Thursday, March 20, 2008

The running shoe renaissance

After 25 years of stagnation, there have been a number of innovative new running shoe designs enter the marketplace over the past few years which are well worthwhile examining. These designs can be broadly classified into barefoot running shoes and midfoot/forefoot strike running shoes.

Just like heel strike running shoes, these designs remain untested solutions to unproven theoretical assumptions. As such, it remains to be demonstrated whether a barefoot, midfoot, forefoot or heel strike shoe design is more desirable. However the very existence of these shoes gives us the tools we need to begin to test answer these questions.

The two barefoot designs to enter the market have been the Vibram Fivefingers and the Feelmax range. Both appear to successfully achieve their design objectives, the Fivefingers providing a thin rubber sole shaped to the wearers foot and Feelmax a soft flexible kevlar sole reminiscent of a moccasin.

In the forefoot strike market, Newton have released what looks like a heel strike running shoe with an energy storage and return unit under the forefoot. Unlike the barefoot shoes described above, I suspect that the wearer does not naturally adopt a mid or forefoot strike in this shoe, instead having to consciously learn this technique. The forefoot energy storage device is interesting but like many shoe technologies is really compensating for a loss of natural function caused by the shoe rather then adding any true benefit. In this case it is loss of the foots natural spring as a result of disruption to arch function.

Out of all these new designs, I think that Velocy have made the most interesting contribution. This shoe is not designed to achieve a mid/forefoot strike per se, rather its design objective is to allow the wearer to lean significantly forward when they run without overbalancing. This is based on the belief that our lack of a means to counterbalance this forward lean means that we cannot fully utilise our capacity to generate forward momentum. I love the originality behind this design but would have thought that having big feet would achieve the same objective!