Hope Springs Eternal

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My wife is not a sports fan.

In fact, I sometimes think that her favorite “sport” is baiting me, which she does by calling my attention to articles in mainstream (i.e., non-running) publications that she knows will set me off on an indignant tirade.

As a recent example, I came home one day last week and saw that she had left the Business section of that day’s Boston Globe on the kitchen table. The lead article, which took up two-thirds of the front page and continued inside, was titled “Shoe Technology Races Ahead” (get it?). It was a breezy view of trends and new products in the running shoe biz, and it contained gems such as:

“The running industry wants to put a spring in your step — literally.”

Naturally, I had to read the whole article, and it wasn’t long before I was audibly sputtering, and Ann was barely hiding her considerable amusement. 

Accompanying the story were brightly colored photos of three new shoe models, the Adidas Springblade Razor (an update to the original Springblade model), the Nike Flyknit Lunar2, and the New Balance Fresh Foam 980. The text quoted a footwear buyer from CitySports (I know that’s where I would go for running shoe advice), a senior product manager for New Balance, and a design director for Advanced Concepts from Adidas.  

Just thinking about the Adidas shoe makes me unhappy.

I had a friend in college, a physicist and all-around brilliant guy, who used to dismiss really bad ideas by saying, “It’s not just wrong, it’s wrong-HEADED.” I always took that to mean that a clever solution can be worthless if it’s not solving the right problem.

The Springblade attacks the problem of storing and releasing energy from ground impact forces by outfitting a shoe with over a dozen mini polymer blades that act as springs. From what I can tell, the really innovative part about the Springblade is that each blade is set at a different angle, to change the vector of the reactive force, or, to use the marketing parlance, “To propel the runner forward.”

Of course, sneaker companies have been making similar claims for at least eighty years, and probably longer. Does anyone else remember the PF Flyer? According to Wikipedia, they were first manufactured in 1933 by BF Goodrich. In the sixties, when I was a ten-year-old boy, the PF Flyer with its “magic wedge” seemed like the coolest shoe in the world, and I completely accepted the proposition that I would run faster and jump higher with those babies on my feet.

220px-Pf_mid

Ah, youth.

I’m all for storing and releasing energy. In fact, a very significant portion of my life has been dedicated to strengthening the tough elastic tissues in my body to do exactly that. I have spent years learning to use those tissues more efficiently. The idea that a shoe with blades will give me the same results and skip past all of that bothersome training stuff is more than mildly offensive. 

But I might be wrong. I’m no structural engineer. Maybe polymer springs on shoes WILL turn out to be the great footwear innovation that enables all of us to get faster for free (well, for $180 retail, but you know what I mean). And maybe there’s something in cold fusion after all. But my instinct is that messing with the essential physics of running is going to be problematic for most runners, leading to different movement patterns. If the shoe really did offer an advantage over conventional shoes, I would expect that a runner would need to train specifically to take advantage of that advantage. Lunches are never free. 

The other shoes mentioned in the article were headed in a different direction. Both the New Balance and Nike shoes seem to be part of a trend that combines some minimalist ideas with better cushioning and a custom fit. Apparently, today’s shoe buyers love the idea of lightweight, low-profile shoes, but still want to reduce the sensation of repeated blows against the unyielding pavement.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. I know how important it is to feel good in your shoes, and to have confidence that they are doing their best to protect you from all that pounding. I buy a lot of shoes, so who am I to complain if shoe companies continue to look for ways to make me and the rest of the shoe-buying public happy? But I get tired of the gimmicks and I get tired of the outlandish claims that shoes alone will soften the hard truth of high-mileage training.

In the end, I think most people will purchase shoes based on what has worked for them before and on what colors make them feel better on a cold February day when the world is a hard and harsh place.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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