We live in an age where soft sneakers is the norm on people’s feet, and unfortunately this cushioning slowly seem to gain traction also in the classic shoe world. The problem is that our feet are not built to be walking around in that environment, and this risk leading to serious feet health issues.
During the largest part of the evolution of Homo Sapiens, a species that’s been around for about 300,000 years, we’ve been walking barefoot. This on various types of ground, all from soft soil to hard mountains, where the muscles, tendons and ligaments worked extremely hard all days. Now, this obviously meant problems in some regards, for example with constant risk for injuries. Hence, one eventually started covering the feet in various ways, to protect them. Fast forward a few thousand years, and here we are, spending most of our days walking around on only hard floors and pavement, and we do it to a larger and larger extent with our feet embedded in cushions. It’s not natural in any way, and unfortunately our feet are paying for it, even if many are yet to find out. I’ve touched on this topic before, and intend to go much more in-depth in a coming article, here I will focus on how the softness and cushioning has taken its way over also to the world of classic shoes.
This area surfaced my mind again when I saw a video where the American bootmaker Red Wing presented a new model, and more or less proudly showed the “new improved” insole structure, where their excellent thick vegetable tanned leather soles, one of the real pros of their shoes normally, has been exchanged to an insole made of Texon (cellulose fibre board which have a significantly lower lifespan than real leather insoles), a mid layer in Poron (a polyurethane plastic based foam, which don’t breath, despite what some marketing says. The “open cell” structure of Poron doesn’t have anything to do with letting air through it, in fact it’s a material used for sealing high-pressure gaskets etc.) and on top a sock lining of chrome tanned leather (cheaper than veg tanned sock linings). So, basically three shortcuts that makes for a cheaper shoe (I haven’t even mentioned the foam mesh material they line the vamp and toe with, instead of leather), hidden under the hood of “comfort” (I mean, if the cushioning is only what you’re after you could do that with a vegetable tanned insole and veg tanned sock lining). All this presented while the Youtuber happily acknowledge it all, while I wish he would ask questions about why they’ve removed a thick, proper veg tanned insole which one have used for insoles in shoes for hundreds of years, and exchanged it to this. And when the likely reply from Red Wing comes, being something like “this is what customers want today” or similar, he should have asked “yeah, and what do you think about his, do you see any problems with it?”.
Now, Red Wing is certainly not alone in going this route, today you see it from many brands making traditional Goodyear welted shoes, mainly in the budget and midrange price segments, but also a couple of higher end brands have followed the trend. Cause trend, that’s what it is. Footwear in general has become more and more cushioned and padded, all for that instant comfort, but without any thought on what this does with our bodies in the long run. Again, I will go into this much more in-depth later on, but studies from among others Harvard shows serious issues for our feet occurring. Cushioning is like sugar, it’s instant gratification, feels good at first, and the more we have of it the more we want. But – it’s not good for us (at least not too much of it).
Now, there’s no problem to walk around in soft, cushioned sneakers or so every now and then, but if our feet never are used the way they are intended, they will not function the way they are intended. And worth noting, also walking around in perfectly fitting bespoke shoes with superb support, even if it leaves your feet relieved and not tired at the end of a long day walking, would not be ideal to constantly walk around in. Feet have to work, thankfully here in Sweden and in many parts of the world we walk barefoot (well, in socks, that is) indoors, which makes a huge difference, but also here we should go barefoot outside more than we do, and everyone should, as with the rest of our body, do training with our feet to keep muscles and ligaments in trim, not least to avoid feet health issues and problems when we grow older. And no one should embed their feet in foam and cushioning (which also doesn’t allow your feet to breathe) all the time, so don’t.
I feel often the opposite. Lack of padding causes heel pain.
I agree. I’ve always felt more comfortable in solid, all-leather shoes. Squishy shoes with man-made linings/components don’t seem natural.
Igor: Yeah, and it can be the case for you, but it can also be that you have heel pain because of the use of padded shoes, and you get into a downward-winding spiral where you have to have more of it so your feet become even more sensitive, that “the more you have the more you want” thing.
Jonathan: As I write, no problem to have that occasionally, problem is when you walk around in it all the time, worst case you only don’t when you’re in your bed as is the case in some countries. And indeed, leather surely is a superb material for footwear.
I am a Sales Engineer for PORON. The foam is not a plastic based material, it is a poly-urethane foam that was designed originally for footwear. It was used for gasketing later. It is a very high density foam that takes the lowest compression set out of any urethane foams. PORON is not and cannot be used on an airplane as it wouldn’t pass flame ratings. Silicone is what is used. Most foam used in sneakers is low density foams in the 3lb range, not the 17lbs of PORON. The board to foam to leather liner design is not new and has been used by large brands for decades in work boots with great success. The PORON foam will out live any shoe you put it in. The foam is open cell and designed to breath with each step but it is dense.
That being said, some people like only leather for their insoles and some people need more comfort or arch support. Everyone should pick what suits them best.
I think you might enjoy this podcast episode Jesper. It’s quite informative, especially interesting is the jungle tribe that dont suffer forms of arthritis.
