Vibram’s Lawsuit Settlement: Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

This past week, my inbox, Twitter account and Facebook feed have been inundated with the same article about how Vibram settled the class-action lawsuit against it, to the tune of $3.75 million.

Honestly, I think that there was a case against them, and that they may have been premature about making claims about injury prevention. However, there is one part of the case which has me fuming, and which is conveniently the core argument of most of the articles I’ve read. Note: I’m not going to link to any of these articles here, but Google “Vibram Class Action” if you haven’t read about the case yet. 

What I’m referring to is the now famous Foot Bone Marrow Edema after 10-Week Transition to Minimalist Running Shoes (pdf) study published by the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Every article that I’ve read so far about this issue has held this study up as proof-positive that Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) are the devil’s work, and will cause severe injury to anyone who tries a pair on.

Having actually read the report, I find it surprising that anyone would use it as the basis for an argument, let alone a court case. Though it was carried out by a reputable organisation, with good intentions and, for the most part, careful measurements, in truth, the study falls down in several areas:

  1. Sample Size: There were 36 participants at the start of the study. 10 of these were used as a control group, meaning that only 19 runners were wearing Vibrams. This is a tiny sample size, which could very easily cause statistical anomalies to corrupt the results.
  2. Runner choice: The participants (men and women) were all running 15-30 miles per week for 6 months prior to the study. This shows that each runner was likely quite experienced, and probably used to a particular style of running. Transitioning to a new strike style for this group may have been more likely to cause injury than for runners with different levels of ability, especially beginners.
  3. Unclear Transition Instructions: The study claims to have used the transitioning guidelines published on the Vibram website in 2011 (or 2010, depending on where in the study you look). Unfortunately, these are not described, and not correctly/adequately cited. We don’t know what the guidelines were, so it’s hard to assess if they were followed correctly.
  4. Concurrent Running in Regular Shoes: As per the study, participants in the VFF group were also running most of their mileage wearing regular running shoes. It’s pretty difficult to determine whether or not the use of VFFs is the cause of the reported injuries, or the combination of VFFs and running. Eg it can’t be ruled out that a hybrid transitional period is more detrimental than a cold-turkey approach.
  5. Runner Nationality: From what I can tell, the participants in this study were all Haitians, and I assume the study took place in Haiti. There don’t appear to be any concessions made to the runners’ nationalities. The study cannot conclusively show that the injuries demonstrated are not exclusive to the Haitian population. Unlikely, sure, but there are significant differences in diet, fitness levels, environment between Haiti, and America or Australia.
  6. Uncooperative Participants: The participants of the study were required to record their progress in a journal, detailing their mileage in and out of VFFs. However, as the study states, “this did not happen for the majority of subjects“. A study is not a study when the subjects are not adequately supervised or their progress recorded. There have been several studies in the past that have made this same error, and IMHO it completely invalidates the research being performed.

What really worries me though is not the study so much as the media/blogosphere beatup that ensued. The study concludes with:

Thus, to minimize the risk of bone stress injury, runners who want to run in VFF should transition over a longer duration than 10 weeks and at a lower intensity (miles per week) than the subjects in this study

That seems to me a fair conclusion given the results of the study. Note that it is not said that VFFs are inherently dangerous or that running in them will always cause injury. As Vibram and countless others have done, the study recommends patience and prudence, building up mileage slowly and not pushing too hard. Sound familiar?

Studying running, and especially, it would seem, barefoot running, is tricky work. There are thousands of variables to be taken into consideration. There are ways of going about it, but unfortunately, this requires money, time, and willing participants, all of which seem sorely lacking.

What we need to do in the meantime, however, is look past the sensationalist claims of both sides of the argument, and do our best to make sensible choices. The jury’s still well and truly out on the barefoot/minimalist vs Big Shoe (you like that? I just made it up), so until we get at least 1 decent study (please!), we’re left to work it out for ourselves.

Ultimately, when making any major change in life, it’s important to do your homework, tread carefully and take responsibility for your actions. Anyone that’s taken up barefoot/minimal running since 2009 has no excuse for not educating themselves and learning about the risks of transitioning, which have been widely cautioned against.

So remember, take your time, listen to your body, and learn your limits. Switching from bulky sneakers to minimal shoes or barefoot is a big adjustment that shouldn’t be treated lightly. We’ve spent years getting accustomed to running around with marshmallows on our feet, and for most people it will take a long time to fix that.

