Most trainers who work in a gym have seen an increase of people wearing the 5-finger shoes. It seems very popular with the body building crew and the person who sits on the recumbent bike. But surprisingly, this shoe that reminds me of an Aquaman costume has had growing double-digit sales since early 2010 when the shoe became a trend.
Before this shoe started selling out at $80 a pair, the barefoot movement happened. In fact, I can remember presenting at an ECA fitness conference in 2006 when a couple people were lecturing on the benefits of barefoot training. As a martial artist who trained 3/4 of my years barefoot while kicking, jumping and running sprints, I thought the buzz was ridiculous. Although I felt that barefoot training was fine for some, I hardly thought it was the most innovative theory or relevant training adaptation.
Now, I have mentioned the 5-finger shoe alongside barefoot training. Yes, I realize they are two different things. But the question I want to answer is : Is it better to run barefoot or in a 5-finger shoe than our running shoe? Are these less supportive options really better for your feet and body?
ACE Exercise Physiologist Pete McCall also contemplated this question and decided to do a study of runners in running shoes, 5-finger shoes and barefoot. First, you have to ask how is ‘better’ being evaluated. The ACE study essentially looked at injury potential. Runners do something called heel striking. As they make contact with the pavement, their heel strikes with a specific force. Those with a harder heel strike are more likely to generally develop chronic injuries. This was one very important observation that was recorded on all subjects (they used 3-D motion analysis).
The results were fairly predictable. About 50% of the subjects that used the barefoot or 5-finger shoes changed their gate from a heel strike pattern to a forefoot pattern. A forefoot pattern is when the area around the ball of the foot hits the pavement first. This is a healthier stride when you do not have the protection and cushion offered in a running shoe to protect your lower limb. The other 50% simply followed their natural stride, which included heel striking. The ACE research team concluded without changing the place of impact on the foot, it is likely chronic injuries of the foot, possibly shin, knee and hip will develop.
So the recommendation is if you are going to toss the running shoes for the latest color 5-finger shoe or save the $80 all together, you may want to first train your body to change the way you run. Practice running with the ball of your foot contacting the ground first. Keep in mind, this type of change is not as simple as changing your hair. It requires a lot of mental focus and training. If you are going to give it a try, be aware of more than the forefoot strike, but also breathing properly, using your arms and taking a consistent stride that allows you to land squarely and properly on the ball of your foot.