Product Review: Rethinking Recovery Footwear For Runners

The Arizona from Birkenstock.

The Arizona from Birkenstock.

Birkenstock sandals aren’t just for hippies anymore.

As I find myself deep in the throes of marathon training for the first time in four years, I’ve been making a conscious effort to take my recovery more seriously than ever before. To ensure that I’m bouncing back quickly and effectively from my long runs and toughest workouts, I’ve been dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s in the areas of sleep, nutrition and footwear.

Aside from trying to get an appropriate amount of sleep and making wise food choices in an effort to feel my best every time I lace up my training shoes, I’ve been experimenting with what I put on my feet after workouts to give my body the best chance to recover between training sessions. Not to mention that after being bound up in a pair of snug-fitting running shoes for up to two hours, my tired dogs just want to spread out and breathe!

In the past I’ve worn flip flops, slides and various other forms of free-fitting footwear to give my feet the space they need after a long run, but more often than not it’s come at a cost: zero support and prolonged soreness. Soft, flat and–let’s be frank–unsupportive sandals might feel great after first stepping out of your running shoes, but if you spend any significant amount of time in them afterward you’ve surely experienced the sore feet and aching legs that result from such a decision.

So, as I began to entertain thoughts this past summer of ramping up my mileage in pursuit of a marathon PR, I made a mental checklist of the “little things” I could do to ensure I was able handle the training, recover between workouts and avoid injury. As circumstance would have it, I was attending the Outdoor Retailer show in August and was approached to see if I’d be interested in testing out a pair of recovery sandals from Birkenstock (yes, the hippy sandals your parents used to, and probably still wear). My first thought was “Since when did Birkenstock start making recovery sandals?”

Well, as it turns out, they’ve been making them for over 40 years — many runners, myself included, just didn’t know it. At the OR Show Birkenstock wasn’t boasting a revolutionary new recovery product based on space-aged technology. Just the opposite, in fact. Their recovery sandal was the same leather upper built upon a cork footbed that they’ve been making since 1967.

Admittedly, I was skeptical. How can a leather sandal with a hard sole promote recovery? The only way to find out was to put them to the test. At 60 miles a week in training and climbing, I was in a perfect position to do just that.

A few weeks after attending the OR Show I was sized up for my first pair of Birkenstocks–the Arizona (pictured above). I was sent home with two seed pairs — one with a leather upper and the other featuring a softer suede. While the upper materials differed, the style and footbed were the same, with the major difference between the two being a soft foam layer between the cork layer and the liner of the footbed in the suede pair. I was advised to give both a shot and gravitate toward using the pair which felt best on my foot. Fair enough, I thought.

What struck me immediately after stepping into the sandals for the first time was how hard the sole felt. Even the suede pair, with the soft foam layer between my foot and the cork footbed, felt very firm underneath my feet. They weren’t uncomfortable–just hard. I was advised to ease my way into wearing the sandals and allow my feet the chance to adjust to the support underneath them. At first, I’d wear the sandals for half an hour to an hour after a long run, or while just walking around my apartment in the evening after work. After a week or so of wearing them somewhat regularly, I found–to my surprise–that I really liked how the leather pair (without the soft foam layer) felt on my feet, and the freedom that the non-restrictive leather upper afforded them.

In the following weeks, I started wearing my leather Birks more and more. I would keep them in the trunk of my car, slide them on after I ran, wear them to the coffee shop, and keep them on as I ran out to do errands later in the morning. Best of all? I was recovering the entire time — no joke!

After a month or so of wearing my Arizonas I noticed a big difference in how my feet, Achilles tendons and knees felt after workouts. No longer did my legs feel like they ran 40 miles rather than 15! The deep heel cup and firm feeling underneath my feet felt naturally supportive. The cork footbed, as I was told it would, molded to my feet and really made it feel like I was wearing a pair of custom sandals.

With a little over three months to go now until my marathon I will likely go through another three pairs of running shoes. After my runs however, I will continue to wear the same pair of sandals I’ve been rockin’ for the last three months. Skeptical at first, I’m now a big believer in my Birkenstocks for helping promote recovery between workouts.

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