Before 1977, shoe technology meant “make it lighter.” Everyone from elite marathoners to weekend joggers ran in the same fundamental recipe. Old-school running shoes were more checklist than innovation: a wedge-heeled (check), nylon, suede and mesh-lined (check) low-top sneaker with a grippy rubber outsole (check). Comparison shopping meant breaking out a gram scale. Then, Nike introduced the Air Tailwind.
The Air Tailwind didn't just change sneakers; it shifted the entire footwear paradigm. Suddenly, cushioning technology was the name of the game. Gram scale? Only if you wanted a new knee.
Nike had opened the market for technical cushioned trainers, and by the mid-80’s, dozens of competing shoe makers had unveiled their own take on supportive runners. The exterior remained the same: nylon, suede and mesh (check), wedge heel (check), rubber sole (check), but the interior cushion made all the difference.
Forty years later, these formerly-cutting edge shoes have taken on a new life. Shoes like the New Balance 996 are no longer Seinfeld-era uncool; thanks to the mid-2000’s rise of Internet #menswear culture, retro runners are more charming than outdated. Once fully removed from their functional context, the sleek trainers of yesteryear become athletic-inspired fashion statements (and comfortable ones, to boot). I’ve prepared the following visual guide to help you compare the dozens of styles available in hopes you find your new favorite shoe.
Here are my 20 favorite retro runners from 8 brands both old and new.
The 574 is New Balance's most popular shoe. This flagship model was introduced in 1988 as a way to repurpose leftover materials from the 576. The 574 has bonified running shoe credentials - elite marathoner Dirk Beardsley ran and trained in New Balances throughout the 1980's. Premium "Made in USA" versions of the 574 are also available. Check them out on New Balance's website here.
The NB 996 applies the same suede/mesh construction of the 574 to a chunkier silhouette. Make no mistake, the 996 is still an athletic shoe: it's just a larger, more supportive footprint. ABZORB foam cushioning lines the midsole, making the 996 a great casual shoe for anyone always on the go. New Balance 996's are also a common canvas for New Balance collaborators - famous examples include work with J. Crew, CNCPTS, and Beauty & Youth. The full Spring line is available now on NewBalance.com.
For those who seek comfort to no end, the NB 990 may be the objectively smoothest shoe New Balance has ever introduced. Its styling, however, is a little more subjective. As a child of the 1990's, I will forever associate the 990's bulbous, purpose-first aesthetic with “dad shoe.” But, that's not to say it doesn't deserve a place here: this early 80's technical runner has gained recent fashion cachet thanks to the work of youth culture-inspired designers like Gosha Rubchinskiy, who famously features the shoe in his runway shoes. Check them out on NB.com.
The Saucony Jazz typifies retro runner style. Suede accents, a cushy midsole, and rugged rubber treads combine in a variety of sleek colorways to produce one of today's cleanest fashion shoes. Released in 1981, the Saucony Jazz was both capable runner and atheleisure lifestyle piece in one. Rod Dixon famously won the 1983 New York Marathon in a pair of bright white Sauconys, propelling the small Pennsylvania shoemaker to worldwide fame. At a mere $65 MSRP, the Saucony Jazz is also one of the best values in this market. Shop the Jazz on Saucony's webstore here.
The Shadow 5000 is the 996 to the Jazz' 574. This chunkier distance runner retains much of its little brother's styling cues, including the distinctive "triangle lug" outsole. Shadow 5000's are available in a wide variety of multi-panel colorways, a direct homage to their lo-fi era origins. The Shadow 5000 has recently taken on a new life among sneakerheads thanks to high-profile collaborations with Bodega, END Clothing, and UBIQ, You can hunt Grailed for a pair of limited releases, or check out the full line on Saucony.com.
When Saucony launched the Grid 9000 in 1994, the idea of a comfortable "control" shoe was unheard of. You could have a stable run, or a pleasant run; and then came the Grid. In the mid 90's, the brand's flagship technical shoe was running royalty. While its tech advantage may have dissipated over the decades, the Grid 9000's premium materials (neoprene tongue, gum outsole, suede upper) are as relevant and stylish as ever. Check out the full line of 90's-inspired colorways on Saucony.com here.
