The History Of Cross Training


The History Of Cross Training Story by Nick Santora

Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 24

The Nike cross training legend goes something like this. On his way to workout at the Metro YMCA in Portland, Nike designer Tinker Hatfield found himself unhappily pondering the contents of his gym bag. Noticing that many of his fellow gymrats arrived with a solitary pair, often performing multiple activities in unsuitable footwear, Hatfield was tired of packing four pairs of shoes- one for basketball, one for running, one for weights and another for racquet sports. Thereabouts a fluorescent tube flickered and went off. Hatfield went back to his office to design a hybrid that could do the job of four sneakers. Nike execs were unconvinced, but with the help of a young Mark Parker (the future Nike CEO), Hatfield emerged victorious with a stunning prototype.

The Air Trainer 1 was unlike anything seen at this point. It was a hybrid court shoe with roots in basketball. But the differences were noticeable enough for consumers to understand they were totally designed for training. The three-quarter height provided the stability while the black forefoot strap added another layer of support and straight-up bad ass appeal in the looks department. That tough and technical stance juxtaposed with premium leather, grey suede and green accents allowed the Trainer 1s to flex perfectly at the gym, in the street and on the tennis courts. It was truly four, maybe even five shoes in one.

A unique design alone rarely launches a sneaker into its own franchise category, but with the Air Trainer 1, Nike has created the perfect product for its time. 1987 was the year a revolution took place at Nike that changed the athletic footwear industry forever. Technology, design, marketing and athletic performance all converged together with the simultaneous launch of visible air, cross training, and the first Air Jordans with reptile embossed side panels and total absence of the iconic Swoosh. The future was so bright, Joel Goodsen was still wear shades.

The birth of cross training as we know it begins in the mid- 80s, but its roots can be traced back to the start of the 1960s, when the notion of physical well being entered the American consciousness. President John F. Kennedy was a major proponent of the benefits of youth fitness programs and even wrote an article on the topic for Sports Illustrated Magazine. JFK’s commitment can be summarized with this quote, “Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence.”


In 1962 Oregon Track Coach (and future Nike co-founder) Bill Bowerman traveled to New Zealand to spend time with Arthur Lydiard, the famed kiwi athletics coach. Lydiard was the first to promote fitness through road running, something he referred to as jogging, which was a unique idea at the time. After his stint in New Zealand, Bowerman brought Lydiard’s concept back to Oregon and helped spread the gospel of exercise with his book Jogging, which was published in 1966.

This is a significant moment in sportswear history because it was the first time something as simple as jogging in the street gets marketed as an actual sport. Running clubs were formed around the country and as their popularity spread, a whole new genre of sportswear and equipment was created to serve these amateur athletes, many of whom were obsessed with an idea of completing a marathon. Demand for jogging sneakers would explode in the 70s, with New Balance, ASICS, Saucony, adidas and the newly formed Nike competing for the hearts of long distance practitioners.



Skip to the early 1980s however, and the solitary nature of pounding the pavement was beginning to decline. In its place health clubs begin to sprout up, with personalized fitness products designed for the newly- christened demographic known as yuppies (young urban professionals). Long distance runners had been defined by their scrawny physiques, but yuppies had their own body image to aim for- hairless chests and bionic biceps, much like a human version of a Ken doll.

Perhaps it was a delayed reaction to Pumping Iron, a 1977 docudrama about the world of bodybuilding that featured Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also at some point, society began to equate a buffed body with the notion of being a winner. If you were in shape, it meant that you were successful in life and could also afford to spend time and money in state-of-the-art facilities. Looking like Mr. Universe was a new concept driven by boundless vanity and would become one of the enduring symbols of the 1980s.



The most popular activity at health clubs was aerobics for women, personified by Olivia Newton-John’s Physical and Jane Fonda in her workout videos. Braided headbands, neon leotards and leg warmers quickly became the quintessential accessories.

In 1982 Reebok created the Freestyle, the first athletic shoe manufactured and marketed specifically for women. The Freestyle’s epic popularity changed the footwear business virtually overnight and Reebok’s annual sales went from just over $1 million in 1981 to $66 million in 1984, with over half of the sales coming from this one shoe alone. In 1986 sales skyrocketed to $400 million. With Reebok crushing the opposition, Paul Fireman must have felt totally vindicated by his decision to focus on women. Over at Nike, Phil Knight was livid and plotting revenge.

In an effort to cash-in, brands targeted the next best thing- aerobics shoes for men- albeit under the more virile title of fitness. Reebok’s Workout would arguably become the most well known of these models, but nearly ever brand dabbled in this pseudo-tennis-shoe field of design, most of which were functionally nondescript. Yet there was something elementary missing from the fitness formula. Perhaps the shoes were too sleekly feminine to reach tipping point, but the answer was not far away.



