We all know the old saying “a bad workman blames his tools” and whilst this generally rings true, when it comes to performance, most serious athletes will look to almost any measure in improve performance. From illegal performance enhancing drugs to supplements and even “aerodynamic clothing”, dedicated athletes will stop at almost nothing to achieve even the most minute competitive advantage.
From their Climacool running shoes to their Predator football boots (which claim to improve shot power), Adidas have been one of the main ambassadors of performance footwear. With many other top brands following suit, it is unsurprising that performance footwear is now available for most sports and activities. One such item of footwear which has been making great waves in recent times is the Five Fingers by Vibram. Vibram have been known for years for their unmistakable, rubber soled-performance footwear, initially designed for mountaineering. However, the brand has received more mainstream interest with the arrival of their Five Fingers model in 2005. The shoe, has five “fingers” and works like a flexible glove which “helps the natural articulation of the foot stimulating muscles of the lower limbs and therefore gives a higher sense of well-being to the whole body” according to Vibram. A recent survey by Rothschild (1) analysed the preferences of runners, with just over three quarters of the 785 respondents implying that they would be interested in running in either minimalist footwear or barefoot. Moreover, of the 30.4% that had used minimalist footwear, over 85% felt they would continue to do so for training providing they had sufficient results.
Why use minimalist footwear?
With such overwhelming support from the running community (if Rothschild’s survey is anything to go by), let us first look at the argument in favour of minimalist footwear. Proponents of minimalist footwear cite studies by Divert et al (2) and Giuliani et al (3), drawing comparisons with bare foot running, arguing that with adequate time to adapt, barefoot runners will benefit from a reduced range of motion in the ankles, knees and hips, increased stride rate, a reduction in stride length and an increased running economy at race pace.
What about injuries?
Interestingly, whilst the survey suggested that a reduced incidence of injuries was a key mover in many runners preferring bare foot running, the fear of injury was also a prime reason why 54% of responders would actually avoid minimalist footwear or running barefoot. In an attempt to clear up the controversy, an interesting study by Jenkins & Hawthorn (4) was published in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association last year. The study examined injury rates over the last 30 years, taking into account differences in training volumes. The results showed no significant change in injury rates suggesting that the use of shoes is unlikely to reduce or increase risk of injury. Despite these findings, Giuliani et al (3) have warned against changing to minimalist footwear without first reducing volume and intensity. Although one cannot pinpoint the minimalist footwear as the cause of injury, two experienced runners in their case study did suffer metatarsal stress after changing footwear so a gradual approach is to be advised.
As there seems to be no significant effects on injury rates, many athletes are now interested in the effects that wearing minimalist footwear can have on performance. A recent study by Squadrone & Gallazi (5) compared subjects’ ability to predict the slope of a treadmill in lab conditions when wearing Vibram Five Fingers, traditional running shoes or running bare foot. Interestingly, the accuracy of predictions was significantly increased when the Five Fingers were worn compared to the other conditions. Similar studies by the same authors (6) and also Pacquette et al (7) echoed these findings when running over ground, showing signs of promise for minimalist footwear. Unfortunately, there is still a dearth of literature focusing on minimalist footwear and performance outside of running and this is certainly something that many athletes would welcome. Having spoken to several regular weight trainers, the feedback has been very positive so far, with lots of them finding the footwear beneficial for improving force transference and stability during squats.
Whilst there is still room for further research, results from studies to date on minimalist footwear to date have been promising. Despite some methodological concerns regarding small sample sizes and the differences in responses between those who have already adapted to barefoot running, there certainly seems to be some merit in their ability to aid running training in some respects. Given their ability to reduce injuries in some pursuits (eg. running barefoot on rocks and other hard surfaces), minimalist footwear certainly has its place and I’m sure that we will see the Vibram Five Fingers shoe becoming a lot more popular as more studies are released. Unfortunately, as there is such limited literature surrounding minimalist training in the strength and conditioning world, the jury is still out on this. For those of you thinking of giving minimalist footwear a try, we do recommend a gradual approach in order to avoid any potential injury concerns.
Author: Hassan Muzaffar
1. Rothschild, CE. Primitive Running: A survey analysis of runners’ interest, participation, and implementation. J. Strength Cond Res. , 2011.
2. Divert, C, Mornieux, G, Baur, H, Mayer, F, and Belli, A. Mechanical comparison of barefoot and shod running. Int. J. Sports Med. 26: 593-598, 2005.
3. Giuliani, J, Masini, B, Alitz, C, and Owens, BD. Barefoot-simulating footwear associated with metatarsal stress injury in 2 runners. Orthopedics 34: e320-3, 2011.
4. Jenkins, DW, and Cauthon, DJ. Barefoot running claims and controversies: a review of the literature. J. Am. Podiatr. Med. Assoc. 101: 231-246, 2011.
5. Squadrone, R, and Gallozzi, C. Effect of a five-toed minimal protection shoe on static and dynamic ankle position sense. J. Sports Med. Phys. Fitness 51: 401-408, 2011.
6. Squadrone, R, and Gallozzi, C. Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. J. Sports Med. Phys. Fitness 49: 6-13, 2009.
7. Paquette, M, Baumgartner, L, and Zhang, S. A Comparative Investigation Of Fivefingers With Barefoot And Shoes In Rear-foot Strikers: 718: Board #2 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 43: 60 10.1249/01. 2011.
© 2012, Hassan Muzaffar. All rights reserved.