Shoes with more bounce for the buck

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

Remember Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, cleverness, and speedy travel? Wings on his feet propelled him out of his own temple without shoes, a god determined to make a buck.

Rest assured his commercial spirit lives on, but with a major difference. No wings. Instead, Mercury's entrepreneurial heirs promote the most amazing new shoes for adults and kids which are absolutely guaranteed to make walking, running, jumping, and jogging, almost divine. Or at least a peck of fun for $60 to $150 a pop.

Many of these new shoes use embedded, tiny computers and other technologies while virtually promising an end to clumsiness and a dull life. The hype is aimed at gaining a share of the $14 billion athletic-footwear market.

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Consider Reebok's Traxtar shoes. A tiny microprocessor in the tongue of the shoe measures how high kids jump and how fast they run. Achieve a personal best in jumping, and the instep flashes multicolored lights, while the embedded chip plays "Pomp and Circumstance." All this for about $65.

"Traxtar uses accelerometer technology," says Michael Phelan, director of Reebok marketing for kids, "the kind used in airbags to sense motion and impact. Most technology means you are sedentary. You buy it and sit at home and play with it. But these shoes encourage kids to be active and move."

Despite the hype, half of the 17 fifth-graders who tested Traxtar shoes rated them "a nuisance to use" in Zillions, the Consumer Reports magazine for kids.

Or there are Raven Sneakers, invented by Ronald Demon, a recent graduate of MIT. He designed his shoe with interconnected bladders filled with a shock-absorbent fluid wired to a computer chip. Run fast and the chip stiffens the bladders for more support. The bladders soften when you walk. Quicker than you can say, "Don't mess with Texas," you are walking on a cloud. The batteries last for two months. All this for about $149.

"The shoe automatically adjusts itself to your activity," says Mr. Demon, who just started marketing the shoes to baby boomers in July.

Next, tie on a pair of Street Flyers with small, retrackable, inline wheels that fold up into the shoe, similar to the way airplane wheels disappear into the plane. According to some wearers, Street Flyers are slightly clunky but do deliver either a normal walk or a wheeled, swifter journey. The cost: $90.

To literally put a spring in your step, try the odd-looking Z-Coil Spring shoe, which uses a conical steel spring as the heel. The spring compresses and absorbs the energy impact 50 percent more than standard running shoes, according to Los Alamos National Laboratory, which tested the shoes.

This writer tested them for two hours walking, running, and bouncing. It was odd for the first hour, adjusting to the spring under the heel. But eventually it evened out, and the rebound overcame the heavy feeling of the shoe. Running was not exactly smooth, but walking was a pleasure.

Z-Coil also has an orthotic plate (supportive device) which cradles the curve of the foot to equalize pressure. Although used more often by people who work all day on their feet, such as mail carriers and nurses, or people with leg problems - Z-Coils are also worn by runners.

"Some of our best runners train with them," says Andres Gallegos, vice president of Z-Coil. "But once your feet are in them, it feels like you're stepping on a giant sponge, or trampoline."

Not so with Soap, the hottest shoe/sneaker for "grinding," what skateboarders do when sliding on the edge of a curb, railing, or concrete bench. It's called "aggressive freestyle walking," using a Soap sneaker with a smooth plastic plate fastened in the arch. Some 800,000 pairs, made by Artemis Innovation in Torrance, Calif., have slid from the shelves of retailers to grind around the world.

Some schools on the West Coast have banned Soaps as potentially too dangerous, a charge that only tempts the 10 to 14 crowd. The label on a Soap shoe has a sticker that says, "Warning! By peeling this sticker you agree to waive your right to sue."

"We've had no claims made against us," says Jerry Gross, president of Artemis Innovation. "This shoe is all about conveying a certain attitude: fun, frivolous and wholesome," he says. "We don't tell kids this is the hardest thing or the only thing they should do; we say, 'Hey, there are times when you are out there and all you've got are your shoes, and you still have an opportunity to have some fun." For $60 to $120, you too can grind with a Soap.

But at the end of a long day, your feet need relief. So, slip off your Traxtar's, Raven Sneakers, Street Flyers, Z-Coils, or Soaps, and slip your toes into a Genki-kun Toe Stretcher for $29.95. This curved plastic bar, with a hole for each toe, slips over the toes and spreads them horizontally. Stress is supposed to disappear. Circulation is encouraged. Mercury might sigh and ask, "Is this just a toe-hold?"

Sources

Reebok Traxtar

www.reebok/traxtar/traxtar.com

Raven Sneaker

service@vectrasense.com or 978-232-9778

Street Flyers

www.hammacher.com/ or 1-800-SKYMALL

Z-Coil Shoe

www.zcoil.com/ or 1-800-268-6239

Soap Sneakers

www.soapshoes.com

Genki-kun Toe Stretcher

www.health-store.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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