Bruce: Thanks for your comment! On the points you raise:
– Polyurethane is a synthetic elastomeric polymer, and although I know the industry working with it like to differentiate it to the wider term plastics, I (and many others) don’t find this correct, since as with synthetic plastics the most important issue, the fact that they all are petroleum-based products, remain the same, even if properties vary, and most non-biased expert/scientific/governmental categorisations I can find do include polyurethane in the group of synthetic plastics/synthetic long-chain polymers.
– You’re right that it’s not used as sealing in airplanes, I had misread “airplane seatings”, will correct this! However, it’s indeed used as a sealing for many different types of machines, in high-pressure gaskets etc. Different density, yes, but the same material base, it’s all Poron.
– I don’t say Poron is new in insoles, I say it’s new for Red Wing. I know this type of insole builds with Texon and Poron have been used for more modern workear boots often with other synthetic materials, padding etc, but not to any large degree in more high-end, traditionally constructed workwear boots (this blog is focused on traditionally constructed footwear), and it worries me that this type of products makes it way into this section as well, due to reasons of which I mention several of in the article.
– I write that Texon don’t have a long lifespan, not Poron. It’s indeed one of the features of it, that it holds its structure and don’t get compressed with use, as many other types of foam does. As the article above suggests though, this is not in general a good thing in footwear though, in a way, since cushioning in general isn’t a good thing, at least not too much and too often (the whole case with the article). But I surely see the pro with this in for example orthopedic footwear, where it’s also used a lot, where one work with the feet that are already passed the possibility of being “saved” by being used the way they are intended, and in some cases here good cushioning is a needed simply for the person the be able to walk without pain.
– Poron will surely outlive leather, and since it’s petroleum-based it won’t decompose in hundres of years.
– With “breathable” one refer to materials that facilitate evaporation of water vapor from the body. This, as far as I’ve gathered, is certainly not the case with Poron.
Don: Alright, thanks, will listen to that!
Jesper – Thanks for the reply. Yes, PORON, or any other urethane foams, or even EVA’s will not help with water vapor as they are a foam and insulate. Most used in mass market footwear are just cheap EVA or low density PU foams and wear out in 30 days. Even the $300 sneakers I have from Sweden have a cheap thermal formed PU for in the insole, which was quickly recycled out.
Defiantly agree that PORON and or other foams don’t have their place in every shoe build. My favorite dress shoe construction is Goodyear welted and then I can vary the thickness of PORON with a carbon fiber 3/4 length arch support. The PORON is so firm that it only adds a sight cushion feel, and I am able to custom fit a RTW dress into more of a bespoke build. Wish my arches could handle no support, but that is not the case anymore.
Agree on lasting boards, as they do tend to wear out. Most lasting board makers have exited footwear due to low margins and focused on automotive interiors. Far better margins and demand is more constant.
If you ever want to test or try any of the PORON foams, which that are many, just let me know. Would be free of charge, as we don’t charge for samples. You can even try the XRD foam, which reduces impact by up to 90%. It is the most widely used foam in global football, NFL, NHL and every type of sports that needs impact reduction. For footwear, it is like running on sand due to only a 5% spring force.
Thanks again for the past recommendation of TLB Artista dress shoes. The pair is my everyday shoe for work now. Between you and Justin, I have remade my dress and sneaker collection over the past five years. Keep up the great work, it is appreciated.
I think a big problem with this foamy construction is that it is only a thin piece of leather over foam, like Meermin f ex does in Flex collection.
Two issues with these:
– low “breathability” / moisture absorbtion
– low stability. I think it is very good to have a thick firm leather insole.
Would not go for foamy shoes.
Like softer soles instead, like crepe or Vibram gumlite for example. Footbed should be firm with enough support.
For me the firmness of classic shoes was the big issue when switched from sneaker to welted shoes.
That’s may be the reason the lower priced brand started with these – they need new customers.
Ah I had a feeling that Red Wing video would end up here.
Note that red wing has used Poron and other foams extensively on their work boots FOR DECADES and no one complained.
1. Ye this is 100% a cost saving measure. Thick vegetable tanned insoles aren’t getting any cheaper, so red wing is trying out new ways to control costs.
2. It is ALSO a way to attract customers who on the last tried on or bought a pair of Iron Rangers or 975 Moc Toes and went “ouch there no padding my feet hurt” and then never bought another red wing heritage boot beer again.
This Chelsea (not a classic red wing style at all mind you) gives Red wing a nice comfy entry into the red wing brand that’s nice to put on day 1. Then maybe you graduate to something more classic.
Speaking of classic, most heritage red wings use canvas lining, not leather lining, and celastic heel counters. Does they make them junk?
Also, please note that only two GYW boots red wing makes have this squishy Insole.
The Classic Chelsea and the Traction Tread Iron ranger (basically a Iron ranger “skin” on a classic Chelsea.)
The Weekender lineup ( one Chelsea and one Chukka) are stitchdown and have a texon insole with a suede and rubber removable insert over it. They’re almost like big leather socks and are pretty unstructured. They’re currently on production hiatus.
