Basketball and Natural Footwear Options

A common question we get at Correct Toes is: which naturally shaped, minimalist, barefoot-style shoes do we recommend for basketball and court sports? This is admittedly a tough question, although we are determined to do our best to present you with a well-thought out answer. The shoe companies we love that feature wide toe boxes and flat, flexible soles have yet to make a basketball shoe, and the major basketball shoe companies have yet to make a foot-healthy, minimalist shoe; so as much as this blog post is informational and educational, it is also a call to all shoe companies to make a natural, minimal, foot-shaped basketball shoe without all the extra bells and whistles.

 

What to Look for in a Healthier Basketball Shoe

Basketball shoes are designed by product developers with art degrees and product design backgrounds, not by health and fitness professionals. Athletic shoes are developed to meet fashion and aesthetic standards; foot health is not a priority. Here is a video from 2015 by Correct Toes founder, Dr. Ray McClanahan, DPM, discussing the problematic and injurious shoe features of conventional basketball shoes.

Basketball is a sport of jumping, landing, sprinting, lateral movements, and sudden cutting, stops, and starts, which are some harsh and taxing forces to impose on the feet and shoes. Unfortunately, the features of minimal and natural footwear are, at times, at odds with the perceived required features of quality basketball shoes. With that in mind, here are some things to think about when looking for a foot-healthy basketball shoe.

The Fundamental 5.

Wide Toe Box

The human foot is designed to have the toes wider than the ball of the foot. This is important for balance, jumping, and propulsion, as well as proper structural alignment, blood flow, and nerve function within the foot. Most basketball players’ toes are squeezed inwards, narrower than the ball of the foot, forming a bunion and tailor’s bunion, and limiting the range of motion of the toes. This takes away the athlete’s stability, arch strength, and even the possibility of preventing or mitigating an ankle sprain. Wide, splayed toes help to prevent excess eversion and inversion of the ankle. Additionally, the friction from a narrow toe box constantly rubbing on the toes can cause blisters, corns, calluses, and ingrown toenails. Imagine what the difference in shooting and dribbling a basketball might be if your fingers were bound and squeezed together like toes are in conventional basketball shoes, yikes! Avoid tapered toe boxes and seek a shoe that lets your toes function as they should; unlock the full potential of your toes!

  • Note: For additional assistance realigning your toes and restoring their function, undoing the damage of long-term tapered toe boxes, consider using our anatomical toe spacer Correct Toes, which is made to be worn while active, within Correct Toes Approved™ shoes. Several teams from the NBA, NFL, and NCAA use and love Correct Toes for injury prevention and rehabilitation. See this article regarding Correct Toes and Basketball.

Minimal Heel Elevation

Heel elevation, which shifts the athletes’ body weight and center of mass forward, results in a predictable compensation from the ankles, knees, pelvis, and spine to recapture balance and alignment. This puts extra stress on these joints, commonly resulting in pain and weakness of the knees and low back. At the ankle, a heel elevation causes the lower leg bones (tibia and fibula) to sit further back on the posterior part of the ankle bone (talus), where it is narrower; this position is much less stable and thus increases the chances for an ankle injury. A heel elevation will also shift your body weight onto the balls of your feet, potentially resulting in capsulitis and calluses. Chronic heel elevation, over time, shortens the calf muscles by up to 13%, stiffens and weakens the Achilles tendon, which pulls on the plantar fascia. This means less contractility of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon, reduced jumping ability, and increased strain on the posterior lower leg muscles and tendons, as well as potentially painful plantar fasciosis. Another significant and potentially debilitating effect of heel elevation is that there is an involuntary stretch reflex built into the posterior lower leg that can only be activated if the heel is allowed to come close to the ground. This does not occur in most shoes available to consumers today, even amongst athletic shoes. The problem here is that activation of that involuntary reflex is something that should happen with every step to help our forefoot with its most important task of propulsion. Shoes with elevated heels “steal” much of this propulsive power from the tendon and leg muscles.; power that must be borrowed from elsewhere – namely the knees, thigh muscles, hips, and trunk.

