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Excuse Me, What's on Your Feet?
They're not socks, nor sandals, and certainly not sneakers. Vibram FiveFingers are eye-catching but more importantly they are retraining runners around the world...and it's for the best!
Every time I wear them out of the house a stranger asks me the same question, "What are those things?"
'Those things' I'm wearing are my Vibram FiveFinger shoes. They are minimalist footwear; like gloves, only they're for your feet. FiveFingers were designed for barefoot enthusiasts who wanted some protection from debris but didn't want to sacrifice the feeling of walking barefoot. The sole of the shoe is a piece of rubber a few millimeters thick to provide adequate 'feedback' from the ground on each step. People wear them for all different purposes; around the house, in the water, for fashion, yoga, hiking, weight lifting and my personal favorite - running.
I am an avid runner and since I picked running up as a hobby, I have been developing chronic pain in my knees and ankles. After my normal run my knees throb, my ankles crack and pop and my back feels compressed. I tried everything from fancy, top-of-the-line shoes to reading about Chi Running and P.O.S.E running. It would alleviate some pain, but anything beyond 5K and I was feeling it once again.
Remember running as a kid? Barefoot through the backyard or at the beach. I could run all day and my legs never ended up sore, stiff or aching. I thought, maybe as an adult my legs just aren't as resilient. What's so different between then and now? The difference, I found out, is the way I run.
We are taught to run with long strides, landing heel first. The modern sneaker provides a nice cushion when your heel strikes and it propels you forward. And that is the problem. The modern sneaker provides too much cushion which promotes a 'heel-strike' form. Our bodies are not meant to run that way. Our heels have zero shock absorption capabilities. However, our feet and calves are incredible shocks.
I watched my niece and nephew run around the backyard a month ago. They were having a ball and my whole family thought it was adorable how they ran with such tiny strides. That was my 'AH-HA' moment. A shorter stride allowed me to land on the 'ball' of my foot, instead of my heel. Landing on the midfoot allowed me to incorporate my calves and feet more. That is exactly what the Vibram FiveFinger shoes do for runners. They force you to run naturally. Sounds like a contradiction, I know, but trust me on this one.
Humans were built to run - for hunting, transportation, travel, recreation; the original reasons no longer matter but the history does. In ancient times cavemen weren't wearing sneakers with air pockets or foam tubes or anything. They ran barefoot or maybe with some animal hide wrapped around their feet. The muscles in the foot and calf were essential to strong, injury-free legs. As sneakers became more popular, developing and maintaining those muscles became less important and footwear technology filled in the gaps.
But now those 'gaps' don't need to be filled in. In fact, we need to go back to the drawing board and start fresh. Landing heel-first is the root cause for most joint pain a runner will experience. As soon as your sneakers begin to wear, your heel is taking too much impact. Your entire bodyweight is crashing down, landing with a singular point on the ground - the heel. By allowing your feet and calves to carry the burden of your weight, you are saving your ankles, knees and hips.
As a word of warning, FiveFingers take some getting used to. Acclimating your feet and legs to running on the ball of your foot can be a process, so start slow. (It's recommended that you start with a short run a few times a week - maybe a quarter mile, than a day off and repeat.) I took my Vibram FiveFinger KomodoSports out for two miles on day one. The first mile and a half were glorious. I felt like a kid again. Up on my toes. Feeling the contours of the ground under my feet. Then came the final half mile.
I never realized that my form deteriorated so quickly. I try to run on the balls of my feet regardless of what shoes I wear, but in sneakers I must not notice when I am compensating with the heel cushion. The Vibrams let me know right away and I was more willing to tire out my calves than feel my heels pounding the pavement.
The day after I run my knees usually ache and my ankles crack with every step. After my first Vibram run, ZERO knee pain and ZERO ankle cracks. The only side effect, sore muscles; but like most people I'll take muscle soreness over joint pain any day of the week. The latter makes me feel like an old man, but the former makes me excited for the next run.