We used to wear plimsolls as kids, they were compulsory and the only kind of athletic shoe in shops anyway.
When cushioned sneakers came out in the early Eighties, we immediately adopted them as a long awaited necessity. We used to think that cushioned sneakers were indispensable for safety and performance. I loved cushioned sneakers to the point of fetishism and I distinctly remember living a teenage fling based entirely on a shared appreciation for the Adidas Torsion technology. And I still attribute the success of my starvation-budget backpacking trip to North Cape in 1993 to the use of an excellent pair of ASICS cross trainers.
I still think big of proper footwear. Only I have changed my idea of proper footwear slightly.
My grandmother used to hate my cushioned sneakers. Not only she considered them ugly, but she insisted they were bad for my feet and posture. She always said I was consuming the rubber under the heel too much. At the time I was convinced that that was exactly what overcushioned sneakers were for: consuming the rubber instead of your skeleton. Of course my grandmother knew better (and I came to treasure her manicure and pedicure tips).
One day about eight years ago I was packing for a backpacking trip and I had space only for one pair of sneakers, and they had to be waterproof. I could chose among a pair of mesh runners, a pair of serious tennis shoes, and a battered (therefore even thinner than usual) pair of pink Mexico 66. The only option was for the pink Mexico 66.
The trip was not particularly strenuous, the backpack was not particularly heavy, days were hot and we walked a lot. I was feeling very good and not paying attention to my shoes. At some point I realized I was actually feeling better than usual, tired but moving very fluidly and pleasurably aware of all the tiny bones in my feet. I also realized I was overtraining. So the next day I woke up thinking good morning tendonitis. But nothing happened, I was tired but not sore at all.
Since then I have walked walked and exercised in minimalistic shoes, except for hiking and tennis, where I am still convinced that technical shoes are required for safety and performance (sturdy shock-absorbent sole for hiking and lateral support for tennis). I just won’t tell anyone, until I bumped into barefoot running websites and everything started to make sense. My grandmother was spot-on, consuming the heel of you sneakers is a bad sign for your posture.
I was training as a shiatsuka by them, and I was surprised by the number of sedentary people, especially women, that showed damages similar to those suffered by athletes of high impact sports. What the heck were all those aching people doing? Weren’t they supposed to sit down at the office and then sit down in front of the tv? Well it turned out they were also walking a bit, mostly carrying children around, and when they did, they used cushioned sneakers.
Now, cushioned sneakers encourage you to walk / run by hitting hard the ground with your heel. There is no direct damage, as the shoe is cushioned expressly for you to do so, but the posture involved is different from the natural posture, so the body suffers the well-known bad consequences of unnatural posture. This mechanism also promotes overstriding. A long stride makes you feel cool, but it means you’re hitting even harder with your heel and stressing your joints with an unbalanced, messy technique. Optimal stride is under your center of gravity, very collected, with most of the weight on the balls of your feet.
Couch potatoes were not walking much, but their muscles were stiff and tendons shortened because of sedentary lifestyle, so bad posture was aggravated.
Runners/walkers were moving a lot in an unnatural posture and probably overstriding.
Athletes had excellent postures and training technique, but they incurred in injuries, trauma and general overtraining.
Of said groups, those people who were also women were suffering even more because women’s femur is articulated at a different, more inclined angle (female hips you know, they allow childbirth) compared to men, so the joints are subject to a greater stress. Wearing heels of course does not help (they’re no such thing as comfortable heels, in terms of biomechanics).
I started to feel I could not heal the entire suffering humanity with my shiatsu pressure. I would look at clueless people floating around in their cushioned shoes, with their shortened Achilles tendons, barely moving their feet at all, and think it was just hopeless.
At least I, personally, was feeling just great, minimalistic shoes were becoming popular, Merrell was selling them, NB was selling them, even Nike was selling them, and at some point I managed the courage to buy a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I thought, they’re beyond ugly but I’m so curios and If I don’t like them then I don’t like them.
Well I’ve been exercising in a pair of chili/peach Sprints for a good while now (mostly power-walking, pilates and core workout) and I have to say they are exceeding expectations. Compared to minimalist shoes, Vibrams allow you to stretch your toes, which tremendously improves stability, to flex them, which allows you to leave the foot on the ground longer thus promoting a perfect stride, and they totally prevent heel striking. Of course you still touch the ground with your heel when walking, but of course very lightly, and you can do that because you’re sustained by your strong core just like your ballet teacher wanted. As for running, you run on the balls of your feet, as recommended by athletes of the barefoot belief. Also traction is fantastic. No conventional nor minimalist sneaker allows so much traction, especially under the toes (a roll-up toe does no compare). This is particularly useful also for pilates and isometric workout (best planks ever).
At first I was worried about possible sores between the toes but nothing happened (I suspect serious runners may have a different experience). On the contrary, being able to stretch toes separately is ever so nice, especially being a woman and therefore to some extent condemned to crippling practices involving narrow shoes and heels – the modern version of bound feet.
The only con is that Vibrams dig into the heel horrendously, it took me a while to figure out how to adjust them, but it may be related to the Sprint model only, or the combination of the Spring model and my heel conformation. I don’t think I need a bigger size, they fit my fingers and forefoot perfectly and a bigger size would prevent me from seating the heel properly. I’m perfectly fine now, but at the beginning i was baffled. Strange shoes.
Now, I would like to make clear that, although being inclined to the barefoot disposition, I am not to be linked to the paleo diet in any way. In my opinion the paleo diet is definitely better than eating junk food, granted, but its paleolithic accuracy is debatable, especially the meat/vegetable ratio, and being mostly based on processed food from intensive farming (you’re certainly not eating wild animals living in a pristine environment, are you) it is inherently worse than a Mediterranean diet with fresh, local ingredients.
And anyway, I’m from Italy, I love my carbs. Stay clear of my carbs.