Shoevelution: Shoes Over the Years
By: Tony Konvalin
While shoes may not be a hot topic of conversation with the average person on the street, talk to any runner and often shoes are at the top of their list of conversations to be had. Not long ago I wrote a post called “Running Shoes: My Tenuous Relationship” dealing with my issues with running shoes over the 44+ years I have been at it. Shoes are so integral to running that everyone has an opinion on them and the longer you run the more opinions you will have. The problem is the whole conversation on shoes tends to revolve around just that, shoes, and often does not even deal with the feet we put in them, accept maybe with regards to how the shoe will deal with or control them. We are so used to just wanting to find what we see, well feel, as comfortable shoes we often neglect taking the time to reflect on how those “comfy” shoes will affect ones feet; both in the sort term and long term.
My goal in this post is to take a 32000FT view of shoes. In doing this I am not here to denigrate any particular model, style, or type of shoe but to help us to ask questions we may have not thought about with regards to shoes and invariably our feet. Also, I will not be dealing with how shoes came about and how we moved from bare feet to some from of protection but instead want to look at shoes starting from where I know best, the 70’s when I started running and when the running boom, in general, started. The running boom of the 70’s led to such a demand for shoes by opening the door for all sorts of people to run that the shoe market was ripe for growth and there were companies ready to fill the sudden void and profit from the rise in need. Don’t get me wrong, making a profit is not wrong, but often the incentive for growth can lead for ones vision to be one sided and that view is often short sighted.
I started running in 1973 not because of any running boom and not because Frank Shorter had won the Olympic marathon in 1972. No, I didn’t start running out of any altruistic desire but started running because I did not make the tennis team and did not want to take PE, thus started my life of running. I remember my first real running shoes in High School being from Adidas. I saved up and purchased the Adidas Country, SL72 and then SL76. They were colorful and had various innovations with the SL76 having speed laces that were really no more than plastic loops that allowed the laces to tighten more easily. As for comfort with no real reference point other than bare feet, dress shoes or the canvas foot coverings the school provided previously they were indeed comfortable.
Of course over the years I have had all kinds of shoes but one thing they all have had in common was that each one was to fix some issue I had in my feet and was supposed to be better than the one before it. It may have been more cushioning as with Nike’s first air shoe the Tailwind or Brooks Vantage with the Varus Wedge to help deal with “over-pronation”. You name the foot malady, real or imaginary, and the shoe companies had a shoe, or insert, for it. Every year there was a new innovation or even gimmick as there were those. So many in fact looking back one would wonder how anyone every ran in the past when shoes were just shoes and used mostly for protection instead of correction. Let me add here I am not saying that companies were seeking to take advantage of an uninformed public as many of the innovations were created to deal with perceived issues and the public clamored for them. More often than not the innovations were well intentioned if not misguided.
Jump ahead many years, and any number of shoe changes, and innovations continue to flourish in the shoe industry due to the seemingly never-ending search for shoe nirvana, and the publics demand for something new. With yearly changes being made to better often already good shoes and new shoes being made to fill ever smaller gaps in the shoe lineup you would think in all these years we should have come across what makes a good shoe by now. Truth is if you are like me there have been shoes in the mix that met your needs only to have been made “better” the next year making your favorite shoe no longer the shoe you were looking for so you head off to the latest magazines shoe reviews to find a replacement.
In all these attempts to create a better shoe I have finally come to the realization, yep it has taken over 40 years to realize this, the shoe industry in large is not asking the right questions. Instead of asking what is best for ones feet, legs and physical health in general they seek to remedy issues that may or may not exist or could be corrected by other than a shoe or shoe accessory. Much like so many things the focus tends to be on dealing with a problem instead of dealing with the cause so there is no longer a problem. This again is not only driven by the shoe companies as the public often demands quick fixes because often the real cure takes time, effort and sometimes discomfort and that is not appealing to most. Let me stop and add here that I am sure that there are people that need some from of correction and that many shoes will help but my advise to those people is to also look long term so that you are not tied to requiring the latest “fix” and instead work to correct the issue by natural means.
