Will Ninja Shoes Make You Run Faster?

When Shigeki Tanaka, a 19-year-old Japanese man, won the Boston Marathon in 1951, it was a pretty big deal.

Tanaka’s win wasn’t just remarkable because he was the first Japanese person to ever win the Boston Marthon (before the Kenyans came along and started kicking everybody’s asses), and not even because Tanaka was a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.

What’s really remarkable about Tanaka is that he didn’t wear conventional running shoes; instead, Tanaka rocked the tabi (足袋), or split-toe Japanese footwear, to his 2:27:45 victory.

We’ve seen the Japanese technique for walking efficiently (see: our guide to walking like an Edo-era long-distance messenger), are there advantages in Japanese footwear too?

What Are Tabi?

Tabi are pretty simple: they’re just two-toed socks. Why are they two-toed? Do the Japanese have some sort of collective foot deformity?

Not quite. Hundreds of years ago in Japan, lots traditional Japanese footwear like zori have straps that fit in between your toes (just like flip-flops), so it makes sense that tabi are designed the same way.

And while a lot of people associate tabi with ninja, it wasn’t just Japan’s silent assassins who rocked the split-toed footwear. People of all walks of life wore tabi when the occasion called for it.

Photo by cozymax

Over time, tabi evolved froms simple socks to so much more. Today, you can find a different type of tabi for virtually any use, and while tabi aren’t regularly worn by your average Japanese person, some professions and hobbies that still regularly make use of tabi.

Occasionally traditional artisans wear tabi, along with some construction workers (who sport the more sturdy jika-tabi); but there are some uses for tabi in the modern world, too.

Running Tabi

After Tanaka won the Boston Marathon, there was an effort by Japanese companies to capitalize on his success. A shoe company named Onitsuka (that later became ASICS) introduced a “marathon tabi” in the early 1950s but it never really took off.

Nowadays though, people are rethinking the best way to run. Some people think that running barefoot or with shoes that replicate being barefoot (like the “five finger” shoes) are best.

Somewhere in that, shoe companies have decided that tabi-style two-toed shoes might be worth re-examining too. You can buy split-toed shoes from a ton of different Western companies, although I can’t really vouch for their fashionability.

Armored Tabi

Even samurai needed socks; although in the case of the samurai they needed tabi strong enough to deflect (or at least slow down) any threats to their toes. Nothing worse than getting an arrow in the foot.

Some armored tabi were covered in plate armor, some were protected by chainmail, but all of the samurai’s protective footwear were definitely form over function. I wouldn’t imagine that many people would want to wear armored tabi today.

Space Tabi

What’s better than tabi? How about tabi in space?! A few years ago, ASICS started working with JAXA, the Japanese space agency, to create specialty footware for Japanese astronauts heading up to the International Space Station.

The shoes featured a lightweight design, a better grip for zero-g situations, and a shape that helps stretch out the wearer’s muscles to fight muscle atrophy.

Are There Advantages to Tabi?

Despite all of these different uses for tabi, I haven’t found anything that supports the idea that the unique, two-toed design of tabi will make you run faster, jump higher, or look more handsome.

Regardless, for some people tabi are the footwear of choice. Some covet its traditionalism, others just think they’re plain comfy, but whatever the reason, tabi will be around for a long time. We’ll see whether or not the Kenyans ever get around to trying them out.


Thanks to Patrick for the article suggestion!

  • http://www.facebook.com/erika.glenn.007 Erika Glenn

    From the pictures, it looks like these are zero drop (I think that’s what it’s called), which are really popular right now. In conventional running shoes the heel is higher than the rest of the shoe, in zero drop, the whole foot is level. They’re supposed to make you run better because it’s closer to barefoot running.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    It’s nice to see Shigeki Tanaka and his ninja friends all crossing the finish line at the same time.

  • DAVIDPD

    So they’re basically covered sandals? Looks comfortable.

