Gearing Up: Shoes

“I fly! I fly! See how I fly.”
-Puck, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

BECAUSE THE GAME IS AFOOT

This blog continues on from where I left off from my Primer. In it, I’m going to go further in-depth with information on the most basic of curling gear: shoes.

Why start with shoes?

Outside of a few dissenting opinions here and there, almost everyone I talked to was of the opinion that shoes are the one piece of gear every curler should get first. So here’s an deeper look at what you need to know before you buy: broken down by parts of the shoe and various things to consider.

The most basic of which, is knowing that the shoe with the Teflon slider on it will be opposite of your throwing hand. In other words, if you’re buying online and select “right-handed” shoes, the pair you get in the mail will have the slider on the left shoe.  This is because right-handed deliveries, by USCA and International rules, must be made out of the left side of the hack. For most of us right-handers who use the commonly accepted delivery slide you see everywhere, we put our right foot in the hack and slide out on our left foot, and vice versa for lefties. (There are unique delivery styles that change things up a bit, as you’ll see in the video, but that’s a blog for another time. I assume you use the commonly accepted sliding technique.)

Parts of a Curling Shoe

When it comes to most curling shoes, the obvious benefit to them is having the Teflon slider permanently affixed to the sole of the shoe. This eliminates the risk of a slip-on slider shifting, or being in a different place on your foot from shot to shot. Having the slider in the same place every time only serves to increase your consistency. It is often the most featured talking point of any pair of curling shoes (which is also why I give it so much space in this blog). Beyond this, you often will have a few basic parts that are (usually) also described: the upper, the griper, the toe, and (sometimes) the laces. I’m going start with the simpler parts.

The gripper: The rubber cover that goes over the slider. Some companies call these anti-sliders; which is just a different name for the same thing. If you don’t already have one, just make sure you buy one that fits your shoes when you purchase a pair.

Toe coat: A layer of epoxy that covers the outside of the shoe on the toe of your trailing foot. This is an “extra” that some companies offer. The top of the toe on your trailing foot is often what sees wear and tear the quickest. Makes sense: you drag it behind you on an uneven surface, often while putting weight on it. How much you use your shoes should be the deciding factor or whether you want to splurge on this or not. If you only play once a week, then it may not be necessary. If you’re curling two to three times a week, and/or plan on hitting a lot of bonspiels during the season, then it might be worth the oft-quoted extra $25 most places charge for it. The nice thing here is that if you don’t opt for it, you can always add it yourself later with a toe coating kit.

Lace cover: A piece of material that covers the laces of your shoes. Some companies offer this only on the trailing foot, some on both, and some not at all. Again, as with toe coats, whether or not you want this is entirely arbitrary. Some curlers place a lot of their weight on the top of their trailing foot, instead of the toe. Those that do not only see wear and tear quickly on their laces, but also the area of the shoe immediately surrounding them. (In extreme cases, some people even said that because their drag was so extreme on the laces, the first thing to ruin on their shoes was the eye-holes tearing apart.) So should you opt for it? Not if your sliding style doesn’t call for it. If it comes standard on a pair of shoes you like, great. Having it won’t hurt you.

The slider: The Teflon attached to the bottom of the shoe that you slide out on. The slider is pretty much what makes a curling shoe, well, a curling shoe. It’s probably the first thing you look at when you’re looking to buy. Some would say it’s not the most important thing to consider (see: “The Upper” section below), but it’s definitely a biggie. Given this, there’s a lot of material to cover here and more-than-a-few things to be concerned with: the thickness of the slider itself, whether to get a split-sole or full-sole slider, and if the slider should even be permanently attached to the shoe or not.

Let’s start with the obvious option: thickness.

In the sliding lunge, it’s natural to slightly shift your weight around on your forward foot to maintain your balance as you travel down the uneven surface of the sheet. Thinner sliders (like a slip-on) bend easier and conform more to the foot of the shooter, making it easier to maintain balance. This little bit of “play” or “wiggle room” is perfect for brand new players to learn how to get used to the task of shooting a curling stone. The trade off here is, of course, not being able to push out as far, nor with that much relative ease. It can be done, it just takes a lot more effort.