How To Buy Minimalist Shoes

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

Are you in the market for a pair of minimalist shoes? If you are, then best of luck to
you! Unlike just a couple of years ago, we now have hundreds, if not thousands of styles
to choose from. Selecting the best pair for you can be a daunting task, so I’ve put
together this guide to help you out.

A lot of the new shoes that are being marketed as ‘minimal’ these days just plain aren’t and this can be very confusing. Below are a few criteria that make up a true minimalist shoe, and are things that you should look for when you go shopping.

Weight

Weight is really the big one. This is where minimal shoes really give runners a big advantage. The average ‘normal’ running shoe can weigh between 10 and 20 ounces (ounces seem to be the standard measurement of shoe weight out there, so for now I’m going non-metric). Minimal shoes, on the other hand, usually weigh less than 8oz.

This difference in weight allows us to run more efficiently. Every time you lift your foot, you of course lift the shoe you’re wearing. Over a few steps a couple extra ounces won’t make much difference, but as you run more and more, this small difference in weight can really add up.

In my experience, running in lighter shoes has enabled me to go further and faster than I ever had before. Look for the lightest shoes you can find. Usually the best ones are less than 5oz.

Drop

One of the fancy terms that you will no-doubt hear as you shop for minimal shoes is ‘zero-drop’. The ‘drop’ is the difference in height from the back of the shoe versus the front. Generally this will be a positive number as most shoes have a built-up heel. So, for example, a shoe that’s 12mm thick at the heel and a 4mm at the toe will have a Drop value of 8mm (12-4=8).

Basically the idea is that having a Drop value of 0 means that there’s no slope to how your foot sits, so your foot sits more naturally. Beware though, as there are a number of tricky little tricks that shoe companies will try to make their ‘zero drop’ shoes sound more minimal than they are.

Zero-drop is usually defined as anything less than 4mm, so right off the bat, you may find that your shoes have a built-up heel, even when it is suggested that they don’t. So make sure that you check the actual drop in millimetres before you make your purchase.

The other thing to watch out for is that just because a shoe is zero drop, doesn’t mean that it’s zero padding. A shoe with a 12mm heel and a 12mm toe is still technically ‘zero-drop’, but certainly not minimal (I’m looking at you, Nike Free).

Ground-feel

Which brings us to ground-feel. As you might have guessed, this is an indication of how well you can feel the terrain beneath your feet. It’s a very subjective value and can be difficult to ascertain in the flat, featureless landscape of a shoe shop.

Ground-feel is very important as it will give your body feedback that it can use to adjust your form with. The more ground-feel your shoe allows (ie, the closer to barefoot), the better, as you can never have too much feedback.

A simple test that I use to get a rough indication of ground-feel in the store, is to step on a shoelace while wearing the shoes. In a nice, thin pair of minimals, you should have no problem feeling it underfoot. If you can’t feel it, then you may as well be wearing 10 pairs of socks for the amount of help your shoes are going to be to keeping your form in check.

Flexibility

When you buy minimal shoes, you want to find a pair that allow your feet to move as freely and naturally as possible. Flexibility is really important as it will help you strengthen your feet and run as your body intended.

Like ground-feel, flexibility is pretty subjective, but you can test it out by trying 2 quick tests.

The first is to touch the toe of the shoe to the heel. Your shoe should definitely be able to do this when bending them upwards, but the best shoes pass this test in both directions.

The second test is the Twist test. Grasping the heel in one hand and the toe of the shoe in the other, give them a twist. You should be able to do at least a 180 degree twist, or better yet, a full 360 degree twist for maximum flexibility.

Fit

The last major consideration is to make sure that the shoes fit correctly. There are a lot of different styles out there, and each of them fits a little bit differently. This is where going to an actual store comes in handy, as the staff should be able to help you ensure a correct fit.

This is really important, because even if you buy the best shoes out there, if they’re too big or small, then you could really do yourself a damage. Beware of online sizing
and make sure you go out and try a pair before you buy.

By following these guidelines, you’ll be able to avoid a lot of the major pitfalls of shopping for shoes, and make your next pair a valuable addition to your running toolbox.

