Sunday, February 26, 2012

To Run, or Not to Run, in the Vibram Five Fingers?

There has been much debate about the benefits of running in the Vibram Five Fingers, and while it is indeed a bit of a controversial topic, I think the following post by fellow WOOT member Carey Hicks is worth reading. I have my own thoughts about Vibram Five Fingers, as I'm sure many of you do too, but I also enjoy hearing and reading the views of people like Carey, who have an educational background in occupational therapy, and thus a professional perspective to offer. Please do not see this post as an attempt by WOOT to deter you from buying, or running in the Vibram Five Fingers; it is merely an alternative argument presented with the intent to have readers explore both sides of the debate. 
Jannine Myers

Post by Carey Hicks

What do you think about VIBRAM five fingers?

What is the most popular question that I am asked when other runners/joggers discover my educational background and realize that there is indeed a brain behind the stay-at-home-mom-of-three/pretty face…. “What do you think of the five fingers?”

I have been taught by well meaning, polite parents to never answer a question with a question so I hesitate while my brain runs through the following:

Do you already own them? Have you read any of the actual research? Do you want to try them because you have seen other people running in them? What are your running goals? Has your doctor prescribed orthotics for you? Do you have pain in your joints before, during or after running now?
I could go on and on….

Our bodies are different. What works for one person won’t necessarily be the best for someone else. Does “one size fits all” really fit everyone? No matter what I do, I am never going to be 5’8 with long, lean limbs. (I relinquished modeling as a long -term career goal at a very early age since I could never even get on the height/weight curve at my checkups.)

Before I give you MY answer, let’s read what the authors of the research say.

The first sentence of the journal article states “ humans have been engaged in endurance running for millions of years”.

This statement may be true, perhaps our ancestors ran barefoot or even covered their feet with leather wrappings but were the societies the same then as they are now?

Let’s compare apples to apples here…
Think about it. Did your great grandparents multiple generations ago sit behind a desk for 8-9 hours a day and exercise for a mere hour of their day? Did they drive a car the majority of the time? Was the time that they exercised a structured workout?

Consider the “hunter gatherer” society this article is referring to. Their ideal day consisted of physical activity for 12 hours a day. They were moving: climbing, crawling, walking and sometimes running. Even after they hunted their food they still had to spend hours skinning and butchering. We do not even walk to the commissary much less hunt it down or spend hours looking for berries and greens to subside on.

The point is their lifestyle was one in which they were on their feet the majority of the day, conditioning their leg and feet muscles. Perhaps they did run long distances barefoot, but they could do so without injury because their muscles were already strong.

Let’s also consider the conditions that they ran on. What was the terrain like? Forests, grassy fields, rolling hills that all varied by seasonal changes. Pretty sure they didn’t spend hours wandering around on asphalt and concrete.

There are numerous other aspects of things we do differently in our society today, so this assumption that just because the cavemen were barefoot means we should go barefoot too is a critically weak argument. The fact is, our bodies are not prepared for hours of physical activity like our ancestors were.  If you click on the link to the Skeletal Biology research website:

You can scroll down and read:
“Please note that we present no data on how people should run, whether shoes cause some injuries, or whether barefoot running causes other kinds of injuries. We believe there is a strong need for controlled, prospective studies on these issues.”

Basically, they haven’t studied “whether barefoot running causes other injuries” and they feel strongly that the research should at some point be conducted. The research did NOT prove that running barefoot was less likely to cause injury from impact forces in the lower leg. Also, the research did NOT prove that running in shoes causes injuries. To date, there is still no evidence to prove either.

