The running shoe industry has grow to massive proportions in the last 30 years, and some argue that the shoes we wear today -- with all the support and cushion -- are actually weakening our natural arches, and causing more injuries than they prevent. The shoes and inserts we wear today attempt to replace our natural arches. By doing so, some argue, the natural support structures in our feet (arches, muscles and tendons) have weakened so much that they no longer do what they were designed to do.
Some experts, like Benno Nigg of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Calgary, claim that wearing shoes causes the small muscles of the feet and even muscles of core to become weak, which impacts our natural biomechanics and may contribute to knee and hip pain. Nigg believes that by strengthening muscles in the foot, we can improve our natural biomechanics.
While there isn't much clinical evidence that running shoes have improved sports performance or reduced injury rates, there is also little evidence that running barefoot or in minimal footwear offers any advantages.
Still, more big shoe manufacturers are going the minimalist shoe route. In 2005, Nike designed Nike Free, a light, flexible trainer with less padding. And newer arrivals to the minimalist shoe design market include companies such as Vibram and Terra Plana.
The supporters of the barefoot running (and now FiveFingers) movement claim that the reason we have so many foot, ankle, knee and back problems may just be that our natural foot structure has been molded to the shoes we wear from childhood and our biomechanical structure, from our feet up, has been compromised. While the minimalist approach to footwear may have a place, the experts (and public) have only dipped a toe into the FiveFingers water. We'll have to wait and see where this new trend takes us in the coming years.
Before You Start Wearing Vibram FiveFingersWhile the concept of barefoot movement is enticing, there are some practical considerations to take before switching over to Vibram FiveFingers or start running around barefoot. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Go Slow -- Your feet have become used to shoes, arch supports and cushioning so you'll need to adjust very slowly to life without these features. Your feet will adapt, but it's best to allow sufficient time -- possibly weeks or months -- for this adaptation to occur.
- Build Foot Strength -- The small muscles of your feet may be weak from disuse, so you'll need to gradually increase the strength of these muscles. One easy way to do this is to go barefoot at home as much as possible. You can also use the ankle rehab exercise program to get a jump start.
- Start on Soft Surfaces -- Wear FiveFingers for short jogs on grass or sand initially and build up slowly over time.
- Follow Vibram's Recommendations -- The Vibram website recommends making a transition to FiveFingers in steps. The manufacturer suggests moving gradually from a supportive motion control shoes to less supportive shoes to FiveFingers over a course of weeks or months, depending upon your personal foot type.
- Try Before You Buy -- With FiveFingers, fit is everything so it's wise to try these on before you buy them.
Also See: Barefoot Running Shoes - Top Picks
Benno M. Nigg. Barefoot shoes; energy return & future shoe development. Footwear Science, 1942-4299, Volume 1, Issue 1, Supplement 1, 01 June 2009, Pages 80 & 82
Nigg BM, Emery C, Hiemstra LA. Unstable shoe construction and reduction of pain in osteoarthritis patients. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Oct;38(10):1701-8.
von Tscharner, V., Goepfert, B., and Nigg, B.M.. Changes in EMG signals for the muscle tibialis anterior while running barefoot or with shoes. J. Biomechanics 36: 1169-1176, 2003.
Vibram FiveFingers.com. Manufacturer's Website. Accessed: September 2009.