Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Imelda Marcos of Triathlon

I have never understood people's (let's face it, usually women's) fascination for shoes. In fact, if you have been following this blog at all, you'll know that I am quite anti-shoes in general and, if I were President for a day, would pass a law saying that it is socially acceptable to go around barefoot or in socks, especially in the office. I grew up with a minor complex about my feet, particularly because a gruff ex-Army teacher I had used to say that I walked pigeon-toed. I just accepted the fact that I was "flat-footed" in the same way that one might be short-sighted or colour-blind. Having strengthened my feet through running, my arches look much more like arches and - this is the weird bit - I now actually like my feet! I suppose it is a bit like how one feels about their children - to you they are the most beautiful in the world but other people might secretly think that they are ugly and even that they smell.

Along my path of "foot discovery" I have built up a fairly substantial collection of shoes that has certainly not gone unnoticed by my wife. I have very big feet (EUR 48 in running shoes / cycle shoes) which limits my options severely and, in many cases, means I have to buy them from mail order abroad. Apart from the general prejudice that big footed runners must be heavy and therefore need oodles of cushioning, it seems like there are the same protectionist rules governing the sale of shoes that there are for DVDs, CDs, eBooks and video games: I am in Zone 2 (Europe) and most of the shoes I like are only made for Zone 1 (USA) consumers. This is, of course, where ebay comes in.

Things to look for in minimal shoes:
1) Low profile. The sole should be thin so your foot can better feel and anticpate the ground and thus help you land with less impact force and adapt to any uneven terrain.
2) Zero heel to toe differential. Most trainers pitch you forward by raising the heel because you need more cushioning on the heel if you heel strike. Pitching you forward encourages you to heel strike so it is a chicken and egg situation. Better to land on the midfoot / forefoot and do away with the heel counter. By the way, if you are a so-called "over pronator" (what a great marketing invention) then you'll notice that this goes away if you change your landing. This is because the roll of the foot is designed to help absorb (and release) the impact forces with respect to a landing close to your centre of gravity - if you land any further forward the foot is caught in a different orientation. Pronating is not a disorder.
3) Flexibility. Most shoes are like mini-prisons for your feet. Your feet become weaker and more dependent on the support of shoes. A more flexible shoe allows your foot to move as it sees fit. If your foot is strong enough then - perhaps paradoxically for some - the more flexible the shoe, the less chance you have of spraining your ankle for example. Imagine you ran over uneven terrain in a pair of clogs - if you stepped badly then all the force of the torsion would be channeled through the few muscles that were not splinted, dramatically increasing the chance of a sprain.
4) No toe spring. Many shoes curl up at the front so that you can roll off the ground - this is called a "toe spring". If the shoe is rigid then this is necessary otherwise your toes would "nose dive" into the ground. However the euphemistically named "toe spring" actually disables the natural toe spring of your foot.
5) Light. Your foot acts like a pendulum as you run. This is one of the reasons why, the faster you run, the more you tuck your foot into your bum: you shorten the length of the pendulum and it swings more rapidly. However, if you add more weight to the end of the pendulum, it swings more slowly. The energetic cost of a small weight on your foot is much greater than carrying this weight (around your stomach for example). If the shoe meets all the other requirements, its going to be relatively light anyway.

WARNING: Changing your running gait or adapting to more minimal running shoes is something that should be done - if at all - very gradually over at least 6 months.

Feelmax Niesa

This Finnish company still has a real family business feel to it. What is special about the shoes they make is that they have about the thinnest sole you can get away with. The sole is made of Kevlar (the same stuff that bullet proof jackets are made from) and so is pretty resistant. They are extremely flexible and can even be rolled up into a little ball. For a while, I took to wearing them in the office as it was considered to be just too weird to go round in socks. I have also run a bit in them and they are surprisingly good at distributing the impact of a sharp object across the surface of the sole but they are only really suitable for hardcore "barefoot" runners who run on roads but have yet to develop Hobbit like hard skin on the bottom of their feet.

Misuno Wave Universe III (RIP)

I had the predecessor to these shoes which came in a fetching blue colour. They are probably the lightest shoes I have ever run in. As you can see, they are very low profile and have no heel-toe differential, toe spring or any other new fangled nonsense. They are pretty flexible - not to the same degree as the Vibrams or the Feelmax - but they actually look like normal running shoes which is good if you get fed up with comments and funny looks from other people. The problem is that they are priced like normal running shoes but they are not at all resistent to wear. Mine died after only a few months of use - although it is true that, had I not been running on knackered roads in India at the time, they probably would have held out a little longer. Still, the price - and the fact that they are impossible to find in any shops in Spain - means that I won't be restocking them.

Nike Lunar Racer (RIP)

What are these shoes doing here you ask? They look like hovercrafts compared to the other shoes. Even though Nike seems to pretty much lead the whole running shoe movement in the anti-natural direction (with the exception of their experiment in relatively chunky but flexible "Free" shoes), I have to hand it to them: these shoes are a technological marvel. They were the first really light shoes I ran with and they made quite a difference. They were my bridge to more minimal shoes although, in hindsight, being light was the only thing that was good about them. The cushioning was quite soft and felt like it was absorbing all the spring in your step. Also, the upper wore through quite quickly - one pair I bought was already torn when I took it out of the box! I ended up supergluing it back together to avoid the hassle of sending it back.

