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A long time ago – oh say going back about 10 years or more, I wrote an article for one of my Web Sites called, Tabi or not Tabi, that is the question (punning on Shakespeare’s to be or not to be). It was focused on the benefits of the popular Ninja Martial Arts footwear called the Tabi Boot.
Now whether or not Shakespeare would have been a good Ninja is up for speculation, but we can all probably agree that he would have preferred to avoid the modern day slings and arrows of outrageously pointy objects.
Therefore, to end this worrisome fear and conclude that one might indeed desire NOT TO BE the victim and to take arms (and feet) against this sea of trouble (especially when training in the sea of Thailand, where the coral can pierce even the toughest of feet), by giving yourself foot protection that still offers the wearer a better chance at having opposable toes.
Okay, so that might be stretching your toes and this belief in good footwear a bit too far. Let us get back down to earth:
Many of us train in the martial arts OUTSIDE. In fact, in the system that we teach as part of the Multi-Martial Arts, Mind – Body – Spirit, Outdoor Adventure experience (catching my breath) – training outside is required 80% of the time.
Why are big boots just not very Ninja like?
If you saw the movie Kick Ass, you might have noticed the main character (incidentally named Kick Ass), was wearing some rather clunky looking construction boots as part of his super hero outfit. Now if you are going to be punched, kicked and generally thrown around as much as this character, one might certainly desire to have more armor. Big shoes = more armor.
However, you will not be jumping over too many candlesticks if you prefer to don the jack-of-all-trades footwear. A cat in boots is just slow (cats in hats are up for discussion).
I started to train seriously in the martial arts when I was about 15. This was also the time I was in the Boy Scouts and taking many weekend camping and hiking trips. It was general practice to own a pair of HUGE hiking boots. It was almost as if I did not have a choice in the matter. From my Scout Leader to my parents, there was a lot of pressure to wear what I thought were just a bulky piece of rubber and dead cow. I find it pleasant to know that after all of these years of sticking to my beliefs, it turns out that science is indeed supporting my bad habit (see the post on going barefoot) of wearing lighter shoes.
When hiking with the Boy Scouts, I would sneak in anything but hiking boots. I wore wrestling shoes, I wore Ninja tabi boots, I wore the popular Adidas or lightweight TKD shoes (my street shoe of choice in the 80’s, along with the horribly unfashionable super-baggy-pants).
I tried to wear anything but, big, bulky hiking shoes. My scout leaders said that I needed to wear hiking boots to keep from twisting my ankle in the rocks. However, my real life experience taught me otherwise and honestly, boots had the opposite effect on me. They did not protect my ankles because they actually caused me to have poorer balance and coordination – which lead to more ankle injuries.
That was my first argument – big boots are not good for being agile.
So out with the shoe and in with the new.
There are countless number of the benefits of going barefoot. The only question is – how can we be as close as possible to bare feet without losing too much proprioception or putting the bottoms of our feet in danger? The answer – wear shoes like Vibram’s Five Fingers.
These types of shoes are perfect for the martial arts and adventure activities as they allow us the ability to maximize our balance and still spread out the toes for a true feeling of agility. You can feel light on your feet and when you hike, jump, swim, climb, or kick – it just feels better – more natural.
Now I still like the split toed shoes like the tabi or Nike’s small running shoe. These are still superior to bunching the toes together.
For advanced hardcore hiking and climbing, I would suggest that you pack up the barefoot shoes and unleash a good pair of approach shoes (multi-purpose adventure shoe with climbing rubber). I would consider approach shoes to be best shoe for any Street Ninja.
But if you don’t need the armor of a slow moving tank, then consider a pair of lightweight martial art shoes. Here are a few of the reasons why I like these types of shoes. Please feel free to add your comments.
01 Five Fingers are lightweight
I am a member of the travel light – mobile office club. That means that my office can pack down into a small pack and I prefer never to use a suitcase. Traveling light requires high quality lightweight gear. These shoes are LIGHT, but also serve a multitude of uses. That alone is a key factor – one item = many and so I can fuel my Less-is-More quest.
02 Light shoes with sticky rubber so you can play like a monkey
I would normally say, “shoes great for rock climbing,” but I do prefer approach shoes if I am going UP a rock face that requires a firm sole. However, for all other climbing and bouldering, lightweight shoes with decent rubber soles are perfect. Climbing easy routes and scrambling through places like Malibu Creek – California are a blast. Climbing trees and jumping from boulder to boulder (try doing a Rock Jumping Hike in tight climbing shoes – not fun).
03 Water worthy footwear
This is again another huge plus for a shoe that has many uses. In Thailand on the islands, I like to train, go running, cruise the beach and just jump into the water without having to take off my shoes. With shoes like the Vibram Five Fingers, not only can I protect my feet, but I don’t have to worry about stray dogs running off with my flip flops if I leave them on the beach while I go for a swim (yes, I speak from experience).
04 Multi-Purpose Shoes
As I mentioned, I like to pack light and this means I prefer one item that can serve many uses as opposed to many items that only have one purpose. These shoes are tested and proved good for running, swimming, scrambling, hiking, and or just playing around. I even wear them in the gym. However, most importantly, I can wear them with my uniform when needed.
05 Shoes that look really weird – Eye Candy
Wearing these shoes is like running around with a sign on your back that says, “ask me about my feet.” For many, this is a con, but – if you like to share your thoughts, love attention and can handle debates with people that still believe the Earth is to go public.
06 Shoes with flexibility
You can actually move your toes in these shoes. This is great for the martial arts. If you want to pull your toes back when throwing a front ball kick – no problem. If you are climbing up a rope, you can place the rope between your big toe and simply walk up the rope.
07 Non leather shoes
No cows are harmed in the making of these shoes. Leather also weighs more.
08 Shoes for better health
Having lighter shoes is better for your body in the long run (yes this is a double whammy). And, reminding yourself that you should stop walking on your heals (bad Ninja) is helpful too. If you have not gone barefoot in a while, these shoes will remind you of what muscles and joints you need to develop.
Nevertheless, do not consider them a replacement for all your shoes – just another great shoe to have when needed. Common sense is required.
I consider these types of shoes the multi-adventure shoe because I can participate in most of my outdoor activities in only one shoe. Some other benefits:
* If you want to practice stealth movements – the closer to being barefoot the better. These types of shoes are better for silent movement.
* Your foot can move at a faster speed and thus adapt quicker to changes in the terrain if you have on lighter shoes.
* Heavy shoes are hard to swim with and do not move naturally in the water.
Naturally, I am not asking you to throw away your steel-toed boots if you need to kick some trashcans. In addition, if you plan to hike the John Muir Trail, I would suggest that you wear a pair of shoes that can go the distance (unless you are trained in walking long distances with a pack barefoot in advance). Most of us will simply want to pack a pair lightweight multi-purpose shoes to wear every now and again.
I wear mine to the on runs through the park, cruising on a moped in Thailand, on short hikes (though I also go barefoot hiking).
Feel free to chat about your thoughts on these and other shoes for the martial arts.

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