Last week I did a post on the benefits of doing sand training. There is a new shoe called Vibram Fivefingers (actually they have been around for a few years now but they are just beginning to build some steam). This shoe is designed to accomplish the same thing that sand training will do, as far as foot strengthening is concerned. So the question is, do they do it?
Here is the basic principle: God made you barefooted. So why do you need shoes? And how do shoes effect you? If I need shoes, what exactly do I need and how can I keep them as natural as possible?
The answer to the first question is because you have always worn shoes, and now you have soft little girly feet that can’t handle thorn and stickers and such. But shoes do offer protection from glass, hot asphalt and sharp rocks and things. But the problem with shoes is that the more shoe you have, the slower and less athletic you get and the weaker your foot gets. The reason for the slow and nonathletic part is weight. It’s complicated, but has to do with rotational momentum which I will not bore you with. The simple version is that as you add weight to the end of a limb, it dramatically slows down hip speed. This is why track shoes are basically a piece of 2 ounce cloth with a 2 ounce outsole and 2 ounces of spikes. Very light equals very fast. So what about the weak part? If you have kids or have ever been to the doctor with one, you may remember that reflex test that they do on the bottom of the foot. The Doctor drags the handle of the hammer over the bottom of the foot and the baby’s foot curls, toes and all. So why is this relevant? as it turns out, most of the muscles in your foot are primarily reflex activated. So when you step on a rock, a pile of information enters your foot through pressure points and proprioceptors within the various muscles and ligaments though the foot and shin. Then within a few milliseconds your nervous system tells muscles x,y and z to contract this much. hence the baby’s toe curl. The biggest problem with shoes is that they are design to be soft, which spreads pressure out and then doesn’t stimulate those pressure points (in addition to the physics of having a foundation made of soft foam, air, gel and rubber which is a problem of its own). So in the long run, you have all of these muscles that provide a solid interactive foundation for your body, that aren’t working at all because nothing stimulates them, so they get weaker and weaker. Then your keen starts to hurt. What does my foot have to do with my knee hurting? you ask. Jack hammer the foundation of your house from one side to the other, all the way though it, in a few places. But take some pictures in detail of all of you walls and the roof. Then wait to see how many cracks develop through the structure over the next few years (assuming it stays standing that long). When the foundation doesn’t stay firm and do it’s job, everything above it takes a beating until it all fails. So what we really need is the equivalent to a piece of leather wrapped around our foot (that’s where shoes started to help cope with severe terrain). That’s where these shoes come in. They are thick enough to protect your foot from most things, but thin enough to let all of the the information through, so that your foot can actually do what it was designed to do.
Their other benefit is that they encourage natural gait mechanics (the entire series of small and large motions that begins as soon as one feet leaves that ground for any kind of locomotion). The heel strike and rigid mechanics associated with running and speed walking are not natural mechanics, but an acute adaptation to the elevated (and soft) heel associated with your running shoes. Biomechanical analysis (we did some of these studies while I was getting my masters at UT) actually demonstrate the you have the best gate mechanics on your most won out shoes. The problem lies the fact that they are still not good mechanics because you still have an elevated heel in a worn out shoe. This is the reason why you are seeing more and more manufacturers producing “minimalist” shoes. Adidas sponsored most of the research that we did at Tennessee (because they were already sponsoring our teams, it was a good fit, we just had to keep them in the loop). That was 10 years ago. Now they are finally making the shoes, now that all of the research is complete and….now that the market is demanding it. It’s interesting, research is actually influencing a “digression” in shoe technology. But from what I have seen, Vibram has the best shoe for natural mechanics, and foot strengthening currently available.
As far as your athleticism, strength, power, speed and how these shoes will effect that, they are roughly equivalent to Fat Gripz for your lower body. (refer back to my post of Fat Gripz for a refresher)
Personally, I love them and recommend that you all get a pair for your training, and preferably for most of you appropriate daily activities.