Terra Plana Evo

These guys are the ones to watch in 2011. Terra Plana are making some seriously stylish shoes which are very flexible, low profile and durable. I've managed to get the kids out of their rock solid shoes with orthotics and they are now wearing various different models of Terra Plana shoes. I picked up a pair of Evos which are virtually indestructable. The soles are so firm that my steps make a satisfying tapping sound, confirming that I am getting sprung back most of what I put in. They are a tad on the heavy side for being a minimal shoe but this is the price you pay for their ruggedness, although perhaps they have gone a bit overboard with the uppers. This one of the problems I have with the shoe: I end up getting blisters on the tops of my toes!! This is because the upper folds back on itself when my foot bends and rubs against my toes. There is a new model, developed in conjunction with POSE Running guru Lee Saxby, that I have yet to get my hands on. It has a more conventional upper. Hopefully it fixes the other problem I have with the shoe and that is that the back of the shoe comes up too far and causes some discomfort by pressing against my Achilles. I still use these shoes for running occassionally and they are my favourites for doing strength exercises in the gym.

Puma Street Kosmos

I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Puma. They have the best and most stylish running shoes in my opinion and they are not even very expensive - that is, IF you can actually find them. The POSE Method followers are very enthusiastic about a mythical shoe that Puma used to make called the "H Street". It was actually supposed to be a fashion shoe but it turned out to have exactly the minimalistic characteristics that the POSE crowd were looking for. I'm sure that a company as big and successful as Puma is not so thick as to not have noticed this little trend. I think that letting models suddenly drift off into obscurity or selling one type of shoe in one market and not in another are perfectly conscious strategies to make us shoe junkies so nervous everytime we see a Puma store that we just have to go in to see whether they just happen to have that elusive model in our size. Which, of course, they never do. When you do find it, then you end up buying fifty pairs just in case they are discontinued. Having said all that, I love the Kosmos. They are my ideal competition shoe because they are light, low profile, comfortable, reasonably durable and breathable. Also, they are not too minimalistic so you don't need to worry about treading on a stone. They have virtually no grip on the sole which is something I quite like actually, because if I find myself slipping or scuffing, it is usually because I am not running properly. Sure, grip is useful for quick accelerations but for running a Marathon - which I have done in these - you just want to get into a good groove. I did once slip over rather embarassingly in the gym, in a pool of my own sweat, just as I stepped off the running machine. Since then I am extra careful.... This is the shoe I will be wearing in the Ironman.

Saucony Kilkenny XC 3 Flat

These are my second favourite shoes (second to the Kosmos). They are very similar in most repects although they have a tiny bit of differential between the heel and toe. The main difference is that they are slightly harder wearing and have much more grippy soles, so they give much more confidence when running cross country like I do on my way to work. They are also a lot easier to get hold of - I still have to order them by mail from the States but its pretty straightforward and they are usually discounted something silly.

Vibram Five Fingers KSO (Keep Stuff Out)

So much has been written about these "monkey feet" that I'm not sure I can add much to the debate. They are a little pricey but they are also extremely good quality - mine still look (but don't smell) as good as new. They are a bugger to get on and I highly recommend that you wear toe socks underneath to avoid getting blisters (typically from the strap) but they are surprisingly comfortable once you've made the effort. Of course, they are the best you can get in terms of flexibility because each toe has the freedom to spread out and really grab the ground. As far as springiness goes, the soles are similar in feel to the Terra Plana shoes. If you like to attract attention then these are your bag - there are even more striking versions available. I have to admit I am slightly scared to use them still, because I managed to get a stress fracture in my foot from over enthusiastic adoption of these "shoes".

MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology)

 How I laughed when I first saw these. They market themselves as the "anti-shoe" and I thought that an anti-shoe, if anything, should be like the Feelmax - something with a waffer thin sole. These shoes are neither flexible, cheap or low profile and they are certainly not lightweight. What happened is that I got fed up of people asking me if I was injured when they saw me walking around in the Feelmax - when you walk barefoot or in socks, you walk on slightly bended knees and tip-toes. The idea behind the MBT shoes is to accept that we walk differently from how we run and that heel striking is OK as long as you are walking. If you start from this premise then, by making the sole of the shoe curved, you find that your centre of gravity moves much less as you walk than it would in normal heeled shoes (i.e., you bob up and down less). MBT market this as it being similar to walking in sand rather than on hard man made surfaces like concrete and it is true that it is a strangely soothing sensation walking in them. The other effect of the sole is that you have no heel counter to lean back on when you are standing - in fact you are constantly in a state of equilibrium like a weeble (until someone sees you are wearing them and pushes you from behind as a joke, as happens to me every so often). The end result is that you expend less energy walking than you would in normal shoes, and more energy standing - at least at first. But that isn't quite the end of the story, because, by being in constant balance, you naturally adopt - by evolutionary definition - the best possible posture. The problem with a bad posture is that some of your muscles become weaker while others become tighter, leading to muscle pain. So your calf muscles may get more tired than usual at first as you get used to them, but - and this is the surprising thing - it works wonders for posture related back pain and knee pain. The shoes are very expensive but they are extremely well made and I personally believe it is worth steering clear of the cheaper and perhaps slightly more fashionable but less effective imitations. You gets what you pays for. Some of them are ugly as sin but I have finally managed to find a pair of MBT work shoes that look like work shoes, at least from above. Prior to my MBT conversion, I was getting pains in my knee from walking even short distances (I have a torn meniscus) although I could happily run for tens of kilometers without problems. This problem has gone away and my posture has improved to boot. Oh yes, and they make me look about 5cm taller....

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