Introduced in 1976, the Brooks Vanguard is perhaps the greatest execution of the pre-Tailwind formula. All the usual suspects are here: suede and mesh, foam midsole, and a sturdy rubber grip on the outside. The original deign's iconic "T-Toe" remains untouched. I gravitate to Brooks for the brand's running pedigree alone, but it's hard to deny their styling. Years before the Swoosh, a slick Brooks chevron was perhaps the best running logo on the market. Get your 70's homage on sale at Brooks.com.
The Chariot is a Vanguard, evolved. This 1980’s runner, Brooks’ most famous shoe of the decade, took home everything from Reader's Choice awards to city marathon titles. It's no surprise, then, that this modern iteration is just as popular. The Brooks Chariot, alongside the New Balanced 574 and Nike Internationalist, defined an era of distance running shoes. Equally impressive: it looked good doing it. Suede, mesh, and nylon combine over a tri-layer molded foam midsole to merge comfort and fashion with slick retro style. Check out the full selection of Chariot colorways now at Brooks' webstore.
No discussion of old-school runners is complete without adidas EQT. In 1991, adidas made history by launching the first-ever comprehensive running shoe collection. Every shoe under the "adidas Equipment" label (abbreviated "EQT") was designed with a specific running style in mind. The EQT Support 93 was for supinators; EQT Guidance, for overpronators, and so on. The entire EQT series launched in distinctive white/green colorways that seemed built to accent their high-tech construction. The EQT division has long since rejoined adidas' main line, but the shoes that defined it are now available as limited-release retro styles. Check out a modern interpretation of the EQT 93/16 on the adidas website here.
ZX 9000 (prices will vary)
The granddaddy of today's popular ZX Flux silhouette, the ZX 9000 was adidas' flagship runner from its 1989 to the introduction of the EQT line over two years later. The colors are loud; the shoes are comfortable; but unfortunately, retro releases are sparse. You'll really have to hunt eBay for a pair of these distinctive nylon and suede beauties.
The Asics Gel-Lyte III is my favorite sneaker on this list. At the time of its 1991 release, the GL III redefined cutting edge - the shoe promised a triple-density gel sole, split tongue, flat-locking laces, and a buttery smooth ride on even the most grueling runs. The sports science alone is impressive; its sneaker cachet, just as much. In the 25 years since, the GL III has become as much artistic medium as athletic tool. The "Who's Who" list of GL III collaborators include Ronnie Fieg, Colette, Concepts, Saint Alfred, and countless others. If you choose one retro runner, make it the Gel Lyte III. Asics has your favorite color in stock.
The Asics Gel Saga was released after the GL III, but is still every inch a child of the early 90’s. Compared to its distance-ready "Lyte" cousin, the Gel Saga is a relatively casual shoe. According to Asics, the Gel Saga was designed with "casual performance" (jogging) in mind. Apart from a different heel, however, the Saga appears to be nearly identical to its road-racing cousins. Suede is everywhere you'd expect it from the GL III, but I've included the Gel Saga on this list for a reason far less technical: the Gel Saga gets some dope colorways. "Illusion", "Kill Bill", "Soft Grey" (above) ... long story short, some Asics designer really likes this shoe. Check out more Gel Sagas now at Foot Locker.
Finally, the Swoosh. Nike's first shoe deviates from the traditional retro runner silhouette, but what its low-slung, streamlined construction lacked in pure cushion it redoubled in weight savings. The Nike Cortez was first sold as a lightweight distance shoe. However, its full-length dual-density midsole (unheard of in 1972) was suitable for training at all distances, and the Cortez became an overnight sensation. And yes, these are the Forrest Gump shoes.
My recommendation: hunt down the OG red-white-blue Cortez colorway. It's versatile, easy to keep clean, and stylish to a tee. Check out the Nike Classic Leather Cortez on Nike.com here.