 

 

Minimal, Flexible Toe Spring

Most shoes have 15-20 degrees of toe spring. There is no physiological benefit of this shoe feature, which actually destabilizes the foot. The toes operate on a system of balanced pulling, with extensor tendons on the top of the foot and flexor tendons on the bottom, which becomes unbalanced when the basketball players’ toes are chronically elevated into extension by a rigid toe spring. Beyond reducing balance and stability, this can lead to hammer toes, plantar fascia pain, shin splints, capsulitis, calluses, and neuromas. Good foot health for athletics requires that the toes be able to flex and extend freely, gripping the ground for speed and agility. Most basketball players know for optimal precision and control, you shoot and dribble the ball with your fingertips; those same principles apply to the toes for optimal athletic performance.

No Arch Support or Motion Control Features

Whether its architecture and bridges or the human foot, strong arches are the same: they support weight over an open space by providing support on either end of that open space, not by propping it up in the middle. An athlete needs their arches to be strong and to act like a natural spring. Arch mobility and strength contribute significantly to acceleration, balance, speed, and strength. Artificial arch support restricts that spring-like function and acts like a cast. This lack of movement keeps your feet from working under their own natural power. These now weaker muscles lack stamina and tire at an accelerated rate. As an athlete trying to get faster or perform longer, results are influenced by the strength of your foot. Arch support features built into shoes weaken the foot muscles, leaving the athlete more prone to injuries. Arch support also encourages improper alignment and weight distribution, having a negative effect on athletic performance and endurance.

Make Sure the Shoe Fits

A shoe that is too small squeezes the foot and toes, acting like a cast, which leads to weakness and deformities. A shoe that is too big allows the foot to slide around without stability, causing blisters and injury. The shoe liner test is a great way to see if a shoe fits well before purchase. Pull the shoe liner out of the shoe and stand on it (preferably with a pair of Correct Toes on); if your toes fall off the liner to either side, that shoe is likely too narrow. Additionally, shoe modifications can be made to help tailor a better custom fit. If the shoe is just a little too small, consider removing the shoe liner, expanding the forefoot by starting the laces one eyelet back, or even cutting slits into the sides and the top of the toe box to allow for more room for splayed toes. If the shoes are a little loose, consider lacing the shoes up with the runner’s tie to have a little more support in the heel area to keep the foot from slipping around too much.

Air Jordan 34. Fashionable, but not a foot-healthy shoe. These shoes have narrow toe boxes, toe spring, elevated heel, and excess cushioning.

What about cushioning?

Most athletic shoes, basketball shoes in particular, are loaded with excess cushioning to help with comfort and to buffer the forces our bodies incur during athletic endeavors. However, all that extra cushioning, as comfortable as it is, may not be as beneficial as it may seem. In fact, the more cushioning a shoe possesses, the harder and more damaging on our joints it may be. Cushioning makes us think we’re reducing joint impact because it feels that way, but in fact it’s just reducing the sensation of the impact. For more in-depth analysis regarding the shoe cushioning myth, check out this article from our friends over at Natural Footgear, who helped to provide much of the information on this subject.

When running in minimalist footwear, we tend to change our gait and make the foot strike happen more underneath our bodies instead of out front. So, instead of landing hard on the heel like we do in cushioned shoes, we control the impact better in minimalist shoes, more evenly distributing forces between the lower extremity joints, and thereby reducing the overall force on our feet and bodies. When we fail to place our feet just right, our weight distribution gets thrown off. The heels, toes, and arches are not able to properly absorb impact and distribute body weight. This can have negative implications for our feet, ankles, knees, and back. By contrast, when we’re wearing only thin-soled, flexible footwear, our feet and bodies can feel everything about the ground and what’s happening in our lower extremities. After initially transitioning to minimalist and natural shoes, landing on the heel can be painful and may result in larger than necessary collision forces. What tends to happen in people who adopt minimalist footwear is that, over time, they will actually develop the ability to move in a less jarring way. For more information on the science behind barefoot running and foot striking, check out the work by Daniel E. Lieberman at Harvard University.

Another aspect of shoe cushioning that’s often overlooked is the fact that cushioned soles actually force us to do more work with each step. The greater the cushioning in a given shoe, the less efficiently force is transferred between the foot and the ground. Energy that would otherwise go into propulsion is dispersed throughout the shoe’s padding and wasted. In people who wear minimalist footwear, a maximum amount of propulsive energy is transferred between the foot and the ground, and considerably less energy is wasted with each step or stride.

