Position-specific specialization changing scientific art of cleats

Cleats and the technology behind their design have come a long way in the 88-year history of the shoes.
Courtesy of adidas

At full speed the fastest football players -- either by American or European definitions -- in the world touch the ground for just moments and with only millimeters worth of their cleats churning the turf. The intense speed and movement requires positioning shoe studs with sport-specific definition.

Major shoe manufacturers now devote entire research teams to breaking down film simply to dissect player movements, creating different cleat patterns for speed players in football, defenders in soccer, lineman, cricket stars, sharp-cutting running backs, rugby scrum experts and high-scoring global soccer stars. All studs in their own right.

The origin of the cleat

Cleats took rudimentary form in the late 1800s as soccer players hammered rounded leather or metal studs into work boots. Anything to win a factory-versus-factory soccer game, right? The crude creations gave way to entrepreneurship when brothers Adi and Rudolf Dassler formed Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory in the 1920s and sold their first "boot" with cleats in 1925.

Once the brotherly relationship fully soured by the late 1940s and Adi started adidas and Rudolf began Puma, the two companies kept expanding cleat creation. Adi offered a breakthrough in the 1950s, offering the first removable cleats and giving players the option to lengthen studs based on the sogginess of the pitch.

Nike entered the fray with its first-ever shoe, The Nike, a molded rubber football cleat, in 1972. The best-selling soccer cleat of all time, adidas' Copa Mundial, came out in 1979. A world once defined by shoes with six studs—four in the front and two in the back—enjoyed a rapid rate of expansion. Now we have something entirely different from makeshift work boots of the 1800s or even Adi and Rudolf's early creations, something akin to a cleat pattern explosion.

Changing shapes

Say goodbye to cylinder-shaped studs. That's so 2010. The latest craze in cleat creation features differing lengths of triangular, chevron or even L-shaped studs, especially for American football.

Expect shoes to combine all the new stud geometry on one plate, but the first to offer us L-shaped studs in a four-way pattern on the heel is the football-centric CrazyQuick, which adidas launched on May 1. The use of L-shaped studs? Almost exclusively for deceleration, Jeff McGillis football business unit director for adidas, told Sports Illustrated.

The move to the blade L-shape came from specified research of players reacting to other players before changing directions.

"When doing that, we found players tend to stop and break first," McGillis said. "You stop with your heel and get back up on the forefoot. With the old circular stud types, you can slip and slide rather than the blade L-shapes stopping quickly allowing you to get back on your toes and change directions."

And while cleats on the heel universally produce stopping, the entire forefoot remains open for design interpretation.

At adidas, for example, the German shoe giant features about four main cleat patterns for American football, another three for soccer and a handful more for various other sports. In football, though, adidas has zeroed in on specific uses.

"The different stud shapes allow for linear traction or multi-direction traction for better stop and go," McGillis said.

The University of Michigan participated in a study that took the Wolverines' entire 2011 season and documented all the different player movements from cuts, toe-push starts, deceleration and more. Researchers grouped the top movements by player type. Most receivers, for example, desire acceleration in a straight line. Corners need to cut on a dime, sometimes flat-footed. The lineman? Yeah, speed isn't a factor there. But lateral traction sure is.

For the quick cutters -- the ankle-breakers, if you will -- the new CrazyQuick plate features 12 studs from mid-foot forward, including two chevron-shaped studs on the tip of the toe specifically designed for immediate ground penetration. From there, the next line of cleats includes triangular shapes to allow cuts in three different directions, something circular cleats can't offer. The cut-oriented cleats don't get too long -- nothing longer than half an inch -- so as to not provide too much penetration, which could lead to feet actually getting glued to the ground, a bigger issue with the prominence of synthetic turfs.

"The grass and dirt always gave way and cleats didn't get stuck," McGillis said. "With bigger cleats, if you combine them with smaller cleats, it still allows for the foot to rotate without getting stuck (in synthetic turf)."

The needs for lineman actually mimic those who move suddenly, prompting adidas to use the new plate as a template for the lineman-based shoe. They too need the heel-focused traction and the ability for multi-directional movements. The more studs (and the bigger they are), the better for the big boys. If you sit at over 300 pounds, teetering all that girth on just a few studs proves uncomfortable for the feet. Nobody wants an uncomfortable giant.

Speed cleats

Speedy receivers may opt for plates designed for "burners." The adidas version offers a one-toe cleat that reduces the number of overall studs in the forefoot to just nine. Traction and lightweight properties prove key. Two small cleats in the middle of the forefoot barely dig in the ground, simply providing added traction when the outside cleats penetrate fully at the start of a sprint. These two cleats don't even touch the turf when the receiver hits full speed.

