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A waffle breakfast in Oregon in 1971 led to a breakthrough invention for running shoes

Magda Origjanska

If your morning run starts with putting on your favorite Nikes, you’re probably one of the billions of consumers around the world who embrace the brand as a hallmark of athletic footwear. But you might be surprised to learn that Nike’s running shoe design was inspired by waffles.

In the late 1950s, field coach Bill Bowerman was complaining about his running spikes, which were made of weighty leather and metal. Keen to improve all runners’ speed, he ended up redefining athletic footwear.

Bowerman was born in 1911 in Portland, where he attended the University of Oregon, excelling as a student athlete. He went on to work as a high school football and track coach. Bowerman coached 16 sub-four-minute milers and later introducing jogging to the Eugene, Oregon, community.

The range of his accomplishments extends from fighting in World War II to serving as the U.S. Olympic track coach in 1972. Bowerman first began fiddling with running shoes in the 1950s when, obsessed by increasing speed, he pitched ideas for improving running shoes to a number of footwear companies. His suggestions were constantly rejected, however. Bill was determined, and he decided the answer was to learn shoemaking himself. A local cobbler and bootmaker provided him with technical advice and crafting skills.

The Nike swoop logo on the outside of the Nike shops located. Author: Kolforn (Kolforn) CC BY-SA 4.0

The Nike swoop logo on the outside of the Nike shops located. Author: Kolforn (Kolforn) CC BY-SA 4.0

Bowerman wanted to invent a sole without spikes that would grip well on grass as well as on bark dust. According to The Atlantic, one morning in 1971, he was having breakfast with his wife when suddenly it hit him that the grooves in the waffle iron his wife was using could be the perfect mold for a running shoe. At the time, he worked at Oregon’s Hayward Field.

As The Oregonian reports, his wife, Barbara, was puzzled by the idea yet found it interesting that her waffle iron had come into play. “We were making the waffles that morning and talking about the track. As one of the waffles came out, he said, ‘You know, by turning it upside down—where the waffle part would come in contact with the track—I think that might work.’ So he got up from the table and went tearing into his lab and got two cans of whatever it is you pour together to make the urethane, and poured them into the waffle iron. I picked out a couple pieces of jewelry and things that had stars on them, or things that we thought would indent or make a pattern on the soles.” (Yes, the waffle maker was ruined.)

Waffle iron. Author: Ludwig Schneider. CC BY-SA 3.0

Waffle iron. Author: Ludwig Schneider. CC BY-SA 3.0

Ta-da! The idea for Nike’s first shoe, the Waffle Trainer, was born, marking the end of the era of flat-soled running shoes.

As co-founder with Phil Knight of Blue Ribbon Sports, the precursor of Nike, Bowerman and the company crew launched the waffle sole at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene in 1972. The waffle soles were hand-cut from rubber sheets, paired with imported Japanese nylon uppers, and glued together. They were named the Moon Shoe for the unique print they made in the dirt, which looked like the footprints that American astronauts left behind during their Apollo missions.

Custom Nike Waffle Racers Author:THOR – Custom Nike Waffle Racers CC BY 2.0

Custom Nike Waffle Racers Author:THOR – Custom Nike Waffle Racers CC BY 2.0

The waffle sole enchanted runners, who liked the feel it gave them. The invention soon became a hit. In 1974, Bowerman remodeled the shoe and launched the legendary Waffle Trainer. Soon, everyone fell in love with the Nikes. Elite joggers, as well as everyday joggers, enjoyed the cushioning that the sole gave, and even those who suffered from bruised feet found them very comfortable to wear.

Read another story from us: Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan was inspired by the last words of a murderer awaiting execution

The Waffle Trainer placed Nike at the forefront of athletic footwear, making Bowerman the innovator who enabled athletes to perform at their highest potential, as he’d always dreamed.