Vibram five fingers started a trend in minimalistic shoes but have since been brought to court in a class action suit for failure to live up to their claims. Many of the health problems associated with Vibrams aren’t limited to that specific shoe. With the exception of looking totally ridiculous you may have similar problems with any minimalistic shoe when you start running in them. Here’s what to watch out for:
We may be born to run, but not on concrete
The benefit of a thick sole is shock absorption. The surfaces that most outdoor runners end up treading on are hard materials like sidewalk, track pavements or roads. These do not give on impact like a nice, spongey meadow for example and that means that when your feet hit the ground the shock of the impact is absorbed mainly by your own bones. This can be hard on your knees and foot bones. If you go from a normal running show to a flat one and begin to take all that shock on your own two feet you may experience discomfort. You may even experience stress and fracturing, especially on your metatarsals.
A different style of shoe requires a different style of running
Speaking of shock absorption, without all the extra rubber between you and the track a typical heel strike running form will inevitably send that force straight up your heel and into your knees. Transitioning to minimalist running shoes without changing the way you run is a recipe for trouble. It’s important to work on a form that will help take some of that shock. Landing toe first and rolling down to the heel, making sure to bend you knee as well. This will allow your body to move more gradually with the force you’re putting onto the ground. Think of it as if every time you strike the ground you’re giving it a push and it will push back the same way. When you run toe-first you’re giving the ground a gentler push so the force back on you is gentler as well.
Don’t rush into it
Many shoes have a higher heel than toe. The difference in height between the heel and the toe is sometimes called a heel drop. Very minimalist shoes can have a zero drop heel which is good for you in theory. Having heel lifted higher than the toe can cause the Achilles tendon to shorten which may introduce a range of problems up through your knees, hips and lower back. In fact, this is one of the major problems with consistently wearing high heels. The problem with minimalist shoes is that you may not be ready to suddenly stretch out that tendon farther than you ever have before while running. This repeated action can even lead to tendonitis.
If you do decide to switch to minimalist shoes
Minimalist shoes aren’t necessarily bad but they certainly aren’t what most people are used to and that can cause problems and injuries. If you do decide to try minimalist shoes make sure to prepare yourself for the changes.
Stretch regularly to lengthen your calf muscles and Achilles tendons, especially if you wear high heels or tennis shoes with a large change in height from toe to heel on a regular basis. Taking time to squat with your heels touching the floor while you’re doing something like reading or watching TV can be a useful practice.
Make sure to cut the time you spend running or walking in your new minimalist shoes to at least half of what your normal distance is so you don’t cause too much stress too soon. Use that time to really practice your run.
Adopt a gait such as the toe-first strike that will help you cushion the impact when you hit the ground.
The jury is still out on whether minimalist shoes are better for you than normal running shoes but it certainly seems that if you can get closer to a zero drop heel your joints and lower back health. Like anything else, the best way to avoid injury is to train carefully and listen to your body.