 

Correct Toes Suggested Basketball Shoes

Most of these shoes have the features Correct Toes loves: lightweight, a wide, foot-shaped toe box, and a flat, flexible sole without heel elevation, toe spring, or arch support; however, some of these shoes may also lack the additional performance features useful for basketball such as reinforced tread outsole wrapping up the sides of the shoe (though even Nike has problems with that, just ask Zion Williamson).

Robert Willett TNS. Duke’s Zion Williamson’s foot bursts through his Nike shoe while making a move during a 2019 game vs. North Carolina.

None of the following companies make shoes specific for basketball (yet), and only some have shoes that are specific for gym and cross-training. These types of minimalist athletic shoes might see faster breakdown from long-term lateral use with tearing in the shoe upper from the outsole. As always, if you don’t regularly wear minimalist and natural footwear, be sure to transition slowly. Before you jump all the way in, read this article on transitioning to natural shoes. First wear the natural footwear casually, increasing by 30 minutes per day as you feel comfortable. Allow ample time for adjustments and gait changes. Once you are comfortable wearing natural footwear casually, try some light exercising such as weightlifting and eventually running, before very slowly progressing towards basketball and other court sports. If you make this transition too quickly, especially while being active, you can significantly increase your chances of injury, so be sure to take it slow. Your feet need time to adjust and strengthen. If you have already transitioned to wearing mostly minimal and natural footwear and are looking to try a foot-healthy shoe to play basketball and other court sports in, after speaking with representatives from the following companies, these athletic shoes are the ones we recommend.

 

Disclaimer: The shoes listed below are considered to be healthy athletic shoes but are not ideal for basketball. Basketball requires a lot of athletic, agile, and aggressive movements that are not really what we would consider to be basic human movements, such as running. Additionally, basketball is played on an artificial surface, so barefoot principles are not always ideal. Playing basketball in running shoes is not ideal either, for similar reasons. We generally advise patients to wear basketball shoes that are as wide and low as they can find, and wear healthy, natural, minimalist shoes all the other times. Overall, basketball doesn’t take up too much time for most people and sometimes we must compromise, just like wearing dress shoes for special occasions.

 

Altra

 

  • – The Solstice XT is a new cross-trainer recommended by Altra. Whether you’re going to the gym, out for a run, or for a casual walk around town, the Solstice can be your go-to all-around sneaker. This shoe combines an engineered mesh durable caged upper for improved performance with a durable 23 mm full rubber outsole. The Solstice XT features Altra’s signature FootShape™ toe box, which allows for a wide and natural toe splay, and Innerflex™ midsole that provides grid-like grooves to allow your foot to flex while being lighter, for more speed and better performance. The Zero Drop™ platform and balanced cushioning places your heel and forefoot the same distance from the ground to encourage proper, low-impact form throughout your athletic endeavors. This is our top-rated Correct Toes Approved™ shoe for indoor basketball.

 

  • – The HIIT XT 2 is a cross-trainer shoe that features a FootShape™ toe box, which accommodates Correct Toes, the Zero Drop™ platform, which offers a flat, stable surface to move from, and the removable insole adjusts the stack height from 20 mm to 15 mm. The biggest downside to this shoe is the stiffness of the sole so removing the liner is a good option. The reinforced mesh upper and sticky rubber outsole combine to create a durable shoe with great traction. The HIIT XT 2 performs well during multi-directional, dynamic workouts. Please see our shoe review.

 

Topo Athletic

  • – The Fli-Lyte 3 features a 23 mm X 20 mm stack height offering cushioning without losing flexibility and ground feel for a more natural running experience. The Fli-Lyte 3 eliminated almost all printed overlays to make it lighter and more breathable using a new engineered mesh upper to secure the foot over the platform, however this may leave the shoe more susceptible to breakdown during lateral movements. The 5 mm anti-microbial Ortholite® footbed gives the shoe a softer ride without sacrificing midsole response.  Please see our shoe review.

 

  • – The ST-3 is Topo’s most recommended shoe for the gym because of its lightweight flexibility and low profile. The ST-3 features a knit upper mesh pattern with fewer printed overlays, which may make the shoe less durable during lateral movements. The 16mm, zero drop platform, in addition to a collapsible heel which allows the shoe to pack flat, make this shoe highly versatile. The unique combination of the stretchy knit upper and naturally shaped toe box creates a comfortable environment for Correct Toes to be used during activity, making this a great transition shoe. Please see our shoe review.

