So, Are Intelligent Trainers All That Bright?

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

So, Are Intelligent Trainers All That Bright?


EVEN for a shoe fetishist, the MBT trainer does not, at first, hold much allure. On the style spectrum, it lies somewhere between Spice Girl platform and something out of a Californian retirement home.

Yet it is being hailed as the biggest thing in "intelligent" footwear.

Hard to believe perhaps, but given that Scholl sandals and Birkenstocks journeyed from derision to must-haves, not inconceivable. Heidi Klum has a pair, and Manolo Blahnik has called them the best thing since Jesus sandals.

All believe the [pounds sterling]130 shoes will improve their posture, protect their backs, burn calories and banish cellulite.

MBT stands for Masai Barefoot Technology. The shoe was invented by a Swiss engineer who, on holiday in Kenya, noticed the Masai gait was very different to his. The platform sole has a cutaway heel which forces the wearer to roll through the foot as they walk, mimicking walking barefoot in the sand.

The principle of MBT trainers is that they correct any walking faults, leading to better posture, alleviating

pressure on the spine, and lining up knees, hips and shoulders.

"The shoes force you to walk in a different way," says Dr Rav Naik, a GP and orthopaedic physician who is undertaking trials on their calorieburning and muscle-toning effects at Sheffield Hallam University.

"Usually your heel provides a good support base, but with MBT the negative heel [the heel is cut away from the platform sole] means you have to support yourself using large muscle groups and small stabilising muscles around the ankles."

Increased use of core muscles in the stomach and back, the makers claim, leads to the incineration of more calories. More muscle use also means increased circulation.

So were these claims justified? I went to Brunel University's sports science laboratory to find out.

Wearing them forces a more ladylike approach to walking than my usual gait; the cutaway heel necessitates small steps, so I trot along as if wearing a pencil skirt.

I am hooked up to a VO2 max machine, to measure calories burned during an activity, and an EMG (electromyography) machine which measures muscle activity in my abs, glutes (buttocks), back and calves.

I walk for three minutes in normal trainers, MBT trainers and kitten heels, then run in each of the two pairs of trainers.

The results, for anyone looking for a miracle, are not hopeful. "There was no physiological difference walking in MBTs and normal trainers," says Lisa Miller, one of the exercise physiologists who ran the tests. "I'd also be worried about the lateral instability of these trainers, it would be easy to go over on your ankle, so I wouldn't recommend jogging outside. Plus, it would not be possible to run as fast as in normal trainers because of their height."

Her colleague Andrew Nowicky is similarly dubious. "We found less activity in the abdominal muscles with MBTs, which I can't explain."

Podiatrist Anne Marie O'Connor, from the Central London Osteopathy and Sports Injury Clinic, has seen a stream of clients in her east London clinic with MBT-related questions.

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