Cargo Cult Shoes: Shoes Should Conform to the Feet and Not the Other Way Around

(Disney's Cinderella)

(Disney's Cinderella)

Does it fit like a glove? Or does it fit like a shoe?

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

We liken shoes to a new car, or maybe a computer. We choose specs based on the promise of what it can deliver. We can predict how a car will deal with the physics of the road, or how a computer deals with the processing of information, but in the case of the human body — it's always less than predictable.

Cargo cult – The belief held by some traditional tribal societies that cargo (modern goods) had "magic" beyond the abilities of human effort; the cult idolization of stuff over human process.

We Hate Our Feet but Love Our Shoes

We have some assumptions about the feet, that pronation (rolling inward) is bad because it's not "normal." And anything not normal must be fixed. Compound that with our love for "magic pills" — rather than making broad behavioral changes, we believe we can dramatically change our health outcomes with a purchase. Like traditional tribes, we, too, are a cargo cult.

Unhealthy by Design

To our convenient way of thinking, health isn't a state of being or something that starts from within, but an external that we purchase, that we add onto ourselves. And if we believe we are inherently unhealthy by design (more remnants of cult), we must continuously create things to fix ourselves. Consumable things.

(19th century engraving of Gustave Doré's Cendrillon)

(19th century engraving of Gustave Doré's Cendrillon)

This is not particularly unique to health. We have long felt this way, since the birth of religion: We are inherently imperfect, and we are in constant need of interventions beyond ourselves.

Thus, feet bad; shoes good. And we are willing to pay a high price to pursue this belief, both physically and financially. In the case of our feet, rather than improving our running biomechanics (or avoiding the activity altogether if it doesn't suit us), we purchase fancy shoes, inserts, and orthotics, believing it will somehow do the job for us. Yet, with any consumer good, there is always a gap between promised and delivered. What we have all learned, hopefully, is that the body doesn't care what we believe, it will react however it reacts (unless placebo, but people tend to dislike placebo effects as well because they feel duped). A product may come with a money-back guarantee, but no similar guarantees exist with our bodies.

Research v. Promises

Researcher Benno Nigg and his colleagues at the University of Calgary were skeptical of foot alterations in shoes and published a review, poring over decades of studies on running injuries.

Health is neither cookie-cutter nor full of blanket answers, as this research confirms. In one extensive study of pronation, that included over 1,000 novice runners being tracked for a year, the runners with "normal" feet had a significantly higher injury rate than those who pronated.

As far as impact with the ground, they found little evidence that shoes offered much protection. In fact, the force of ground impact was inconclusive to running injury. (The area of impact is more important than the overall force of impact.)

Though more broad, perhaps overall durability, or lack thereof, is more relevant than foot alignment when it comes to injury. There is also the possibility that running is not appropriate for everyone. Some have already accumulated too much health debt, ready to be exposed in the first fitness activity they try. And the most common fitness activity everyone tries, happens to be running.

When military recruits were assigned shoes to alter their pronation, they were more likely to sustain other injuries. That's how their bodies learned to move and altering it derails everything their bodies know. It's like detaching the feet from the rest of the body. However, thick shoes with arch supports and orthotics promise to protect the feet; they never claimed it wouldn't hurt everything else.

To solve the riddle of how Cinderella can fit into her slippers, she is drawn without toes. However, in real life, we just deal with the pain and consider it normal.

To solve the riddle of how Cinderella can fit into her slippers, she is drawn without toes. However, in real life, we just deal with the pain and consider it normal.

Shoes should conform to the feet and not the other way around. When all ideas of what's best for the feet were thrown aside, and participants were able to choose shoes based on comfort, these participants were injured far less than those who had their shoes selected for them based on their foot shape.

Scientific Common Sense

(Sketch of a cow | Antoine-Louis Barye)

(Sketch of a cow | Antoine-Louis Barye)

I don't know if scientific common sense is a term, but it should be. We can't fragment any one thing or any one body part from the rest of the sum. In this case, the singular focus on the feet fights our bodies' natural movement patterns, causing injury.

Body parts don't exist in a vacuum, they are attached to you. You are a whole unit, not Frankenstein's monster, stitched together with random independent parts.

