Vibram FiveFingers Show Down: To Run, or Not to Run

This article was last updated Saturday, November 26, 2011

We've all seen them, those Vibram FiveFingers shoes that are invading the human foot before every start line in recent races nationwide. Organizers of the 2011 New York City Marathon expect to see an increase in the number of Vibram FiveFingers shoes on the soles of runners participating in the big event next month. The argument continues as to whether these shoes, which mimic running barefoot, are helping us as athletes are not.

Though, honestly, if you want a real barefoot experience with some protection, try these barefoot running sandals

Vibram FiveFingers shoes, which sell for seventy five dollars to one hundred and twenty dollars apiece, generated revenue of 11 million dollars last year, according to CNN This fad movement is mostly said to be the result of Christopher McDougall's book "Born to Run." The author suggests through his popular book that running extreme long distances barefoot is the key to health, happiness, and longevity. To back his claim of a correlation between running barefoot and health benefits, Christopher McDougall relates to the running abilities of a Native American tribe in Mexico, the Tarahumara, renowned for their long distance running. Many Tarahumara compete and win in the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon every year, a challenging 50-mile running competition through the Mexican pueblo of Unique with decents and ascents of more than 9,000 feet. All native participants run either barefoot or in simple huaraches sandals made from scraps of tire and cow hide. But studies show running in general promotes a healthier and happier life, despite McDougal's claim that it's all in the barefoot art of running. The question goes unanswered and new readers of his book continue to buy Vibram FiveFingers shoes, even with the lack of evidence therein.

Vibram's statement, printed on every retail box, "Our customers not only build stronger, healthier feet, they report an increased sense of balance, greater agility, better body posture and improved general body awareness." The argument runners correlate with this statement is simply that the less restrictive soles of the FiveFingers shoes allows every muscle in the foot to work, correcting typical issues runners face. Such issues are over-pronation and heel -striking that ultimately leads to shin splints and knee pain. When the foot runs natural, it will not have to compensate from being shod in a rubber sole. One study shows that compared to running barefoot, running in conventional running shoes increases stress on the knee joints on 38% of those tested, but whether this leads to actual injuries is unclear. Yet another study suggests that running barefoot is associated with lower chronic injuries of the lower legs in developing countries, but these findings are lacking in developed countries.

Throughout much of human history, running was done barefoot or in shoes with thin soles such as moccasins, a practice that continues in some parts of the world today. This does not appear to be a choice, as this practice continues mainly in underdeveloped countries where there is a lack of resources for shoes. According to Erik Trinkaus, a Washington University anthropologist, humans started wearing shoes about 40,000 years ago. Trinkaus found in his study of excavating 40,000 year old foot skeletons that there are foot bone structure differences between cultures that wear shoes and those that do not. Cultures who wore shoes tend to have thinner built bones relative to their body size compared to those who don't have a history of wearing shoes, particularly in the toes and metatarsal bones. Similarly, it has been found that lifetime runners have thicker bone structures in the foot when compared to those who don't. Can athletes in the modern world throw out their shows and wear Vibram FiveFingers or go run the New York marathon barefoot? Podiatrists caution that Vibram FiveFingers really aren't for everyone. People with diabetes, chronic foot problems or obesity shouldn't consider them as an option.

Health fitness and sport trainers at the Middle Tennessee YMCA and Sports Medicine Therapists at Baptist Hospital both claim to have seen a huge increase in metatarsal stress fractures and heel fractures from those that wore the Vibram FiveFingers. The American Podiatrist online forum suggests that this is a result from people who are too quick to throw away their regular running shoes for the Vibram FiveFingers, or worse, barefoot running, leading to such injuries. One podiatrist states online, "What we need to see are a series of training steps to properly transition a runner into the Vibram FiveFingers shoes to reduce chance of injury." If the shoes change, most people don't realize, gait must change as well, a process that can be slow, especially for above average runners.

I run every Monday with a large organized group around Nashville, and every week, a new face shows up wearing Vibram FiveFingers shoes. I ask about whether the shoes help them run better. Not surprisingly, every person questioned has suffered fractures since wearing the shoes, though the interviewees claim relentlessly that their injuries are not caused by the shoes. One lady in particular, suffered several severe fractures since her transition into the Vibram FiveFingers shoes, having run all her life previously without such incident. Dr. Ben Pearl, a podiatrist in Arlington states on his blog, "It started off as a fad movement, but it's gaining a loyal following that I don't think will fade away."

The question of whether the Vibram FiveFingers shoes are helping us as runners remain unanswered. No research to date seems to fully support them as injury culprits or as injury prevention tools. They remain an intense preference for some runners and an intense object of hatred for others. Should you spend the average hundred dollars for the Vibram FiveFingers to wear in the New York Marathon next month? If you want to try the new fad and it works for you, fine. But as the old adage goes, why fix what's not broken

Instead, btw, you can spend 1/4 as much and get barefoot sandals (which, btw, have an even better barefoot feel)