I am a barefoot runner, a Vibram runner and a running shoe runner. I do them all. However a few years ago I bought a pair of Vibram Five Finger running shoes (the original) and within three weeks had a proper ”march fracture” of my third metatarsal. What happened? Should I be one of those people ganging up and suing Vibrams for deceptive advertising? Besides being against litigious zealotry and for personal responsibility I cannot in good conscience hold Vibrams responsible for my injury. They created a new product based on solid research with the hope of correcting the failures of the established running shoe design. They just left out the itty-bitty subject of transition.
The itty-bitty subject of transition…
It is my opinion that Vibram running shoes do everything they claim. Once you have established a new, more efficient, lower impact, and injury preventing running style, you will reap the benefits. But how do you get there? In reality the damage done from years of running in conventional shoes cannot be undone overnight by slapping on a pair of Vibrams. Doing that will invite major problems like the metatarsal break I encountered. To understand why, it is important to look at the nature of the barefoot running style.
The basic theory of barefoot/Vibram running is that a “new” forefoot/mid foot strike will develop replacing the more common heel strike method encouraged by the traditional big cushy heel running shoe. I won’t go into the details of that here, but suffice to say that modern human locomotion experts such as Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard contend that the forefoot / mid foot strike is a lower impact and more natural running style.
A very dramatic condition occurs when you put on those Vibrams for the first time and head out on the road: you instantly need to change your running style. Why? Well if you have been crashing down on your heel for years and really did not feel the impact through all of that foam rubber: you will now. It hurts. The correction away from heel striking will be nearly instantaneous. You are now running “properly” with a little shorter stride and have progressed to either a mid-foot or perhaps a forefoot strike. But now there is a problem. Your feet are not used to that new loading. The muscles are not ready. The ligaments are not ready and even worse your bones are not ready. You need to go slow.
If you are like me – an avid and competitive runner – going slow is not in my vocabulary. After my Vibrams arrived in the mail, I put those babies on and headed out for long runs on rocky desert terrain. Yippee, I am running with Vibrams! What could go wrong? Well the horrible pain that developed a few weeks later and would not go away was finally diagnosed by an x-ray as a “march fracture.” That is a common metatarsal fracture and got its name from soldiers getting it on long marches. So I was off for 6 weeks or so and then even after that had to go slow another month or two. So what should you do to avoid “me?”
The way to transition to Vibrams is to run barefoot first
Run barefoot. Yes, the way to transition to Vibrams is to start without any shoes. Sounds crazy but here me out. Strapping on those Vibrams will certainly makeyou start running barefoot style. Of course, that is why you bought them. However the Vibrams short circuited an important protection system built into your feet called proprioception. Your feet are very sensitive. You know that when you walk barefoot on rocks or prickly terrain. Proprioception is the firing of all those sensory nerve endings to give you the feel of the ground. Some researchers such as Dr. Steven Robbins believe that barefoot running is the only safe way to run “barefoot style”. Dr. Robbins does not like Vibrams because he feels the loss of feeling leads to injury because with proprioception the foot naturally redistributes loads distally – a natural injury preventer. I don’t necessarily agree with that in its entirety (watch for another blog on this subject) but he is certainly right that proprioception is a very important injury protection tool. So let’s use it.
I don’t care how crazy you are, how competitive you are or how fast you run, when you go outside for your first barefoot run you will be a snail. It hurts. It is uncomfortable. Ouch is every other step. That first pebble is a nightmare. So you end up running at 12 min per mile pace and maybe a mile if you are lucky. Perfect. That is exactly how you need to change. You now have a new running style and there are new loads on your feet. Your muscles need to get trained and at the same time you have to develop a little thick skin (more than just a pun here.) It will take some months. In fact it may take 6 months to a year before you can get anywhere near your mileage or pace of conventional running shoes. When that happens you are ready to start the transition to Vibrams. You can now safely do those rugged trail runs and faster interval training sessions you can’t really do barefoot. So what about those pesky bones?
So what about those pesky bones?
The bones get stronger too. Yes bones get stronger when you stress them. They remodel themselves in a clever way to resist the apparent stress fields they see. It is common knowledge that weight training and impact sports have a positive effect on bone mass and strength. Stressing the bone is really good for it. The opposite of stressing bones was demonstrated by NASA during testing of astronauts in long term space flight. They lost bone mass in zero-g and it was not a small amount. Nowadays the space station astronauts go through rigorous treadmill and weight training.
The main problem with bone development is that it is the slowest to make the change. I saw a forum post recently describing barefoot running transition. Very simple: two months to desensitize your feet and build up a little more skin, six months to train your soft tissue muscles and ligaments, and a year to strengthen your bones.
So by all means make the change.
So by all means make the change. I am not a religious zealot about barefoot running. As I said in the opener I do them all. I think each has a place in your training regime. Barefoot running is a great way of getting in touch (intentional pun) with the world under your feet. Vibrams are a great way to do interval training, trail runs or very long varied terrain running. Racing flats are still my preferred racing footwear. Why? It is called “wild abandon”. The racing flat takes your brain away from your feet and keeps it focused on the race. I don’t care how experienced you might be as a barefoot runner, you will still dedicate a little processor time (computer analogy) to foot plant. It might mean you will avoid a grate or a rocky area where your opponent just charges through.
I now run about twenty miles a week totally barefoot. I run at least that many – up to maybe thirty or more miles a week with Vibrams. The remainder will be trail running shoes for desert racing or racing flats for races or pace runs. I used to have lots of Achilles and calf problems. They have evaporated. I’ll discuss those in another blog.