SHOEspiracy, a new feet-first documentary by barefoot/minimal shoe maker Vivobarefoot (1.) provided me with insights on the factors behind the unproven theory on which the design and modification of the rigid plastic ski boot is based that supporting and immobilizing the foot of a skier in neutral places it in the strongest position for skiing.

The intent of SHOEspiracy is to shed light on what amounts to a  ‘Shoe-shaped’ Public Health Scandal’.

There is a 20 billion pair a year, silent public health scandal a’foot and it’s shoe shaped!

It’s astonishing to us that the vast majority of shoes produced each year are actually bad for people’s feet—and the wearers are none the wiser.

VIVOBAREFOOT co-founder Galahad Clark

According to the documentary SHOEspiracy is intended to inspire viewers to reconnect with their feet and create a drive within the multi-billion-dollar footwear industry to establish a template for healthy shoes, healthy feet and natural movement. Most people are blissfully unaware of the problems footwear can and does cause and assume that what they put on their feet is benign.

I commend Galahad and Asher Clark and Vivobarefoot for taking the initiative to educate consumers on the problems shoes can and do cause and to establish a template for shoes that respect and accommodate the physiologic requirements of the user.

From Function to Fashion

At one time all humans were barefoot. This changed about 40,000 years ago when humans began to wrap animal skins around their feet to protect them against damage from the elements.  From crude beginnings as nondescript forms of protection, footwear evolved into a fashion entity; one that changed the shape and appearance of the foot, often radically, to render it more aesthetically pleasing. Heels first appeared in horsemen’s shoes as a device to help keep the rider’s feet in the stirrups.

As the evolution progressed shoes became corrective and lifestyle devices in addition to fashion accessories. In the footwear fashion era people have historically worn shoes that deformed their feet, the Chinese Lotus shoe  being an extreme example. But since a degree of deformation does not typically result in a noticeable impact on low-key locomotion the negative impact of restrictive footwear has generally flown under the radar unnoticed.  Adverse effects due to footwear such as joint and muscle pains and impaired balance are usually attributed to other factors.

Young feet are especially malleable. Their shape can be molded by footwear often resulting in permanent deformity as mine were when as a child my feet were put in orthopedically correct, supportive footwear to help them develop properly. The recent photos below show the state of my feet after more than 5 years of wearing exclusively minimal shoes, doing exercises like the short foot and using NABOSO insoles. Although they have become much stronger and healthier, it is doubtful whether the damage done when I was a child can ever be undone.

The left hand photo shows my feet with forefoot minimally weighted. The right hand photo shows my feet weighted. Note the difference in the robustness of the big toe of my left foot compared to the big toe of my right foot. I believe this at least partially explains why I am able to stand and balance with superior stability on my left foot compared to my right foot.

The photos below serve to graphically illustrate why I gave up road biking several years ago and now ride a touring bike with large flat platform pedals and minimal shoes fit with NABOSO insoles. As my feet became stronger and more functional I was no longer willing to abuse them with constrictive footwear.

The Jogging/Ski Boot Connection

About 50 years ago a new type of shoe appeared; one that would revolutionize the footwear market. The Sports Shoe was created in response to the running boom of the 1970’s. When I took up running on the cusp of the running boom, runners of the day ran in flats made for tennis or basketball. These were plain canvas shoes with no heel toe drop or special features.

Jogging, published in 1967 by Nike cofounder, William J. Bowerman, served as a catalyst for the running boom that emerged in the 1970s and with it the development of jogging and other sports footwear including plastic ski boots. At the time that he wrote Jogging Bowerman was working with elite runners looking for ways to improve their performance. His book was preceded by the introduction of the first Lange ski boot in 1962 followed by a racing model in 1965.

People who took up jogging who hadn’t run before started having problems with their Achilles tendon and calf muscles because their everyday shoes had heels. After consulting with doctors Bowerman made a decision to raise the heel of his jogging shoes by 1/2” (12 mm) to accommodate people who wore dress shoes. This feature was for the general public, not the athlete. Bowerman recognized that the sports footwear industry needed to create a consumer product that could be worn without causing discomfort. In an attempt to address problems caused by raising the heel the sports shoe industry responded by adding counters, arch supports and other features; in effect adding band aids in an effort to correct problems caused by raising the heel.