 

Xero Shoes

 

  • – The Prio is the shoe Xero recommends for overall fitness. Prio stands for proPRIOception, which means it allows your feet to move and feel as nature intended. Whether you’re out on a run, trying out a new trail, hitting the gym, or just walking around town, the Correct Toes Approved Prio can be your go-to shoe for just about anything. The sole starts at 5.5 mm, but comes with a 2 mm removable insole. Please see our shoe review.

 

  • – The Speed Force was made for racing and is meant for speed, however it can be worn for much more. The Speed Force is super lightweight, wtih a men’s 9 weighing only 5.8 ounces. The zero-drop, with a thin and flexible, yet grippy 4.5 mm FeelTrue® rubber sole that is better for lateral traction because the sole wraps up slightly on the sides of the shoe. The Speed Force also comes with a 2 mm removable insole.

 

Vivobarefoot

  • – The Stealth II is one of Vivobarefoot’s best styles for athletic performance. The durable hex-mesh upper is constructed with support and stretch zones to assure responsive foot control and an adaptive fit. The Stealth II features a 3 mm barefoot sole for maximum sensory feedback and minimum interference. In terms of cross training, the Stealth II is great to use once the athlete has transitioned to minimalist footwear, as it really provides great foot placement on the ground with remarkable ground-feel. This helps with balance and sensory feedback.

  • – The Magna Trail is a minimalist hiking shoe designed to seamlessly transition from concrete to trails. It features a natural foot shape design that will accommodate Correct Toes for some and utilizes Vivobarefoot’s Firm Ground outsole, with low profile lugs that offer good traction on a variety of surfaces. The outsole generously wraps up around the edge of the shoe providing extra support for lateral movements. The Magna Trail works best for outdoor basketball on an asphalt court as opposed to an indoor gym. Additionally, as one of the few mid-top/hi-top minimalist shoes, the Magna Trail aesthetically most resembles a basketball shoe. Please see our shoe review.

 

 

Shoes from Popular Brands

These brands unfortunately do not have the features Correct Toes looks for in a natural, healthy, foot-shaped shoe, and often represent everything Correct Toes is trying to change about the shoe industry. Most of them have toe boxes that are far too narrow, unnecessary and injurious heel elevations and toe springs, and rigid, cast-like soles. However, we understand there aren’t any ideal athletic shoes out there that have been able to merge the concepts of natural foot health with basketball performance. After speaking with several major brand customer service representatives, and special thanks to Dimitrije, head of basketball research at RunRepeat.com, these shoes were the best options Correct Toes could come up with from 5 of the most popular basketball shoe brands. These shoes are at least hopefully lightweight, low-profile, slightly wider, and designed for agility.

Nike Kobe AD NXT 360

New Balance – Minimus Trainer

Nike – Kobe AD NXT 360

Under Armour – Curry 6

Adidas – Dame 5

Converse – All Star Pro BB

 

Foot Health in Basketball

Common Basketball Injuries and Conservative Treatment

 

Written by Dr. Andrew Wojciechowski

24 thoughts on “Basketball and Natural Footwear Options”

  1. You write about the prio
    > The sole starts at 5.5 mm, but there’s also a 2 mm option.
    I’m afraid, according to their site, its actually 5.5mm + 2mm removable insole. 🙁

    Would be soooo cool if any minimal shoe company had the egg to sell a 2mm running shoe ! Or better a replacable sole where you can choose the thickness matching your current transition level in 0.5mm steps.

  2. I’ve been wearing minimalist shoes for over a decade now, and as an exercise physiologist who studied in physical therapy and biomechanics (and who married a physical therapist), the topic of feet and foot biomechanics, and proper footwear, plus how all this ties into optimizing performance (and health), has been, to put it briefly, a long-time passion of mine.

    I have also been a basketball player for three decades, so my search for a better basketball shoe has been ongoing and, to say the least, a lot of compromising has been the norm.

    The thing with basketball (unlike other court sports where more minimalist footwear can work), is that there is so much jumping occurring at relatively higher velocities (compared to say, volleyball, a sport which, to the unsuspecting onlooker, may seem similar enough) and the same with cutting and lateral movements (compared to a sport with seemingly similar demands, like tennis or badminton or squash). Running at full speed on a breakaway to jump for a lay-up or dunk has very different demands compared to spiking or blocking the (volley-)ball at the net.

