Just recently I was wearing my five toe Vibram shoes while attending a workshop where we were doing a bit of hiking around in the woods. A very nice woman who also in my group saw my shoes and said “Hey, there is a whole class action settlement going on for people who have used these shoes- I can get you the information if you want to try to get in on it.” My instant response was “Oh, no thanks- I love my shoes! I wouldn’t accept money for damages because these shoes have been the opposite for me- really amazing.” I went on to explain my experience with barefoot shoes as well as my take on the whole controversy. So here is the deal: Five-toed and barefoot shoes began to become very popular with all the claims that they were wonderful for runners, for joint health and for preventing injuries. Many people began switching to using this type of shoe, maintaining their regular running or exercise routines and simply switching out their previous running shoes for a pair of barefoots. You can’t just do that, and that is where the main problem occurred, in my opinion.
Yes, barefoot running and hiking is wonderful for you- it is true that you have better agility, that you strengthen and mobilize all of the small joints and ligamentous articulations of the feet and ankle that normally are blunted and rendered unused when using shoes with cushioning in the soles. However, you can’t just switch from one mode to the other safely. Barefoot activities require a gradual buildup of strength and tolerance. When first using the shoes, one should start by taking short outdoor walks in them. You’ll notice mild joint soreness as you would when starting any new or different form of exercise. As you increase your distances this will diminish. Try to stick to trails, grass or dirt/track walkways, and avoid pavement. A big part of the issue with barefoot shoes is that you absolutely need to run on the balls of your feet if you will be on pavement. Not many people run this way at all… so imagine the runner who switched to barefoot shoes. This person kept their normal route along paved roads, pounding step after step into their heels, suddenly with no cushioning. The bottom line is that even the act of switching from heel first running to ball of the foot running requires training and a period of time to allow for gradual build up of strength and acclimation to the activity. The injuries reported from switching to barefoot running shoes were likely caused by lack of preparedness to use them in the proper way. Now, the claims about their use probably should have been accompanied by this detailed information, but marketing is what it is, and people that engage in strenuous fitness activities do need to take responsibility for making sure their choices are safe and reasonable.
So here is the bottom line: Use barefoot shoes in moderation, easing in to running and trying to stick to routes that are on trails or softer ground. Alternate every 1/8 to 1/4 mile using a heel-toe and then a toe-heel sequence. Over time you will be able to run multiple miles and rugged terrain without any issue, and you will feel strong and great. Your old sneakers will begin to feel like evil, restrictive clunkers. I feel incredibly agile and natural in my barefoot shoes and I wear them while hiking, gardening, running, walking, you name it. I have hiked up and down mountains in them and also completed two twelve mile Tough Mudders in them. I have not ever been (knock on wood) sore or injured in any way related to my shoes. As a physical therapist I can tell you for sure that the health of all of the joints in your body is definitely affected from the ground up- in other words, the slight differences in how your ankle and metatarsal joints angle themselves and adapt to motions and altered terrains is felt all the way up the chain to the final interaction between your highest vertebra and your skull. When these ground level joints are adaptable and strong, the effect trickles up the chain. Of course you still need excellent core training for optimal fitness and injury prevention, but I love the part my five toe shoes play in my own fitness. If you have questions about this or want to continue the conversation here, please feel free to do so. I have been using these shoes for a number of years now, and have lots of experience with them personally and as a physical therapist. Have a wonderful, naturally healthy day!