As for Texon, LOADS of Blake or Blake Rapid constructed shoes uses it as an insole material, usually wrapped on leather. It’s recycled wood pulp/fibers made into a board, then cut to shape. Better than plastic or rubber in my opinion for an insole material.
In my opinion, as long as my foot is on leather or only touching leather and is decently supported and the shoe is recraftable to some extent I’m happy enough.
Bruce: Alright, interesting that many fibre lasting board makers leave for the car industry, it’s something one can see in other areas as well, that the shoe industry can pay too little compared to others, so many focus on other more branches.
Glad you hear you enjoy your TLB Artista pair!
Igor Krivorukov: Yeah it doesn’t breath well at all, as I mention in the article, which sure is a problem. And probably better to have cushioned outsoles than insoles, looking at it from a long-term feet health perspective, but not too much too often there either.
David: Sure, and many other brands as well, but for the Heritage range (which is the type of footwear this blog covers) Red Wing introduced it with the chelsea last autumn, and now with the new Iron Ranger/Moc toe merge (which is the model in question for the video I talk about). Yes Red Wing usually do either leather board heel stiffener but fabric lining, or celastic stiffener but leather lining, rarely both two better versions at once when it comes to those parts. On fibre boards insoles, I’ve written about that several times before and issues with that, here focus was on cushioning though. I can see that cushioning can be used to bring people in to the area of welted shoes, might be good in a way, but still one is presented to something that is in fact not ideal for your feet in the long run if used a lot and has a lot of other cons, so in general I can’t see it as a positive thing. There’s other, good ways to make Goodyear welted shoes more instantly comfortable and experienced as soft which would be better.
Bruce, PORON IS plastic: “Polyurethane is a plastic material, which exists in various forms. It can be tailored to be either rigid or flexible, and is the material of choice for a broad range of end-user applications such as: insulation of refrigerators and freezers. building insulation. cushioning for furniture.
What is polyurethane?https://www.polyurethanes.org › what-is-it
The topic of health is often ignored or too superficially adressed in the discussion and promotion of dress shoes. It would be very funny to contrast bespoke shoe lovers praising the wonders of proper arch support and how the shoes should hug your feet to the fans of minimalist shoes and barefoot runners telling you horrors about any kind of support and heels! Probably it is better to your heath to avoid the extrems and wear all kinds of shoes, maybe with the exception of really spongy sneackers and unflexible dress shoes and boots. The advice to be barefoot (or in zero drop and wide sleepers with a minimal sole) at home seems very wise to me.
Would love more about how dress shoes can affect your posture, gait, calf muscles, stability, position of your toes…
Michael Christian: Yes, I address that in my reply above as well.
JS: It’s an interesting topic for sure! As I write, it would not be ideal to walk in super supportive bespoke all day all the time either, that I think is pretty clear from the research I’ve read. That said, according to experts I’ve talked to it’s not bad to use supportive shoes especially when under unusual strain (like if you walk a full day, if it’s not something you are used to, etc), but you still have to use your feet a lot more than standard today, walk barefoot, train them etc. But yeah, will go into this much more in that future article, when I’ve had time to properly go through various research and talk to a few more folks, and put it all together.
Hi Jesper, another Igor in the comments. Thanks a lot for this article. Came today specifically to ask couple of questions on the topic of support and this kinds of construction like Meermin’s ultra flex and that was a 100% hit. Would be looking forward to more research on the topic. And another somehow related question. If I remember correctly in one of your earlier articles probably in Swedish with reviews of different bespoke makers you mentioned one or two older Polish masters who had particularly strong focus on the orthopedics. From the makers you worked with, would you say there are other masters that have similarly strong knowledge and focus on that area? Thanks a lot.
Igor U: Cheers! Ah yeah, I believe you think of Januszkiewicz, who is trained in orthopedics. There’s many other bespoke shoemakers who are more or less trained in orthopaedics schooling (although all good lastmakers are to some extent). Of the ones I’ve worked with Janne Melkersson, Patrick Frei and Eiji Murata all have orthopedics schooling to some extent.
@Igor- May I suggest that you have your painful heel x-rayed for heel bone spurs? I had this painful condition, on right foot only.
Podiatrist wanted to do a series of three cortisone shots. She had initially diagnosed plantar fasciitis. My reply was, “I walk all day on both feet. Only the right heel hurts. Can we take x-rays BEFORE the cortisone shots, just in case I DO have a bone spur…which the shots would not cure anyway?”
She reluctantly agreed. Turns out I had a “substantial” 6-7mm bone spur on that right heel. Surgically repaired. The left heel never did hurt, BTW. 🙂
OK. I have many (too many) goodyear welted shoes and they’re all cushion-free 🙂 But… I know the picture and brand from that article and decided to give them a try. Just one cushion-shoe for comparison 🙂 To be onest… Design was the first argument for them but when I find about construction (few days after reading these article), I decided to go for them anyway 🙂 Will see 🙂 But in general – I agree with every word of yours 🙂 Good article, as always 🙂 Cheers 🙂
Kamil: Cheers! One cushioned shoe isn’t the end of the world 🙂