    That makes the sport both unique and impossibly difficult in terms of footwear appropriateness. You can’t run at full speed going for a lay-up/dunk or chase-down block, and NOT transfer the momentum from horizontal to vertical, without planting the heel (just look at any elite high jumper, long jumper or triple jumper in slow motion to understand why/how). That fact alone, again, makes the whole idea of “proper cushioning” almost impossible to solve.

    If you look at how the game was played back in the day (when the canvas Converse Chuck Taylors reigned supreme), you get an idea of just how much footwear was self-limiting (in terms of speed and velocities and skills–it’s not the only factor, of course, but bear with me). If you happen to have a pair of such shoes lying around, just try it out for yourself, as a little experiment. Even a half-court pick-up game (with reduced velocities) or a one-on-one will quickly remind you of just how many aspects of your skillset is essentially made possible by modern footwear.

    And if you’ve spent the better of your life playing in such shoes, the transition to playing with a more minimalist shoe can be a little daunting and discouraging, to say the least (stopping on a dime for a jump shot, going for a hop-stop power lay-up and even the now oft-used “Euro” become down right impossible).

    The only solution, as I see it, would be to have everyone agree to transfer to playing in minimalist shoes 🙂

    Anyway, this was my long rambly way of saying that I suspect the solution to the perfect minimalist basketball shoe is nowhere near in sight. And this saddens me, since I’ve had chronic ankle issues (multiple sprains all due to the sport I love), and while playing in a very friendly game this past weekend (after not playing for a few years), I rolled my old ankle due, in essence to the latest basketball shoes I had bought 🙁

    Thanks for this wonderful article and site 🙂

    1. Hi Eric! Thanks for the support and all the information, we agree on most of your points! There is likely no “perfect minimalist basketball shoe,” however I think we can still hold out hope for the shoe companies out there that make some more natural and minimalist running shoes (Altra, Topo Athletic, etc.) to also make some adequate basketball/court shoes. I really enjoy playing basketball in the Altra Solstice XTs!

  3. Would love to hear more discussion on this topic. You seem very experienced Eric. Is there anywhere you write about this?

    1. Hi Derek! Thanks for stopping by! We haven’t been able to find much information regarding this topic ourselves, but please be sure to post it here if you do!

  4. Thank You for a great article!

    I have been using Vivobarefoot shoes to play basketball for at least three years, one of the best ones for a indoor court is the now discontinued Motus line, have also used the swim run edition. They are not perfect, but once you start playing in minimalist shoes, all of the footwork training and reaction type plays become super easy, cause you finally feel the ground.

    Thanx to your article, I am going to try the Magna, for outdoor courts, they seem durable and hopefully should hold.

    I would like to ask You to keep updating this article with new shoe styles, because slowly barefoot is becoming the B-ball thing…

    1. Thanks for the comment Dan! We’ve heard and experienced similar things with the Vivobarefoot Motus. However, we didn’t include that shoe because, like you’ve said, that shoe line has been discontinued. I’ve played outdoors on asphalt and had success in the Vivobarefoot Magna Trail. However, I would recommend the Altra Solstice XT for indoor courts. I will do my best to update this article and/or post similar new ones as the interface of foot health and basketball are passions of mine.

  5. Hi,

    thanks a lot for this article. Very few information on internet about that, but you are covering a lot of issues!
    Just adding some of my experiences. I was doing triathlon for more than 25 years and the same time also I am hobby basketball player. I was started barefoot journey 4 years ago. Start was not easy, calves refused to work again after these 20 years 😉 But after one year everything was OK.
    Now to my basketball experiences. Start playing in barefoot shoes was pretty OK except lay-ups. Hits on heel was (not)surprisingly hard. Actually, I do not whether I changed technique or I got to used it, but I do not have any problems now. But question mark in my head is still placed. Are lay-ups in long term OK in barefoot shoes for heels, knees, etc.?? Other jumps I think are OK in barefoot shoes based on barefoot philosophy.
    No about shoes. Main time I have been using Vivobarefoot MOTUS and I am pretty OK with them. I also used Stealth, but grip on indoor court was terrible. What I would change on MOTUS is height of shoes on ankles, this could be higher at least as STEALTH are, but rather higher (MAGNA trail looks fine).
    My son plays basketball in MOTUS also, now for 4 years and do not have any problems. Of course there are more question marks when it comes to him then to me whether barefoot is OK for basketball. But when I look on classics high, narrow, over cushioned basketball shoes I do not see any other possibility today…
    What I see on market I think that only Vivobarefoot try to do something at pure barefoot sport shoe market. But this is not good news I am reading from you that MOTUS is being discontinued. Don’t you have any other news that some new type it is being prepared?
    Anyway, thanks again for this article, hopefully one day we will have dedicated basketball barefoot pair of shoes.

