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Dr. Nirenberg wearing his Vibram Five Fingers

Mark Anders is one of those top journalists who live the sort of romantic adventurous lives the rest of us can only dream about. Whether he’s surfing the Zambezi River, racing mountain bikes in the 24 Hours of Moab, or is embedded with Navy SEALs in desert war games, he brings to his readers a vivid portrayal of the esoteric experiences to be found in the most exotic locales on Earth. Mark’s work has been featured in Life, Wired, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, New York, and many other major magazines. He recently wrote an article for the American Council on Exercise Certified News which dealt with an University study of the benefits of minimalist footwear for runners.

Mark writes that John Porcari, Ph.D., and Caitlin McCarthy, M.S., researchers from the Exercise & Health Program at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, conducted a study on 16 young adult female subjects who were habitual joggers and free from injury. Two weeks before the testing each was fitted with a set of Vibram FiveFingers Bikila model, and asked to run with that minimalist footwear three times a week for two weeks. Once this “breaking in” period was passed, the test runners were brought into the laboratory at the University for 3-D motion analysis under three separate conditions: barefoot, with the Bikilas; and with New Balance 625 running shoes.

The results of the testing showed that all 16 subjects landed most forcefully on their heels when shod with the running shoes, while about 50% of the subjects became forefoot strikers when wearing the Bikilas or running barefoot. Even though the researchers were encouraging all of the participating runners to ensure that their forefoot would strike first, the heel-first strikers proved that they were not able to successfully make the transition. The reason for preferring the forefoot strike is that the ankle becomes more plantar-flexed at the moment the foot hits the ground, and it is this greater degree of flexion which seems to absorb the running impact forces to a greater degree. The research also showed that the barefoot and Bikila runners displayed a lower degree of flexion in the knee which is generally correlated to fewer injuries.

The research proved that when some runners adopt minimalist footwear they do not necessarily display the correct running stride, in which case the possibility of discomfort and potential injury actually increases over conventional running shoes. The reason for this phenomenon is that minimalist footwear such as the Vibram Bikilas have virtually no cushioning in the heel area and thus subject the foot to higher impact loads. Dr. Porcari concludes that runners “may need very explicit instruction and time spent practicing how to land on the ball of the foot” when first starting to run in minimalist footwear such as Bikilas as continuing to run in a heel strike gait pattern actually negates the benefits of ditching the running shoes. The increased flexion advantages displayed by the forefoot striking runners in both barefoot and minimalist footwear styles are notable as the impact loads are minimalized and that can lead to a decreased risk of injury.

The bottom line is simple: Minimalist footwear works but has to be matched with a forefoot strike. All you heel strikers out there, start practicing your forefoot gait pattern to gain the maximum benefit from your Vibrams!

Check out Mark Anders’ unique life experiences at http://www.markanders.com/markanders.com/home.html , and you can read more about the study at http://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/1641/


  • Wordfu

    You noted that “The research proved that when some runners adopt minimalist footwear
    they do not necessarily display the correct running stride, in which
    case the possibility of discomfort and potential injury actually
    increases over conventional running shoes.” If a runner does develop an injury (such as plantar fasciitis) as a result of incorrect stride, should they return to conventional footwear until the injury is healed (given that arch support will likely decrease discomfort)?

  • http://www.FloWalking.com DrNirenberg

    If you have an injury – any injury – it needs to heal until you stress that area of your body. A supportive shoe will act as a brace, thereby resting the sore area. But, I would not run when you have pain or problem. Get well and then resume activity.