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October 5, 2009

MBT Tembea Shoe Review

MBT bills itself as The Anti-shoe – so I’ll start by telling you everything that their shoes are not.

They’re not traditional – in fact, they’re not like anything else on the market. They’re not sleek or flexible or low profile or lightweight. They’re not intended for athletic activity. They’re not cheap. And they certainly won’t make you feel like you’re barefoot.

That last point seems like a contradiction, given that the company’s initials stand for Masai Barefoot Technology - but MBT takes a different approach towards combining the benefits of barefoot walking with the practicality of everyday footwear. Whereas other companies like Feelmax and Vivo Barefoot strip away as much material as possible between your foot and the ground, MBT replicates the postural alignment and musculoskeletal demands of barefoot walking on an augmented, elevated platform. So if you’re looking to feel pebbles on the ground and cracks in the sidewalk while you’re walking, MBTs definitely are not for you.

From MBT website

MBT shoes are primarily intended as a therapeutic device to alleviate back or leg pain for people who are on their feet all day, and there is a loyal contingent of followers - approximately one million customers in more than 20 countries - who swear by their restorative effects. The company’s origins trace back to the early 1990s, when a group of Swiss researchers began studying the biomechanical and physiological effects of walking barefoot. Their studies of African Masai tribesmen convinced them that walking barefoot over unstable surfaces (a key feature, as I’ll explain in a minute) had tremendous impact on resolving back problems, relieving neck tension, easing joint pain, improving muscle tone, and burning more calories compared to using traditional footwear.

Early prototype from MBT website

Striving to provide those benefits for people in urban settings, the researchers created a prototype shoe model in 1996, and founded a company called Swiss Masai in 1998. The prototype provides great insight into the intended style of walking: elimination of the traditional heel-strike in favor of a downward-angled forefoot landing, just as you do when running barefoot.

Modern MBT shoes backfill the heel area with something called the Masai Sensor (the red thing at right; picture from Amazon.com), an elliptical-shaped structure in the midsole which provides the key component to the biomechanics the company promotes: having an unstable platform regardless of whether you’re walking or standing.

All of MBT’s benefits stem from the idea of natural instability; that the highest degree of postural and musculoskeletal advantages from barefoot walking occur on soft grounds like the East African savannah, or Korean paddy fields, or even just your local beach; all of these surfaces trigger small, intuitive, compensatory movements of the lower extremity muscles. However, if you’re walking on hard surfaces, those benefits are diminished – so being on an unstable platform forces those adjustments to take place in your home or business setting just as they would if you were barefoot in the sand.

The result of all this design innovation is MBT footwear – and for something called the Anti-shoe, there’s an awful lot of shoe to wrestle with here. I was somewhat shocked at the overall weight of the shoe – it’s not specified on the website, but Zappos lists the Tembea model I tried at 23 oz – and how generally large it is in comparison to all the other models I’m reviewing.

The MBT Tembea, in black

After wearing “barefoot shoes” for so long, stepping into the MBTs felt like strapping on a pair of platform boots: my standing height in the Tembeas is more than two full inches higher than my barefoot height. Remember how I mentioned in another review that some of my co-workers had mentioned that I looked shorter lately? When I wear my MBTs, they must suspect that I’m on steroids.

The midsole and outsoles are extremely firm, with almost no forefoot flexibility. A TPU and glass fiber shank runs the length of the midsole to create a rigid support surface that rolls over the Masai Sensor as a single unit. A polyurethane midsole component provides the softness that further contributes to the natural instability concept.

I'm pushing as hard as I can - and no flexibility in the forefoot at all.

The uppers are very comfortable, and probably the most stylish (or “business-looking”) of any of the barefoot shoes I’ve tried. The Tembea has a soft, full-grain leather upper, and an antimicrobial 3D mesh sock liner. They aren’t extremely breathable, however, as my toes got fairly warm if I wore these shoes on a hot day.

Walking around in MBTs is actually kind of fun – the feeling in your legs really does mimic walking on sand, or across a soft gymnastics mat, or some other surface where you have to make constant balance adjustments with each step. The rounded heel forces you to use a midfoot strike pattern and eliminates sending impact forces upward into your knees. After using the shoes for a while, your natural instinct is to walk with a slightly flexed knee pattern, and you can feel your foot roll forward very naturally with each step. They’re also effective at triggering an upright spine and forward weight shift as you would have while walking barefoot.

The collection of styles MBT offers is fairly extensive, with looks ranging from dressy to athletic. It’s worth noting, however, that MBT doesn’t recommend actually using their athletic shoes for any sports; the rep I spoke with said they are recommended only for light jogging or walking, as the unstable platform could potentially lead to injury with high-demand athletic activities. Aside from fashion considerations, the sneaker styles of MBTs appear to have more breathable uppers than the nubuck or leather version, which may be an advantage for some folks.

It’s easy to see how these shoes would benefit people who are on their feet all day, especially in a confined position like a cashier or operating room nurse or assembly line worker that prevents a lot of walking around. MBTs are even being prescribed by health-care providers for people who suffer from back pain while standing for long hours at work. Anecdotally, one of our local shoe stores has a group of nurses who tried MBTs, and have started coming back for more.

That’s no small statement, considering the retail price of these shoes, which is admittedly quite steep – it almost seems as if the medical care aspect of MBTs is being used to justify a very high cost of entry. The Tembea model that I wore sells for $235 at Endless.com. Even the Teva-style sandals that MBT produces sell for $150, which represents the low end of the range. Shoes can also be purchased directly from the MBT website.

I’d love to see a future generation of these shoes that are more lightweight and closer to the ground, possibly preserving some of the ground feel I love about minimal shoes. Until then, the MBT presents an intriguing option for those seeking some barefoot biomechanics in a sturdy, stylish package.

See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.


21stCenturyMom 10/5/09, 5:16 PM  

This reminds me of Earth Shoes. You may be too young to have ever experienced them but it was the same idea - that people leave a certain footprint in the sand and that shoes should somehow mimic that. The current marketing positions them as shoes that burn more calories and give you a stronger core. That's new! They used to be marketed as being very natural.

I wore my Earth Shoes all over Europe and got nasty, ulcerated blisters from them. Not the desired effect.

TrailClown,  10/6/09, 7:52 AM  

I tried MBT's for awhile to strengthen muscle groups and try to avoid recurring running-related injuries, but I eventually switched back to walking in "regular" shoes, running in "running shoes" and using the Vibram barefoot shoes to strengthen the feet. The MBT's will make you walk tall, feel proud, and develop stronger muscles in the buttocks and legs, and they will help you avoid impact forces, but they do not strengthen the feet in the same way the barefoot shoes (or walking barefoot completely) do. And as for running in them, it's not like dragging cement blocks, and you do get used to it, but it is cumbersome.

Spokane Al 10/6/09, 9:34 AM  

I had the same thoughts as 20th Cent Mom in remembering the Earth Shoes from yesteryear.

Back in those days a pair of Earth Shoes, a tie dyed shirt or two, long curly hair, access to some good smoke and a love of rock and roll would provide huge amounts of hip cred.

Peace out brother.

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