North/Clybourn: Vibram FiveFingers Running Shoes -- The Good, Bad and (They're) Ugly

Vibram FiveFingers at Fleet Feet Chicago

A display of Vibram FiveFingers at Fleet Feet in Chicago. (Photo by Shaymus McLaughlin)

North/Clybourn Stop IconBy Meghan Bower and Shaymus McLaughlin
The Red Line Project

Posted: Saturday, June 4, 2011

Anyone who has seen someone running in what looks like rubber-lined, neon, individual-toed socks will stop and do a double-take. Those are the Vibram FiveFingers. And if an initial reaction was skepticism and confusion, then don’t worry -- others react the same way.

“I laughed, honestly,” said 32-year-old Ally Garner about the first time she saw the FiveFingers. “I originally thought they were for kids or a play on the trendy Crocs at the time. They looked bizarre and not like something I’d ever wear in public, that’s for sure.”

Garner is a member of a running group in her town of Charlotte, N.C. She does trail running, hiking, yoga and rafting—all in her Vibram FiveFingers she had originally laughed at.

“They’re so lightweight, and give much more support than you’d imagine,” she said. “That was most surprising to me, actually. They’re rugged, waterproof, have great traction and have eliminated the knee and hip pain I usually get after runs.”

Garner’s story is similar to that of many other runners who have switched from the traditional padded running shoe to a style that aims to mimic running barefoot.

Chicago Lakefront Runners

Vibram FiveFingers can be used on any surface, including the Lakefront
Trail (seen here) along Lake Michigan. (Photo by Shaymus McLaughlin)

The Vibram FiveFinger shoes are part of this trend, called minimalist running. It is based largely on the belief that, by wearing thick padded running shoes, feet are left weak and the person wearing the shoes is more susceptible to injury since runners often land on their heels first.

Vibrams and other similar models—such as the Nike Free or Saucony Kinvara—promote a mid-foot strike, drastically reducing the impact on a runner’s heel.

But the fast-coming trend is not for everyone.

Dr. Mike Kelly is a manager and physical therapist at Novacare Rehabilitation Center. He has run 11 marathons, and sees about 40 marathoners a year as patients. He said that barefoot running can be effective, if someone is properly trained.

“Barefoot running shortens the stride length, and lessens the impact through your rear-foot [and] heel, which puts less stress on the body,” he said in an email.

But he also offered some caution for those looking to try it for themselves, saying people who want to start running in Vibrams should start small.

Jeff Cho of Kingston, Ontario, knows this as well as anyone. As a student and member of the Canadian Forces, Cho said he has a vested interest in running. So he did some research on the Vibram FiveFingers and eventually spoke to his own physiotherapist about it.

Video: Runner Christine Iverhouse discusses her experience with Vibram FiveFingers. 

“What I was told specifically was that if I wanted to try barefoot running in general, including the use of the Vibrams, I needed to drastically increase my stretching time and start very small and slow,” Cho said. “My average casual run is about six miles. I was told that if I wanted to run barefoot, I should start at just over one mile and work my way up slowly.”

Joh Poloznik has been working on improving that for over a year now. Poloznik is the general manager of Fleet Feet (1620 N. Wells St.), an athletics store that specializes in running shoes. According to him, the shoe is not a magical fix — it requires work in order to avoid injury by learning the proper way to run.

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Above: Locations in Chicago runners should know. 

“The running trade channel has always known about [barefoot-style running] and we’ve always supported it because what it does is it teaches you proper running form,” Poloznik said. “But to buy a shoe with the hopes that that shoe is going to give you the form is a false expectation.”

The risk of injury, according to Poloznik, comes when runners get tired and their stride reverts back to its original form.

“[W]hen I first started working on better form, I fell back to my old ways,” Poloznik said. “And so does everybody else. So you put a pair of Vibrams on, and you could run perfectly in them for the first 10 yards or the first mile, and then, as you start to fatigue, you will start hitting on your heel again just like you would in a very well-cushioned shoe. And that’s where you could get injured.”

Garner has not run into any serious problems yet. So far, she said, the biggest issue is stepping on sharp rocks and some minor pain between her toes that she expects to go away with time.

“Other than that,” she said, “I really love them.”

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