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From High Heels to Rehab

by Emily Gindle » on Feb 06, 2011 7

Rehabilitation was today’s theme at work. All day long, it seemed, people were looking to Fivefingers as a way to fix something going on with them. It started with me offering advice to a guy who was trying on Fivefingers to add to his new fitness regimen: he was doing P-90X at home and wanted something that would help work his feet out. I told him how much I love using mine for CrossFit–a somewhat similar fitness modality–because they don’t get in the way of any activities the way a pair of clunky cross-trainers sometimes does. You can jump, you can sprint, you can stretch, and your feet are ready for it all.

Then he asked me if it would help his knee problems. I haven’t yet run into anyone who has tried Fivefingers on the recommendation of a podiatrist. But I did offer him my personal experience, which was that I trained to run a half-marathon in running shoes, which always made my knees feel tweaky after eight or nine miles. I never had a heel-strike running gait, as is the plague of so many runners’ knees. Mine was always a forefoot strike, even before switching to Fivefingers. I had twitchy knees and just assumed that that’s what you get when you run so much.

When I switched to Fivefingers, for a while I couldn’t run quite as far or as fast, mostly because my calves would get sore, but my knees never hurt. After a few months, I could run seemingly forever and I got faster than I ever was in regular shoes. I started trail running, and even on varied and rocky terrain, still no issues. In fact, when my feet hurt now I know it’s because I haven’t been on a good long run in a while.

My hunch is that it had less to do with padding and running gait and more to do with a neutral heel. In almost every running shoe (although a company called Innov-8 is making an awesome exception) the heel is raised at least a tiny bit above the level of the ball of the foot. This sets your ankle at a slightly different angle than what’s natural for your body, which sets your knee up for a slightly different angle, which travels up into your hips…

I was explaining all of this to the P-90X guy, who was trying out some KSOs, and his eyes lit up at the mention of hips. “My hips hurt all the time,” he admitted. I told him I couldn’t say if Fivefingers would help him fix that, but I thought getting a neutral shoe and working on good posture was probably worth a try.

A coworker of mine had a stress injury to her Achilles’ tendon and had been walking around in a big plastic boot all month to immobilize her ankle. Today she put her Fivefingers back on for the first time, hoping that they would help strengthen the whole network of muscles that had atrophied.

I spoke with another woman who was buying some Fivefingers for the first time. She was ecstatic about being able to run with them: a treat that was a long time coming. She had spent several years trying to rehabilitate her feet. Her first metatarsal heads used to be swollen with bunions, and one big toe drifted so far over that it cramped itself under the second toe. Hammer toes afflicted the rest of her joints. All these ailments were products of wearing heels to work every day at a hospital. The woman explained that when she began her career, heels were required as part of the professional dress code. She had worked very hard with a brace and with strengthening exercises running in sand to get her feet into better shape, and by the time she walked in our store and showed her feet to me, they looked like pretty normal feet, which is a huge accomplishment for feet that were once bound by such painful shoes.

This woman was getting Fivefingers as a last training tool to help free her feet. She ran around the store, jumped over benches. She was so excited with being able to wear such shoes and use her feet in such a way.

It all got me thinking about the contrast between Fivefingers and orthotics. We carry Superfeet at the store, which is a great insole that gives the foot a lot of support. We recommend these insoles for most shoes, and folks come in for them all the time because they were recommended by their doctors. And yet, when you go to search online for the benefits of orthotics, you’ll see a lot of explanations and opinions–just like you’ll see with Fivefingers–but no scientific studies backing up the efficacy of insoles. The Superfeet rep told me once that this is called “evidence-based research,” meaning: it’s been working for a lot of people for many years, so it’s worth a shot.

I don’t really care if Fivefingers ever get legitimized by scientific studies, or by medical professionals, or by running magazines. I agree with the concept: let your feet work as they were designed. Protect them a little bit. Be sensitive to your body and how it needs you to move. Keep good posture. I think you can’t help but see good results from all that.


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  3. Tina

    February 07th, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I started running this past April after my 12 year old daughter ran a 1/2 marathon. I thought if she can run 13.1, I can run a few miles. I bought an expensive pair of running shoes and started running. Whenever I would reach about 2.5 – 3 miles my IT band would start hurting. I decided in December to try VFF’s. It was a slow transition – I ran too much the 1st day in them and had to sit out a week. I am now up to 6 miles with no IT band pain. I am a total believer in VFF’s. I feel so much freer and lighter when I run in them.


  4. andrew h

    February 07th, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    before vff i had bad knee problems. it was the heel to toe running and cross country that did it. vff have held a tremendous amount. I don’t get any where close to the pain in my knees with vff. Posture is tough because it relies on more than just the way your foot strikes the ground. It could be a problem with the knees not being totally straight or something. I myself realize shoes can’t fix all the problems that come with running, but for me they have helped a tremendous amount in my knee problem.

    Like you said, i trust God, he created us without shoes on and our bodies are built to work properly without shoes. Sure shoes protect your feet but at what cost? I love vff because it allows some protection and allows my feet to behave as they were intended.


  5. Annie Hart

    June 28th, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    I have been rehabbing an ankle injury for 9 months. The ankle bone repaired but it was everything else that was stuck. I went to an orthopedic doctor who helped a bit but my intuition kept telling me that feet are the key to healing the injury of the ankle. Sure enough after 2 weeks with my pink Vibrams my calves are killing me (they haven’t worked this hard in years) but my feet are getting stronger and almost no ankle pain. Yay for restoring our feet to nature. BTW my Dr. said that ‘no Orthopedic doctor believes in these shoes.” No problem, I stopped going to see him. He’s wrong on this one :>)


  6. Josh

    February 08th, 2012 at 12:49 am

    If you want research evidence of the benefits of barefoot running there’s a guy doing a lot of work in this area at Harvard. I can’t remember his name at the moment, but he’s demonstrating a lot of benefits scientifically. One study that stuck out to me was one in which traditional shoe wearers showed significantly more running injuries than barefoot runners.


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