Athletic Shoes Strut Their Stuff : Footwear Is Being Created With an Eye to Both Style, Biomechanics

Dan Logan is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

For sightseeing or simply hanging out, the modern running shoe has been the best invention since bare feet. Somewhere between 29 million and 75 million Americans are pounding the pavement in running shoes, and not all of them are running.

Athletic shoes have always been comfortable and finally, they've become stylish.

While the original style of running shoes worked quite nicely for walking, they had a visual impact that didn't suit the broader social environment. Running shoes came in a variety of hues, all of them bright. As soon as we put on anything more formal than sweat pants, we looked as if we were wearing clown feet.

There evolved a growing interest in a shoe that would provide the comfort and stability of a running shoe while presenting a more formal and stylish appearance as everyday wear. In 1979 the Rockport Co. of Marlboro, Mass., took the lightweight walking shoe to the masses with its RocSports line, which treated the athletic shoe like a fashion accessory, not a sneaker.

Rockport's approach has encouraged further development of the walking shoe.

The contemporary walking shoe is lightweight, stable, delectably comfortable, and it doesn't look like an orthopedic shoe or a combat boot. Shoe designers have developed high-tech systems for walking shoes, and then re-created them as casual shoes and dress shoes.

The modern walking shoe now falls into one of two categories: The performance walking shoe is designed for speedy fitness walkers, while the dressier walking shoe is appropriate for wear with slacks or even a suit, ideal for office performance walking or a day of sightseeing.

When walking, the heel hits the ground with a force of one to two times the walker's weight, explains Jerry Sweeney, the walking products manager for New Balance Athletic Shoes in Boston, compared to three to four times body weight for runners. Walkers strike heel first, and walking shoes need more cushioning in the heel, whereas in running shoes there's more cushioning under the forefoot.

While many people think the blitz of sports-specific footwear is simply a marketing gimmick, the American Podiatric Medical Assn. believes such footwear has developed out of considerable research regarding the biomechanics of the feet, says Dean Wakefield, spokesperson for the APMA.

Podiatrist Lyman Wilson of Santa Ana explains that the foot is moving in three body planes with every step. Not only the ankle moves, but so does the subtalar joint just below the ankle, which allows the foot to adjust to the terrain. Support for these areas of the feet is a key ingredient in walking shoes.

As with any shoe, a good fit enhances comfort and performance. Wilson recommends shopping for footwear late in the day, because feet tend to swell during the day. And you should also try the shoes with socks of the same thickness as those you'll walk in.

In walking shoes, Wilson recommends looking first for a wide forefoot and deep toe box. Then look for a heel that's narrow enough to provide stability and restrict heel motion. While this may mean compromising between the fit of the heel and the fit of the forefoot, the forefoot fit is more important for long-distance comfort.

ROCKPORT

Over the last 10 years, the Rockport Co. has pushed itself into the vanguard of walking shoe development. Reebok International Ltd. bought Rockport in 1986, but the parent company allowed Rockport to continue its own research and development.

In 1985, Rockport introduced the ProWalker, a light, solid-looking shoe the company claims was the first to be designed and engineered for fitness walking.

Today, the ProWalker line has several models. The ProWalker 9000 ($100) for men is designed for durability. The ProWalker 7100 ($75) for men and women has a flexible forefoot and is designed for faster-paced walking. The ProWalker 7300 ($59) for women features a "memory foam insole" that conforms to the foot and maximizes comfort and stability.

Rockport has kept itself in the forefront of walking shoe design by expanding its lines of shoes into styles that are appropriate with business clothes. For example, the DressSports collection ($100) of men's shoes is stylish enough for daily business dress, yet as light as running shoes. For men who spend the day on their feet, the DressSports offer comfort with style. In a pinch, if you will, you could jog a 10K in your Rockport wingtips.

Rockport also makes women's Walking Pumps ($100). A comfortable women's pump is fertile competitive ground for shoe companies (other manufacturers include U.S. Shoe's Easy Spirit line and Brown Shoe's Naturalizers), and shoe companies are using modern technology to make fashionable women's shoes more comfortable.

In its Walking Pumps, Rockport uses a heel cavity filled with a shock-absorbing polymer, and a three-tiered cushioning system in the insole protects the forefoot. While women may not want to log high daily mileage in these low-heeled pumps, they represent a step forward in comfort over traditional women's heels.

Rockport offers the Rockport Guide to Fitness Walking, which details a walking test that will establish one's fitness level, and outlines a 20-week walking program for individuals at each fitness level. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope (with 45 cents postage) to the Rockport Walking Institute, 72 Howe St., Marlboro, MA 01752, to obtain a copy of the guide.

REEBOK

Reebok's walking shoe line focuses on performance footwear that adheres to the running shoe style. The company's patented Energaire energy transfer system uses two chambers embedded in the sole of the shoe, one near the heel, the other on the ball of the foot. An air transmission channel transfers air from the heel as it strikes the ground, to the forefoot. As the individual shifts his weight forward for the next step, the air cushion is squeezed back into the heel.

The Energaire system is used in the Comfort 1 ($58) and Comfort II ($68) lines. The Cadence Tech ($65) and the Cadence ($55) lines use the Hexalite energy system, which features a honeycomb core embedded in the midsole. Reebok also offers the Fitness Walker ($60) line, which comes in widths, and SportWalker models ($50).

For women, Reebok also markets its Metaphors fashion footwear line that, while not for walking per se, is designed for comfort.

NIKE

Like Reebok's, Nike's line of walking shoes centers on athletic footwear. The Air Healthwalker Plus ($75), which Nike describes as a high-performance walking shoe for the serious fitness walker, has a wider, deeper toe box than its older model walking shoes. The shoe comes in black or white.

Nike's Air Healthwalker Max ($95) provides flexibility through flex grooves in the forefoot of the shoe. Its so-called Ski-Lock Heel pads the ankle and reduces heel slip. The Air-Sole, which is visible through a slot in the heel of the shoe, cushions the heel. The Healthwalker Max comes in white with blue trim.

NEW BALANCE

New Balance is another Massachusetts firm expanding its line of walking shoes to include dressier styles. For men, New Balance offers the MK906 Dress Walkers and MK806 Rugged Walkers ($110). These use a carbon rubber heel and forefoot pads for greater durability.

The MK806 Rugged Walker line is being redesigned and expanded, says walking products manager Jerry Sweeney. The lug design won't be as heavy, and the shoes will be available in black and taupe as well as in cordovan. "We will still keep technical performance as our primary focus," Sweeney says.

The women's line offers the WK506 Athletic Walkers ($70) in white and black. In the spring of 1991, New Balance expects to offer a broadened WK506 line.

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