Why? It’s simple: the thinner the slider, the more it bends, creating more drag. The thicker (or more rigid) a slider is, the less likely it will be to “dig into” the grooves and bumps that exist between the pebble. Thicker sliders will coast or glide easier across the top of the ice, requiring a lot less effort to push out of the hack. Speaking from personal experience, before I bought my shoes I struggled simply to make it to the hogline with a slip-on slider. Now I not only can make it to the hogline every single time, but I have on more than one occasion slid all the way to hogline at the shooting end of the sheet without even trying (he says with humility).

This doesn’t mean that the thickest slider out there is necessarily the best for a beginner, however.

When the slider doesn’t come with any “wiggle room,” any instability in balance feels magnified (as I have personally experienced). It takes more leg strength after you push out of the hack to hold your posture and keep that forward foot in place. Little balance-checks, wobbles, or weight-shifts along the way that used to be of no major concern, can now result in your sliding foot slipping out completely from under you (ouch), or at the least send you slightly off line.

The good news here is that adjusting to a thicker slider is, usually, a fairly quick process. And once it’s done, finding consistent finesse is a much less daunting task. Most players I communicated with adapted within a week or two (with a month being the worst I heard). Many found that the lack of “play” or “give” that comes with the rigidity even turned into an asset as they learned how to hold their posture better and start to control it.

For these reasons, most players use (and recommend) a slider thickness of 3/16″ (three-sixteenths of an inch). This number seems to strike that near-perfect balance of having enough rigidity to slide further and easier, mixed with enough “play” or “give” to allow for adjustments and balance checks mid-slide. Luckily, most sliders on mid-range quality curling shoes are already 3/16″ thick. Some companies offer the option of going thicker to 1/4″ (a quarter of an inch – which is the thickest I’ve seen), but doing so can up the cost anywhere from an extra $10 to as much as an additional $25 or more. Full disclosure: I personally use this thickness simply because it was already offered on the shoes I bought, which I found on sale for cheap.

(Side Note – For those of you thinking that you might go the cheaper route and just buy your own slip-on slider instead of shoes, remember that most slip-on sliders fall around the 1/32″ – 1/16″ range. This is as thin as it sounds. Think about it; one-third of the thickness for something that not only makes it harder to slide out effectively, but may not even stay in place on your foot.)

Another major thing to consider when buying new shoes: split-sole versus full-sole.

A lot of newer shoes out there (that also tend to cost more) have a split-sole. This is where the Teflon covers the heel and the ball of the foot, but leaves a gap under the arch of the foot. Because of this gap, there is naturally less contact surface to the ice. Less contact surface means less drag, which equals a faster slide. Another benefit split-sole sliders have is found in their flexibility. They allow the shoe to bend easier in the arch of the foot. This makes it more comfortable and feel natural when a player has to walk up and down the sheet with a gripper on.

There is a drawback, however; and that is split-sole shoes make it easier to “toe slide.” This is when the delivering player, mid-slide, lifts the heel of their sliding foot off of the ice and places most of their forward weight on their toes (or the ball of the foot). And why not? Less surface contact with the ice means a further slide, right? The problem is that “toe sliding” places a LOT of extra stress on the muscles and tendons in the forward knee. It is not uncommon for these players to suffer from health problems down the road via stress-related injuries to the knee. In her e-book, Break Through Beginner Curling, Gabrielle Coleman even mentions needing physical therapy for a stress-injury to her T-band because she began curling as a “toe slider.”

That is exactly why I personally opted for the full-sole slider: when I began curling, I found myself “toe sliding.” My knee started to bother me slightly. I tried to focus on not lifting my heel, but I simply couldn’t master it. To fix this problem, I chose to take the easier way out and put a solid quarter-inch thick piece of Teflon over my whole foot. The rigidity of the slider doesn’t allow me the option of “toe sliding” because I really can’t flex or bend my arch.

