Think Outside The [Toe] Box

Think Outside The [Toe] Box

In engineering, great ideas are often found when the current trend is going one direction and someone decides to take a completely different approach to the problem. While I’m going to use running shoes as an example, this thought process is analogous to many situations that engineers deal with on a daily basis.

For years, running companies have been devising new gimmicks technologies to increase sales enhance the running experience. I’m only going to mention a few major instances (read: commercial). When I first starting running in high school, Reebok came out with the DMX foam which is supposed to be a lightweight, cushioning, yet long lasting foam for shoe midsoles. I never could afford a pair of DMXs in HS but I did buy a pair in college and they were meh. They didn’t seem to cushion more or less than other shoes, nor did they last longer.

In college, it was the Nike Shox which were the big hit. They were a fantastic commercial success. I used to work for a store that sold and I had many different pairs: the running shoes, the full shox, the basketball version, and the crosstrainer. While they were comfortable, no serious runners actually wore them for running (I never did either).

In the years after that, I never really kept up with the different gimmicks but I did focus on shoes that typically had a large footbridge and a huge amount of heel padding. I had the dreadful combination of having nearly flat feet while being a super overpronator. This basically meant my feet would roll severely towards my instep as my foot struck the ground. In HS and college (I was on the UGU track team for a few years), I was always plagued by foot, ankle, knee, and hip aches, some of which can be attributed to not having the right shoes for my feet.  I quit running for a few years but slowly gravitated back to being a runner and now I run regularly. When I started running regularly, I went back to my normal rut of buying shoes that were made of overpronators but felt like cement blocks on my feet. And I would probably still be on this trend if someone at Nike didn’t think outside the box.

A few years ago, Nike came out with a new direction for shoes which was the Nike Free product line. Rather that focus on huge padding and footbridges, these shoes were made to conform to your feet and allow your foot to conform to the road. These shoes were a radical departure from the norm. I bought a pair of these and haven’t looked back. In fact, I kept looking forward. There has been some recent research on running suggesting that heel striking (ie: running in big padded shoes) can cause more injuries and foot/leg/back pain than running in a more natural position (ie: running barefoot). See Lieberman’s paper in Nature for details (doi:10.1038/nature08723).

But an even more radical departure than the step Nike made with its Free product line is the Vibram Five Fingers [photo credit]. Rather than thick padding, these shoes force you to run in a more natural position, completely bucking the trend from previous technology. The reason I write about this now is that I’ve picked up a pair this weekend and went on my first run with them yesterday (Details to be posted over at GEARS). The jury is still out on whether this is now the new wave of the future. But it certainly has created a niche market for this technology and is a prime example of how thinking completely outside of the box can be more than a concept.

1 comment

I think maybe the larger issue is that the market went from offering one choice to now offering multiple choices. There was a discussion on the benefits of the more full support kind of shoes versus minimalist or barefoot running shoes. There’s an argument that the fuller support tends to benefit a larger segment of the population but minimalist might work best for well trained runners. There’s an interesting article over at Sweat Science talking about the shift:

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