In comes the minimal movement, jump-started by Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. The good side of this jump start was it got people to look at their feet, and shoes, in a way many had not before. The bad was many who up till then had given little regard to their feet and legs were convinced by the arguments for minimalism and took it up too quickly and ended up injured and jaded at the idea of less-is-more. Thus the move towards minimal shoes, in my opinion was stalled not due to incorrect assumptions but maybe over zealousness. Keep in mind minimal shoes are nothing new. Abebe Bikila won the 1960 marathon in Rome barefoot and won again in 1964 with what would be a very minimal shoe by today’s standards. Actually many of my PR’s in my younger years, including my marathon PR, were run in a shoe with very minimal support and cushioning, the Tiger Jayhawk. Thus, the idea of needing less than we think we need is not new and the move to more maximal shoes is.
Let me also add that Born to Run looked at the Tarahumara Indians and how they ran in sandals and did so for miles upon miles. First thing to realize that is that while they run miles and miles with little on their feet they have been doing this for years and in doing so have strengthen their feet and legs. It should also be realized the Tarahumara have very few paved roads and concrete they have to traverse. Instead of simply trying to imitate something a people have been doing for centuries the takeaway should have been that we see a need to strengthen our feet and legs so that whether one runs in minimal shoes or not we would not need all of the added accouterments that come with todays shoes.
Can and should everyone run in minimal shoes? That is a tough one as truth is probably not, as some may have gotten so far down the supported shoe road that change may be difficult, painful and maybe not possible. However for most moving to shoes that seek to do less and allow ones feet to do more is entirely doable even if not immediately. This is not to say “protective” shoes do not have a place as again there will be many that will not want to, or cannot, take the time and effort to build up their feet so as to be able to move away from this protection.
What I have learned over the last couple years is that while I have any number of issues with my feet most of them can be rectified if my feet and legs become stronger. This started, and continues today, by running in sandals – starting at only walking and working up, at present 3 miles running. What you soon learn, and this is what anyone will tell you who runs barefoot or in minimal shoes, is that how you run will change as your body works to protect itself from damage. Over time I have found that my feet gradually get are getting stronger, as do my legs. I am far from where I want to be and do not want to make the mistake of many and move to quickly before I am ready to run in more minimal shoes. With many years of wearing shoes designed to manipulate my feet and sadly in the process make them weaker I need to reverse this and that will take some time, effort and pain – yes pain as change can be painful.
This is where Carson Footwear comes in. While they are not the first minimalist shoe, and probably not the last, they do fill a niche that is greatly needed; minimal shoes with some level of protection and cushioning. A level that is such that it does not impede the natural function of the foot but have enough protection to allow running on a variety of terrains, including roads. In my thinking they are designed to do what shoes originally were designed to do; protect ones foot. Many minimal shoes seek to be as close to barefoot as possible and thus reduce cushioning to virtually none but while for some this is OK for most it in a way creates a hindrance to even attempting a move to minimal shoes. This is not to say that Carson shoes will not take some getting used to if you are not already a minimal shoe user as it has taken me some time, since I run mostly on roads, to get up to 8-11 miles which at present the longest I have gone in them. I will add that my move to Carson’s was also helped in that I previously ran in a Zero drop shoe so did not have to condition my feet and legs to having no drop in the shoe. With regards to millage I have talked to others that have run Ultras in them so it is entirely possible with time and a goal of mine. Let me also add that these shoes are supper comfortable thus that is not what you will need to get used to.
I recently became a Carson Footwear Ambassador and did so not simply to get discounts on shoes but because I have seen the need for my feet to be strengthened and Carson’s looked to be the shoe to help in that. Another reason I applied was that in 44+ years of running I have never been contacted by the owner of a shoe company when I had questions as I was by Everett Carson. Everett obviously has a vested interest in his customers and this is easy to see when he contacted me to answer my questions. I was also impressed that when I let them know I would not be running my longer races yet in Carson’s, as my feet were not ready, they were good with that knowing it takes time to get ones feet transitioned to minimal shoes.
The main take away I hope you get from all of this is that when looking for shoes instead of asking what can the shoe do to my feet ask what will the shoes allow my feet to do for me. Realize that with some effort and work in most cases you will not need the latest trendy feature in shoes but can instead look for shoes that allow your feet do what they were intended to do: move you forward efficiently. Also, if you are one of those people who have foot issues realize that while you may need a particular shoe for now there is hope for change and that you can work to get your feet back to where they were intended, for most people.
Want to read more about Tony, check out his blog!