MBT footwear – Masai Barefoot Technology

Swiss Masai Sport BlackIt’s probably something that most “geeks” will be aware of – working with computers will trash your back, make you feel unfit and is otherwise Not Very Good For You. It’s okay. Just as I’m happy to admit I can be a bit of a geek, I’m also happy to admit that I’m not in perfect shape. In fact, I’ve had some continued issues with posture and back/leg pain, similar to sciatic pain, for a few years.

A gentleman never discusses his ailments, but a blogger won’t shut up about solutions! With that precognition…

Swiss Masai, the company formed to market the “MBT” shoes developed by Karl Müller in the 1990s, is a relative newcomer to the British marketplace – the footwear has been on sale within Europe since 2000, but I first heard of it on Radio Four a couple of weeks ago, before finding a pair of the shoes on sale in Camden and deciding to spend almost as much as a good pair of New Rocks on them.

I’ve been attending the gym and discussing issues with my Doctor, and waiting for a physiotherapist to have a look at how I walk and indeed, what make be causing discomfort in my legs – previously a bit of exercise had sorted it, but this time it’s been a little more determined. Before I continue, I must state that in my case this footwear is not recommended to me, or endorsed, by my Doctor. Whilst I am quite convinced of the science behind this, I don’t want to give the impression that this review implies any proven medical benefits or approval. This is purely the subjective report of someone with a history of “not going to the Doctor” and “if it ain’t broke, or only broke a little bit, don’t fix it” with regard to aches and pains.

Within seconds – the first few steps, literally – I felt more comfortable with the MBT shoes than I have done in any footwear. With Converse or Vans being my preferred shoes, and “something black and heavy” being my preferred boots, it’s clear I’ve been favouring more flexible shoes for everyday wear, and I go barefoot a lot of the time. The build quality of the chosen shoes – the “Sport” style – seems initially very good, though I am unsure about the longevity at this stage – the uppers definitely look comparable to more expensive and well made brands of trainers, but the “Masai Sensor” – the compression section of the sole – appears to have fairly specific care requirements. How this translates into real-world wear I’ll have to come back to; at £135 for a pair of trainers, I may be somewhat inclined to take better care of them.

Sizing seems very flexible, and is in European terms. I chose 42 1/2 which is slightly smaller than the size 9/10 I typically opt for; it’s a better fit than a 9 in Nike, but not as tight as a 9 in Converse. In addition to the unique sole technology, the laces had some sort of plastic “quick release” device on. This needs work. I found it downright annoying, and would probably be inclined to remove it.

The first proper trial of the shoes came with attending the Birmingham NEC for a trade show – this is something I do every year, and is absolute hell on my feet. I favour running over walking, so covering the distances required in crowds is frustrating and uncomfortable, and standing for long periods is absolutely painful. Walking, I was able to maintain a very good pace, nearly twice the speed of the travelators, with no discomfort at all – running was a different story! Conventional shoes lead me to run on the ball of my foot, and the MBT sole is quite unforgiving of this – you can run, but you veer towards a “whole foot” approach and it is initially quite punishing. A lot is made of “walking on sand” as a feel – well, it definitely applies for running. I suspect it would actually be better for you overall than conventional shoes even for running, but it will be a shock to the system. Walking does appear to involve more “effort” overall, lending some credence to the marketing terms that wearing MBT shoes will give you something of a workout over normal footwear.

Fashion is not something that concerns me, but I only found one or two models from the range in the shop that appealed. The website carries more variation and it may be worth going to online resellers. There are a range of subtle, black styles, both of casual shoes, work shoes, trainers and some walking-boot styles, as well as some lurid white and green models.

SwissMasai’s claims of improved posture were borne out without prompting. As a professional “sloucher” who can appear pretty short, my friends noticed a difference with these shoes. I haven’t quite worked out how they do it, but I definitely carry myself correctly – straighter, taller and again, feeling a different set of muscles work. It is very pleasing to actually notice claims made with scientific terminology actually having some relevance to what you feel and notice, and in an era of cynicism, I think the MBT sole may be overlooked still despite what I’d consider to be tangible benefits.

I can’t say “if you have backpain, wear these”. Without medical attention, you can never be sure of what is causing or will cure pain. However, if you do find yourself with bad posture, or discomfort with walking, I really can recommend trying some of these shoes. The claims of physiological footwear seem quite justified – the science is definitely based on stronger foundations than, say, elliptical chainsets for bikes and has greater “instantly tangible” results.

Update: I managed a back-to-back comparison over Focus, and the MBT shoes were considerably more comfortable for a day of trekking around a trade show – having worn them for three days of Focus on Imaging, the last day I wore my usual Nike trainers – and within two hours, I wanted to go home (which is pretty much normal!). I’m definitely sold on the results, regardless of the science.

Shoes marketed by Swiss Masai

Edit: Update in April 2010; yes, they lasted this long. In the end, despite much abuse (seriously, they were worn to death), the failure was the rubber sole detaching at the sides – the uppers were still in excellent condition and the foam held out for two years of events coverage, driving, walking and working. Other shoes still feel strange. I notice that more and more manufacturers are offering similar tech (Skechers and Reebok, from memory) but I hope to replace these with another pair of MBTs when I have time.

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