This article was originally posted on The Human Body User Manual website. Minor edits have been made to update links and forms.
For many people, the "sensible" compromise to bulky and constricting footwear has been minimalist shoes, such as the well-known Vibram FiveFingers. However, in the face of Vibram's recent class action settlement, not to mention studies showing increased injuries and higher impact forces in minimalist shoes, this solution is beginning to look rather dubious.
Vibram's great idea... that didn't work.
Vibram FiveFingersThe idea behind the Vibram FiveFingers shoes is that, unlike most traditional shoes, they create the least interference possible with the normal function of the foot. They follow its natural shape and even permit our toes to operate individually. For this, I admire Vibram's vision and applaud their efforts to create a healthier shoe.
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as making a shoe that better conforms to the shape of our feet. On Vibram's part, they overstepped by suggesting in their advertising that this form factor confers the health benefits of barefoot running – strengthening feet and reducing injury by encouraging a more natural gait – while still providing protection from the ground. This has several flaws:
- At the time, there were no studies actually supporting this assertion. Only after the settlement was declared has the first one (to my knowledge) appeared in which MRI data demonstrated increased muscle mass in runners wearing minimalist shoes.
- In the last couple of years, studies and statistics have actually suggested that running in minimalist shoes can be more hazardous than in traditional shoes. A surprising potential for increase in impact forces has likely contributed to the numbers of injuries among minimalist runners, including a high incidence of stress fractures.
- The misleading focus of legal contention has been as to whether "barefoot running" is proven to confer any health benefits – not whether running in FiveFinger shoes is actually substantially similar to running barefoot.
Why Foot Sensitivity Really Matters
However, we know this is not good for our long-term health, and so does the body. That's where feet are supposed to come in. When barefoot, the sensitivity of our feet is what encourages us to use our hip and core muscles to prevent impact, in spite of the increased energy costs. Negative feedback in the form of pain is meant to ensure our compliance.
Unfortunately, what the body doesn't know is that we invented shoes. Its only assumption is that, if the ground doesn't hurt, we must be moving gently enough already. After millions of years of establishing a precision calibration system to ensure the minimum energy expenditure for the desired results, the body never anticipated that we would undermine it in this way.
Despite their thinness, even Vibram soles still greatly inhibit perception of impact forces. They also continue to mask many of the challenges of terrain that would normally teach us to shift our weight and balance, naturally training all the muscles of the lower leg and foot. In order to serve these functions, feet are nearly as sensitive to detail as our hands. But, in terms of sensory deprivation, FiveFinger shoes are the equivalent of switching from wearing boxing gloves to leather work gloves: slightly more sensation, but you can still forget about doing anything that requires fine detail (like, say, calibrating and coordinating the movements of virtually every muscle fiber in your entire body).
Transitioning to Minimalist: A False Concept
The goal is not to adapt to the shoes; the goal is to learn to move gently and healthfully. The problem is that wearing minimalist shoes is not, itself, a strong enough stimulus to force us to override the lazy movement habits we've built up through decades of shoe-wearing.
After years of ingraining poor habits wearing traditional shoes, it takes a significant challenge and investment of energy to override old habits with new ones. At the very least, this requires conscious effort in adjusting gait. However, even awareness and consciously attempting this is not always reliable; so much of movement is unconscious. We can't micro-manage it all, especially when we simply can't feel the full truth of our interactions with the ground.
As a result, allowing us to continue to get away with bad habits while offering less protection than traditional shoes is how FiveFinger and other minimalist shoes reveal to us our movement faults, through injuries, rather than fixing them. For many unfortunate minimalist runners, the wake-up call has been stress fractures from the impact forces that they were not able to fully perceive, and therefore did not adequately prevent. (I have not yet encountered data citing a stress fracture incurred by someone running truly barefoot; nothing's impossible, but it would be extremely difficult to sustain stress-fracture-inducing activity while fully barefoot.)
In my own case with FiveFinger shoes, I was relatively lucky and didn't suffer any major injuries (probably because I wasn't actually running in them at first). For me, pressure on my toes (from perpetuating the habit of having walked on tip-toes all my life) led to increased pain, calluses, and ingrown toenails. When I realized it was getting worse instead of better, I had to switch back to traditional shoes for many months before I understood the lesson and sufficiently changed my habits (through strength training and actual barefooting) to be able to safely wear them again.
