August 5, 2011

The Relationship Between Really Ugly Shoes and Fitness

Here they are..the latest trend in
running shoe. While the philosophy
behind them may be sane....the
design of them leaves me speechless.
Why is it that the "better" a shoe is for you, the uglier it is? I am motivated to write this post today because of the sheer revulsion I feel when I get a glimpse of an exerciser wearing those creepy "5 finger" barefoot runners.  You know the ones...they look like you have dipped your foot in rubber?  Sure, they may be effective (I'll get into that later) but do they have to scare small animals and little children?

I always imagine the wearer of this shoe
to have the ability to rock back and
forth on the spot without
falling over...kinda like a Weeble.
Then you have the Frankenstein-like "toning" shoe that is all the rage at the moment. They remind me of when I was a kid in the 70's wanting my mom to buy me these Coca-Cola shoes (anyone out there remember these?). They also came in 7-Up and Root Beer..but I loved the Coca-Cola (or was it Pepsi?).  At any rate, they were clunky and ridiculous and I loved them. I see women (and some men) walking around with these claude-hoppers (a term my dad used all the time) today and have to giggle and the humour of it all...not to mention, the research is out....they do not do a thing you can't do yourself (walking is what tones your butt, thighs, and hamstrings).  I just hope no one falls into the deep end of the swimming pool for fear of going straight down to the bottom as they look like two concrete slabs at the end of your legs (note: I'm using "your" in general...nothing personal).

If you could keep these babies on your
foot, I give you great credit. I was
just exhausted by the end of the day.
Remember the Dr. Scholls line of shoe in the 70's? This wooden clog-like flip flop promised toned calves when you wore them. Of course, I bought a pair and fought every day to keep them on my feet. They were also quite ridiculous. Then you have the first line of Crocs (I firmly believe that shoe was invented by a bunch of engineers wanting to play a practical joke on society) and let's not forget the plyometric toning shoe.

It was hard finding a pic of these
beauties. As hideous as they
were, they will always hold a
special place inside my heart.
So what is it about ugly shoes and health and fitness? Is it possible to have an attractive shoe be good for us? Probably not.  Do these shoes really deliver what they promise? Great question! I had the same question in my mind right after my horrific encounter with the very popular Vibram FiveFingers barefoot runner (I still can't get that image out of my head).  So I did a little research. I went onto Google Web and Google Scholar to see what's what. My question related to the effectiveness and safety of barefoot running and the effectiveness of the design of said shoe.  What I learned was fascinating.....

First of all...there is no academic (conclusive) research to suggest that the supportive shoe (the ones we know and love that offer support, padding, etc.) is effective and reducing exercise injuries. In fact, the supportive shoe, according to most podiatrists, has been accused of making our feet lazy. Wearing a shoe that offers such support leads to atrophy (muscle weakening) of the muscles in the feet. We become addicted to these shoes like one becomes addicted to a knee or back brace. Interesting. As a kinesiologist, I've always believed that runners and exercisers alike must build and balance the muscles in the legs to become stronger than the demand placed on them through it's official. 

There is a debate going on right now between two camps of researchers; those that believe in the effectiveness of barefoot running and those that are opposed. After taking into considering both sides, here's what I think..... Barefoot running trains and strengthens the muscles of the feet unlike the supportive shoe and also promotes a more effective running gait and foot strike. Runners are now focused on the forefoot strike versus the heel strike. In addition, according to the "pro" camp, barefoot running  shoes influence gait so that the runner takes smaller steps and becomes more efficient.  Neet.  Basically, the barefoot shoe provides only a safety shield between the foot and the concrete and that's it.

Now they come with fuzz. 
Seriously, if no one else
bought these you think
anyone else would?? Never
underestimate the power of
social influence.
The con side focuses on the lack of large-scale research supporting the claims that barefoot running decreases injury and increases performance...and that's great. I believe we need these critical thinkers around to remind us that, although we personally may be experiencing running success with these really ugly shoes, the population in general may not. Some claim that the barefoot shoe is unnecessary and are actually increasing the number of injuries. If a person has been supported by the old-style runner and suddenly changes to the barefoot runner (without slowly introducing this shoe or adjusting their running program) all hell will break's a promise.

Both sides have some great points. While barefoot running may prove more effective and efficient, the general public will rush out and buy them, slip them on, and start running without any consideration for preventative exercises like resistance training and stretching. In other words, the shoes alone will not reduce injuries...the runner is responsible for that.  No matter how technologically advanced a shoe is or what promises it makes, it all boils down to user responsibility. We must be sure to stretch, to strengthen, to rest, and to exercise correctly. If not, there is no ugly shoe in the world that will save us from ourselves.

That's all I got for now....except this picture of a plyometric training shoe (Remember Seinfeld? Kramer wore them for an entire episode...I won't get into the storyline there as it lends itself to the politically incorrect).

Saving the best for last. At least this didn't become such a trend we saw everyone walking around in these.

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