As noted in the introduction, all that changed in 1987 when Nike rolled out the Air Trainer 1 and instantly defined a fresh masculine mentality in design, function and performance. Cross training had arrived as a category and the world was about to find out, sneaker design and marketing had just been taken to the next level. Nike knew they had to make a profound impact, enlisting their long-term advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy for the task. The slogan ‘Just Do It’ was about to become a new global mantra and when they purchased to use the rights to use Revolution #9 (owned by Michael Jackson funny enough), Nike controversially became the first company to use an original Beatles tune in a commercial.

Music fans were outraged. Paul McCartney and every sneaker lover in the free world was gobsmacked as cross trainers and visible air were all introduced in monotone with amateur athletes appearing alongside John McEnroe and a jovial young Michael Jordan. You say you want a revolution? Well, there it was!



The Air Trainers were off to a flying start, and they received an accidental boost via their affiliation with tennis bad boy John McEnroe. Legend has it that McEnroe was reluctantly given the shoes by Nike staffer Peter Moore who expressly told him never to wear them playing tennis. Not want to toe anyone’s line, McEnroe immediately wore the shoes in a game, telling Moore ‘That’s the best tennis shoes you assholes have ever made!’ Soon enough, the Air Trainer 1 would also be seen on fellow Nike athletes Andre Agassi and Mats Wilander. Worldwide exposure in professional tournaments was the final push the sneakers needed to legitimize the new category of cross training.



By 1989, McEnroe and Agassi would become the spokesmen for the new Trainer- inspired Challenge Court tennis line. A new face was therefore needed to front the cross trainer campaign and with Bo Jackson, Nike had signed the perfect bod for the job. Jackson was an almost mythically talented athlete and the first man to play both professional baseball and football in alternate seasons.

If Michael Jordan could fly, Bo was blessed with super-human speed and power. Once again Wieden + Kennedy captured this virtuoso duality with the famous Bo Knows campaign, which they extrapolated into TV spots and dozens of press ads. The athlete who could play any sport was the perfect face for Nike cross training. Commercials had Jackson excelling in baseball, golf, hockey and tennis with the final punchline an appearance on stage with Bo Diddley. Awestruck by the sporting savant’s guitar playing, ‘Bo, you do know Diddly!’ became the tagline that closed the sequence. Another TV spot featured the classic line ‘Bo don’t surf! That’s what you think dudes!’ before his image is multiplied several times over in different athletes, confirming his claims to all around sporting profection.

By now the Air Trainer line was several years old and its extensive use of velcro straps, punchy color combos and tech materials was perfectly in step with early ’90s fashion. Design and technology, combined with brilliant advertising, had ensured Nike’s ruthless dominance of the category. In 1989 Reebok finally entered the cross training design war, releasing several models, later fusing them with their inflatable Pump range.



Since the success of the Freestyle, Reebok hadn’t maintained their innovative creativity, but with the gimmickry of Pump, they had suddenly had a potent new weapon in their hands. Models such as the ProWorkout, SXT, CXT, AXT and Paydirt would be released, the latter worn by both baseballer Roger Clemens and Emmit Smith from the Dallas Cowboys.

Other brands would rush to enter the cross training game in 1990-1991, with some great but not particularly memorable styles coming from ASICS, Avia, Saucony and Converse, but it was the big guns Nike and Reebok that maintained their fierce rivalry throughout the peak years of cross training.

By 1992, trends shifted once again. The neon colors seen in tennis, skiing and cross-training had run their course and sophisticated tastes craved more subdued hues and hiking-inspired euro-style. The Gap was selling khaki pants by the boatload and exercise shifted from the gym to the outdoors. Nike launched ACG (All Conditions Gear), and trail running became the new emerging category.

In 1995 Nike brought a little attention back to cross training with a products attached to Deion (Prime Time) Sanders who just like Bo, excelled at both baseball and football. Baseballer Ken Griffey Junior was another cross trainer, with his chunky Air Griffey Max showing just how far the category had come in terms of design and style.

However, by this time, there was too much crossover between the technology and aesthetics of basketball, running and cross training for it to main its status as a distinct franchise.



Nevertheless, the Cross Training category still exists today. Depending on whether you’re at Wal-Mart or the NFL Combine, they could range from pro-style turf trainers to your father’s weekend hikers. Chunky generic shoes in size EEE like the NB608 are technically listed as cross trainers, but a recent re-emergence in performance style with Nike’s Free and Lunar styles, can also be considered a throwback to the Trainer 1, even if the shoes look nothing alike. Head to your local gym and see who ISN’T wearing Lunar or Free on the treadmill or in the Taibo session and I’m sure you’ll agree. Throw in those funny Vibram Five Fingers for today’s fungus phobic gym rats and wannabe yogis, and you have a category that is now utterly diverse in style and context.

Truthfully, cross training was a made-up, marketing- driven name given to a category that Nike created to draw attention to its investment in technology. Expressed through pop culture, using athletes as entertainers, cross training was exactly what Nike needed to steal market share back from Reebok and reclaim the number-one sneaker company status. The synergy between the product, fashion trends, and a legendary advertising campaign are the trademark and enduring legacy of this awesome chapter in sneaker history.

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