Vibram Minimalist Shoes Reduces Knee and Back Pain in Runners

Knee-joint issues as well as constant back pain in running is not uncommon, especially in runners who heel strike because heel strike running produces 2 intensive impact force variables (brake force and spontaneous impact peak transient force) which have been well-reported to wear-down the knee-joint. Not to mention, the lower back also suffers under such high impact conditions, resulting in looming lower back pain and stiffness.

Another fact that doesn’t get enough attention is that cushioned running shoes cause you to mistakenly heel strike harder, with greater downward force, onto the ground, compounding both the brake force and the spontaneous impact peak transient force more quickly with each step. Knowing all this may strongly suggest that the human body isn’t well-adapted for heel strike running as well as for running in thickly cushioned footwear. 

Knowing all this also comes back to the question: is it even possible to run safely, with less impact threatening the knee’s and back? The answer is yes!

A really smart way to begin is to run with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike, and to do so wearing minimalist shoes –shoes that do the necessary job at mimicking the barefoot condition, getting the feet to work on their own and getting you more dialed in to feeling the ground, so you can feel how and where you’re landing on your foot during running.

Vibram Minimalist Shoes Reduces Knee and Back Pain in Runners
Protection from impact in running comes from not with increased underfoot cushioning but with ditching your heel strike and adopting a forefoot strike running style. However, if you want to be sure you’re not landing heel-first (heel strike) during running, it helps enormously if you can feel the ground! Feeling the ground more fully, like you can in most minimalist running shoes, gives you the best possible start (aside from running barefoot) at correcting your heel strike to a forefoot strike during running. This matters for many fundamental reasons as one of the many well-known advantages of landing forefoot-first (forefoot strike) when running includes minimal braking and the elimination of the spontaneous impact peak transient force. The net effect of this is much less stress and strain on the lower back and knees. The sole thinness of a minimalist shoe, like the Vibram FiveFingers shown above and below, provides sensory-assisted feedback at the feet that magnifies your perceptual awareness of how your foot strikes the ground during running. This is one reliable way your forefoot strike can be made more effective, helping you run more injury-free!
Vibram Minimalist Shoes Reduce Knee and Back Pain in Runners
In the Vibram minimalist shoes, its not just your running form that improves, but progress in other places, like bulking up foot strength! Probably the biggest name in the minimalist shoe industry, Vibram produces foot-shaped shoes made of just a sliver-thin rubber sole and an adaptable-fitting, lightweight upper that conforms to a wide foot. This perfectly enables the toes to bend, extend and expand and allows spreading of the metatarsals (the long thin bones that line the forefoot and midfoot). Overall, the shoes allow the foot to expand to its natural state and engage more fully during walking, running and hiking. All this freedom of movement for the feet encouraged by the shoe’s freeness of stability and support components, allows the foot muscles to work independently which is the most reliable way for the feet to improve functional strength, long-term.

Out of all this comes stronger feet that’ll give you a bigger boost in balance control as well as more natural impact-adaptations such as forefoot striking during running which will help bring down impact on the knees and back.

More hard evidence showing that minimalist shoes, like the Vibram FiveFingers, may give you the results you want and that thick cushioned running shoes aren’t always reliable in preventing injuries, came from a 2013 study in the journal Footwear Science which reported that runners in the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila had better outcomes in knee and back pain as compared with runners in the Nike Pegasus 28 and the Nike Free.

Both the Nike Pegasus 28 and the Free are running shoes propped up on a thick slab of firm cushioning that thickens and stiffens even more at the heel and overall, has the underfoot structural support as most traditional running shoes, which again, has been linked to causing increases in footstep instabilities.

What’s worse, Nike markets the Free as a minimalist shoe that’s suppose to facilitate better, more ‘natural’ running form while supposedly strengthening your feet along the way. The hard truth is there’s no reason to classify the Free as minimalistic because the shoe has similar structural baggage as most traditional running shoes which completely disqualifies the Free as a valid minimalist shoe. This remains a case in point as the researchers found that the runners who ran in the Nike Free had a 192% uptick in relative injury risk than runners in the Vibrams and  Nike Pegasus 28!

Bottom line, the researchers analysis revealed an association between increased underfoot cushioning and a greater likelihood of knee and back pain during running which suggests that thick cushioned running shoes don’t always work to prevent injury as thick underfoot cushioning and common running-related injuries, such as runners knee, are linked together far too often in the scientific literature.

This research also hints that efforts to reduce impact-related injuries in running should focus on reducing underfoot protection rather than increasing it as there is a special relationship between thinner underfoot cushioning with less downward foot-strike force. 

More on How Less is Really More

Like most barefoot-inspired footwear, the Vibram FiveFingers play a pivotal role in the architectural dictum: form follows function, meaning that in the context of running, function dictates form whereby constraining or limiting function results in the breakdown of form.

Because the Vibram FiveFingers get the feet working independently, enables the feet to improve upon and retain more optimal function. Another functional benefit is that the thin sole provides the plantar (foot) sensory input good for bulking up foot strength and is an overall reliable way to provide a better sense of the ground. These sensory cues set the reflexes in motion for faster responses in adjusting ground-contact intensity, setting the stage for safer positioned footfalls. Thus, when the feet are functioning properly and when they can feel the ground more fully (which is also part of their natural function) it can correct mechanical errors almost immediately, making it easier to double down on efforts to avoid injury.

Conversely, because plantar sensory input is significantly lower in thick cushioned running shoes and because of their clunky, stuffy fit, freedom of movement for toe-splay is tightly limited and poor contact-feel of the ground results which causes big reductions in plantar muscle activation and engagement. The rest eventually follows poor muscle tone, collapsed arches, compromised function and overall, unhealthy-looking feet.  

Understanding this is crucial since poor foot health harms balance because the feet are like stability anchors that, when healthy and strong, provide secure footfalls and also prevent dangerous rises in impact. But once the feet become weak and less functional, a chain of instability is initiated up the leg, which may explain why thick underfoot cushioning seems to contribute a greater extent to injury risk than barefoot-like shoes.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila Reduces Knee and Back Pain in Runners
There are so many important differences in the run experience between minimalist vs conventional cushioned running shoes. Minimalist shoes are more functional for running because they give you an unrestricted, close to the ground ride as well as a stronger sense of the ground, helping prevent pavement pounding and also makes you feel more confident and comfortable about the terrain under your feet. At the same time, minimalist shoes have good antamonic configurability that forces the feet to work independently which gives the feet the best chance to strengthen at a faster rate.

Its for all these reason that experts are now recognizing barefoot running shoes as a way out of suffering from the ground up.


References:

Ryan, M., Elashi,M., Newshan-West and Taunton, J. Examining the potential role of minimalist footwear for the prevention of proximal lower-extremity injuries. Footwear science, 2013; 5(1): S31.

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Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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