I'd like to have been a fly on the wall during the initial design meeting for Reebok's ZigTech sneaker. As I imagine it, a number of uninspired ideas get batted around a soulless, windowless room before an underling in the far corner raises a hand sheepishly and says, "Well, we could create a zigzagging sole resembling toothpaste or neon cake fondant." Cue long pause for dramatic effect followed by a standing ovation and celebratory cheers for the minion, who gets promoted to a sun-filled corner office the next week.
Of course, the ZigTech was not actually conceived in this way. Bill McInnis, managing director of advanced concepts for Reebok says the brand's newest and arguably most distinctive shoe materialized as a counterpart to the widely popular EasyTone sneaker, which helps tone leg and butt muscles.
"With the EasyTone, we were essentially building more resistance so a person has a to work a lot harder," he explains by phone from Canton, Mass. "So we jumped over normal shoes to the other side of the equation, which was the idea of using a little less muscle activity, since wear and tear on muscles is an ongoing concern for serious athletes."
In non-sneaker-speak, the toothpaste-inspired sole is a means of energy transfer and return.
Unlike many first generation shock-absorbing shoes, which limit energy to the vertical impact of the heel strike, the ZigTech, which launched in Canada in March ($119.99), distributes energy horizontally from one zigzag to the next, propelling you forward each time. Think of the sole as a stretched out Slinky, McInnis says. The intended results: more efficient training, and stress on major leg muscles reduced by up to 20 per cent (measured by reading electrical feedback on how the muscles fire).
This can be a compelling incentive for road warriors who suffer from chronic shin splints or aching hamstrings. I know whereof I write. So for the past few weeks, I have been taking the sneakers out for a few short runs and power walks.
I can confirm this much: the ZigTech is very cushiony. Rather than mattress soft, the soles yield like Oasis, that green foam you find in floral arrangements. I definitely feel more spring in my stride and they seem to relieve some of the tension I get in my hamstring. As an unexpected bonus, I feel like they also make me engage my glutes.
Still, anyone who is accustomed to a firmer surface should not make the switch. They also feel like an artificial boost: You may be able to run faster but it's the shoes that are responsible, not your own strength or endurance.
Pedorthists, experts who can assess how you walk or run and suggest ideal footwear choices, will be the first to point out that individuals may not necessarily know what type of shoe is best for them. I may think I like a rigid sole, but there's a chance it's not ideal for my body mechanics. Even so, Graham Archer, president of the Pedorthic Association of Canada, says that too much cushioning is not the answer for everyone. "For a foot that is hypermobile, it can cause stress on the soft tissue," he says from Vancouver, citing the plantar fascia and peroneal tendons along the sides of the shins as targets for injury. "Picture a marshmallow: It's very soft but there's no structure."
Reebok compares it to an energy drink for the feet. But as with the beverages, some people will benefit more than others. As Mr. Archer points out, "If there was one perfect shoe, you wouldn't be able to walk into a store and see hundreds on a wall. You would see three."
I certainly appreciate the aesthetic of the sneaker, which is as exciting as it is unusual. I even think it's design museum-worthy, positioned somewhere between a moon boot and a Balenciaga heel. But the next time I run a race, I won't be relying on any zigs or zags to reach the finish line.