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The Painful Truth about [Sneakers]

Three Stripes
Creative Commons License photo credit: doktor_skepsis

From the UK DailyMail comes an article titled The painful truth about trainers: Are running shoes a waste of money? (link) by Christopher McDougall. It's a lengthy and thorough write-up about the history of "trainers," or athletic shoes (sneakers or tennis shoes) for us across the pond. The article also details the three following "painful truths" about sneakers:

  1. That the more expensive your sneakers, the more prone you are to injury. This conclusion is drawn from a study of 4000+ runners, "Runners in shoes that cost more than $95 were more than twice as likely to get hurt as runners in shoes that cost less than $40."
  2. Feet need the feedback the ground provides and padded soles interfere with this feedback. A conclusion drawn from a study on gymnasts: "They found that the thicker the landing mat, the harder the gymnasts landed. Instinctively, the gymnasts were searching for stability. When they sensed a soft surface underfoot, they slapped down hard to ensure balance. Runners do the same thing."
  3. Just as when running (or walking) barefoot results in pronation (landing on the outside edge of the balls of your feet and rolling outside in, from little to big toe) and allows for foot arch compression and shock absorption, padding and arch support in sneakers encourage heel-striking and dampen the arch support and elasticity of our feet. In other words, mother nature/evolution/whatever gave us barefeet, and interfering with this bit of biological engineering by wearing sneakers causes problems.

McDougall ultimately suggests that we all may be better off barefoot (or as close to barefoot as possible). Surprised? I didn't think so. This site is all about living life as mother nature intended — i.e. while wearing your birthday shoes (or as close to that state as possible)!

Unfortunately, the article fails to mention the most minimalist, yet dynamic (i.e. not flipflops, which are pretty minimalist, but not dynamic!) footwear currently available to runners (or anyone!); I'm referring, of course, to the beloved and quirky Vibram Five Fingers.

I'll return to this omission in a minute.

On the Origins of Sneakers (and Nike)

McDougall makes mention of the formation of Nike, which is really the business that made extra padding, air cushions, and all sorts of high-tech shoe gadgetry mainstream. What is particularly interesting about the Nike formation anecdote is the bit about Nike's co-founder Bill Bowerman (the other guy was Phil Knight). Please read the following blockquote, which talks how Bowerman got into running via his mentor Arthur Lydiard (bolding mine):

Bowerman didn't actually do much running. He only started to jog a little at the age of 50, after spending time in New Zealand with Arthur Lydiard, the father of fitness running and the most influential distance-running coach of all time. Bowerman came home a convert, and in 1966 wrote a best-selling book whose title introduced a new word and obsession to the fitness-aware public: Jogging.

In between writing and coaching, Bowerman came up with the idea of sticking a hunk of rubber under the heel of his pumps. It was, he said, to stop the feet tiring and give them an edge. With the heel raised, he reasoned, gravity would push them forward ahead of the next man. Bowerman called Nike's first shoe the Cortez - after the conquistador who plundered the New World for gold and unleashed a horrific smallpox epidemic.

It is an irony not wasted on his detractors. In essence, he had created a market for a product and then created the product itself.

'It's genius, the kind of stuff they study in business schools,' one commentator said.

Bowerman's partner, Knight, set up a manufacturing deal in Japan and was soon selling shoes faster than they could come off the assembly line.

...

So, if running shoes don't make you go faster and don't stop you from getting hurt, then what, exactly, are you paying for? What are the benefits of all those microchips, thrust enhancers, air cushions, torsion devices and roll bars?

The answer is still a mystery. And for Bowerman's old mentor, Arthur Lydiard, it all makes sense.

'We used to run in canvas shoes,' he said.

'We didn't get plantar fasciitis (pain under the heel); we didn't pronate or supinate (land on the edge of the foot); we might have lost a bit of skin from the rough canvas when we were running marathons, but generally we didn't have foot problems.

