by Dylan Bartley, MSPT
You may have heard of the class action lawsuit against the Vibram FiveFingers that resulted in a settlement. If you’re a runner who tried the iconic FiveFingers shoes and developed an injury such as plantar fasciitis or achilles tendonitis, this may be sweet validation for you. If you’re one of the many people who used them and loved them either casually or as a running shoe, then maybe you’re left wondering, is it just a matter of time before I develop an injury? Should I go back to those cushy, supportive Brooks shoes my Podiatrist said I should use? Are all minimalist shoes such as the Nike Free and the New Balance Minimus risky to run in? In 2013 we saw sales of minimialist footwear stop their climb and begin to decline, replaced, of course, by sales of motion control shoes and stability shoes.
Well, let me shed a little light on some of those questions. Let’s start with anatomy: there is a variability in the morphology of our ankle bones that predisposes one towards having a low or a high arch. Structurally some of us have the type of arch that wants to collapse and pronate while others are just blessed with a normal or high arch that supinates well. And there is a fourth category: those that have a structurally normal or supinated foot but when they stand and move, they pronate and collapse too much. Let’s call them functional pronators. A knowledgeable physical therapist should be able to assess what kind of foot you have exactly and guide you through the process of choosing footwear.
If you are in the first category of structural pronators, then you may not fare well in your attempt to run in minimalist shoes. There are just too many biomechanical forces to overcome when your foot hits the ground and eventually your tendons and ligaments get strained. Using a stability shoe or motion control shoe or orthotic placed in a minimalist shoe will reduce your risk of injury. Your level of strength and conditioning (or simply personal preference) determines which of those shoes will work best for you. If you are genetically blessed enough to have a neutral, supinated, or functionally pronating foot, then you may be able to slip some minimalist shoes on and get your foot in shape. You can rely on your foot’s ability to naturally pronate and absorb the shock of landing without over-taxing your soft tissues.
By the way, I say “get your foot in shape” because the wean-in process with this kind of thing is real. That is, of course, why even people with perfect arches often get injured when wearing Vibram FiveFingers. Those of us with sedentary jobs or feet that have been living the life of luxury supported by rigid orthotics and supportive running shoes will have an even greater challenge. Functional pronators may need extra time to strengthen their foot muscles. It can take anywhere from 6 months to a year to really build up enough strength to wear a minimalist shoe for an entire 10k or just walking around town all day. There are so many fine motor intrinsic muscles in your foot like the flexor digiti minimi brevis that you probably have never been asked to use unless you were a modern dancer or you grew up walking barefoot in Africa. So be patient as you gradually increase the distance of your runs in minimalist shoes. Wear them half the day at work, and bring a cushy old pair of shoes to switch into at lunchtime. Alternate wearing your minimalist shoe on short runs while wearing supportive shoes on long runs. And listen to pain. See a physical therapist to help diagnose and treat even minor injuries before they become chronic, severe ones. Stretch after your runs and employ a little self-massage and strength training to help your body through any strains. Your new and improved feet will thank you.