When the Nike Waffle Trainer was marketed as a shoe designed specifically for jogging the idea of sport specific shoes initially made sense to me. But even though I had been running with a heel strike technique in flats I experienced problems right away with ankle and knee shock at heel strike in my Nike Waffle Trainers. In comparing the Nike shoe to my canvas flats it became obvious to me that the flared heel was adversely altering the mechanics of heel strike. Trimming away the outer (lateral) and rear aspects of the flared heel reduced the shock of impact at heel strike.  I suspected that other aspects of the shoe were also adversely affecting my running mechanics. This incident caused me to question whether the design of sport specific shoes was supported by science.

When I started looking for answers I found out that it had been known for decades that footwear can negatively impact the physiologic function of the user. But the issue of the effect of footwear on athletic performance came into sharp focus in 1989 with the publication of the medical textbook, The Shoe in Sport (published German in 1987 as Der Schu im Sport). The Shoe in Sport brought together the collective expertise of 44 international authorities on orthopedics and biomechanics to focus their attention on the SHOE PROBLEM in the context of problems shoes can cause for athletes that compromise performance and contribute to injury. The Shoe in Sport focusses on the medical and orthopedic criteria of sports shoes in offering guidelines for the design of shoes for specific athletic activities including skiing and ice skating. The efforts of the Shoe in Sport was supported by the Orthopedic/Traumatologic Society.

In the Introduction to the Shoe in Sport, Dr. med. B. Segesser and Prof. Dr. med. W, Pforringer note that the buyers of athletic shoes are always looking for the ideal shoe. In their search for the ideal shoe they encounter a bewildering variety of options and are largely dependent for information on the more or less aggressive sales pitches directed at athletes from every angle.

Segesser and Pforrineger go on to state that the findings in the textbook should enable the interested reader to distinguish between hucksterism and humbug on the one side and scientifically sound improvements in the athletic shoe on the other. The Shoe in Sport makes it abundantly clear that it is not a question of if the structures of footwear will affect the physiologic function of the user but a question of how they will affect the physiologic function of the user and especially whether the footwear will compromise athletic performance and/or contribute to injury. The Shoe in Sport studies the biomechanical, medical and technical aspects of the shoe problem as it exists in various fields of athletic endeavour.

A number of leading footwear company executives have often said to me over the years that they know science and agree with the philosophy behind the benefits of barefoot shoes, but that consumers aren’t ready. – Galahad Clark

Clark’s statement seems to suggest that little has changed since the publication of The Shoe in Sport in 1987 and the subsequent publication of Nigg’s Biomechanics of Sports Shoes in 2010. One reason may be the difficultly in conducting objective studies that lead to definitive conclusions pertaining to effects on the user of specific features of footwear.

After I learned of the research done by Benno Nigg at the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary that found that anything appended to the human foot compromises physiologic function I set out to develop a minimal constraint device for rigid soled footwear such as hockey skates, ski boots, cycling shoes and the like that would create a functional environment equivalent to barefoot. Activities that employ rigid soled footwear are much easier to conduct in vitro and in vivo studies than other activities. The objective of the device I wanted to develop was to enable the study of the effects of interfering with the action of discrete joints or joint systems of test subjects by controlling variables against a standard reference. In 1991, I succeeded in developing such a device in a corroborative effort with a biomedical engineer. The device can be constructed at minimal cost and readily fit with instrumentation to capture performance data.

When I wrote my US patent 5,265,350 at the beginning of 1992 I described the research device in impeccable detail with the intent and hope that others would construct the device and conduct studies with it. Under the terms of a patent, research may be conducted using a technology for which patents are pending or granted without infringing. This meant that research vehicle could have been constructed and studies commenced as soon as my patent application was published.

The graphic below shows the Birdcage research device on the left and Figure 1 from US patent 5,265,350 published on  February 22, 1993 on the right.

Form follows Function

The designation of the research device as Figure 1 in the patent is symbolic of the priority I give to function and science over other considerations.

The design and development strategies used by David MacPhail are very holistic in nature, placing the human system as the central and most critical component in the biomechanical system. His intent is to maximize human performance and efficiency, while foremost preserving the well-being and safety of the users and minimizing biomechanical compromises.  Alex Sochaniwskyj, P. Eng.

In US 5,265,350 and subsequent patents granted to me I disclosed a series of accessories for use with the research device. I designed these  to enable the effect on the user of factors such as the position of key mechanical points of the foot in relation to the mechanical points of a snow ski appended to it to be studied. To the best of my knowledge the minimal constraint research device and accessories has yet to be constructed and employed by other parties.

…………. to be continued.