So You Want To Run In Minimalist Shoes

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

So I spent most of this weekend fielding questions, comments, tweets, and emails about the recent Art Of Manliness article that came out last week. There were some excellent points raised, and I got the feeling that this is a topic that interests a lot of people.

One of the major themes that came up over and over was the question of injuries related to running in minimalist shoes. If you read the comments you will have seen a number of anecdotes from people who have hurt themselves learning how to run in them.

To address these comments, and in an effort to make it easier to understand the risks involved in minimalist running, I’ve put together this post, which I hope will help new runners avoid making injury-inducing mistakes.

Minimal Running Isn’t Barefoot Running

I think first off, that it’s important to make a distinction between minimalist running and barefoot running.

Barefoot running means that your bare feet are touching the ground as you run. This means no socks, no shoes, nothing.

Minimal, however can mean pretty much anything else. If we go by what the shoe companies tell us, minimal shoes can range from those made from the thinnest materials, such as paper all the way up to padded shoes that supposedly mimic barefoot running (such as the Nike Free).

When you run barefoot, the amount of sensation that you experience is huge, and though you get used to the signals and what is felt as pain initially dwindles, you will always retain the full range of sensation, no matter how long you run barefoot for. This increased sensation acts as a built-in checking mechanism that ensures that you don’t overdo it and cause yourself serious injury.

Similarly, when you slip on minimalist shoes for the first time, you will feel a whole new world of sensations. You may be able to feel the individual pebbles beneath your feet and get a range of motion that was impossible in regular running shoes. The problem is though, that this newfound sensitivity doesn’t last.

Before long, minimalist running can lull you into a false sense of security. They knock off a few of the rough edges and allows you to run further and faster than you would in bare feet. This may seem to be a great advantage, and treated with care, it is, but complacency breeds bad habits. Once you grow complacent, it’s easy to push yourself a bit too hard, or run a bit too far, and this is where injuries happen.

Avoiding Injury

It’s because of injuries and the reduced sensation that comes with minimal shoes that a lot of ‘true’ barefoot runners avoid them, and actively discourage people from using them. Exchanges can become heated, but largely this is an effort by barefoot runners to try to save people from themselves.

It’s human nature to push boundaries, and to (over)indulge in experiences that feel good. Minimalist running allows us to do both, which is where the problems start.

So can you run in minimalist shoes without getting hurt? Sure! But you have to be sensible. One of the major tenets of this site, and what I tell every new barefoot or minimal runner is to listen to your body. You really have to make a conscious effort to do this on every run.

On top of this, you will need to pay extra attention to keeping your feet strong. Walk barefoot as much as possible. Do feet and lower leg exercises regularly.

Most importantly, know your limits. If you can’t run a distance with perfect form, you shouldn’t be running it. This is where a lot of minimal runners get into trouble. It’s fun to sign up for races and push yourself to the limits. Everyone who has completed a race knows that they go a little faster on race day, and push a little harder. This is true of barefoot running, as much as anything, but the key difference is that in minimal shoes you can exceed your body’s limits a lot easier than you can barefoot, and this puts you at risk of injury.

The Second Transition

This site is targeted mainly at beginning barefoot and minimalist runners, but since we’re talking about the risks involved in minimal running, I think it’s a good place to bring up something that’s very common, yet little-discussed. I call it the Second Transition, and for most minimal runners, it seems to occur around the two year mark.

What happens is that the runner makes it through the initial transition into minimal running, and it becomes a habit. They will be running regularly, racing regularly, and generally having a great time of it. Encouraged by past successes, they will slowly begin to ignore the warning signs, and before they know it, an injury hits.

The injury involved will often be quite serious because of the distances and/or speeds that have been reached by the runner. I’ve heard stories of metatarsal fractures, ruptured Achilles tendons, and even plantar fasciitis.

This seems to be a turning point for many minimalist runners. It is here that they will either give up minimal running, be forced to take a break due to injury, or else take the next step and transition to barefoot running.

I lucked out in that I had heard of this phenomenon and transitioned to barefoot before it happened to me, but many people aren’t as lucky.

I don’t mean this to frighten you, but it’s important to highlight the dangers of becoming complacent and over-reaching when wearing shoes, even when you’ve become an experienced runner.

It’s Not All Bad

I don’t want to end this article on a down note, and deter future barefoot runners from giving it a go. Minimal shoes are an excellent way to give you the confidence to try out a new sport in a more familiar and comforting way.

