Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoe Comparison: Off Road

Today I continue my shoe comparison. With the road test complete the next step was the Off-Road Course.

The course runs roughly as follows: an estimated half mile walk on level asphalt road, then another estimated half mile down a trail through the woods. The trail is poorly maintained, covered with bare dirt or grass and weeds. It’s uneven. From there I strike off into completely trackless woods. After perhaps a quarter mile I have to ascend a steep wooded hill, still with no trail. I estimate an elevation of 300 feet and a slope of up to 60 degrees.

Atop the hill I walk along a wooded ridge for unknown distance and down a gentler slope on the other side. Finally I meet up with a grassy foot trail which takes me down to a paved country road. The country road is the halfway point; then I turn around and do the whole thing in reverse.

The distances here are only approximate, but since the course was the same both times that doesn’t matter.

It’s important to note that while off road I estimated my heading by the sun. This means I may not have taken the same course step-by-step but the terrain was identical. In fact, the second time through I encountered visual landmarks just before coming back down the 300-foot slope. That means I took the exact same route down the hardest slope both times, which will be important when interpreting the results below.

As with the Road Course, I did the two tests a number of days apart, at roughly the same time of day, with the same warm ups and exercises beforehand and the same cool-down period afterward.

Road Results: Steve Madden Canvas

Conditions: Partly cloudy, warm, strong breeze

Distance: Unknown

Time: 1 hr 45 min

This walk was a joy. I found that my flat, thin canvas shoes were extremely comfortable even on uneven terrain and out in the thick brush and leaves. The walk was invigorating and it was nice to be off-road again. Climbing the steep slopes was serious cardio, but relatively easy. I never scrambled or felt I would fall. Unlike the Road Course, the lack of padding was no issue on the softer ground and there was no soreness or callous-building this time around.

I encountered, to my surprise, zero ankle stiffness all that evening or the next morning. I found these results shocking.

Road Results: Chuck Taylor All Stars

Conditions: Cloudy, warm, moderate breeze

Distance: Unknown

Time: 1 hr 45 min

Walking was a chore. By the time I made the top of the ridge I was sick of the walk and only kept going for the sake of the experiment.

Walking on uneven ground with these shoes is not easy. I didn’t consciously notice this at first, I just noticed how tiring it was. I don’t think it was only the weight, but also the angle they force my feet to meet the ground at. With a padded ankle and arch support my feet have no option to splay, tilt or follow the angle of the ground beneath them. This makes off-roading in athletic shoes quite energy-intensive.

The comfort issues didn’t stop there. I started to get twigs and other junk in my shoes. I don’t remember this happening in the Maddens. Looking at the shape of the shoe, as a lace-up it has a long slot on either side of the tongue. I suppose that branches can easily catch in it, break off and work their way in. Since they are tied it’s hard to take them off and remove such garbage. This is not a fault of the padded soles, but it means that if a padded athletic shoe turns out to be a good overall choice then I’ll need to seek out a slip-on, lace-free version for hiking.

In a similar vein, the laces came untied no less than five times during the test, presumably from snagging so often.

The most significant problem occurred on slopes. Climbing the slope was much harder in these shoes. I had to take several segments on all fours to scramble up. Grabbing trees and other handholds became much more important. On the way back down, despite taking the exact same route, my feet went out from under me and I fell on my butt four different times.

I experienced mild to moderate ankle stiffness that evening and the next morning, similar to the results from the Road Test.

Interpretation

The first conclusion to draw from this comparison is that if I plan to go off-road on my hike I can’t mess around with laces.

The second conclusion is that padded athletic shoes perform like crap on slopes and uneven ground. My first thought with the sliding and falling on the slope was to check the treads of both shoes. Maybe I was just getting better traction with the Maddens?

No way. The Maddens, made with minimum treads in the first place, have been worn almost totally smooth. The Chucks however have thick, deep treads and they’re practically pristine. If the game was “who can stop quickest on ice or sand,” Chuck would win every time.

So we can’t blame traction for the problems on the hill. Given such near-identical conditions, I have to blame the different design of the shoe. When your feet are already coming down on an angle they don’t need an additional angle built into their heels. And when they need to turn, stretch and twist to accommodate rough terrain, they shouldn’t be forced into a set position for every step.  In these conditions the padded shoes work against the body.

Remember though that on the level Road Course the padded shoes actually performed slightly better. Although there’s still one test to go I already find myself asking: is there any way to reconcile the pros and cons of both designs into a single shoe?

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Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoe Comparison: 6.5 Mile Walk on Roads

When you’re walking 7,000 miles the shoes on your feet make a big difference.

