The website for Vibram FiveFingers is engaging and, quite frankly, makes you wonder why you don’t already own a pair of their shoes. It explains that “Vibram FiveFingers isn’t just a product, it’s a community.” There’s even a “welcome video” for the recently enlightened. However, like most consumer phenomena, there is an active discussion concerning the loudly proclaimed virtue of a shoe that, at the end of the day, is still a product to be marketed and sold.
Because no opinion is authoritative, a good perspective on Vibrams can be gained only by hearing many of them. For every runner that swears by them, there remains one that is unconvinced. For every runner with an opinion, there’s a doctor that knows.
“Mine are green and silver,” Emily Ackerman says with a smile.
She sits in Nike shorts, a white t-shirt and a headband. She’s a runner. Her Vibrams lie hap-hazardly at the end of her bed. She heard about the shoes during a presentation in an Exercise Physiology class a couple semesters ago and has run on them since then.
“I wasn’t convinced until I put them on, and let me tell you, it’s a completely different way of running.”
This particular shoe does, in fact, make its owner run in a new way. The design of the shoe forces the runner to stride on the ball of the foot instead of striking first with the heel. In this way, it eliminates the secondary effort in which the runner rolls from the heel to the ball of the foot in order to push forward in stride. This makes the runner’s stride more efficient by reducing the work required for forward motion, resulting in what many new Vibram runners perceive to be an ability to run farther than usual. Amateurs, beware. This method is so revolutionary that the shoes come with instructions. That’s right, instructions.
“I didn’t read them,” Emily laughs. “I ran five miles and could have done five more; it’s an amazing feeling. But the next day, I couldn’t walk down the stairs in my house.”
Because Vibrams eliminate the heel strike, it works completely different muscle groups in the legs. Had Emily read the instructions, she would have discovered that new runners are recommended to integrate the shoes into their normal route at increasing increments, a half mile a week or so.
“Their effect is amazing. I’m prone to shin splints and knee issues, but over the past year, I’ve not been hurting at all,” Emily says.
These shoes might not, however, be for everyone. According to Emily, Vibrams are an avid runner’s shoe.
“If you aren’t a serious runner, or don’t enjoy running, there’s no purpose in owning the shoes.”
Worth mentioning are the conspicuous pair of highlighter-green Nike runners just visible through the crack in her closet door.
“Yes,” Emily smiles sheepishly. “I have both. Nikes of course […] it’s a nice alternate so that my body doesn’t get used to just one way of running. It allows me to work both muscle groups.” A likely story.
“What can I say?” Emily laughs. “I’m still a slave to the dynasty.”
Mariana Zayas smiles as she laces up her purple and green Nikes.
“I love running. Love it.”
What color are her Vibrams?
“I don’t have any.”
Though a regular cross-trainer, Mariana remains unconvinced of the intrinsic powers of Vibrams.
“I’m not buyin’ it,” she says in all seriousness. “I think it’s a total fad.”
A believer might draw her attention to the scientifically backed benefits of the shoes. Running inherently causes repeated trauma to the legs. With every stride the leg suffers a collision impact. For runners wearing traditional shoes that shock goes straight to the knees, causing serious damage over time. For those who wear Vibrams that shock is re-routed and absorbed by the muscle group at the back of the leg, effectively decreasing injuries and chronic pain.
Like many others however, Mariana strongly believes in the support traditional running shoes offer and is unswayed by the increasing amount of literature promoting barefoot running. For her, it seems counter-intuitive to run with little to no cushion on the road, and like many others, she will be sticking with her faithful Nike cross-trainers.
The Vibram website is quick to praise the benefits of barefoot running. Dr. Stephen Slaughter, an assistant professor at the University of Dallas, is not.
“The shoe is going to give a break to your knees, ankles and hips,” Slaughter concedes. “However, the gastrocnemius and the tibialus anterior are what you might call opposing muscles. When you work the first by running on the ball of the foot, you aren’t working the other as much. This is still a danger that should be known by those considering switching to the shoe to avoid injury.”
In layman’s terms, the way in which the foot of the runner strikes the ground while wearing Vibrams builds the calf muscle by working it. Inversely, it weakens its “opposing muscles” on the shins by not working them. The danger then is the weakening of these shin muscles, which could result in tendonitis or shin splints. Those who have never experienced the latter should know that shin splints for knee pain is not exactly a trade-up.
“I would suggest that those who switch to Vibrams not throw away their old shoes,” Slaughter says. “I would suggest that runners balance the two types of shoes to work both muscle groups, minimizing any risk of injury.”
For those die-hard minimalists out there, exercising with a resistance band could replace the need to wear those pesky out-dated Nikes. Slaughter recommends dorsiflextion.
“Sitting on the floor, you put the band at the ball of the foot, extend the leg, and push the band forward by pointing your toes. Then, slowly release and repeat.”
Ultimately, the decision to buy these $100 shoes from a kid named Rain at your local REI must be informed. Do the research. Speak with runners you know. Perhaps run with them before your buy. If you are prone to injury, consult about your individual needs with an orthopedic surgeon or podiatrist.
Dana Thompson wrote this article for the magazine writing course at UD.