On the other hand, unlike minimalist running, running fully barefoot provides a challenge of a whole other order of magnitude. It demands a completely different movement pattern than that permitted by running in shoes, which in fact encourages whole-body muscle coordination, better posture, and core strength. With that understanding, we need take the approach that what we are transitioning toward is barefoot mechanics and that minimalist shoes do not, by themselves, bring us closer to this.
Barefoot Running Mechanics
Take a look at the common mechanics among the five barefoot runners in the ancient Greek amphora to the right. Notice the broad shoulders, the stark protrusion of the buttocks, the leg lifted so high that the thigh is parallel with the ground, the strongly bent knee in the lifted leg, and the angle of the toes toward the ground.
When I studied ancient Greek art in my academic education, I wondered why the men were always represented with extraordinarily well-developed hip and thigh muscles. While this is certainly partly due to artistic convention and idealized representation, it's now clear to me that it's based on the truth of the ways in which they learned to use their bodies, which included barefoot – in fact, naked – athletics.
The difference between the form and muscular engagement required for barefoot running, compared to running in cushioned shoes, is striking. In order to 1) prevent harmful impact forces, 2) resist gravity with vertical efficiency, 3) minimize inertia by directing all our exertion toward forward momentum, and 4) conserve energy by making full use of our built-in springs, it requires a movement pattern along the lines of that depicted in the Greek runners above.
Moving this way produces a gentle landing for the feet, which reciprocally encourages us to do everything right to develop strong core muscles and excellent posture. It's a beautiful feedback system. The fact that we don't all run barefoot on a regular basis is, in my opinion, the biggest contributor to our culture's overwhelming tendency toward poor posture, imbalanced and underdeveloped muscles, and alignment problems (and all the musculoskeletal disorders which follow from these patterns).
A Safer Approach to Minimalism
If you're not ready to go barefoot yet, you may still be able to safely wear minimalist shoes so long as you recognize that the shoe itself, even through gradual exposure, will not solve your problems (and may exacerbate them or create new ones). It takes supplemental training to reduce your risk of injury. In particular, this might include the following methods:
- Physical: Focusing on strengthening your hip and core muscles which have (in all likelihood, if you grew up in shoes) become lazy about doing their jobs
- Mental: Studying the concepts of lifting your legs, maintaining a strong core, and landing gently, in order to improve your awareness as you run
- Kinesthetic: Practicing lifting your legs with the 100-Up exercise
- Auditory/Biofeedback: Listening to your steps (no headphones) and focusing on running more quietly (i.e. gently)
- Professional Guidance: Consider a Chi Running or Pose Running course, or a clinical gait analysis (*note: I disagree with the forward lean encouraged in Pose and Chi running: forward lean facilitates acceleration, but a vertical torso resists gravity most efficiently.)
Incidentally, the best way to learn the proper form to run successfully in minimalist shoes is to learn to run fully barefoot first!
Barefoot Running: Going All the Way
The first hurdle is simply believing that, when given the chance and treated properly, feet are extremely resilient and capable at their tasks. It is those feet which have been habitually cooped up in shoes which are the most vulnerable, and gradual exposure to barefooting on hard and challenging surfaces can be a sufficient stimulus as to produce positive results. (However, if you have already lived a lifetime in shoes, it's a good idea to still incorporate supplemental training, perhaps even in advance of making the barefoot leap.)
Do take it slowly at first. Consider that you are learning an entirely new movement pattern. Don't think in terms of the distance or activity level that you were used to in shoes. Start from zero and work your way up. Listen carefully to your feet and rest when they tell you to.
In addition, recognize that the challenge level will have an effect on your results: walking barefoot indoors produces only a little stimulus, if any, to change; walking barefoot outside produces more; and running barefoot on city streets and sidewalks requires us to make far more corrective adjustments in order to move gently enough (the harder the surface, the more incentive your body has to land without impact).
- It is actually the hip muscles (those ones responsible for maintaining our balance every time we're on one foot) which become the most lazy due to lack of impact sensation in shoes.
- Being closer to the core, all the operations of the rest of the foot and leg that occur farther out depend on them. Feet themselves only control tiny fine-tuning details of movement; it makes the most sense to rehabilitate in order from the core outward.
- The rate at which they can gain strength is greater, by virtue of being larger muscles which can exert, be fatigued, and grow on larger scales.
Please share your thoughts, questions, and stories in the comments below!