2012-02-01

Modern Shoes are not made for walking (I)


Shoes were and still are a luxury article for a majority of the world's population. Until the 20th century and the advent of  mass production only the higher classes wore shoes such as we know them nowadays. The rest walked either barefoot or wore primitive footwear ranging from sandals / flip-flops to the Catalonian "Espardenyes" or Espadrilles. This footwear was the one used by the infantry of the XIII - XIX century.

You can read a brief overview of the history of shoes on this page http://www.shoeinfonet.com/. One thing that becomes obvious is the absence of heels on most of the earlier types, this includes the footwear used by the Greeks and Romans but also by modern running people like the Tarahumara or the African how walk and run mostly barefoot or in sandals or flip-flops.

Why is this important? Because it points to a enlightening fact: Modern western style shoes are not designed for walking.

While high heels in woman shoes developed from the platforms of clogs or geta that kept the feet of the peasants from the mud or the ones of the urban population away from the sewage. Their purpose was and is purely aesthetic.The heels on the majority of  modern footwear have however a design that is just perfect for another completely different purpose: Horse Riding!

Heels are ideal for riding with stirrups. A common gentleman's shoe like the ones in use from the XIX century onwards could be considered a general purpose design for riding and walking (horse-racing still requires proper specialized footwear).

The result of all of that is that in our daily lives we wear shoes meant for horse riding with an artificial curvature elevating your toes from the ground. The latter is meant to make it possible to actually walk with our rigid modern shoes. The fact that the soles are rigid is again a handy feature for passing your shoes through stirrups but that is neither required for walking nor is it necessary from the point of view of the materials used as it would have been perfectly possible to make flexible rubber or leather soles. 

The gentleman shoe was already standard when industrial production started in the last XIX and early XX century. During a part of this period it was still completely fit for purpose and as there were no mayor issues and nobody saw a reason to change it, it just continued this way until nowadays having been etched into our concept of how a show has to look like.

But the big problem, when it comes to specialty footwear such as running shoes, is that  they too have adopted a shoe designed for horse riding with a heel that was meant to keep the stirrups in place to running. 

The main reason for sport shoes having a heel is actually different and based on Bill Bovermann's idea that a heel strike would increase stride length and thus be more efficient for competition. But were it not for our general acceptance of shoes with heels we would have considered the early Nikes weird monstrosities.

Not only that: Many running shoes are not sold for running proper but as 'sneakers'; the new must-have fashion accessory where it does not matter if a shoe has been designed for running, basket or rope-jumping but what matters is that it looks flashy, has the swoop of a known brand and is known to be or looks expensive. Another huge segment buy running shoes believing hat they will be healthier than normal shoes; I personally know a lot of people who work standing long hours or even people with difficulties for walking who use running shoes.  I do not have figures on that, but you just need to read the reviews customers put in sites like Amazon or Sierra Trading Post, such as "go well with jeans", "I use them everyday at work". You normally get four or five of these reviews for each that reads "good on track" or "nice for shorter workouts".

The shoe companies will thus have a huge incentive for adding elements to their designs that potential customers can easily identify with the established concept of  how a "normal" shoe has to look like.

In fact what you can easily realise is that the whole industry including the sport sector is almost entirely fashion based and that little or no ergonomic engineering has really taken place in the sports shoe sector were the designs are just based on completely empirical thinking based on wrong concepts and fashion standards based on footwear designed for horse riding or utter non-sense like Boverman's heal strike.

But there is more and this I will cover in the second part of this series.





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