Last week I did a couple of short runs in Vibram Five Fingers running shoes. These are designed to look like your foot to replicate barefoot running.

Vibram Five Fingers

I got mine at Christmas from my sister who has been using them for over a year and really likes them. Having heard a number of people go on about running in minimalist running shoes I did fancy trying them out but was not sure when and how.

In 2009 I had been injured with shin splints. I started running proper again in October/November of 2009 and went from nearly no running to around 250km a month in the space of around 4 months culminating in the Glasgow to Edinburgh Double Marathon (a 56 mile race).

Around that time I made the decision to stop running in my cushioned Mizuno Waveriders and to only run in race flats (Puma’s at the time now Nike Marathoners), based on what I had heard and read that this should help replicate a more natural running style. During all of 2010 I ran either on race flats when on tarmac or well surfaced trails or in Innov-8 trail shoes when running off road.

2010 was my biggest year of running ever and I came out of it with no injuries. In part I believe this has to do with switching to minimalist running shoes. I do have to add though that I have not been badly prone to injuries in the past. My main injuries have been the shin issue mentioned above in 2009 which came about when training for Ironman France and an Achilles problem I got in 2006 when training for Ironman Austria. In both cases in order to step up to Ironman I had to increase my running mileage which might have led to the injuries occurring.

In 2010 I was training for the Double Enduroman and my running volume skyrocketed with no adverse effects this time. I do also spend a reasonable amount of time doing core exercises and I also add some leg strength exercises in such as calf raises and one legged squats.

It is generally advised that when to run with Vibram Five Fingers to start with very short runs or even walks of 5-10 min at most. The reason for this is that the foot and leg muscles are not used to running with these and it can therefore put a lot of strain on the calf muscles in particular. So although the idea of running in Five Fingers should lead to an injury free running experience, too much too soon can lead to a new kind of injury.

Based on the above statement I went way over the top in my first 2 runs in Five Fingers as I did 7 km and 6 km respectively. I had used them to walk around a bit previously though. Having run in race flats for quite a long time now and spent quite a lot of time doing strength work for calves, hips and glutes I decided that I could get away with it.

The evidence suggests that I did. Both runs I did were good and enjoyable. People usually report that they get very sore calves when starting running with Five Fingers. Neither of my runs brought this on. I could though feel the underside of my foot getting slightly tender a couple of times. This would be a sign of the onset of plantar fasciitis and a definite sign that any more could have started causing problems. My plan at the moment is to limit the use of the Five Fingers to 1 run a week with a maximum distance of 6km. I ran at roughly the pace I would run usually for a recovery run, so around 5:15-5:25 min/km pace which felt fine. It didn’t appear to me that I had to make any significant changes, if at all to my running style. What I did notice though was a more definite sensation that I was working from my hips when running which either suggests that this is the way I normally run and the Five Fingers help with the sensation or that the Five Fingers make me use my hips more when running.

That aside though the experience didn’t seem too much different to running on race flats except that I could feel the ground more through the thinner sole of the “shoe”. I plan to use them on occasion (once a week at the moment) and think they might be a useful training aid to give me a sensation of what barefoot or natural running should feel like but I would continue to do the majority of my runs in the race flats I use at the moment.

I can see these having a more lasting impact for people who currently run on cushioned shoes but going from cushioned shoes to race flats might be a useful step in the right direction with the same kind of caution to be applied, i.e. not too much too soon. If you are already used to running on race flats and your technique is good then using Five Fingers might not make as much of a difference as is currently being branded. 2 runs on the other hand are not really enough for this to be conclusive.