    1. Hi Jay!

      Thanks for sharing your experience! I think lay-ups and other types of jumps are just fine to do in barefoot type shoes, as long as you know how to land and absorb the impact appropriately. If you’ve spent a lifetime in excessively cushioned shoes with a heel elevation, it will take a significant and thoughtful transition to be able to adjust to barefoot type shoes without injury. It sounds like you and your son are blazing the trails for basketball in more minimalist footwear! I’m not sure if Vivobarefoot will bring the MOTUS back, but I’m sure you could reach out to the Vivobarefoot customer service regarding that. I am always on the lookout for minimalist and natural style footwear that could potentially be used for basketball and other court sports, so I will be sure to update the list of shoes as more become available.

  6. Hello Everyone…

    I am still yet to try the Solistice for indoors, my main concern is whether the shoe is flexible enough, and whether I will loose much of the court feel, if comparing to motus. Also looking optionally at Merrell vapor glove.

    Have tried the Magna on asphalt in some very competitive games, and so far they are my goto shoe for outdoor basketball. When I train on a more softer surface, I use ÖTILLÖ Swimruns, for the court – still the discontinued Motus.

    Some of You asked whether basketball and barefoot shoes go together?

    They go together like bread and butter.

    I have had acls on both knees, and barefoot shoes are actually helping me to rehabilitate and still play the game. In fact, when i switched to barefoot shoes, my whole sensory perception of court movements have changed and it has become easier to relearn the foot work, plus made my recovery period from an acl surgery much faster.

    Of course it’s not all about the shoes, but I know. they play a major role… Just like my previous shoes from, air Jordan, Nike and Adidas helped destroy my legs in the first place.

    Some doctors say that playing basketball is unnatural. I say they are deeply mistaken. There is absolutely nothing wrong with human movement…

    But, when we play basketball in “traditional” shoes, their architecture and qualities create the base for most of our non collision injuries. It start with rolling ankles and strains, and ends with tearing acls, Achilles, lower back pain, and finally arthritis after major surgeries… and since 99% of people playing this game are not professional athletes, our injury rate is much higher.

    And the main culprit of our pain is the traditional basketball shoe. Maybe someone needs to sue the major companies? Like a great civil action suit, from all those players, that got injured on a landing, or like Durant injured his Achilles on a simple start…Maybe if people were to prove it in court, and those companies could be held liable for all the pain that their products caused, maybe then something could change.

    But until then, all we can do is share our experience…

  7. Hello!
    Thank you for the greatly informative post! I have made the transition to minimalist barefoot shoes for a couple of months and now I’m looking to resume playing basketball with a healthy shoe that would keep me injury-free!
    Definitely going to try the Vivobarefoot Magna Trail, as I’m playing mostly outdoors. They look awesome. Thank you!

  8. Nobull shoes are pretty good as a “minimal” basketball shoe. The canvas and suede models stretch, the heel drop is minimal, and the bottom is pretty sticky on wood.

  9. Hi,
    I am a bit confused after reading your post! As per the information you have provided, I guess Altra Solstice XT is a good pair for jumping and could be comfortable to play in the long run. But, I have already order Nike PG3, 🙁 Have I made a bad decision? please advise!
    Thanks

    1. The Altra Solstice XT will be much healthier for your foot long term. If you play in the Nike PG3, I would do my best to limit the amount of time you spend in that shoe. Be sure to work on spreading your toes, strengthening your feet, and stretching your calves when not in the PG3s; and wear other more natural shoes day-to-day and for other athletic activities.

  10. What do you recommend for a pickle ball or tennis shoe? Different kind of court than basketball.

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