Some believe that this shoe's neon green color will help you run faster. Alex Burstow/Getty Images
I've Always Wondered ...

Here’s why running shoes frequently come in bold and flashy colors

Janet Nguyen Jun 21, 2024
Some believe that this shoe's neon green color will help you run faster. Alex Burstow/Getty Images

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Listener Chris Jex from San Francisco asks: 

Is there a reason running shoes and fitness apparel only come in bright, gaudy, and frankly ugly colors? On the surface it seems like this is for safety purposes, but I don’t see how this applies to the gym rat or the athleisure types. 

You can find a pair of running shoes in every conceivable hue, including ones you didn’t even know existed, like scream green, hyper violet, lucid pink, semi spark and blue burst. They’re bold, they’re flashy, and you can’t miss them.

Bold colorways help athletic brands thrive in the nearly $50 billion running shoe market. Many people gravitate toward colorful sportswear for safety and style reasons, along with the (perceived) effects they have on speed. Can hyper violet shoes help you run hyper fast? Some consumers think so.

Shoes don’t have to be wildly colorful to sell well. Take Hoka, which is known for its chunky, colorful footwear (some call it ugly). The brand’s cushy white runners  are also among its most popular products, said Lois Sakany, the founder of the online magazine Snobette. But Hoka’s eye-searing models can go for $250 a pop too. 

Non-athletes began to run for recreation in the 1970s. These new joggers gravitated toward “fun, funky colors,” and their shoes became an expression of “personal freedom,” said Shannon Scott, the president of COMUNITYmade, a Los Angeles-based footwear brand.

People were thinking: “If I’m gonna do this as a sport, I want it to feel fun,” said Scott, who previously worked as a marketing executive at the sportswear corporation Asics. “People are actually more open to having color on their feet than on their body, because it’s further away from your face.” 

There were safety benefits to flashy footwear, especially when the hobby was brand-new.

“Cars weren’t used to having people on the road with them. So obviously, you’re looking for something  bright and visible so that people stay away from you,” Scott said. 

Superstition says bright running shoes can also improve your speed. “For some reason, people think brighter colors make them run faster. Like white and bright colors versus dark and heavy colors. It’s like this psychological pick-me-up to have something bright,” Scott said.

“Especially neon green,” she added. 

Basketball shoes have also evolved to feature wildly different colors as they became more common for everyday wear.

Initially, NBA players could only wear certain colors on the court: shoes had to be 51% white or black, with a minimal team color accent. During the 1984-85 basketball season, Michael Jordan was fined $5,000 a game for wearing a pair of black-and-red Air Jordan 1s. 

When the Fab Five broke out of the University of Michigan in the early ‘90s, their royal blue and varsity purple Air Flight Huaraches turned heads, said Jemayne Lavar King, the founding director of the Institute of Hip Hop and Cultural Studies at Virginia State University.

“If you looked the shoe up, you’re like, ‘Man, that looks pretty good,’ but that shoe didn’t match their uniform at all,” said King, who’s also the owner of Sole Food, which manufactures licensed NCAA apparel and books about sneaker culture. 

Basketball shoe colorways became bolder, which culminated into the explosion of sneaker culture in the 1990s. These shoes appealed to African American consumers, who treated them as lifestyle sneakers, King said. 

They’re tastemakers, and when they make something popular, others follow, he said. 

“You can’t cater to African Americans, they have to adopt you first. And once they have certified your company, then you can start doing that,” King said. 

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