I have spent nearly two decades with chronic back, SI joint, hip and knee pain from an injury I received while in the military. Even after serious back surgery the problems persisted and I’m always looking for new ways to help minimize my daily pain. Many methods I have tried over the last several years have definitely helped, such as taking turmeric, grounding and chryotherapy to name a few.
I had always wanted to give the Vibram Five Fingers a try, as some of my Primal/Paleo friends had sworn by them. Being new, and not overly educated in this type of footwear, I thought it would be best to go to a specialty footwear store and take a look. This ended up being a wise decision as the sizes for Vibram’s are in the European standard, which is much different from American sizing we are used to. Also with any new shoe brand you are trying, they all fit differently, so I recommend if you are interested in minimalist shoes you go to a store and try them on first. In addition, I recommend you purchase the special socks that are made for Five Fingers, basically the socks have the toes stitched in. I guarantee you will fall in love with the socks they are supper comfortable! The reason I recommend the socks is your feet sweat less and even though the stitching in the shoe is minimal you can still feel it.
Once I found my proper size I took them for a stroll around the store and parking lot. Instantly, I noticed the Vibram Five Fingers were a much different beast than what I was normally accustomed to. But you all know I like to give things a full try in order to see if there is something behind the hype. The first thing I did was go on a 4-5 mile walk that night, and wow did my feet and ankles hurt after that. You have to realize the Vibram’s do not have any real cushioning system in them – that is the point; to get you closer to earth and your natural standing and walking motion. It takes a couple months for your feet, ankles, hips and calves to adapt to this new type of shoe. You have to remember that you’re using muscles, especially in your feet and calves, that you don’t really use in our standard shoe design today, which has a raised heel.
The biggest difference I noticed was in my hips, they were pretty sore for the first couple of months, but that was to be expected. Once everything started to settle in over the next 2-3 months, I noticed a significant difference in the level of pain I was in on a daily basis. Now I didn’t get rid of all the pain, but it was better than it was before and for me that was well worth making the switch.
Matter of fact, I’ve tossed out all of my old cushioned running shoes, as when I wear them they instantly put pressure on my back and I feel like I’m walking around in high heels. The best part when I travel my Five Fingers take up about a quarter of the space my old workout shoes did in my suitcase.
How and Why They Work
The following information is based on my professional observations and my understanding of the musculoskeletal system.
When you wear a shoe that has an elevated heel, it rotates your pelvis down and back. To understand how this works put your hands on your hips and rotate your hands towards your lower butt (my scientific terminology at its best!). You will instantly feel the pressure on your lower back, especially in the L-4, L-5 and S-1 region, which is the root of almost all back pain and problems today. Basically by wearing shoes with a raised heel you are putting constant pressure on your hips, rotating them into an unnatural position, which then puts compressional force on your lower back.
Humans are meant to walk, jog and run slightly canted forward. The obvious reason is to take the pressure off of your lower back and joints by making you use the balls of your feet to absorb the force created by your body on an a static object (the ground). We are not meant to be primarily heel strikers, which is how all modern running and workout shoes are made (to absorb heel striking). The problem is that by making the heel thicker you naturally become a heel striker, because it is the first part of the shoe that will hit the ground due to the artificial heel heightening.
All running shoes today are based on reducing or trying to eliminate pronation (The primary concept of pronation indicates overpronating causes rotation of the lower leg, putting stress on the joints causing a multitude of injuries). I believe heel striking is what causes pronation to occur in the first place because the heel is very narrow, thus making it unstable in a running environment. When you run on the pads of your feet there is much more surface area, so of course using this part of your foot creates more natural stability. What is the result? Your joints will not being torqued in unnatural positions, so eliminating many injuries and overuse conditions.
Let’s look at it in another way, especially when it comes to back compression, in the form of using a basic engineering concept (load). Your heels are pretty much directly aligned with your lower back. So when you run or jog, or for that matter carry heavy objects, using raised heel shoes the force has to be directly applied in a straight line with your lower back. The brunt of all that force is applied to your ankles, knees, hips and back. I think it is becoming very clear why most runners and athletes suffer from these joint injuries. Now when you apply that same force to the ball of your foot the energy is transfered differently. By naturally being canted forward there is no direct up and down force with every step or stride. You have greatly reduced the force by redirecting the angle at which it has been applied. Instead of the energy being applied primarily in the force of the the heel to back you can now utilize that energy more efficiently in getting force to propel you forward. Simply, kinetic energy is transferred from heel striking (verticle force) to the ball of your foot, which transfers it to a more horizontal force. If you are canted forward you are already using less energy for the same motion because your body is already pointed in the direction it is going, which is forward.
Running shoes have the opposite result. They make you run in a more upright position, because with the elevated heel it is incredibly difficult to run on the ball of your foot, because the heel will almost always strike the ground first.
Everyone who makes the switch to minimalist running and workout shoes notices once their muscles and joints have adapted the wear pattern in their minimalist shoes starts to change. At first the heel wears just like any other shoe, but as your body, walking, jogging and running style adapt you will see the wear pattern move to ball of the sole. Hmmm… this kind of re-enforces the theory we are meant to primarily use the ball of our foot in our natural walking and running motion. Another big difference, is you will notice your strides will become shorter, because in order to run on the balls of your feet, long strides just don’t work and they are incredibly painful and you will then have to heel strike again.
Even though, you would think the slapping of your feet, by utilizing the shorter strides and landing on the balls of your feet, would seem to be more jarring, nothing could be further from the truth. I promise you, once you make the full transition you will never be able to wear the standard running/workout shoe for athletic activities again.
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