The Pendulum Swings: Vibram Five Fingers and Minimalist Running

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Just as a pendulum can swing from one extreme to another, so too can fitness and nutrition trends. There have been a couple of trends that have made recent headlines and appear to be moving in the opposite direction. I thought I would take the time here to address them over the next couple of posts. I will take a deeper look into all of them and see if I can sort out all the facts from the fiction. I also couldn’t talk about these topics without sharing my own opinion, but I will make it clear when it is my own opinion, to keep it separate from what the science says. First off, let’s take a look at the apparent death of the minimalist running movement with the recent Vibram Five Fingers lawsuit/settlement.

A little over a week ago, Vibram, the company behind the strange looking foot gloves known as five fingers, agreed to pay out a huge settlement to those who purchased their footwear. As part of the settlement, Vibram has set aside $3.75 million to pay up to $94 per pair of five fingers purchased. The lawsuit was brought upon the company in 2012, claiming they deceived customers by stating the shoes helped strengthen the feet and reduced lower leg injuries, without any scientific evidence to support it. When this news story first broke, it spread like wildfire across social media. In a majority of the posts I saw, people claimed that they had known the shoes were a bad idea from the start and good riddance to the minimalist running fad.  Personally, I liked using the shoes for short runs, hikes, MovNat training, and lifting weights. I like the feel of the ground and the feedback I get through my feet. However, I will not pretend that they don’t look strange. Vibram went wrong in making claims that were not backed by science, but I don’t think that makes their product bad, but more on my opinion later. Obviously, the minimalist running craze was sparked by the best selling book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, which chronicled the minimalist sandal running of the Tarahumara people of Mexico’s Copper Canyons. They appeared to be free of all the common ailments that plague shod runners here in America. People thought the answer was running barefoot, or in as minimal shoes as possible, and companies like Vibram gladly obliged them with the shoes to mimic barefoot running. The movement was popular for awhile, but with minimalist shoe sales being down and the recent settlement by Vibram, things appear to be coming to an end.

I looked at a few different studies and this is what I found involving barefoot running and five fingers, and there wasn’t much to look at involving the actual five fingers. A 2009 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that the five fingers were adequate at mimicking barefoot conditions while providing some minimal protection for the foot. This study was done with 8 experienced barefoot runners and all it really told us were that the shoes provided some protection without changing the barefoot running pattern in these already experienced runners. It wasn’t a big study and it didn’t tell us anything about injuries or effects on foot strength.  A British Journal of Sport Medicine study compared barefoot running with running in minimalist shoes (no specifics on the shoes), racing flats, and athletes’ regular shoes (whatever that means), and revealed that there were differences in the amount of work done at the knee and ankle. Barefoot running results in less force being transmitted into the knees and more in the ankles. That doesn’t really tell us that one is better than the other, just that the force will be transmitted differently through the body depending on how you run. Other research has shown that more force will be absorbed in the knees and hips with those who run with a heel strike, a very painful and sub-optimal way to run barefoot/minimal. In the Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, a study showed that a 10 week transition training period for runners in Vibram Five Fingers resulted in higher levels of bone marrow edema, which means they were headed towards a possible stress fracture. They recommended that the transition period be longer than 10 weeks and with less miles run per week. The majority of the 19 subjects did not transition to the Vibrams by the end of the training period as the researchers had hoped. The subjects were supposed to do one short training run (1 to 2 miles) in Vibrams instead of their regular shoes in week one, then add another in week two. By week three they could add as much mileage as they were comfortable with in each five finger run, plus they were to continue replacing more weekly short runs with Vibram runs. None of these people had ever run in Vibrams before and obviously, the short transition period did not work well. However, I would suspect that this was probably a longer transition period than most people took to switch over to Vibrams without any guidance. It would be interesting to see this study done with experienced barefoot runners. If they have good barefoot running technique, would the edema still be present?  And finally here is one more study out of a 2013 British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that runners who did 10K training in Vibram Five Fingers experienced the most injuries in comparison to those running in Nike Air Pegasus and Nike Free 3.0 V2. The minimalist runners had increased injuries in their shin and calves, backing up that study I mentioned earlier about the increased distribution of force through the lower leg in barefoot running. There is no mention if any of these runners had any prior training in minimal footwear and what kind of training/transition plan they followed. If they were brand new to wearing minimal footwear, I think it was a not surprising that they would experience lower leg injuries. So as we can see, the everyday recreational runner can’t just ditch their normal running shoes for five fingers and expect their running injuries to go away, in fact, they will be increasing their propensity for injuries to the foot and lower leg. As far as foot strength goes, I found nothing involving the Vibrams, and not much in general, but one study was done with Nike Frees. It was out of the Institute for Biomechanics and Orthopedics in Germany, and it showed that athletes that warmed up in minimal footwear (Nike Frees in this case) had increased foot strength in comparison to the athletes who warmed up in traditional running shoes. We would assume that these results would be similar in Vibrams, since they are significantly more minimal than Nike Frees. It appears that these athletes weren’t going for runs in these shoes, but they were doing warm-up drills that mostly involved walking. And also note that Nike funded the study about their footwear, so there may be some bias there.That’s about all I could find on the topic. The pendulum is swinging towards the other extreme, maximalist running.