What have they studied? “In Daniel Lieberman's Skeletal Biology Lab, we have been investigating the biomechanics of endurance running, comparing habitually barefoot runners with runners who normally run in modern running shoes with built-up heels, stiff soles and arch support.”  Who are the “habitual runners” the authors of the study refer to? Well, to determine this, I went to the research published in “Nature”.
The authors had five groups, which consisted of:
Group (1): 8 adults from the US that always run with shoes (6 male, 2 female)
Group (2): 14 adults from Kenya that recently started wearing shoes. (13 male, 1 female)
Group (3): 8 adults from the US that habitually run barefoot (7 males, 1 female)
Group (4): 16 adolescents from Kenya that were barefoot (8 males, 8 females)
Group (5): 17 adolescents from Kenya that wore shoes (10 male, 7 female)

First of all, there was only a total of 18 females in this study. A mere 3 females were from the good ol’ USA and only ONE female was a habitually barefoot runner.

Let’s compare oranges to oranges here…

About one third, 33.8% or 190 million, of U.S. adults are OBESE (Body Mass index greater than 30) as well as 17% (22.5 million) of children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 33% of American women are obese!

Researching obesity rates in Kenya was challenging to say the least. I read numerous health reports on nutritional deficiencies across all age spans until I finally found the stats I was searching for.

The incidence of obesity in women, to include ALL of Kenya, including the urban areas where food and water is more readily available, is 6.3%. The runners featured in this study were from RURAL Rift Valley Kenya where the obesity rate is 5.5% of adult women. Western Kenya and North Eastern Kenya were the only provinces with lower rates of obesity in women (3.2% and 0.4% respectively). The health report states that of all adult men in Kenya, only 0.1% are obese. Obesity in Kenyan children is non-existent….malnutrition is prominent.

What did the research show? Basically, that people that run barefoot strike the ground differently than people that wear shoes. They land on the midpart or forefoot rather than initially striking the ground with their heel, like people wearing shoes do. So they change their running technique based on whether or not they are wearing shoes.

The research also shows that the amount of force with which the foot hits the ground is less for those that were barefoot versus those wearing shoes. That makes sense…you don’t have anything to absorb the impact if you are barefoot so you are going to step lighter. The fact is even if that initial impact is less, it does not mean that someone who has always run in shoes is going to have a reduced risk of injury when they switch to barefoot running.

So, what’s wrong with heel striking in running shoes? Nothing! That’s just the point. Most people run this way. Even the authors of the research state, “We emphasize though, that no study has shown that heel striking contributes more to injury than forefoot striking.”

The final sentence is "controlled prospective studies are needed to test the hypothesis that individuals who do not predominantly RFS (rear foot strike) either barefoot or in minimal footwear, as the foot apparently evolved to do, have reduced injury rates".

“Barefoot shoes” have developed into a $1.7 BILLION industry…clever marketing has led people that never exercise to sport Vibram FiveFingers on their daily shopping excursions. Unfortunately, those marketing the “barefoot shoes” failed to mention the warnings that the researchers themselves recommend.

For a simpler and less expensive way to try changing your running technique and form, run with WOOT! You will change your running form naturally because hills and sprints are incorporated into the workouts. Another training method used to change form is through drills. Certified running coaches utilize training methods, including drills, which may help to naturally change your form. If you want to know more about how a certified running coach can help you…I know just the ladies to put you through the paces. And you do too!

By the way, take a look at some of the more advanced runners in WOOT and WOOP, or open a running magazine and notice how many elite marathon runners are sporting vibrams. How many Kenyans, who grew up running barefoot, are running the NYC marathon barefoot? The answer: NONE of them.

So, if you really want to spend your money on a pair of vibrams, at least read the recommendations at the vibram website, so you know how to ease into them. Please note the disclosure by the researchers themselves. A lot of people have already and will continue to injure themselves because of misinterpreted science.

Still curious as to my opinion about five fingers? Give me a call and we will lace up, go for a run. Until then, go out and have a great run.

Carey has a BS in Biology, and a Masters of Science in Exercise Physiology. She worked in cardiac rehabilitation before going back to school and obtaining her Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy (Carey is a board-certified, state-registered Occupational Therapist). Carey is also a certified personal trainer and pilates instructor!


  1. I'm proud and thankful to have a daughter- in -love that keeps herself(and our grandchildren) so healthy

  2. Really Nice blog on Vibram Five Fingers. I liked your post and also i have bookmarked to come again. thumbs up. keep doing good work.