Used correctly, you can have many years of injury-free running ahead of you, and I sincerely hope you do. Just keep in mind that barefoot and minimal running are more than just a fad or a neat party trick. It’s a serious sport and one that needs to be treated with respect.

So, get out there, enjoy yourself, and don’t forget to listen to your body!

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.

5 Tips For Surviving Your First Run In Vibrams

By Barefoot Dawsy

There’s something about running in Vibrams that makes you want to run farther. Unfortunately, for most new Vibram wearers, this feeling can often lead to the dreaded sore calves that are the trademark of doing Too Much Too Soon (TMTS). The problem is that it just feels so good to run with light feet that can feel the ground beneath them!

The disadvantage to taking your first ‘barefoot’ steps in shoes versus actually barefoot is that Vibram makes excellent soles. What this means for you as a new runner is that you can run and run and your own soles won’t hurt at all. Try this barefooted, and your foot pads will be screaming.

At this point, the best advice is of course to go slowly, spend a good few weeks building up your strength and improving your form. This is great, and highly recommended, but the reality is that you’re probably going to get caught up in the moment and ignore the whole tranistion thing (shame, shame 😉 ).

With this in mind, I’ve put together a few tips to surviving your first Vibrams run. If you do nothing else but these things, you still stand a good chance of making it home with your Achilles tendons intact.

1. Stretch those calves!

Normally I don’t advocate stretching before a run, however if you are used to wearing conventional shoes, you’re  going to need a bit of rehab before hitting (caressing, really) the pavement. So, while you’re shopping for your first pair of Vibrams, making your mind up, etc, spend some time getting your calves ready. Every day, and especially before that fateful first run, do some simple calf exercises. 3 sets of 10 calf raises should be enough. This will let your Achilles tendon lengthen a bit and your calves develop a bit more strength. The longer you can do this before your first run, the better, so start now!

2. Take Small Steps

You’re making a big transition by moving from regular shoes to minimals, so you’re going to have to start catering for this. I can’t go through everything about proper form (see the rest of this site for details), but if you’re going to do just 1 thing to start working on this, it’s to take small steps. The smaller your steps, the more likely you will be to keep your feet under your centre of gravity. Doing this will reduce your tendency to heel strike and overstride, and will reduce the impact forces on your feet and joints as you run.

3. Take It Slow

You will be tempted to ramp up the speed on your first run. By all means, do a couple little sprints, but try to keep the speed down at first. The slower you go, the easier it is to tread lightly, make corrections, and to react to changes in terrain, etc.

4. Walk It Off

Waling is an excellent way to let your body recover from a run, and should especially not be excluded from your first minimal run. As a rule of thumb, once your run is done, walk for 30 seconds for every minute that you ran. This will help your muscles stretch out and cool down gradually, which will make all the difference to your recovery.

5. Take A Break

A lot of time with running, the day after is nowhere near as painful as the day-after-the-day-after. This is especially true when you’re wearing minimal shoes as there is very little protecting you from your own mistakes. When easing into running ‘barefoot’, make sure that you give yourself at least 2 days off after your first run.

There are thousands of tips that I gan give you to take with you on your first run, but if you stick to these 5, you will greatly improve your chances of making it home in one piece. Running in Vibrams (or better yet, barefoot) is a joy that has turned many a couch-potato into a distance runner (myself included), so get out there, and enjoy yourself!

How Twitter Cost Me A Pair of Vibrams

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

Bye Bye Vibrams

Bye Bye Vibrams

This weekend I participated in the #TwitterRoadRace, an online event where you just run 5k and report yor time. It’s all in good fun, and I’ve been looking forward to it as my first race of 2012. It ended up being one of the biggest learning experiences of my barefooting career.

Before I go into what happened that I thought was blog-worthy, I need to give you a bit of background.

Part 1: The Old Days

My preferred running distance is 10-15k and I tend to stick in this range for the most part during training and racing. Knocking out the occasional 5k is not usually any problem, and I quite enjoy them. I typically set times for that distance at about 25 minutes, though I probably could go faster in a race (I’ve never raced this distance before).

Now the trouble started in December when I hurt my back (in a non-running incident), which left me unable to run or do any vigorous exercise for about a month. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been getting out and doing the odd kilometre barefoot, keeping it slow and trying to get better. This week my back improved enough that I decided to tackle the race.

