Race for thick-soled running shoes intensifies

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Runners wearing thick-soled shoes compete in the first leg of the Tokyo-Hakone Intercollegiate Ekiden race on Jan. 2.

As Aoyama Gakuin University was reestablishing its preeminence as the top collegiate team, this year’s Tokyo-Hakone Intercollegiate Ekiden race also served to show that Nike Inc.’s dominance of the thick-soled running shoe market is on the wane.

Nike shoes were worn by 154, or 73%, of the 210 runners competing in the popular race on Jan. 2-3, but that marked a sharp drop from last year, when 201, or about 95%, of the competitors wore the company’s footwear.

Nike first sparked the boom in thick-soled shoes and had long dominated the market. But it is seeing rivals catching up, Adidas AG and domestic sportswear giant Asics Corp. particularly making strides in the race to develop new products.

Nike began marketing thick-soled shoes integrated with carbon fiber plates in 2017. Athletes around the world began putting up eye-popping results wearing the shoes, and Nike shoes naturally also became popular among Japanese runners.

Asics, adopting an in-house slogan “We will reclaim the top spot in long-distance running,” launched a project to develop its own thick-soled shoe in January 2020. However, no athletes wore Asics shoes in the 2021 Hakone ekiden.

“As thick-soled shoes took off, it made it harder for us to keep market share,” said Shuhei Takemura, 43, Asics’ director of product development. “When we were negotiating contracts with new athletes, they would tell us, ‘Make a product that can win races.’”

Asics’ “Metaspeed” series, which was launched last spring based on talks with Japanese and foreign athletes, gained notice when noted marathoner Yuki Kawauchi wore the product when he rewrote his personal best for the first time in eight years, clocking 2 hours 7 minutes 27 seconds at last February’s Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon.

At this year’s Hakone ekiden, 24 runners, or 11%, donned Metaspeed shoes. “Step by step, we are closing the gap [with Nike],” Takemura said.

Adidas’ new model, which went on sale last year, was worn by 28 runners, or 13%. Two runners wore shoes made by Mizuno Corp., while New Balance Japan, Inc. and Puma SE had one runner each.

“It was the consensus in the past that long-distance running shoes should be thin and light, but now thick soles are the norm,” shoe advisor Takehisa Fujiwara said. “I think a time will come that people can choose thick-soled shoes that suit their individual characteristics.”