Nike's Vapor Laser Talon 3-D printed cleat, designed and used only for the 40-yard dash at the February NFL combine, focused solely on stud placement for maximum acceleration. Tony Bignell, Nike's global footwear director, told Sports Illustrated the Oregon-based company worked with former Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson to test the importance of the first three steps out of the tripod position.

"Athletes are really clawing the ground and then getting up and away," Bignell said. "We really leveraged this learning into what actually happens in those first steps."

Early prototypes revealed that long cleats pushed the foot in the ground too much, slowing the runner, but a shorter cleat with a geometry that arranged 14 studs in the forefoot -- the shortest of them sit at the toe and offer early grinding power -- benefited those all-important first steps. A couple of well-placed longer studs midway and only two rear studs aided traction during straight-ahead speed running.

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Different movement needs across sports and positions require different cleat shapes and placements.
Courtesy of Nike

Ground conditions

Traditionally, finding removable cleats of varying lengths in an athlete's equipment bag was common. But the rise of synthetic turfs -- and national high school rules that limit stud length to no more than half an inch -- force molded cleats to fall within that spectrum, if not shorter. Professional players will often still carry an extra pair of removable studs with options up to three-quarters of an inch in length, used only in unusually soft and soggy conditions (think natural grass after a rain deluge).


American football does not provides the only science worth exploring. Global football sells more cleats than any other sport, so refining stud configurations on these shoes proves just as important. And you won't find studs in the toes of soccer cleats -- those interfere with the touch of the ball -- making them distinct from football cleats, even if many of the same principals remain.

Of the main plate designs, adidas offers one with six cleats in the forefoot (three on either side of the foot running down the side of the shoe) and another that adds in a seventh stud in the center of the forefoot. Puma does things a bit different, offering a fourth stud on the outside of its evoSpeed for a total of seven forefront studs. Another plate design adds a second wedge-like stud in the middle of the forefront, providing added lateral traction.

Of the three different plate options from adidas, the Nitrocharge in the spring pushed forward the rotational traction studs, a fine-tuning aspect that gives midfielders better traction, Tor Southard, senior merchandise manager for adidas soccer told Sports Illustrated. Also on the new plate, the tips of the studs on the ball of the foot got sharper, meant to drive into the ground a little deeper and faster than studs in the past.

"If you took a ruler out, they are about 4 millimeters smaller in terms of contact area with the ground," he said. "A small change, but it helps improve traction."

The range of movement in soccer offers diversity, especially when compared to American football players' often defined movements. Whether jumping, moving laterally, cutting diagonally or running straight ahead, there's a need for well-rounded -- in this case, well-angled -- traction.

Rugby scrums

Mimicking football cleats can only last so long. Released in February, the adidas FF80 ruby boot offers up a stud configuration with five in the forefoot and two on the heel. The new shoe design targets flankers and No. 8 forwards, who spend ample time on the sides of their feet during scrums and on their toes during rucks.

Traditional rugby boots contained the old-school 4-by-2 configuration, but adding a fifth stud where pressure gets exerted during a scrum or ruck offers additional traction at a key point of the contest.

"During scrums, flankers tend to rotate their feet in order to drive forward," said Simon Cartwright, adidas global vice president for rugby. "A loose forward wearing a traditional 4-by-2 boot often has only one or two studs in contact with the ground, negatively impacting their traction." An additional "stability triangle" offers extra ground penetration.

It doesn't stop there

In baseball, expect to see narrow metal spikes, which offer immediate dig-in, especially on dirt. Sure, the metal works fine in the outfield, too, for the sudden movements expected from an outfielder, but pitchers, infielders and base runners especially benefit from the metal sharpness slicing through compacted dirt.

Golf offers up one of the most unique designs in all of cleated footwear. The common 10-spike circular configuration marries well with the natural twisting of a swinging motion. The foot can still rotate during a swing, but the shoe's outsole remains planted in the ground.

Lacrosse cleats resemble American football cleats but, depending on the brand, may offer a variety of differing plate designs based on the launch of new shoe models.

Cricket shoes mimic baseball spikes. While a bevy of smaller, molded studs in a multi-site configuration helps stabilize the shoe during moderate movement types, a layout of metal spikes gives traction, especially in softer field conditions.

Moving forward

As specialization narrows sports, giving position-specific understanding to coaches and trainers, cleat manufacturers follow suit. So, the next time you see a player slip on the field, turn to your game-viewing compatriots and explain the need for angular-shaped cleats with a bit more length for better ground penetration. Or, ramble on about how the science needed to discern how the synthetic surfaces of the day play into cleat design and result in a difficult balance between performance and safety. You'll look like a stud.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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