3]. By using sensors, a camera system, and ceiling grids, researchers in the lab conduct full body studies by slowing down high-speed videos for the design team and scientists to analyze [3]. This technology provides athletes with personally tailored shoes, assuring the wearer maximum performance potential from their sneakers. Such custom tailoring occurs in many sports, including tennis, track soccer, and basketball.

In basketball especially, a shoe’s features are made to enhance an athlete’s performance. Some of the most prominent features of basketball sneakers are the hold of the foot bed, which allows for athletes to more easily and comfortable make trips up and down the court [4]. There are also certain technologies created to help players jump higher (some of which have been banned by the NBA, like the Load N’ Launch technology) [4]. In addition, basketball sneakers have more traction and flexibility than regular ones, allowing for quicker movement. There are also lacing improvements, as the last thing a player would want to worry about is their shoes coming untied during a game [4]. Not surprisingly, the rest of the features and technologies used in basketball shoes are quite like those of orthopedic shoes: both orthopedic sneaker wearers and basketball players must provide their feet with maximum comfort and support. While basketball players may not need their shoes for health reasons, they must make sure the sneakers they wear are sturdy enough to provide them with the support they need during rigorous gameplay. For those who need orthopedic sneakers, just taking a walk down the block might be considered rigorous gameplay when it comes to the demand placed on their feet.

The Perfect Pair

Sneakers are important for a number of reasons – they provide athletes the structure they need to succeed in their sport, and they provide those with health issues with tools that allow them to lead more active, pain-free lives. And for those who don’t play sports or use orthopedics, sneakers spice up their wardrobe without jeopardizing the comfort of their feet. A daily staple to most of our lives, sneakers offer so many designs to choose from that there are at least one pair perfect for everyone.


  1. Barna, M. (2017). Tinker Hatfield’s 10 Tips for Budding Sneaker Designers. [online] Highsnobiety. Available at: [Accessed 26 Jan. 2018].
  2. O’Hare, H. (2017). What Are Orthopedic Shoes? What makes them special?. [online] Pedors. Available at: [Accessed 24 Jan. 2018].
  3. Fast Company. (2010). How Science Is Used to Design the Perfect Shoe. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Jan. 2018].
  4. Grant, N. (2013). 10 Ways Sneakers Can Make You a Better Basketball PlayerGreat Looks. [online] Complex. Available at: [Accessed 28 Jan. 2018].

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