shoes and coffee

Two subjects that are not core to this blog. Nor are they related other than that many have strong opinions about both. The only defense I have for wasting your time with the below is that the embedded videos are worthwhile.

If you are a runner and also enjoy consuming text and visuals about your hobby it is virtually impossible to escape the quagmire of contradicting advice regarding shoes. My personal take: now the dust has settled on the ‘minimalist’ versus ‘cushioned’ battlefield, I’ve ended up where most have: run on whatever feels OK to you, don’t trust marketing crap and leave the rest of the world at peace.

I wasn’t an early adopter of minimalist shoes, but was somewhat ahead of the born to run wave. But like for so many others Chris McDougall’s storytelling skills were the trigger for my first pair of vibram ‘five fingers’ buy. If you’re a runner you most probably have read the book and seen this man on video. If not, you should. Take some of his wild statements with a grain of salt but don’t throw away the child with the bathwater.

Personally I didn’t have much trouble adjusting and enjoyed the ground feel. But I’ve seen enough others get into trouble trying to ‘transition’ to shut my inner preacher up. And I’ve also seen and felt what the absence of protection results in when running difficult rocky and otherwise obstacle-strewn technical trails long enough to get tired, less attentive and coordinated : near impossible to not end up with at least one severely bruised toe. Very painful.

Finally: it didn’t take very long for any illusions I might have had about the minimalist end of the spectrum being less business/corporate/marketing focused to be proven naive. A sports wear company is a sports wear company. The idiocy of all those new models every year, accompanied by fanciful stories, extremely dodgy (if any at all) science behind it, irrelevant focus on looks and minutiae, and a stable of paid influencers for you , the potential customer, to identify with.

Let’s accompany that disappointment with a befittingly blue coffee song:

Vibram, the upstart intruder on the turf of the established running shoe companies was cut down to size by a law suit that it had to settle that alleged the company made false and unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of its glove-like footwear. And truth be told, the accusation was probably warranted: there isn’t enough evidence for five-fingers strengthening muscles and reducing injuries. But, there also isn’t for the alleged benefits of the cushioning and orthopedic tinkering of the post 1970s running shoe industry. And no one has brought a law suit to them. About which McDougall says:  In this case, I don’t really blame the running shoe companies. Capitalism is based on the idea that people buy shit they don’t need. .

The battle fought, a truce established, the minimalists back in their niche corner, happily battling it out amongst fellow travelers, time for some more black coffee, my favorite drug, and it also doubles up as preferred performance enhancer, placebo or not, who cares.

Let me end with with a short reflection on terminology. Because let’s get this straight: labeling minimalist shoes ‘barefoot’ is a marketing gimmick. I love walking, even running barefoot if injury risks are small, which in many environments is not the case. It’s certainly true that five-fingers feel much closer to bare feet than any kind of shoe, but the feedback from your bare soles is still a world apart from the what gets through the 3.5mm of very flexible vibram. Move up a notch in the shoe department, and the qualitative difference is again as big. Calling this barefoot is going for an oxymoronic concept. That is why I stick to ‘minimalist’ for anything getting away from what these days is seen as traditional running shoes. The irony of it all is that thin shoes with minimal padding is what people wore for thousands of years before the 1980s when the “modern running shoe” was invented.

The end is never the end, so let me share with you that running shoe promotion has caught up to the gulf between the tall claims and what science says. This recent Runnersworld article Do Running Shoes Cause or Prevent Injury? is a nice illustration. Lots is wrong in this piece with the use of science but at least the lack of evidence for any general statement regarding the effects of cushioning etc. is squarely admitted. Progress….

May this classic Dutch coffee song be your reward for having made it to the end of this somewhat pointless post.


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