Now, going into the race, I knew 2 things:

1. I wasn’t ready to run 5k
2. If I wanted to run a decent time, I’d need to wear shoes (more on this later)

I’ve been running exclusively barefoot for about half a year, and in dribs and drabs for a couple years before that. I know how to run barefoot, normally do it often, and enjoy it. Before I went to exclusive barefooting, however, I learned to run in minimalist shoes (Vibram KSOs). I never had any injuries in the Vibrams, and always raced well in them.

Despite the fact that I posted my best ever time when barefoot, I always had it in my mind that the Vibrams were my secret weapon that I oculd bring out to increase my distance and/or speed in a race. Boy was I wrong.

The Race

With the exception of the Mud Run in December 2011, which was more of a Fun Walk, I haven’t run in Vibrams for 6 months. Despite this, I strapped them on, started my stopwatch and headed out to race. I started at a good pace, if a little slower than my best. I didn’t want to end up hurting myself so I pulled back a bit. By the halfway point, I was on track for a 26 minute race. Then about 100m from the turnaround, I started to get a pain in my foot. It was a really sharp pain right in the middle of my forefoot. It came on so suddenly and aggressively that after only a few steps, I had to stop.

After a moment of consideration, I whipped off the shoes and continued on. The pain subsided almost immediately and was gone within a kilometer of where it occurred. A few minutes out from the finish, I decided to try an experiment and put the shoes back on. Within seconds, the pain was back!

I finished the race, wincing, in 27:46.

The Aftermath

As I sit here, typing away, I can still feel a little pain in my foot. It feels like I may have a bruise or that the bones are rubbiing against each other. Either way it’s unpleasant, but should hopefully go away with a bit of rest.

It’s funny that after so much time spent running barefoot, learning and teaching about it, that I would fall prey to some of the classic problems that new barefooters experience: Doing too much too soon (TMTS), running in shoes, and not listening to my body.

If I had listened to my body I would have known my limitations and would have either run the race slower, or put it off until I was ready. If I hadn’t worn shoes I would have run with better form, which would have made it less likely that I would have hurt my foot.

At this point I’m thinking that I will hang up my minimals for good and run and race solely in bare soles from now on. I hope that the new barefooters reading this can take something from this experience and try leaving the minimals at home, and that experienced runners recoverng from injuries do the same.

PS: Damn, I just noticed that I’ve even got a blister on the side of my foot!

A Simple Way To Ease Sore Calves And Achilles’ Pain

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

When I was first learning to run in Vibrams, I, like nearly every other minimalist runner I’ve met, was plagued with sore calves and mild Achilles tendonitis. I knew I should have started slowly and not tried to do too much too soon, but I just couldn’t resist.  Though it was a painful endeavour, I did manage to learn about a great exercise at that time that really helped.

So, if you’ve found yourself in this situation or want to avoid going through the pain, I’ve got the workout for you, and it’s as simple as anything!

To start off, remove your shoes (of course) and find a step of some sort. You’ll want something a good few inches off the ground and sturdy enough to hold your weight. Stairs are ideal.

Place your feet on the step so that your forefeet are resting at the edge of the step and your heels are hanging off.

Now, keeping your knees locked and your body nice and straight, slowly dip your heels as low as they can go. You should feel a nice stretch in your Achilles tendons. Try not to bounce, and ensure that your descent is nice and controlled. It should take about 3 seconds for your heels to reach their lowest point.

Pause at the bottom for a couple of seconds, then lift your heels slowly up again, and keep lifting until your heels are as high as they’ll go. You should now feel your calves starting to kick in. Again, this should take about 3 seconds.

Pause again at the top and lower your heels back down. Repeat this 10 times for a pre-run stretch (this is the only stretch I recommend before a run).And another 10 times when you get back.

You can also use this exercise as a great lower leg strengthener, as it uses muscles from your toes up to your knees. Before you do your first barefoot run, I’d recommend doing 4-5 sets of 10 reps of these daily for a week or two. By doing this, you’ll have much stronger feet when you start running than you would if you didn’t do it, which could save you a lot of discomfort.

Remember, this exercise is no substitute for slow transition or learning proper form, but it will give you a little bit of an edge in preventing some serious discomfort.

Have you tried this before? How did you like it? Did it make any difference for you? Leave a comment!