Barefoot running is on the rise, as it should be. For many people, it is healthier and more enjoyable than running in big clunky, supportive running shoes.
The recent surge in interest in barefoot running is largely the result of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. In it, McDougall weaves a well-written, fascinating tale about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s remote Copper Canyon who can run ultra marathon distances (perhaps 100 miles) in flimsy sandals called huaraches (tire tread with leather straps), and often finish in top place—without running injuries.
Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) KSO shoes are unique in that they have extremely flexible soles. In fact, the entire shoe is flexible and truly is the poster child for “minimalist footwear” or minimalist running shoes. (Today’s New York Times reports on the success of minimalist shoes in an article titled, Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants.)
Vibram says they conceived of the Vibram Five Fingers as an alternative to traditional footwear, and it incorporates “barefoot technology.” That is, the shoes strive to allow you to let your bare feet control the shoe.
According to R. Squadrone and C. Gallozzi at the Institute of Sport Medicine and Sport Science in Rome, Italy, Vibram may have succeeded. In their research paper “Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced runners” they found that the movement of the foot and ankle during running when wearing the Vibram Five Fingers was similar to the movement when running barefoot.
Squadrone and Gallozzi state that the Vibram Five Fingers allowed the stride length to increase the force of pushing off the ground to increase when compared to running barefoot. These differences were due to the thin sole of the Five Fingers shoes, they suspected. Most importantly, the researchers found the Vibram Five Fingers allowed the wearer to sense the ground and moderate their running movements in response to the terrain.
Further, when running in Vibram Five Fingers were compared to shod (regular shoe) running, the Five Fingers were found to be more energy efficient. The researchers found 2.8% less oxygen consumption when running in Vibram Five Fingers as compared to running in shoes that weighed 400 grams.
Many studies have compared oxygen consumption (as an indicator of energy consumption) in running barefoot or shod (with shoes). The results have been conflicting. It seems that the heavier the shoes, the more oxygen required. However, oddly, Squadrone and Gallozzi found that wearing Vibram Five Fingers when running required LESS oxygen than running barefoot.
Does this mean that all barefoot runners could conserve energy by wearing Vibram Five Fingers? The answer is maybe.
The great thing about scientific research is the more research papers and studies one reads, the more one finds holes in the research. In this case Squadrone and Gallozzi’s study size was small and the researchers themselves questioned their own results, speculating that for their particular test subjects the Vibram Five Fingers when combined with the surface the subjects ran on may have made their running more economical compared to the shod and barefoot conditions. Further, their sample size was relatively small (8 subjects).
The Vibram Five Fingers KSO that I tried are not only unique in their flexibility, they are the first shoe I have seen that has five individual pockets for your toes. Firstly, this explains the name Five Fingers, though, technically, a more precise name would be Vibram Five Toes, but it doesn’t flow off the tongue quite as nicely.
The benefit of the pockets for the toes is that they allow the toes to flex and extend, approximating the toes complete range of motion. This is great, as extension of the toes is limited in most shoes. Extension of the toes is important to allow the tissues under the ball of the foot to stiffen/tighten to absorb the force of impact on the ground and the muscles contracture of extension helps pump swelling out of our feet (Finn Bojsen-Moller & Larry Lamoreux 1979).
(From a podiatrist’s perspective, one downside of pockets is that people who were born with two toes fused together cannot wear these shoes.)
As I tested the Vibram Five Fingers KSO shoes I was reminded of the story of the winner of the longest marathon ever held in the U.S. The race was called the Bunion Derby in 1928 and it coursed from Los Angeles to New York and took 84 days to complete. The winner, Andrew (Andy) Payne, ran the 3,400 plus miles in a plain “rubber-soled canvas shoe.” It is interesting that he ran this incredible distance in relatively simple footwear (by modern standards).
One has to wonder when seeing the incredible distance run by Payne in his rubber-soled shoe and the success of the Tarahumara in their flimsy sandals, if minimalist running shoes such as the Vibram Five Fingers shoes are a better choice for runners’ footwear.
I enjoyed wearing the Vibram Five Fingers KSO shoes and I would recommend them to those people who want to run barefoot but want their feet to have some protection. As my podiatry colleague said, “Running barefoot is good until you step on a rusty nail.” I am not sure Vibram Five Fingers would protect you from a rusty nail (and perhaps, your average running shoe would not either), but the Five Fingers shoe will provide some defense against stones, pebbles and other debris, while giving your foot, ankle and leg muscles a great work out!
If anyone has tried Vibram Five Fingers (VFF), I would be very intersted to hear your thoughts/comments on your experiences with these shoes. For more information visit Vibram Five Fingers and these links:
Squadrone R, Gallozzi C. Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009 Mar;49(1):6-13.
Bojsen-Møller F, Lamoreux L. Significance of free-dorsiflexion of the toes in walking. Acta Orthop Scand. 1979 Aug;50(4):471-9.
Kastner CB. The Bunion Derby. University of New Mexico Press; 1st edition, edition (October 15, 2007).
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