While the Cortez may have been Nike's first shoe, the 1974 Waffle Trainer proved the brand was here to stay. Everyone knows the story how Bill Bowerman ruined his wife's waffle on the hunt for a high-traction outsole. It's as much Nike lore as American ingenuity. Among athletes, the Waffle Trainer represents a bold stride forward from the smooth track flats of years prior. To anyone with an eye for style, the Waffle Trainer is just as bold: stitched panels, a bright contrast Swoosh, and of course, the distinctive waffle outsole. Own a piece of Nike history - check out Vintage Collection Waffle Trainer retros at J. Crew now.
The Nike Internationalist is a shoe worthy of its world-beating title. The trainer was co-developed with marathon legend Alberto Salazar, tailored for performance but far from camera-shy. Salazar won the 1982 Boston Marathon (the famous "Duel in the Sun") wearing personalized Internationalist runners, and the legend grew. In the present, the shoe's slim toebox and Air Jordan-like paneling make it the perfect canvas for rereleases. My current favorite: the Wolf Grey-Sail colorway available now on Nike's webstore.
The shoe that made Reebok an overnight success. Introduced in 1983, the Classic Leather broke from tradition by replacing traditional running shoe materials (mesh, nylon, etc.) with supple garment leather. The result is minimal and pristine clean - Reebok's trainer was an athleisure shoe before athleisure was cool.
The classic White/Gum colorway above defined 80’s workout attire. That doesn't mean the Classic looks dated today. The recent resurgence of all-white retro sneakers has made the Classic a throwback alternative in a market saturated by New Balance and Saucony. Rapper Kendrick Lamar even collaborated on a limited colorway. Cool factor, indeed. Check out more styles of the Classic Leather on Reebok's webstore here.
Two years after the Classic Leather made waves as a casual shoe, Reebok set out to prove it could still make cutting-edge performance shoes. The result: 1985's GL 6000 runner. Built on the foundation of the Classic Leather, the GL 6000's performance-tailored upper included breathable mesh, a multi-layered midsole, and copious support straps to provide mid-run stability. The GL 6000 cemented Reebok's performance credibility, and even looked good doing it. Check out retro versions of the GL 6000 now on Reebok's webstore.
The Ventilator represented a bold step forward for the Reebok of yesteryear. Gone was the Classic Leather genealogy - in its place, an entirely new strap-and-webbing system. The Ventilator provided a smoother (and more breathable) run than the aging GL 6000, and came in a variety of overstated 90's-appropriate colorways. Retro versions feature a complete leather-and-mesh upper for an added premium feel. I highly recommend looking up some of the many Ventilator collabs out there before choosing your pair. My personal favorite: Packer Shoes' "Four Seasons" (above), a washed-out take on summer pastels. Check out more Ventilator styles at Reebok.com.
Last but not least is Greats Brand, a Brooklyn-based sneaker startup that launched in 2012. Greats was founded on a simple idea: sneakers are needlessly expensive, and you shouldn't overpay. Greats sells shoes direct-to-consumer to keep costs low, relying on their website (and a small company-run Brookyln boutique) to act as both shopping experience and point-of-sale. The results are extraordinary: not only does Greats make a great sneaker, but their devotion to slashing costs means you'll pay a full 33% less for the exact same product sans logo. I'll take a weekend's worth of social budget over a Swoosh any day.
Greats currently offers two takes on the retro runner: the Rosen (above, suede and mesh, made in Asia, $49) and the Pronto (below, calfskin leather, handstitched in Italy, $249). If you have the budget, spring for the Pronto so I can live vicariously. At $250, it's all the luxury of a Hender Scheme or Valentino equivalent at literally half the cost. Enjoy the eye candy below, then check out Greats.com for more.
There you have it: 20 retro runners from 8 brands, just in time for spring. Do you agree with the choices? Did I miss your all-time favorite? Comment below or on Facebook here to start the conversation.