When the Fitness Stack Exchange site had just begun we got a question about What are the downsides of minimalist running shoes? My answer was that there’s nothing inherently bad about them, but as the saying goes: “if the shoe fits, wear it”. The shoes aren’t for everyone, so while it may be great for some, they can be harmful to others.
Now when I wrote that answer I didn’t have any first hand experience with actually wearing minimalist running shoes like Vibrams, so I decided to go to my favorite running shop and picked up a pair.
I’ve been running on and off for nearly 6 years now, but every year I would get shin problems. While wearing the most stable running shoes, having several pairs of orthotics and regularly checking my own biomechanics, nothing seemed to help. So if there’s anyone who stands to gain something from wearing Vibrams it would be me!
Why wear minimal shoes?
One might wonder, why would anyone want to wear these shoes anyway? Doesn’t it hurt to walk on shoes with barely a sole? Well the answer is no, it does not hurt. Because when we walk, the impact forces are only about 1.2 times our body weight (see graph, ~800N fits nicely with a body mass of 75 kg). Standing barefooted doesn’t hurt either, so simply walking isn’t painful.
Furthermore, because the sole is so thin, you get a lot more proprioceptive feedback, which allows you to alter your gait if it doesn’t feel good. Whenever you’re in a swimming pool or at the beach, as soon as you would try pick up a faster pace, you would automatically start running on your toes as to avoid absorbing the (much) higher impact forces with your heel.
This is also where most of the perceived benefit of the minimal shoes comes in. Because the improved feedback you get from the ground, you can alter your running pattern in ways that aren’t possible when running with regular shoes. It might sound cheesy, but when trying out the Vibrams in the woods running over pine cones, you could definitely feel them. When I ran there wearing my Saucony Mirages I would barely notice them, so there’s definitely a difference in the sensory feedback.
Another reason people wear Vibrams is because of Born to Run and the 4 Hour Work Week, which both advocate barefoot running as a means to go back to our roots. Our ancestors back on the plains in Africa didn’t need shoes while they hunted down their pray and literally ran them to death. To me this only explains why those Kenyans can run so fast while being barefooted and shows that its possible, not that its necessarily better.
The University of Cologne did a study a couple years back where they let athletes run with Nike Free shoes and found that this significantly improved the strength of some of the intrinsic muscles. Because the Nike Free lacks the support traditional shoes have, it required the muscles to stabilize the joint. Basically minimal shoes are like body weight training for your ankle and lower leg. This argument was most enticing to me, because even with the best shoes I never had ‘enough’ support. Focusing on training the weak muscles that would get injured every year seems like a good plan.
How to get started?
However my because of my previous injuries and a healthy dose of skepticism as to whether they would help, I asked a question on How to get started with minimal shoes?
Chrisopher Ickes suggested the following four tips:
- Strengthen the most effected areas using these Barefoot Running Exercises. Barefoot / Minimalist Running increases torque to knee flexion, knee varus and internal hip rotation.
- Wear them for walking as often as possible.
- Work them into a workout 1 day a week. In my experience there are 2 great places to introduce them: a) in a short cool down after a workout b) during form drills (if you do any) and right before a short tempo run. That helps to reinforce the muscle memory.
- Slowly increase their usage in your workouts. I believe a 1 year patient plan is the best for maximum adaptation.
Since I’m a homeworker, wearing them (or no shoes at all) all day long was easy, I didn’t have any bosses or clients to offend. I started using my Mirage’s first, one exercise per week to get used to them and then added a workout with the Vibrams as well. While I was stiff as hell the day after (and you all know how I feel about stretching), when the stiffness and muscle soreness was gone I felt great. After about a month I started wearing Mirage’s during my 2+hr workouts and I even accidentally ran a race on my Vibrams (forgot my shoes…).
Another thing I did before I started wearing my Vibrams was shortening my stride length. While I was researching answers for the site, I stumbled over this blog post about Loading rates and landing patterns, which suggested several benefits to shortening your strides. Chief among them was that it lowered the loading rate (rate at which a force is applied), which in turn reduced the risk of injuries. So when I started running again back in February, I also focused on taking more shorter strides.
Is it the solution to all my problems?
Well to return to my first answer: while it may be great for some, they can be harmful to others. Peak Performance reports about a study that compared a group of runners with and without shoes and didn’t find a difference in the injury rate. The barefoot running group found an apparent high incidence of metatarsal stress fractures, even Nathan Wheeler has had issues with a painful forefoot while running with his Vibrams.
In my case sadly, I ended up straining my medial quadriceps near the end of one of my very long runs, so there’s no happy ending. However, I blame it on my enthusiastic shot at doing a marathon training program. Rather than sticking to my early mantra of keeping the bare minimum pace required by my program, my competitiveness made me run faster than I should have. Something I’ll remember for next time!
I do feel that I slacked on stability training, like Christopher suggested. The past few weeks I’ve been doing circuit training as a replacement, which involves a great deal of squats, lunges and single legged stances. I can already feel a large improvement in the stability when doing a Flamingo-test, which has been shown to correlate with injury rates in soccer players. When I can get back to running I intend to incorporate these strength exercises into my program.
How to maintain them?
Everyone with a bit smelly feet knows that if they wouldn’t wear socks, their shoes would stink like hell. Well the Vibrams are no different as one of Fitness.SE first Vibram questions was: How do I avoid stench with my Vibram Five Fingers? Luckily there are some things you can do about them, though not all are accessible to everyone.
- Use anti-bacterial or anti-fungal powder or cream while wearing them, this should kill or at least reduce the amount of odor-causers.
- (White) Vinegar, which is sour enough to kill a lot of bacteria and also helps with cleaning the stench.
- UV light, there exist microwave like machines that basically blast away anything bacterial or fungal with a high dose of UV.
- Air them in sunlight, which is basically the same as the previous answer though depending on where you live, you might have to leave them hanging a bit longer.
The jury is still out whether minimal shoes reduce injuries. Basically if you haven’t had success with regular running shoes, you have the most to gain from giving them a shot. Whereas when you never had any injuries, there’s no real need to risk getting injured by trying them out. Because I did quite some preparation before starting the use them, I didn’t have that much trouble during the transition period. However, I wouldn’t advise others to extrapolate from my opinions and rather experience it for themselves. Just be careful of blisters!
Filed under running