How FiveFingers Got Me Back on My Feet

I’ll never forget the exhilaration I felt the first time I ran in my Vibram FiveFinger shoes. My feet felt almost as light and cool as if I were barefoot. Yet I could tread on concrete without pain.

Because my heel wasn’t protected by a thick sponge of plastic, I struck the ground with my forefoot. This reduced the jarring on my knee, so I was finally able to overcome runner’s knee (patellofemoral syndrome), the nagging pain under my left knee cap that had dogged me since college days.

I soon learned the downside of this kind of running. My calves were weak from a lifetime of heel strikes, and they cramped up when I ran up hill. For months this new pain stopped me from running. When my calves recovered, I’d try again, get carried away by the exhilaration, and hurt my calves again. It was more than a full year before I could comfortably and consistently run in FiveFingers the same distances I had run in traditional shoes.

Many people don’t find that struggle worthwhile. In fact, some got so frustrated they successfully sued Vibram.

Research on barefoot and minimal shoe running has been mixed.

Some small studies, including one of runners on the Harvard University cross country team support the practice.

But a new Army study suggests that lots of people — or at least the average soldier — won’t prevent injuries by avoiding heel strikes.

They found that 15% of the non-heel strikers and 18% of the heel strikers had reported injuries, but the difference was not statistically significant.

Making the Switch

I wonder if some of the minimal-shoe runners in the Army had an experience like mine, getting pain in their calves or Achilles’ tendons when they first try it. If so, this would be reported as an injury for the purposes of the study, which would explain why there were similar numbers of injuries in both groups.

Also some shoes marketed as minimal aren’t really, and runners may get worse injuries by continuing to strike with their heels while wearing them.

Irene Davis, director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard recommends this list of true minimal shoes.

For those who do want to cast off their big-heeled shoes, Davis recommends a careful program of strengthening exercises.

And it turns out that Maj. Bradley Warr, the lead investigator for the Army thinks minimal shoes could be right for some people. He just doesn’t think the Army should impose a new foot-strike pattern on its soldiers.

“There are a large number of people with injuries who have corrected by changing their running style,” he told me. “It’s just got to be slow and easy, a little bit at a time.”

If you are running without injury now, you probably shouldn’t make a change. But as Davis pointed out, you might learn something about your own body by walking around (and maybe running just a tiny bit) barefoot, touching the world with your skin.

Maybe one day I’ll cast off my Vibrams and learn to run with naked soles.

A certified personal trainer in Oakland, California, Laird Harrison writes about sports performance and injury prevention at SportsWithoutInjury.com.

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Laird Harrison (Photo by Paul Miller, all rights reserved.)
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