On an unseasonably warm January afternoon last year I went for a run with my friend Carrie. Three miles into our six mile journey, I suddenly felt a twinge in my right knee in the location of an old ski injury. No matter how much I tried to stretch it out, it didn’t feel any better. It stayed sore the rest of the night and became too painful to walk down stairs the next day. The injury was diagnosed as bursitis (isn’t that supposed to be for people older than 22?) 6 months later. There was nothing to do but ice it and take ibuprofen.
It was another 19 months before I could run without knee pain again.
I remember the first time I saw them. A free-spirited nymph frolicked in the grass hawking bars of soap and shampoo in them. Her long hair clumped by grease into faux-dreadlocks rendered the cleansers she peddled ironic. However, it was another sign of her connection to the earth which caught my eye– her long red toes.
What the H-E-double hockey sticks was she wearing? Whatever they were, they were creepy.
Several months later I discovered the woman’s so-called shoes were the Vibram Five Fingers (sometimes referred to as “frog feet”).
Manufactured by the legendary rubber sole maker, the shoes with separate pockets for each toe are said to allow your feet and each of their muscles to move naturally to build strength and agility while preventing cuts and scrapes. At the time, I wasn’t sure I bought the whole concept.
Design isn’t the only factor pushing Five Fingers into the forefront; a rash of recent medical studies and news articles have thrown into question everything we’ve come to expect from modern running footwear.
Back in April my good friend Sarah, likely recalling the knee troubles I’d had, sent me an article about the connections between running injuries and shoes. The article referred to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year which revealed there is no proof that any running shoe makes you less prone to injury.
Each year 65 to 80 percent of runners sustain an injury. No matter what their footwear. No matter who they are. Young, old, fat, thin, male, female, recreational or competitive.
That’s a long cry from the commonly advocated position that all runners need a “special” shoe to fit their gait and running style.
In fact, other studies between 1989 and 1991 found that those wearing more expensive shoes ($95) were more than twice as likely to get hurt than those wearing inexpensive shoes ($45). (At least one study did take into account training surface, mileage, speed, motivation of training for competition, injury history and speed. It still found inexpensive feature-bare shoes to be involved in fewer injuries.) One theory behind these findings is that the expensive shoes packed with proprietary technology provide too much cushioning– altering one’s gait in such a way that the lower extremities constantly search for stable grounding and thus increase impact on each footstrike.
All of this information makes me wonder, did that $80 pair of Adidas Trail Response shoes that fit perfectly the first time I put them on (for which reason I bought an extra pair, and then another pair for my mother) contribute to my knee maladies? I hope not. Yet, like the Tootsie Roll Pop question, the world will likely never know. Maybe I simply struck the ground in the right way to aggravate an old injury I never properly took care of.
However, I know for sure the wrong shoes can contribute to serious problems. Two years ago I bought a pair of bright orange Nike + shoes to track my running. I was excited to get a great deal on the shoes, but even more excited that I bought them at a fairly disposable price. Within days I had shin splints and knee and hip pain while wearing them either running or walking. Retiring the shoes proved the only remedy.
Before anyone flocks to the barefooting movement (myself included) experts warn that switching to unshod running too quickly may cause serious foot problems. Beyond the cuts and blisters, tendons, bones and muscles pampered by a lifetime of shoes may be injured. They suggest easing into it, walking around barefoot at home and starting with light training on clean sidewalks or grass. Alternatively, one can try low-tech, thinner soled shoes that encourage weight to land on the ball of the foot, instead of starting with a heel strike like thick shoes. Runners can then move into barefoot running. Vibram suggests a similar process for preparing to wear Five Fingers.
I plan on trying to work my way into a little barefoot running. It could help my knee and hip, which have both been uncomfortable since that lovely January day in Chicago. I’ll follow up as to if it’s a successful venture or not. Who knows, maybe I’ll even cave to my gear-head tendencies and try out the goofy frog feet for myself. I’m finding myself a potential believer.
Feel free to share your own sporting equipment or running experiences and play safe out there!