How to not break your toes in Vibrams

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

One of the main reasons people decide to try barefoot or minimalist running is the promise of reduced injuries. Unfortunately, a quick Google search will turn up a heap of anecdotes about people suffering tarsal and metatarsal fractures in minimalist shoes. To the rest of us this essentially means that if you run in Vibrams or other minimalist shoes, you run the risk of breaking feet and/or toes.

I don’t know about you, but assuming these stories are real, to me this is very scary. Running barefoot or thin-soled shoes should be a pleasant experience, not one that would send you to the hospital. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I have a theory on why it might be happening and what can be done to avoid it happening to you.

What I think Happened

When the barefoot/minimalist movement began to take off a couple years ago, there was a lot of discussion among runners regarding the negative aspects of heel-striking. The merits of the forefoot strike were equally lauded as the next big thing in running. Then along came the Vibram Five Finger range, with their distinctive toe pockets.

What I think may have happened is that the message of landing on the forefoot somehow got mixed in with the excitement about shoes with toes, and got translated into “run on your toes”. From that point, what began happening was that people would go out, buy a pair of ‘toe shoes’ and start running on their tippy-toes. The reslut is that new runners may be putting too much pressure on their toes,  or landing way too hard on their forefeet.

Running up on your toes is a recipe for disaster. They simply are not designed to bear the weight of your entire body while running. They are thin little bones surrounded by tiny muscles and it’s no surprise that before long they would start to hurt or even break. On top of this, it reduces the surface area used by your feet to dissipate the energy used when running. This increases pressure on a single area, which can lead to serious problems.

How to avoid toes injuries

So the simple answer to avoiding this is that if you are new to running barefoot/minimalist, don’t run on your toes. Try to land with your feet nearly parallel to the ground, with the ball of your foot touching down a fraction before your toes, then allowing your heel to lightly brush the ground.

By landing lightly with a foot that’s nearly flat to the ground, you’re increasing the surface area involved in the landing. This increased surface area will help your body dissipate the energy of the landing, which in turn will reduce the chances of any one part of your foot being overloaded to the point of injury.

If you’re running in Vibrams or other minimalist shoes, it’s really important to focus on your landing for the duration of the run, as even though they might have only a thin sole, you’re not getting the full sensory experience that you would in bare feet.

Regardless of what you wear or don’t wear on your feet, it’s also essential that you listen to what your body is telling you. If you find yourself beginning to develop pains when you run, take note of them and try adjusting your form. Bend your knees, relax your ankles and increase your cadence. If the pain persists, stop running, walk for a bit and see if it goes away. If the pain continues, take a day or two off. Lastly if it doesn’t improve, go see your doctor.

By being sensible and working on your running form, you will be able to run injury-free and take full advantage of the equipment that nature gave you. Don’t let the fear of getting hurt stop you from enjoying this incredible sport, but don’t be complacent either. There are no guarantees that you will never hurt yourself, but as with most things in life, a little care and patience goes a long way.

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4 Responses to How to not break your toes in Vibrams

  1. You’ve probably already discussed this in another post, but I think the types of surfaces one runs on is pretty relevant to the injury discussion. It seems to me that the human foot did not evolve to run barefoot on something as hard as cement, so I have to wonder if people who only run on dirt trails would get tarsal and metatarsal fractures. The weight of the runner may also be an issue. For example, if I were to gain 20 pounds, I would obviously be putting a lot more strain on my skeletal system than I do now.

    • Thanks for the comment padawan, you raise a couple of great points.

      With regards to the terrain question, I think a post on it is a great idea – I’ll add it to my list. I personally think that the dangers of running on cement are overstated…there are a lot worse terrains in nature, from hard earth to permafrost to rocky mountain trails. The only real drawback is perhaps the uniformity of it, but the jury’s out on this one. This is one area I’d love to see some research done on…

      As for the weight issue. I’ll do some research and see what I can come up with. I know for certain that it’s much easier to run with less weight on, as would make sense, but I’m not really sure how this affects barefooting in particular. Watch this space and hopefully I’ll be able to come up with some answers for you!

  2. Ryan T. says:

    Not a repetitive-use or hard surface issue, it’s a blunt-force trauma issue: I broke my toe wearing vibrams about three months ago running on a trail. The trail had a lot of exposed tree roots and rocks. Previous runs had me in pain when I landed with all of my weight on hard to see stones with particularly prominent edges. This conditioned me to run with my head down more looking directly where I was landing. But on the run I broke my toe I was tired, my awareness wasn’t what it should have been and I failed to completely clear the tree root during the return phase. Wiped out face first (and got some nasty knee scrapes,) but the toe was the real problem. Not incredibly painful but I have to keep from bearing weight on my toes which precludes me from participation in most athletic activities- even some that are more “heel-borne” like skating. I’ve reaggrevated it several times by running or jumping rope a week or so after the pain had subsided but apparently before it completely healed . It still hurts three months later. Pretty much the only athletic activities I can do are swimming (don’t have regular access to a pool,) biking (don’t own a bike,) or go to the gym and get on the elliptical, rowing machine or some weight lifting.

    • Thanks for sharing, Ryan. Yes, this is definitely something that can happen in minimal shoes and barefoot. Like you said, it often happens when either you’re tired or distracted. I’m sorry to hear that you’re still in pain, and that it’s affecting your running. Unfortunately with fractures, there’s not much you can do but wait until they heal. I hope that you can get back into it soon 😦

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