'Paying several hundred dollars for the latest in hi-tech running shoes is no guarantee you'll avoid any of these injuries and can even guarantee that you will suffer from them in one form or another. Shoes that let your foot function like you're barefoot - they're the shoes for me.'

How bizarre is it that Bowerman, inspired by Lydiard to get into jogging, had an idea that ultimately begot an empire of fancy, overpriced and overpadded "athletic" shoes, shoes that Lydiard writes off today as completely unnecessary? I can only guess that Lydiard didn't tell Bowerman about the goodness of barefooted running and minimalist footwear back in the early 70s when they met (prior to Nike's creation).

On Nike Free

Another bizarre aspect of this article is that it effectively condemns the sneaker/trainer industry as being a marketing charade that encourages people to buy expensive shoes that do them no good and may actually cause them harm; it puts Nike at the center of this circus of fault; and then provides Nike with a platform to promote it's "barefoot running shoes," the Nike Free.

The marketing literature for Nike Frees clearly rely on the "barefoot is good" meme. However, Nike Frees are still shoes with padded soles as you can see from any of these Google Image Search results for the "advanced" (i.e. most barefoot-like) Nike Free 3.0.

The gaping chasm between Nike Free's and actual bare feet is perhaps best depicted via the "Nike Free Range" flash graphic on their website: See it here, click on "The Evolution". On on one side is the traditional sneaker and on the other is a barefoot. Saddled between these two extremes are the three versions of Nike Free shoes, which range from the 7.0 providing "Everyday support," the Nike Free 5.0 providing "Medium support", and the Free 3.0 which provides "Minimal support." In my opinion everything by the barefoot, which would provide "No support," is an evolution fail, but you can't sell bare feet right? (Well unless you have invented a rubber soled "foot glove," I suppose)

Conclusion

My write-up on the lengthy DailyMail article has gotten a bit lengthy, itself. Sorry. In short, I am happy to see increased awareness about how fancy sneakers are messing up our feet and that we may be a lot better off doing things in our birthday shoes. I'm disappointed the article fails to mention Five Fingers while providing a pitch for the still-sneakers, Nike Free. I'll just have to be satisfied with baby steps towards increased awareness that our feet were meant to be unshod, and if you don't want to risk the concrete-ified and trashed areas you trod donning your birthday shoes in full glory, at least you can get 95% there with Five Fingers.

Be sure and check out my interview with Christopher McDougall!

In it, Chris talks about denying your nature, the sports shoe industry, getting to barefoot, cross-pollinating ideas, and more!

Flying "barefoot:" TSA reaction to Five Fingers

Last weekend Patri Friedman was donning his Five Fingers while traveling about to present on Seasteading. Having anticipated TSA's security check requirement to remove your shoes, Patri had removed his birthday shoes before going through the metal detector at the security checkpoint. The TSA reaction was as expected — absolute "furor" — the TSA folk were all fascinated by the "foot gloves!"

As chance would have it, the same day I had been traveling to LAX (from ATL) and was donning my fivefinger KSOs. I didn't take them off, not realizing that it was a requirement. The TSA reaction was a bit less cordial (even though they never made me run them through the x-ray machine).

Thus what we have here as far as Five Fingers and TSA regulations is a mixed bag. On the one hand, if you don't take off your VFFs before you go through the airport metal detector, you might end up like me and only get some curious questions, questioning looks, and maybe a few "bad vibes" from the Transportation Security Administration.

Or you could just take them off and be the talk of the TSA. Simply put: there are pros and cons to each approach.

About BirthdayShoes (It's a pun for "barefoot shoes")

Justin in his Vibram Five Finger ClassicsThis site was created in mid-April 2009 to be a central hub for reviews, pictures, ideas, experiences, activities, and everything else relating to Vibram FiveFingers. It has since evolved into a site that covers all minmialist shoes or "barefoot shoes" including footwear from manufacturers Vivo Barefoot, Merrell Barefoot, New Balance (NB Minimus), Luna Sandals, Invisible Shoes, and more (see them all here).

