The FACTS About Vibram FiveFingers: Just The Science

Vibram FiveFingers barefoot range of minimalist shoes have been the most researched and heavily scrutinized range of footwear in the history of shoes, resulting from both their immense popularity and the controversy that surrounds them. There are many common misconceptions and unfounded myths people have regarding injuries and other things that surround Vibram FiveFingers shoes. However, over the past decade a large number of independent research studies have been conducted, ranging from a prolonged investigation of the effects of wearing Vibrams to looking at the postural realignment of the foot and ankle after wearing minimalist shoes. All the studies on Vibrams have been carried out by respected institutions and more importantly, been peer reviewed to ensure that the claims being made are substantiated, stand up and cannot be refuted.

There is no question that the most common concern about wearing Vibrams for running is that they can cause the development of stress fractures. This is an unfounded myth, which many people still believe. In actual fact, there should be a noticeable decrease in the number of people suffering from stress fractures, as more people make the transition. Humans have been running for millions of years, mainly without injury. But since the modern running shoe was invented in the 1970s injury, particularly stress fractures have become more common.

Vibrams reduce injuries because of a change in stride and foot striking that people assume while running in Vibrams. Author Lieberman D.E paper: “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shoe runners” for Harvard University concluded that those that were transitioning from traditional footwear to Vibrams over a short period of time were adapting the way in which they ran and were using a more natural forefoot striking pattern. There are also advantages in changing to a forefoot-striking pattern; such as it strengthens the muscles in the foot, most noticeably in the arches. It also uses up much less energy, as it is more efficient to run using a forefoot or even mid-foot striking pattern.

In recent years there has been a definite resurgence in barefoot running and a rise in the number of people running in the light Vibram FiveFinger minimalistic shoes. They understand the many benefits that come with wearing a pair while running. There are an alarmingly high number of injuries caused to runners each year. In fact, it is estimated that nearly 80% of all long-term runners suffer an injury every year as a result of running. A small number of people suffered injuries whilst wearing Vibrams and this was because they started running in them straight out the box. They tried running as far they would normally - despite Vibrams advice of undergoing a period of transition into wearing Vibram FiveFingers before they started running their usual distance. Lead author, C. McCarthy from the Departments of Anatomy and Physiology, Trinity College in Dublin conducted a study that resulted in a research paper, “12 Weeks of Simulated Barefoot Running Changes Foot-Strike Patterns in Female Runners,” which concluded: “There is emerging evidence that a forefoot strike pattern such as developed over time by simulated barefoot running could have performance benefits and perhaps lead to lower injury rates or the potential to treat existing injuries.” 2 This would suggest that when wearing Vibrams (if a correct transition period is undertaken) that not only will injury rates decrease but also performance can benefit. 

Many long distance runners believe that wearing Vibram FiveFingers will inhibit their progress and ability to run longer distances - which is not the case. Patrick Sweeny, the man who ran across America, did so without injury, running barefoot and in minimalist shoes. He is a huge advocate of Vibram FiveFingers. America is a huge country; in fact the third largest in the world, so we can assume that it is safe to do what he did. In addition, in 2015 R.T. Cheung S.P. Ngai from the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University published a piece on the “Effects of footwear on running economy in distance runners,” which appeared in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. This concluded that not only is long distance running in Vibrams perfectly safe, but they can also improve performance, saying, “Running in minimalists may improve distance running performance due to its reduced oxygen cost.” Long distance running in many cases is therefore improved by wearing a pair of Vibrams, due to a more economical running style. 

Many beginners are apprehensive, thinking that Vibrams are for advanced runners because they have acquired leg and foot strength as well as the conditioning to no longer “need” cushioned shoes. So they choose to start out running in cushioned shoes, however this can in most cases cause issues in both form and stride. Beginners can benefit greatly by running in Vibram FiveFingers running shoes from the outset. This means that the runner will not have to adapt their style and relearn both their gait and stride after wearing the more cushioned traditional style of running trainer.

Another unfounded myth is that it’s not possible to wear Vibram FiveFingers if people use orthotics or suffer from Plantar-Fasciitis. The truth is that it is possible to wear orthotics with Vibram FiveFingers but care must be taken in selecting the correct orthotic and Vibram shoe to work synergistically. Furthermore sufferers of Plantar-Fasciitis have seen great improvements in their condition through the use of Vibram FiveFingers as the shoe strengthens the Abductor Hallucis muscle which is the main muscle of the foot that supports the inner arch of the foot. Whilst certain orthopaedic doctors might refute these claims, it can be argued that they have a conflict of interest, as it could directly affect their livelihood.

Another common misconception is that knee issues make Vibrams unsuitable to wear as they cause long-term injuries and discomfort. The truth is that running is very wearing on knees to begin with for a whole host of reasons. Recreational runners frequently suffer from chronic pathologies, with the knee and ankle being highlighted as common injury sites. Research undertaken by J Sinclair from the Centre for Applied Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Central Lancashire, which was published in a document titled “Effects of barefoot and barefoot inspired footwear on knee and ankle loading during running” 4 found that “barefoot inspired footwear were associated with significant reductions in patellofemoral kinetic parameter,” indicating that Vibrams serve to reduce the incidence of knee injuries in runners significantly. 

The common myth that cushioned shoes are not only more comfortable but are safer to wear and more beneficial is not factual. Running and athletic shoes undergo high levels of scientific research to ensure they are appropriate for purpose intended. This is why many people believe they are better to wear than minimalist shoes, but this is not the case according to research carried out by Alycia Fong Yan which looked at the “Impact attenuation during weight bearing activities in barefoot vs. shod conditions: A systematic review” 5, which says that there is “insufficient evidence to justify a strong conclusion on the beneficial effects of cushioned shoes.” 

Continuing on from the above paper, it also states that people that either suffer from weight issues or weigh more as a result of a training program or are professional athletes will also not see any adverse effects from wearing Vibrams. This is evident from James Haskell, current Wasps captain and England Rugby union star, who is an advocate of Vibrams and recommends them on his personal website and currently weighs in at around 114kgs or 18 stone.

Whilst there are many myths surrounding Vibram FiveFingers and their suitability, more than enough evidence has been produced that shows the wide range of health benefits a wearer will gain from making the transition to the minimalist model of footwear. With international scientists, biomechanics experts, and running coaches all in firm agreement that being as close to barefoot as possible is the healthiest way to be, highlighting that in direct comparison to shoes, barefoot is much better. Seeing stronger and more developed muscles in the lower legs and calves, a better and much more natural posture and alignment, amongst many other significant benefits demonstrates this.

If you'd like to review the scientific literature for yourself then click the link below to see every research paper ever written on Vibram FiveFingers.

Vibram Research

References:

1. Lieberman, D E. (2014). Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shoe runners. Journal of Sport and Health Science. Volume 3, Issue 2 (1), 137–142. https://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/pdfs/2010a.pdf

2. McCarthy C et al. 12 Weeks of Simulated … Int J Sports Med 2014; 35: 443–450 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254616000053

3. Cheung R T, Ngai S P,Effects of footwear on running economy in distance runners:     A meta-analytical review, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (2015) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273705588_Effects_of_footwear_on_running_economy_in_distance_runners_A_meta-analytical_review

4. Sinclair, J et al Clinical Biomechanics 29 (2014) 395-399  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S026800331400033

5. A. Fong Yan et al. Gait & Posture 38 (2013) 175–18http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23245643http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23245643

     

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