No good deed goes unpunished.
The following is an op/ed piece submitted to us by Rolf Pechukas.
I have been running barefoot since high school (track team, NYC, 35 years ago – the Zola Budd era.) In those days, I ran through broken glass, discarded syringes, etc, on asphalt city streets. I would have loved a pair of FiveFingers then, for the *added* protection.
I was thrilled when the FiveFingers were introduced a few years ago, because they allowed me to run on rocks, snow, hot sand, trails, and roads that would have beat up my bare feet. I think of them as an extra layer of skin. Nothing more.
I own several pairs now. I use them every day I can’t run ‘naked’. I am supremely grateful to Vibram for their innovation.
For people like me, the transition from barefoot to fivefingers is one of *more* protection, support, and cushioning, not less. I am guessing that we bare-footers are, as a population, pretty big fans of VFFs. It’s like being given an overcoat when you’ve been living outside, shirtless. Quite an upgrade.
But for training shoe runners ‘transitioning’ to more minimal footwear, it’s an entirely different proposition. That’s like going from a fancy apartment, driving a Cadillac, eating at expensive restaurants, to living outside in that same overcoat. Quite a downgrade.
As a long-time barefoot runner, I’ve been observing the minimalist fad over the last few years. Allow me to share some thoughts and suggestions, in no particular order:
1. Fivefinger running is essentially barefoot running. These are not shoes. They are slippers. You wouldn’t play hardball in surgical gloves, right? You’d need a different ball, different catching techniques, etc. It would be a different sport.
2. Barefoot running is a different sport! The biomechanics of running with a big, thick, wedge-shaped cushions, and running with *nothing* (or almost nothing), are so different that they are essentially unrelated. Even if you are an experienced runner, if you’ve been wearing shoes, your feet and lower legs are as unexperienced and undeveloped as a newborn baby. You can’t ‘transition’ to running barefoot. You have to start from scratch.
3. I recommend at least A YEAR to learn how to run barefoot. To build the strength, resiliency, and intelligence in the feet, ankles, and forelegs to do it safely, healthily, and beneficially.
4. Vibram is correct – barefoot running *will* build strength and support in muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments, over time. But ONLY if it is approached carefully and slowly, with serious attention to technique. Again, think of yourself as a newborn baby. Your feet are as soft and delicate as Keanu Reeves coming out of embryonic fluid in The Matrix. Entirely toneless. And we don’t have electrical stimulation to speed up muscular development! This takes *time* and *care*. You DO NOT know how to run barefoot if you’ve only run in shoes, no matter how many races you’ve won.
5. Surface matters. A lot. Running on trails is entirely different from running on asphalt, which is different from concrete. Basically, the harder the surface, the more jarring the impact, the more careful you have to be. It is possible to run well barefoot on roads, but it requires so much additional technique that I’d recommend trainers for hard surfaces (i.e. barefoot running is for trails, rubber tracks, beaches, not roads). Modern running shoes are an appropriate adaptation to modern running surfaces. Feet are for dirt. Shoes are for roads.
6. Technique matters. A lot. It’s a much more active, ‘springy’ feel in the foot, ankle, and foreleg than you may be used to. There are specifics to this, and different approaches, but no need to get into the details here. Whether you land on the forefoot or the midfoot, your foreleg will be active and ‘lively’ – your toes, heels, foot bones, ankle bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, certainly the Achilles, calves, shins, etc, will all be working actively. Your feet are almost grabbing the earth and pushing it behind you, like swimming the ground. You cannot run barefoot with a ‘dead leg’ technique. That will land you at the orthopedist.
7. Most runners have terrible technique, regardless of footwear. Sorry. I am continually astonished at all the stomping and huffing and puffing and pronating and supinating and lurching and leaning I see at races. Putting a runner like that in FiveFingers and expecting anything good to happen is like taking the pads and helmet away from a football player and expecting him to benefit from unprotected hits. Not likely.
The 2013 study does not mention technique, at all. Of course they were able to document increased bone edema in regular runners put in FiveFinger shoes. That’s just stripping away protection without changing technique. The bones are going to take a beating, just like the football player without the pads, or the baseball player without the mitt. You have to change the game.
And this lawsuit! For god’s sake, take some responsibility! You don’t magically get superpowers just b/c you change your clothing. Superman is still superman, naked. Fivefinger shoes don’t magically give you strong, agile feet just because you put them on. If you’re still stomping around like an elephant, of course you’re just going to jar your bones. Sheesh!
To sum up: It’s a different sport. You’re a beginner. Put in the time. Take care of yourself. Don’t blame the shoes.
Editor’s Note: Vibrams certainly are a very polarizing brand of footwear. Even with the injury claims against the, there will still be diehards out there. The study that Rolf refers to doesn’t address technique, but the main point of that article may be that the study was done using Vibrams own suggested transition plan. Personally, I believe the product can work if you are smart about it and ease into it slowly. I even ran in a pair for a little bit. A big question now is where does Vibram go from here? How will this impact any new products? Will run specialty shops drop the line? Only time will tell.