Maximalist running is now becoming increasingly popular. The first brand to really tap into this market was the Hoka brand, and now other companies are catching on to this increasingly popular niche market and are designing their own maximal footwear. These shoes are big with lots of padding and a wide foot bed, yet they are light weight and offer a minimal heel drop which supposedly supports a natural running gait. Personally, I have only tried one on and stood in it, I have never ran with a pair, so I cannot speak from experience. Reports I have read on social media and the internet are generally positive and there seem to be only a minimal amount of negative reports. Just as I don’t deny that Vibram Five Fingers look strange, I feel the same way about these shoes, looking like moon boots in my opinion. I guess we will have to wait for the science verdict on these shoes, I couldn’t find any research studies with them.

What do I think? This is the part you can skip if you don’t want to hear opinions that don’t involve citations of research studies. I will continue to use my Vibram Five Fingers and forgo the refund because I find them useful. I feel that barefoot/minimal shoes have been helpful in my recovery from an achilles injury I suffered 2 years ago. Please don’t emulate what I did, it likely won’t work for other people, as we are all different. A real quick background on that, I suffered an initial tweak to my achilles tendon after the Portland Marathon many years ago, just lifting my daughter into my truck and twisting on my tip toes (while not wearing minimal shoes).  The more significant injury was two years later, when I suffered a slight tear during a sprint to the finish line at a race.The recovery from the tear was a long process. I saw a lot of good therapists during that time that assisted me in the healing process, but it was still a long road. I used heel lifts and was even in a boot for a while that immobilized my ankle and put my tendon in a shortened position. However, every morning when I stepped out of bed, it was like re-injuring it all over again. I had to work through a ton of stiffness and pain. It made me think that maybe keeping it in a shortened position for long periods of time wasn’t the best idea. Don’t get me wrong though, it probably was helpful in the initial, acute stage of the injury. I decided to slowly transition to minimal shoes for everyday activities with the exception of running. It took awhile, but I feel it was very helpful to keep the tendon lengthened throughout the day, and now, I can race (in lightweight running shoes with some cushioning,not Vibrams) and pretty much do anything without any problems. I can even get out of bed in the morning without any pain or stiffness. Obviously the forced break from running and the therapy were key factors in my recovery, but I also believe the minimal footwear helped too. I think it’s nonsense to look at Vibrams and say they hurt people, they hurt people no more than going barefoot does. Does that mean we should outlaw going barefoot? What hurts people is the fact that they rush into something like barefoot running without patience, expecting a quick fix to whatever ails them. If you have worn built up shoes for the majority of your life, you shouldn’t expect to fling them off and magically go running without any problems. Injured people don’t step out of a cast and start engaging in high intensity activities on day one. They go through a progression of rehabilitation exercises. To strengthen your feet, you don’t even need to ever run in minimal footwear, just walk around a little bit in bare feet. Do some short mobility and running drills in the grass, before or after your run. Wear some minimal footwear while you strength train. The study above showed foot strength gains from doing warm-ups in minimal shoes. We wonder why flat feet have become more common, maybe it’s because we bind our feet on a regular basis. Sure, in some people, genetics probably play a part too, but I would bet that footwear plays a role in many cases.  I also don’t think the answer will be maximal footwear unless you have some kind of chronic injury or lower leg abnormality, and then, maybe maximal footwear is the only answer, but you have to question why you would be running with an injury. If you throw on those big shoes so you can go run a ton of miles that you wouldn’t be able to do without them, it’s probably not the best course of action. They will probably allow you to get away with running without addressing many injuries, imbalances, or poor biomechanics. If you can’t go running without a maximal shoe, your body is probably trying to tell you something and you should listen. I could see how ultra runners putting in high mileage might find them useful though. As far as running, probably most people are best off with a shoe somewhere in the middle of all this, and we will always have those outliers who will thrive in one extreme or the other. For the health of the foot, transitioning into walking and standing in minimal shoes or barefoot is probably a fairly safe course of action, barring any existing injuries or abnormalities. Here are a few more good tips to strengthen the feet.

So this topic will probably always be a polarizing one. I don’t think the minimalist running movement will ever die, but it has decreased, and it’s not surprising that it did. Is it right for everyone? Most likely it isn’t. As we saw from the research, it has it’s risks. I do however think that minimal shoes, or going barefoot during day to day life is a good strategy for most everyone. Ultimately, find what works best for you and go with it. In my next post, I will take a look at the movement in nutrition back to the “all in moderation” eating strategy and the end of the so called “diet cults.”

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