The arrival into my inbox of an alert about the new adidas Springblades got me wondering whether running shoes had finally gone too far. I mean, look at them.
According to the product description, these shoes feature 16 forward angled blades on the outsole that instantly propels the runner forward with every step. Similar to the adidas Boost range, the aim for this shoe is to deliver explosive energy.
"The nearly transparent design of the Springblades are inspired by the idea of levitation, providing the feeling of springs under your feet. The blade technology is radically different and more technical than any running shoe ever created," the press release says.
We shouldn't be surprised by the emergence of shoes such as Springblades because shoes have been going in all different directions for a few years now.
Barefoot or five-toe options have been mainstream for at least five years. You'll run faster and put less strain on your body the more technically proficient and efficient you are. Barefoot running can force better form: more of a forefoot/midfoot strike beneath the runner's centre of gravity.
At the other end of the spectrum and more recent to market are the shoe equivalent of the pillow-top mattress. They have massive cushioning and support and look vaguely ridiculous, but they have become hugely popular - so much so that one manufacturer, Hoka, is expanding its range of colours and support options to cater for this new market.
So what's driving the ultra-cushioning craze?
It's not about improving your running form; it's mostly driven by injury prevention. These spongy-soled shoes have enabled people to keep running through niggles - perhaps when they shouldn't have. But more on that later.
For a little perspective given the cluttered market I sought out Mick Outhred (above), the manager of specialty running store Northside Runners in Sydney's Manly.
"Your safest bet is to go to the standard shoe that's biomechanically fitted to you. Mildly-supported shoes with mild cushioning are our best sellers."
But sales of the ultra-cushioned shoes are catching up and while Outhred won't dissuade people from buying them, he's a little concerned about the side-effect of over-reliance.
Let's go back to why there's a market for ultra-cushioning at all.
Outhred says shoes have come full circle. As running became more popular, people became more interested in improving their technique. Weekend warriors with noble intentions began buying racing flats and barefoots.
"Trouble is, most people don't have the inherent skills or time to concentrate on technique and improving their skills enough to make the move into barefoot successfully," Outhred says.
"We were seeing a massive number of people coming in with stress fractures from going into it too quickly without having allowed the body time to adapt. If people don't give themselves time to strengthen muscles and ligaments, they'll stress them."
So after the aspirational technically proficient runner came the injured runner in search of a workaround. These runners were suffering endorphin withdrawals and coupled with the personality trait that got them into this fix in the first place - impatience - they wanted a shoe that could keep them on the road.
"Hoka couldn't have timed it better hitting the market," Outhred says. "A lot of people have been injured from trying to develop themselves into natural runners so saw the benefit of a lighter, cushioned shoe that enabled them to get out and run relatively pain-free.
"Plus, the max cushioned shoe is popular with people who haven't been experimenting with flats, but who just have niggles that aren't going away."
Outhred's concern is that people are running while injured.
"It's good for now, but what's the long-term effect going to be?” he says. “Is it going to delay recovery time? It certainly disguises the injury. These shoes are allowing people to run how they want to, but not educating them into how they can run more efficiently."
For anyone wanting to work on their running form, Outhred says footwear transition is key.
"Stepping out of a fully structured shoe with cushioning and archwork control into a lighter-weight trainer is advisable before taking the next step to barefoot. It's probably about a six-month transition to strengthen those areas, but over time you might get into a more efficient technique.”
In terms of injury prevention, most people require a little archway support and cushioning. So for runners who want the lighter shoe sensation of running barefoot but also want a well-cushioned system, it's available in a range of brands now.
“That's where our sales are going,” says Outhred. “We get people who've had a bad experience with barefoot but don't want the Hoka extreme. Things are coming back to standard trainer that offer good shock absorption but are versatile enough for outdoor cross-training and running.”
Have you had a bad experience trying to go into flats?
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