Drop the bass, not your heels!

I almost went with the title “I wore non-minimalist shoes and all I got was shitty ankle mobility.” Cliché. Dubstep jokes aren’t much better, but hey, there was a Batman meme!

I subjected myself to an accidental n=1 heel drop (if you aren’t familiar read this article) experiment when I picked up a pair of Onitsuka Tiger Ultimate 81s before my journey to Switzerland. I needed new shoes that I could still train in, but could handle (with nice thick socks) some colder temperatures. My first choice was the Merrell Sonic Glove, but it was sold out everywhere I looked. The Tiger’s came up a compromise choice that sounded amazing except for the thick heel and arch support. Since they still had minimal padding around the ball of the foot I decided to try them out. I was grateful for that heel padding at first anyway, because I bruised the hell out of my right heel in San Diego. Lesson learned: look for nasty roots slightly behind your point of landing, especially when dropping out of trees.

I don’t intend to do a review of the Tiger’s here, so if you’re curious about them read Flip Yeah Parkour’s review of them. His review is spot on and I they are definitely amazing all around training shoes, if you aren’t concerned about heel drop or heel padding. I’ll note that unlike Alan the arch support in the Tiger’s pissed off my arches all the time. After walking for 4-6 hours a day my arches would feel really stretched, possibly even a bit inflamed. I guess my arches were feelin’ all strong and independent before and didn’t appreciate the coddling I was giving them.

Before I talk about my own experience with the Tigers, watch this video from Kstar and MobilityWOD. It’ll provide some background. Plus he looks great in a tiara, doesn’t he?

Now, KStar is talking about kids in the video, but the same effects happen in adults when wearing shoes with heel drop too. I don’t have specific research to point at, so here’s where I throw my own experience in. I’ve worn minimalist shoes with near zero heel drop since about 2008, usually Vibrams. I spent about three months wearing the Tiger’s regularly and technically they were only my primary shoe for only about 1.5 months. I wore the Vibram Flows for farm work due to the wet and muddy conditions (much easier to clean). That month and a half of regularly wearing the Tiger’s was concentrated towards the end of the trip, which does make it easier to establish cause and effect with what I observed.

I was noticing some subtle changes while in Switzerland, but they became much clearer by the time I arrived in the UK. The most obvious change was my ankle mobility was getting worse. It wasn’t cataclysmic or anything, but during the MovNat workshop sitting in a squat for a while felt strangely uncomfortable. I had just spent two months constantly sitting and moving around in the squat position, so this was a bizarre feeling to have not even two weeks later. I doubt my heel chord was becoming shorter in such a brief time frame, but something was happening.

I’m a bit (huge understatement) obsessive with technique and using proper form, so I also immediately noticed that the Tiger’s were influencing my preferences when squatting and landing. I had spent at least the past six months making the more stable heels down landing and squat positions my automatic techniques. It wasn’t long after I started training in the Tiger’s that I noticed I was naturally starting to use the precision (heels up) landing and catcher’s squat position as my defaults. Not cool. Those positions aren’t bad for you or anything, but as the saying goes, “practice makes permanent.” I would much rather choose the full squat and heels down landing to help maintain full range of motion at the ankle (they are much more versatile positions to be in too). If you’re not moving into those positions with any regularity than the achilles tendon and ankle will rarely experience the maximal range of motion (in extension, or stretching). For the sake of excellent technique and avoiding some of the downstream effects that KStar mentioned in the video it is ideal to default to the stronger heel down landing and squat positions.

Whew, that post became a bit more serious than usual, but this stuff is important. If I started to experience negative changes from shoes with moderate heel drop in just a couple months, just imagine what years spent in them has done to you. If you want even more thoughts on minimalist shoes and training (particularly for Parkour) have a look at Barefoot Training and Parkour.

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