  • Mescale

    Maybe he was just a good runner. I’m just sayin’…

  • malydok

    Running barefoot or in thin-sole shoes is actually better for your knees as it imposes a proper running technique. Some professional runners claim it actually makes them run faster.

    I’ve been looking for a minimalistic shoe for myself and tabi seems like a cool idea, probably hard to get in my country though. The chinese kung-fu sneakers could be a good substitute.

  • Ali

    I’ve started using Barefoot running shoes in the last week or so. I’m disabled, so I don’t use them for running, but normal shoes were causing me so much pain and I was going outside without shoes on as it was less painful to walk across gravel.

    So far I’ve worn them every day for the last week and the pain generated from my feet has dropped a lot. They’re not going to cure my disability or anything but I’m able to walk a bit further than I could before, and today I even managed to run a bit as I was late for a bus – I haven’t ran for about 5 years.

    I’m using Vibram ones, but I did consider the split toe ones pictured in this post. But as the Vibram one were only 52GBP instead of 110, and looked better quality I grabbed them.

    I might grab a pair of the split toe ones just to see what they’re like.

  • Choniqua

    No doubt he was a great runner, but there’s just no way he beat us Americans fairly! He obviously cheated using the superpowers bestowed to him by the almighty Tabi.

  • crowbark

    Good luck, Ali! I’m a minimalist convert – I had a podiatrist tell me that
    I’d be in orthotics for the rest of my life, which I thought was pretty crap. I read up on minimalist gear, translated the running techniques to walking, transitioned to Vivo Barefoots, and I’ve got a fraction of the foot pain I used to, even when I really overdo it. Bonus – my feet feel like living parts of me again, not just blocks of meat on the ends of my legs.

    One thing I’d suggest, though, is to be patient. It took nearly a year for my feet, legs, and back to adjust to the point where I could do a normal amount of standing and walking comfortably every day. And yeah, I can even run now (if chased). Your mileage will vary, of course, depending on your condition, age, and the nature of your disability.

    I think I’ll try tabi next – I wonder if the big toe separation helps with bunions?.

  • sillysamurai

    I run in Vibram 5 fingers and know quite a few people who even wear them as daily footwear. (kind of falls into the “sandals with socks” category, but hey, they feel good) They don’t work for everyone, but have been much better for me than regular running shoes. Better foot support, even without the extra cushioning of a conventional shoe. I run farther and with less effort. A warning: don’t go very far the first time out; they use different muscles and your calves will really feel hammered.

  • phizuol

    I used to wear tabi shoes all the time in my younger days. The only advantage I noticed was for climbing things, especially chain link fences. I was pretty good at getting kites out of trees.

  • Who, Me?

    Errr, armored tabi look more ‘function over form’ than ‘form over function…’ am I a bad judge of fashion?

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    While grammar isn’t regularly by your average blogger, some professions and hobbies that still regularly make use of grammar.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    Any bets whether they make them in my size?

    (My theoretical size is 11 in terms of length, but I can’t wear anything less than a 14EEEE from most manufacturers, and my toes still rip them apart in six months, either making holes in the sides or tearing the leather uppers right away from the soles to create extra width. After years of searching I did eventually find a company called SAS that makes _one_ model of shoe that more or less fits me in a 13WW.)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Haha, touché.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    Whether they’re any good for running or not has more to do with how you run. Most people run in a way that uses a heel-to-toe motion (horrible for… everything). This is because most shoes have thick heels so it’s almost impossible to run naturally without falling on your face. That’s what this whole ‘make it like bare feet!’ craze is all about. People wanted to run naturally but still have proper protection (an episode or two of Monsters Inside Me will cause you to seriously rethink ever walking outside without shoes again).

    However, if you still run like an idiot trying to tear up every joint and muscle in your legs, then things like tabi won’t do you any good. In fact, you’ll probably injure yourself more. It won’t take long before you’re forced to change how you move though. Like dogs with boots, you’ll be forced to change instantly because of the discomfort.