Runners across New England often ask me, “Do those funny toe shoes really work?” They are talking about the latest breakthrough in running footwear, the Vibram FiveFingers, and they are asking me if they work because I am employed at retail store that sells these pricey pieces of rubber more than any other shoe.
Before Christopher McDougall began bashing major shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas in his best selling book Born To Run, very few people even thought about running in anything less than a 11oz trainer with a built-up heel. Then Vibram made their imprint in the running shoe industry. You may have heard of Vibram before; they make light and durable outsoles on many outdoor shoes. An Italian brand whose U.S. headquarters are in Concord, Massachusetts, Vibram did not originally have running in mind when they created these thin-soled shoes with toe sockets. “VFF started out as a unique alternative to your typical, all-purpose water shoe,” says a local sporting goods buyer. “It did great for that purpose, but really found a larger audience later on in running and other activities.” The FiveFingers, which McDougall briefly mentions in his book, range from $75 for the most basic style to $125 for a lightly cleated version with a kangaroo leather upper.
Shortly after it was released in May 2009, customers who had read Born to Run flocked to my place of work to pick up a pair. Nowadays, though, it is mostly by word of mouth. “My friend swears by them so I had to check them out,” is the most common inspiration these days. Others stop by to pick up their second, third, or eighth pair. “I already have two pairs of Bikilas, do you have any in size 42?” Probably not.
Retailers across the country can’t seem to keep the FiveFingers in stock, including the buyer I interviewed. “Like any vendor, VFF is trying to make everyone happy with getting product to retailers as soon as possible. For an item that’s this popular, though, it’s easier said than done.” Whenever a new shipment arrives, the most popular sizes usually sell-out within a matter of days.
Can shoes really make us significantly better or worse at running? According to Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, there’s a good chance. When a runner strikes first with their heel, the part of their body that is involved with the collision with the ground is at 6-8%, and is just 1-2% with a forefoot strike. Therefore, running shoes that promote a heel strike can be dangerous.
Although followers of this new minimalist movement rave about their newly discovered love for running, it takes time to adapt to the new style. The buyer I interviewed had this advice for those looking to transition to the VFFs: “Be patient, do research, and listen to your body. Running ten miles in VFFs after running your whole life in ‘traditional’ running shoes will do more harm than good. Instead, gradually ease into VFFs as part of your workout, and see how your body feels and reacts.” Unfortunately, many of my customers see the VFFs as a cure-all, like a magic pill that will rid of all pain.
When people ask me if the FiveFingers “work,” I know what they’re really asking me. But sometimes I like to be sarcastic. “Of course they work,” I’ll say, “they do an excellent job of protecting your feet from any sharp objects on the ground.” Then I’ll get to actually selling them. It cannot be stressed enough, though, that slipping on a pair of VFFs will not instantly make you the fastest, most injury-free runner in the world. Runners like the VFFs because their lack of a built-up heel promotes a more natural stride. Adjusting to them is a process, which is absolutely necessary to point out when selling them. I have a pair of the Bikilas, the model designed specifically for running, and I love them. I do some, but not all of my running in them. They hurt my lower calves when I run too much in them. And evidence shows that your body absorbs less shock with a forefoot stride, but does that necessarily lead to fewer injuries? According to Professor Lieberman, more testing needs to be done before that can be a foregone conclusion.
Your friend who swears by his or her FiveFingers may be under the illusion that their new funky footwear has changed their lives. And that may be partially true. But unless your friend is freakishly athletic, there is a good chance that they had to put in a lot of hard work and patience to adjust to them. And so will you. These toe shoes are a fantastic tool for facilitating a barefoot-like stride, but they are not magical. So please, next time you come in to my store, don’t ask me if they work.