In December I appealed to Rogue Priest readers for their advice on footwear. The choice is which theory to side with: conventional advice that highly engineered, thickly padded athletic shoes are best, or the controversial claim that such padding only weakens the foot and increases likelihood of injury.

There’s no firm scientific data to give either side a knockout victory, so personal experience is all I have to go on. After listening carefully to all the great advice you guys gave me, I decided to buy some shoes and run some experiments.

Method

I have no means to conduct a large-scale scientific test. I can however try out two different pairs of shoes under controlled conditions to see how my own body reacts to each.

I developed three different courses to use to test my shoes:

  • Road Course: 6.5 mile loop on asphalt roads, mostly level, some slight hills. Walking.
  • Off-Road Course: Fixed course of unknown length with a mix of asphalt roads, soft foot trails and complete off-roading in thick forest. Includes 300 foot off-road hill ascent and descent. Walking.
  • Jogging Course: Approximate 3/4 mile course on level asphalt road. Jogging.

The plan is to complete each course twice under virtually identical conditions except for the difference in shoes. I’ll put several off-days of just light walking in between each session, so that the aftermath of one won’t affect the other. I especially want to pay attention to how my ankle feels afterward and the following day.

So far I’ve completed the Road Course.

The Contenders

In the No-Padding Corner: Steve Madden canvas shoes. These shoes feature flat, thin soles with essentially no padding. The construction is sturdy with suede trim. While by no means flimsy, I can’t imagine a thinner shoe without going to Vibrams.

In the Athletic Shoe Corner: Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars. These shoes have nearly an inch of padding under the heel, arch support, and a sculpted insole that arcs down toward a thinner front. This is the classic shape of the athletic shoes that barefoot runners claim will mess up your foot.

Both pairs of shoes were bought second-hand but never used. Both fit well and are comfortable to wear casually.

The Hypothesis

In general I’ve been very undecided about the footwear controversy. I usually make decisions like this based on science. In its absence I’m agnostic.

But over the past sixth months of adventuring I’ve been wearing very thin shoes. There’s no planning behind this: I traveled light and wore what was available. With time I became accustomed to having very little padding.

When I first put on my Chuck Taylor All Stars it felt awkward but comfortable. I wasn’t used to having such thick, heavy things on my feet, but I did notice how soft my footfalls were. It took a little while to realize that the awkwardness was not just caused by their size, but by a difference in angle of how my foot lands on the ground. Padded heels have an effect.

I started taking casual short walks in my All Stars to get used to them. I want to go in as unbiased as possible. It didn’t take long. I forced myself to remember that they may surprise me and outperform the Steve Maddens.

So did they?

Road Results: Steve Madden Canvas

Conditions: Clear, warm, little if any breeze

Distance: 6.5 miles

Time: 1 hr 45 min (3.71 miles/hour)

The walk was comfortable and easy. I noticed a slight soreness in the balls of my feet, but it was the sort of soreness that goes away as you build up callouses, and it didn’t worry me. I felt very good and had no problem walking along the side of the road when a car passed. (These are country roads, so that’s not often.)

I did my exercise and stretching routine earlier in the day. After I returned I had about a one hour “cool off” period of light walking on soft surfaces or standing on my feet.

Later that night, when I stood up after eating dinner, I noticed my ankle had stiffened up. It was nothing like I got after walking up a mountain, but it was more than I would like to see from such a short walk. The following morning there was a little residual stiffness, but no noticeable increase in inflammation.

Road Results: Chuck Taylor All Stars

Conditions: Clear, warm, moderate breeze

Distance: 6.5 miles

Time: 1 hr 44 min (3.75 miles/hour)

The walk was easy and even more comfortable. I believe the slight increase in pace, if significant at all, was from being a bit chilly at the beginning of the walk. I did the same exercise and stretching routine earlier in the day, and a similar one hour cool-down period after the walk. I went at the same time of day as the other test.

I didn’t notice soreness in the balls of my feet during the walk. I did however notice that it felt more awkward to walk along the sides of the road. The slight crowning of the road, and the angle of the gravel shoulder, had been nothing in the Steve Maddens but seemed a little irritating in these shoes.

That night after dinner I experienced stiffness again, but it seemed less pronounced this time. The following morning brought at least as much residual stiffness however. Again, there was no increase in inflammation.

Surprised

I was very surprised with the results of the first test. The padded shoes really did seem to correlate with less stiffness later, which indicates less wear on my ankle. But the stiffness the following morning worries me, and I could never have imagined the problem with walking on slanted surfaces if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand.

Do you think the off-road results will be similar, or will there be another surprise?

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