Born to Walk

If you keep getting injured, perhaps you were born to walk, but not meant to run. And then, there are those unable to walk from birth, or have the ability but avoid the act as much as possible. Perhaps the best way to keep ourselves healthy is to engage in activities that improve our health, while avoiding the ones that hurt our health, even when we're told it's good for us. (There are no blanket answers after all.)

Maybe in a bygone era, it was as easy as deciding to run and doing it. Times have changed, and running is no longer as easy an undertaking, as proven by injury rates — even if we did it effortlessly as children.

Shoes are not the problem, our expectations are. We're expecting too much from our shoes, whether they be the most invasive of high-tech running shoes or barefoot minimalist shoes. Shoes won't steel your body or change your running form for the better, you have to do that, with lots of patience and practice.

There is no "tada," I have my magic shoes on, now I'm superhuman. Just as a standing desk won't fix your posture and expensive boxing gloves won't make you a fighter. It can help. It can remove some obstacles. But to actually make improvements, you have to do that.

You Dictate Your Level of Expectation

I only wear minimalist shoes, from Converse, Pumas, New Balance Minimus, Nike Free, Vibrams, to martial arts shoes. (In the dojo and at home, however, I am always barefoot.)

Regarding my preference for footwear (or lack thereof), several people have said to me, "Hey, that doesn't work."

And I replied, "Work to do what?"

"Fix your feet," they said.

I said, "My feet don't need fixing."

"Well, it won't improve your running form," they said.

"Thinking these shoes would automatically improve my running form is like me thinking a real estate calculator would make me good at real estate. That was never my expectation."

"Then why did you get them," they asked.

"Because they're the most comfortable shoes I've worn. They're cheaper than your shoes. And I already have an efficient running form, so I have earned the right to wear these shoes."

(The American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery, 1905)

(The American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery, 1905)

I literally can't walk in another person's feet, only in their shoes. But coming from an Asian culture, along with the martial arts culture, where we often sit on the floor and don't wear shoes, regular running shoes often feel like foot-binding torture.

If you compare an infant's feet to our own, no other body part goes through as much transformation. No other animal's limb goes through this much change. This is not a matter of evolution, as evolution is supposed to increase survivorship. This is a modern phenomena. A part of me is always saddened when I see the supple feet of a baby forced into hard and round (albeit very cute) shoes.

(Baby's Feet | Martinus)

(Baby's Feet | Martinus)

A Matter of Personal Choice

Popular opinion is more myth than fact. Rather than boilerplate assumptions, find the right solution for you, as an individual. If we're the ones who must live with our personal choices, then our choices should be personalized.

When we look to products for all the answers, they consistently fail us. When we look to ourselves, we must work, which is why we undervalue our own agency. Perhaps foot pronation isn't good for us; however, it is not an accurate indicator of running injury. In fact, shoes that do too much only make things worse. That is the nature of solutions that treat the symptoms rather than address the totality; they only mask the underlying issue until it expresses itself in other ways.

Running form is, and has been, the most reliable predictor of injury, not the type of running shoe. A reality embraced by neither runner nor shoe manufacturer. Both parties want the shoe to take the responsibility of running away from the runner. It's lucrative for the shoe manufacturers and easier for the runners. (Runners who can run in anything are not profitable.)

Pronated runners have a form that fits their foot alignment. Altering their feet without altering their form creates health dissonance. Unnatural alterations of the body are no different than the damage from corsets.

The Right Equipment

When picking the right equipment, consider whether the equipment conforms to you or you to the equipment. Does it feel natural? If not, your movements will be unnatural. Are you bound or free to move? Is it comfortable? Does it fit like a glove? Or does it fit like a shoe?

When a shoe fits like a glove, our feet feel like feet. When it fits like a shoe, our feet feel like (battered) blunt objects.

Great runners from Mexico to Africa run with little issue, whether barefoot or wearing rundown donated shoes. Great boxers have good form with or without gloves. What will always matter is the excellence in execution. (The quality of the movement and the lack of movement interference.) The equipment can only enhance your technique, it cannot make up for it.

The Only Sound Advice

Some things are beyond our control. Physical events can be hard to predict. The best approach is to make yourself so good that you can work without equipment. Master your body. Let it be the only equipment you need. Then, when you have the right equipment, it can only make you better. And you will know the equipment is right because it conforms to the precision you bring.

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