Lululemon has launched its first ‘woman-first’ running shoe – but what exactly does that mean?

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Jane Oldfield’s favorite Mother’s Day gift this year was a pair of new Lululemon Blissfeel running shoes, designed and designed specifically for women’s feet.

The Peterborough-based physiotherapist says the trainers cushion her heel and hug her narrow midfoot better than the ASICS model she usually wears, and allow her to work 10-hour standing shifts and run three times a week, while avoiding an old plantar. fasciitis injury.

“I have a very narrow foot and this shoe fits like a glove,” she said. “I’ll probably buy a pair for running and a pair for work.”

The Blissfeel hit the market on March 8, following a research and development process that scanned the feet of more than one million women in the space of four years, according to the athleisure-based company. in Vancouver. The resulting sneaker’s weight (8.9 oz), price ($198), and heel-to-toe drop (9.5 mm) are comparable to other running shoes. But its narrow heel, moisture-wicking midfoot lining, and relatively wide toe box, not to mention its marketing, make the Blissfeel the newest and loudest running shoe designed specifically for women. women.

Running shoes have been available in both men’s and women’s versions for about as long as they’ve been sold, often varying in length and color spectra. But experts say women’s feet are underrepresented in the R&D process: Running shoe studies often include more men than women, then wrongly generalize findings across genders, Max Paquette said. , a sports science and biomechanics researcher at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.

“It’s a problem in footwear research and in all of sports science,” Paquette said. “Women are not little men, both anatomically and physiologically.”

In Germany in 2010, University of Tübingen biomechanist Inga Krauss published a series of studies showing that men’s feet tend to be wider and thicker than women’s feet of the same length. Krauss cited research that inappropriate footwear could cause hammer toes, bunions and other disabling foot problems in women and men, questioned the practice of making women’s shoes from downgraded men’s shoes and suggested that shoe brands include more women in future wear tests.

Since then, however, published studies comparing men’s and women’s feet have dwindled, and sneaker brands around the world have offered only a handful of women’s shoe concepts. For example, in 2020 Nike introduced less dense airbags in the women’s version of its flagship training shoe, the Pegasus, after market research showed that women wanted a softer shoe.

A year later, American athlete and five-time Olympian Allyson Felix co-founded women’s shoe brand Saysh, after struggling to secure shoe sponsorship after her pregnancy and speaking out against gender inequality in professional sport. .

The first flagship model, the Saysh One, features a narrower heel and wider toe than a typical running shoe, and sells for $150 (US). And the company is giving free sneakers to women whose shoe size changes during pregnancy. Its new women’s runway spike, however, isn’t all that affordable: it sells for $2,500 a pair.

In 2010, ASICS released the more questionable Gel Kayano 16, whose adaptable arch shape was apparently designed to match female hormone levels. He was inspired by research that showed monthly changes in estrogen levels affected foot flexibility and arch height. Recent versions of the Kayano, however, no longer advertise this technology.

The Blissfeel may be making headlines, but experts say we’re still a long way from creating the perfect shoe for women. For example, little is known about the impact of running shoe dimensions on injury risk and running performance in women – or men for that matter.

Michaela Khan, a doctoral student in clinical biomechanics at the University of British Columbia, said women tend to experience different running-related injuries than men, particularly stress fractures, but that the risk factors are multiple. Differences in running anatomy and technique between men and women may play a role. But those differences don’t always exist, and none have been consistently proven guilty, Khan said, adding that we know even less about the role shoes play in this.

I love the feeling of focusing on women,” said Khan, whose own research explores how running affects our knees, “but wearing ‘feminine’ shoes may not solve anything in terms of running-related injuries. , because we don’t even know what to do. to fix. »

Meanwhile, Paquette and other researchers focusing on running performance say they are in the early stages of learning how women and men respond differently to running shoes when running fast. .

Paquette said that while this type of research is ongoing in his lab, one of the only findings so far is that women, on average, rely on their calf muscles more than men, so shoes that encourage the use of calf muscles may be better suited for women. .

“Otherwise,” he said, “gender differences in the biomechanics of running are still quite murky, making it difficult to hypothesize the effects of footwear in elite-level running.”

Paquette hopes that we will eventually see the advent of high performance footwear for women.

So while the Blissfeel may accommodate some traditionally feminine characteristics of the foot, it falls short on the running course with the more specialized sneakers of the day such as the Nike Next% or the Adidas Adios Pro, which both house carbon plates and hard, springy foam. stacked at 40mm for maximum spring (the Blissfeel has no carbon plate and a lower stack height of 32.5mm).

Amanda Lee, a foot orthotist and runner from Fredericton, New Brunswick, took the Blissfeel for a spin. She liked them for walking, but on her runs they lacked the responsiveness of other shoes. She prefers her usual Hoka One One Cliftons.

“The Blissfeel could have been made for women,” Lee said, “but I much preferred my traditional shoes for running. I think ultimately it just comes down to personal variability.

While the Blissfeel may not fit every woman’s foot, Paquette said he hopes the shoe and others designed for women’s feet will normalize gender parity in product testing and eventually lead to more products adapted to the physiology of women and men. Already, Lululemon plans to build on its Blissfeel research to expand its footwear collection with a women’s workout shoe, a women’s workout shoe, and eventually men’s shoes.

“I think there’s a huge void in running shoe science to address gender differences,” Paquette said. “Now is a good time to research running and footwear.”

For Oldfield, the physiotherapist, it’s also a good time to run. She wonders if she’ll ever go back to buying shoes that aren’t specifically designed for women, and hopes that more brands design their own women’s shoes.

“The Blissfeel feels like it’s made for my foot,” she said. “If that’s where the science is now – creating sneakers specifically for women – that’s really exciting.”

Lululemon Blissfield Stats

Cost: $198

Category: neutral cushioning

Weight: 251g (8.9oz)

Heel to toe drop: 9.5mm

Stack Height: 32.5mm

Colours: 10

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