If you aren’t a “toe slider,” then by all means get a split-sole. And why not? Take any advantage to up your game that you can get – including less surface contact with the ice. As someone with a full-sole, I will say that I don’t notice myself struggling to sweep compared to other players, nor do I find the extra surface contact with the ice to be any hindrance to my game. In fact, I can slide farther down the sheet than most other players I know (which would be a humble brag if it even mattered, but it doesn’t; getting to the hogline accurately is all that matters).

Now, when you go to buy, the last thing you’ll encounter about sliders to think of is whether to get a permanently attached one or not.

A lot of really nice, fancy, and expensive new shoes don’t have Teflon glued to the bottom of them any more. Instead they have Velcro. Yup, Velcro. The reason for this is that it allows the player to swap out “discs” or “pods” (different names for the same thing) on the bottom of their sliding foot to change up their game. Held in place by the Velcro, these pods or discs can be made of varying shapes and thicknesses of Teflon, steel, or whatever other material you can find or make. (Most people with “pod” shoes still opt for the Teflon, however.)

When I asked, no one with these new fancy kicks ever once had a pod fall off because the Velcro failed them. In fact, many people consider their shoes to be of comparable quality to those with glued on sliders. So basically what you’re paying for here is simply the added bonus of a split-sole shoe that comes with the insurance of being able to replace the Teflon should it become damaged. While nice in idea, I’ve found these shoes to be among the most expensive out there (and the replacement/extra pods are not cheap, either). So do you need it? Not really. Might you want it? I’m of the opinion that that is entirely up to buyer.

The Upper: The material that makes up the main body of the shoe (aka – the part that envelops the foot when wearing the shoes). When buying new shoes, some people are of the opinion that the quality of the upper is more important to consider than even the slider. The most often stated reason is that “Teflon is Teflon. It will not break or come off of the sole once it’s firmly attached in place. It’s the upper that seems to suffer more wear and tear.”

Luckily, the most quality shoes you’ll find out there come with a leather upper exterior, and an insulated interior. This is good because leather will survive the changing temperatures better than most other materials you might find. Remember: your shoes are going to be played on ice, but stored in a warm room (or in a bag in your car, like mine). Having a material that can withstand these extremes is crucial, and leather fits the bill nicely. The only minor downside is that new leather shoes are going to be tough and slow to break in (especially since you’re playing on ice). Just be patient with them and soon they’ll fit like any other pair of shoes you own.

To Sum it All Up

So what can you expect? Well, assuming the recommended 3/16″ slider that comes with a gripper, no toe coat, no lace cover, and no discounts or sales, I’ve found that the good-quality mid-range shoes from various companies run about $120-$180, give or take. (Does not include shipping, if you buy online.)  A rather broad range, I know.

But, to compare: The most expensive pair I’ve found (split-sole, 1/4″ thick Teflon pods attached by Velcro, with a gripper, toe coat, and leather-upper) totaled up to $320. The cheapest pairs I found, which had a thinner 1/8″ slider, full-sole, with no gripper, toe coat, or anything fancy ran about $60-80.

Pro Tip: If you can, wait until the end of the season (March through May). Depending on the company, you can sometimes get a great pair of shoes for the cost of a low-range pair.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – while many options in Curling shoes exist, the market is not over-saturated with companies that sell what, in the grand scheme of things, is really a niche product. The benefit of this for buyers is that you aren’t going to pay insane mark-up prices because there’s a swoop or a logo on the side. You get what you pay for.

Just remember: Above all else, curling shoes are an investment. If you take care of them, they can last anywhere from two to five years (or more). It’s tempting and easy to go cheap, I know. And yeah, if you’re not sure how fancy to go, or even if you want to stick with the sport long-term, it might be best to get a starter pair that fits just to have some fun. But for the more hardcore or competitive player, it’s worth it to just bite the bullet and make the investment. As someone posted on Reddit, “Cry now or cry later.”

-Eric 🙂

(Eric Reithel is a resident blogger for Windy City Curling who hopes to one day achieve a full sheet hack-to-hack slide, just for funsies. He also wants a pair of rainbow colored shoelaces to give his curling kicks a personal touch. If you have any suggestions for him on this – or on curling shoes in general – hit the comments below. Or, you can follow him on Twitter @TheCraftyCurler.)

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