Do Vibram Five Fingers Work for Running?

Knee-joint issues as well as constant back pain is not uncommon in runners, especially in runners who heel strike as 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, these impact variables also repeatedly slam into the lower back, causing looming pain and stiffness to the area.

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 which compounds the brake force and the spontaneous impact peak transient force more quickly with each step.

Knowing all this may strongly suggest the human body may not be naturally 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!

To be on the safe side of running, try running with a forefoot strike instead of a heel strike and do so wearing minimalist shoes ~shoes that do the necessary job at mimicking the barefoot condition which in turn gets your feet to work on their own which will help strengthen them and gets you more dialed into feeling the ground so that you can feel how and where you’re landing on your foot.

Do Vibram Five Fingers Work for Running?
Protection from harmful impacts when running comes from not always with increased underfoot cushioning, but with ditching your heel strike and adopting a forefoot strike landing. However, if you want to be fully sure you’re not landing heel-first (heel strike) during running, it helps if you can feel the ground more fully! This is because increases in ground-feel at the feet, like in most minimalist running shoes, gives you the best 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 is much less stress and strain on the entire muscloskeletal system, namely the knees and lower back. Likewise, the sole thinness of a minimalist shoe, like the Vibram Five Fingers shown above and below, provides adequate sensory-assisted feedback at the feet that helps magnify your perceptual awareness of your foot strikes positioning, posture and intensity. This is one reliable way your forefoot strike can be made more effective and safe, helping you run more injury-free!
Do Vibram Five Fingers Work for Running?
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, more tolerant feet and ankles as well as better mechanical effectiveness that’ll altogether give you a bigger boost in balance control and more natural impact-adaptations, such as forefoot striking during running which is on record for bringing down impact loads on the knees and back.

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

The Nike Pegasus 28’s and the Free’s are running shoes propped up on a thick slab of firm cushioning that thickens and stiffens at the heel. These shoes overall have similar underfoot structural support as most traditional running shoes which have been notoriously linked to increases in footstep instabilities and downward and push forces of the feet with the ground during running.

What’s worse, Nike markets the Free as a minimalist shoe designed to specifically facilitate the barefoot running style (i.e forefoot running, increased knee flexion) 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. This is why I think the Free’s should be disqualified as the true minimalist shoe that its marketed for. 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 the runners in the Vibrams and Nike Pegasus 28s!

Bottom line, the researchers analysis revealed a solid association between increased underfoot cushioning and an increased likelihood of knee and back pain during running.

Not to mention, thick underfoot cushioning and common running-related injuries, such as runners knee, are linked together far too often in the scientific literature, which suggests that thick cushioned running shoes don’t always work to prevent injury because they don’t always work to prevent impact and correct poor mechanics. If they can’t prevent all the impact and your mechanical flaws, how can they prevent all the injuries?  However, when you can feel the ground more fully at the feet, like you can in thinner soled shoes, improves sensory functions in the feet which in turn gives you better neural and reflexive control of your stride length and foot strike placement and posture in ways that help you avoid overreaching (over-striding) with your foot at touchdown while avoiding a hard-hitting heel strike. These are mechanical corrections that play a leading role in reducing heavy loading off the knee and  back.

This research also hints that efforts to reduce impact-related injuries in running should focus on reducing underfoot protection rather than increasing since there is a special relationship between thinner underfoot cushioning and improved neural control of movements that lead to a reduction in net forces.

More on How Less is Really More

Like most barefoot-inspired footwear, the Vibram Five Fingers 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 Five Fingers get the feet to engage independently, induces significant functional recovery in the foot and the payoff regarding this is more immediate than you think, and the stronger your feet, the more steadied you are as a runner. Another way Vibrams makes you feet functionally stronger for running is the shoes paper-thin sole is delivers important underfoot sensory input (ground-feedback) that stimulates greater muscle tone which is a prerequisite for bulking up foot strength and muscle, soft tissue and fat volume as well.

Equally important, heightened underfoot ground-feel directly puts impact-avoidance reflexes into motion for faster, more accurate responses in adjusting ground-contact intensity and sets the stage for safer positioned footfalls.

The gist of ALL this is when the feet are functioning properly which includes their ability to feel the ground more fully, it may correct mechanical impairments almost immediately, making it easier to double down on efforts to avoid injury.

Conversely, underfoot sensory input is significantly reduced in thick cushioned running shoes, meanwhile the tight narrow fit of most of these shoes restricts the forefoot and toes from expanding to their natural state. This loss of ground-feel and function results in big reductions in the foot’s muscle activation, resulting in lower levels in muscle tone which is a common cause of collapsed arches and overall weaker feet, making increased running mileage most stressful on the foot, regardless of how supportive your running shoes are.

Understanding the strong connection between ground-feel, foot strength and good biomechanics is crucial because the more you deprive the feet of ground-feel, the more they become weak and less functional which may unleash a chain of instability up the leg when you run, which may explain why thick underfoot cushioning seems to contribute a greater extent to injury risk than barefoot-like shoes.

Do Vibram Five Fingers Work for Running?
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.

If you’ve enjoyed this content, you’ll love my content over at my YouTube channel, here, where I talk at lengths about the benefits of minimalist footwear and being barefoot!

Its for all these reasons many experts are now recognizing barefoot running shoes as a valuable intervention in helping runners get more tuned-in to their running form; helping efficiently engage foot strike and leg swing mechanics, making it easier to progress, not regress.


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.

If you’d like, you can support Run Forefoot and keep it going in full force by making a donation in any amount of your choosing: https://www.paypal.me/RunForefoot

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!