Footwear, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

There is a plethora of information out there regarding footwear. Some shoes cure pain, some make you squat more, some tone your bum, and some help you run – or do they?

In the realm of performance-enhancing equipment, it is difficult to establish what information is true or false, or even – relevant. This confusion is often created by huge advertising budgets convincing you of the ‘best’ products to spend your hard-earned pennies on, and conflicting advise from its competitors. It can be hard to ascertain unbiased information as most of the information is directly from the companies themselves.

Here are two examples, just to illustrate how confusing it can be:


“At MBT it is our philosophy to keep the body in motion. We believe motion is key to helping find and maintain the right balance in life. At MBT, we can help achieve this through our unique shoe design that combines a perfect balance of function with style.

MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) was born in 1996 when we discovered that natural instability can have positive effects on the human body. We made this discovery by observing the wonderfully agile Masai people walking barefoot on natural, uneven ground. Seeing these people in action made us realize that the human body is simply not designed to walk or stand on the hard, flat surfaces of modern society. So we set out to develop a new kind of footwear, one that would mimic walking on soft, uneven ground. The results have been dramatic and revolutionary. MBTs are now sold in more than 55 countries around the world and many enthusiastic users enjoy wearing MBTs.”

Vibram FiveFingers

“The typical human foot is an anatomical marvel of evolution with 26 bones, 33 joints, 20 muscles, and hundreds of sensory receptors, tendons and ligaments. Like the rest of the body, to keep our feet healthy, they need to be stimulated and exercised.

Many experts believe the shoes we wear not only cast the foot in a protective form, but also weaken our foot and leg muscles, leaving them underdeveloped and more prone to injury. And while there are many occasions where traditional footwear is essential for protection, safety, and security, it is equally important to stimulate and exercise the foot in a more natural state on a regular basis.

That’s why we recommend wearing FiveFingers for exercise, for play, and for fun. Stimulating muscles in your feet and lower legs will not only make you stronger and healthier, it improves your balance, agility and proprioception.”

So, one company suggests that if you wear minimalist style footwear your foot and leg muscles will get stronger, whilst the other claims that by wearing a more substantial form of footwear that creates instability you will improve balance and posture and help back pain.

Tricky! What are we to do… buy both pairs?! I would probably get the MBT as I quite like the thought of moving like a Masai ;).

Don’t get your wallet out just yet. To decipher some of the claims it may be worth turning to the evidence base. Most of the relevant studies are done on orthoses (devices you put in your shoes to alter foot mechanics), and although not directly the same, they do give us some helpful insights without having the large scale studies available:

Strong evidence insoles don’t prevent low back pain …or prevent lower limb soft tissue injuries in running …or help knee pain.

The evidence base may therefore help us understand that the advertising hype may not stand up in the more objective scale of things, however what are we to do? – Tune in to part 2 where we decide what to do about our footwear conundrum!