Crazes come and go; but a personal testimony is a hard one to contradict. Recently news came to light that Vibram, the maker of FiveFingers running shoes has settled a class action lawsuit. The article on Runner’s World says the following:
Bezdek alleged that Vibram deceived consumers by advertising that the footwear could reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles, without basing those assertions on any scientific merit. “The gist of her claim is that Vibram illegally obtained an economic windfall from her because it was only by making false health claims that Vibram induced consumers to buy FiveFingers shoes, and to pay more for them than they would have otherwise,” Harvard Law School professor, John C. P. Goldberg, told Runner’s World at the time of the original filing.
I suspect that many–if not most–of the complainants did not heed advice about how to transition from their accustomed, padded footwear to the glove-like Vibram FiveFingers. Presumedly stemming from an instant gratification culture, it’s not surprising to see lawsuits against Vibram’s claims of “reducing foot injuries and strengthening foot muscles”. Transitioning to minimalist running requires patience and hard work, something most of us in the western world find difficult to grasp. For example, it took me about two years to completely ditch my conventionally padded running shoes in favor of Luna Sandals of Born to Run fame and Vibram FiveFingers. Anyone looking to transition must first understand the logic behind such claims of beneficial results before actually attempting to do it.
Born to Run caught my eye in early 2010 because of its exotic appeal, featuring the Tarahumara indians from the Copper Canyons of Mexico in the state of Chihuahua. Christopher McDougall, in his quest to find an elixir for his ever-recurring running injuries, visited a tribe of people whose culture practically revolved around and depended upon their running prowess. It was a way of life. Their nutrition wasn’t the greatest; but it was by far mostly untainted by modern society’s meddling into the food supply. Their physical activity and primarily the way they viewed their ultra-marathon length runs was what set them apart. Their older folks were actually their best runners, whose pace the younger guns followed. Anne Trason, in a 100-mile race in Leadville, running neck-in-neck with the Tarahumara, lost heart when she saw the sheer joy on their faces when she saw them running up a punishing mountain after a brief stop at a checkpoint. And they did this all in home-made…I mean, canyon-made sandals, just like the ones you’d picture ancient native americans or Spartans using.
The logic behind minimalist running is that the human body is already equipped to run as is. The foot-glove, FiveFinger shoes, is only meant to allow your body to rely on its natural mechanics to give you the best form and technique, while rendering a level of protection from filth and sharp objects. Just as when a cast is put on a broken leg, our use of heavily-padded footwear has atrophied our muscles and tendons so much from underuse that we’re initially very vulnerable to injury when going minimalist. Furthermore, one of the reasons people tend to get hurt so often with conventional footwear is because its design doesn’t allow the body to function as it was designed to. Contrary to the lawsuits insinuations, there are multiple studies out of big-name universities especially cited in Born to Run.
So, what to do? Don’t you dare run a marathon as soon as you first put on a pair of FiveFingers. Your body will scream and hate you for it. Walk in them for a couple of hours a day. Run half a mile. But resist the urge to go all out, because it will feel so good and tempting. Do this for a while and you’ll feel parts of your body waking up, muscles and tendons you didn’t know you had. Gradually, run and walk a little longer with them. Finally, when you feel that your body is adapting well, go on longer runs, but generously give your body a break by weaning it off your conventionally-padded shoes. You should take your sweet dear time. It took me a couple of years before I felt comfortable completely ditching them.
In short, you don’t have to start running in Tarahumara-Spartan-Roman Legionarie sandals nor FiveFingers in order to get stronger and run better. The advantage of running in minimalist shoes though–and especially barefoot–is that your body is FORCED to adapt appropriate running technique, because if you don’t, then you’re really going to damage yourself. You’ll feel the pain either way if you even attempt to land each footfall the way most runners heel-strike with padded footwear. Even if you don’t want to fully adopt minimalist footwear, you’ll gain the advantage of changing your stride and running more naturally, allowing your body’s muscles and tendons to take the impact and rebound in its spring-like effect, instead of pounding your joints and bones mercilessly. It felt so much better and natural to run as a kid, and this is what minimalism is supposed to take you back to.
Personally, my running has never been better. My legs are stronger than they’ve ever been, and I’ve had no running injury since I’ve transitioned. None.
It will feel great, but if you mess it up, then you’re probably an anomaly, or just a typical instant-gratification character. Patience and wisdom is the key.