What's the big deal about FiveFingers? Simply put, they are footwear designed to accord with our biological or evolutionary engineering (the "invisible hand" of evolution or the divine hand of [your belief system]).

Vibram FiveFingers and other minimalist footwear are perhaps best understood by describing what they are not rather than what they are: Vibram Five Fingers are not thickly padded, high heeled, motion-controlled shoes that effectively prevent your feet from being feet, which in turn impacts (negatively) your natural walking/running/playing gait. Rather, by being little more than a thin rubber covering on the bottom of your foot (with practically zero arch support or cushioning), Vibram Five Fingers empower you to trod the earth unshod and free — at least, as close to it as you can imagine while still providing minimalistic protection from the concrete jungle of our modern times.

I wish more products fit as harmoniously with our core, animalistic humanity!

A quick tour of some of what you'll find at BirthdayShoes

If you're new here, be sure to check out:

In short, take a look around and welcome!

Who runs this site?

BirthdayShoes is over three years old and has been visited over 5 million times by over 3 million people around the globe. It's been cited by CNN and Inc. magazine and even been spotted on TV on occasion. It's widely considered to be a "go to" source if not the go to source for all things minimalist- or "barefoot-" shoes related.

If you can't tell, "bdayshoes" is a labor of love built, maintained, and furthered through the help of people like you (It's not my day job — it's what I do when I'm not working or parenting two girls or just having fun).

While most of the reviews here have been written by me (Justin), in no way could this site be a success but for the help of many, many others. In fact, you'll find plenty of reviews and articles written by BirthdayShoes bloggers who have graciously lent their time and expertise to making BirthdayShoes even better. I simply couldn't keep this site without a lot of community support. Thank you!

Finally, just to be transparent BirthdayShoes is not a retailer of shoes though it does have relationships with various online retailers through which the site generates some revenue to support ongoing operations. In the course of building this site, we've also made contact with various shoe manufacturers who have usually been pretty helpful and always hands off — we've gotten some free shoes to review out of these relationships but never been directly compensated nor would we take any such compensation from manufacturers were it offered! We want BirthdayShoes to be a legit, authentic source of useful information on the web — if you ever question our veracity, do not hesitate to email me directly at justin [at] birthdayshoes.com!

Justin Owings, Founder

Vibram FiveFingers — Revolutionary toe shoes or "Barefoot Shoes"

The origins of "toe shoes" — the original "barefoot shoe"

Five Fingers were the brainchild of Italian designer Robert Fliri. Fliri first had the concept of a foot glove with articulated toes — what are now colloquially referred to as "barefoot shoes," "minimalist shoes," or "toe shoes" — back in 1999. Fliri had been spending a good deal of time outdoors in the mountains of Italy, periodically taking off his shoes. It was from these experiences that he conceptualized toe shoes, remarking that, "We have five toes: when they can move and grasp the ground independently, and when you can really sense the surface under your feet, your body is able to do what it is designed for by nature. That is a powerful feeling."

Fliri was making a simple case: if feet evolved to experience the world "naked," why are we strapping heavily cushioned, "high-heeled" marshmallow shoes like Nikes onto our feet in order to walk around "safely" or without hurting ourselves? Did [Mother Nature | God | Evolution | insert your higher power here] churn out a foot that was broken by design? Surely not!

Vibram LogoDespite the almost obvious power of toe shoes — foot gloves that let feet function and feel similarly to how they would barefoot, Robert Fliri's toe shoe concept languished until a fortuitous meeting with Marco Bramani, the grandson of Vitale Bramani. Vitale Bramani is the founder of the Italian company Vibram (pronounced "Vee-brum"). As the legend goes, Bramani believed that "Five Fingers" (So named because the Italian word for "fingers" is the same as that for "toes") might make a novel choice of footwear for use on sailboats or in other activities that required greater ground-feel. Sometime in the early 2000s (perhaps 2004?), Bramani brought Fliri into his grandfather's company to develop the world's first toe shoes.

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