Don’t Be A Fitness Newbie Moron: A Personal Trainer’s How-To Guide for Transitioning to Barefoot Running

Me running in Vibram FiveFingers for 9.5mi of the One Run For Boston 2 in Twenty-Nine Palms, CA.

Me running in Vibram FiveFingers for 9.5mi of the One Run For Boston 2 in Twenty-Nine Palms, CA.

On Wednesday, Vibram USA agreed to settle a class action lawsuit regarding advertising claims of the health benefits of their FiveFingers footwear. According to the court filings, Vibram USA opted to make this move to avoid further legal fees and to put the case to rest. The news sparked several postings, ranging from the snarky Deadspin article calling Vibram FiveFinger wearers “suckers,” to more informative articles like from the Washington Post weighing the current research about barefoot running. So, what does this Vibram FiveFingers wearing, long distance running “sucker” of a marathon coach think of this lawsuit and settlement? Well, it reminds me of McDonald’s coffee.

In 1992 a woman was awarded $3 million in punitive damages by McDonald’s after spilling her coffee on her own lap and suffering 3rd degree burns. Should McDonald’s be brewing their coffee scalding hot? Probably not. Was there an amount of blame placed on the woman for spilling hot coffee on herself? According to the courts, yes. Absolutely she was partially to blame for her injuries.

Should Vibram USA have claimed that wearing their footwear would strengthen feet without scientific evidence to back up their claims? No, they definitely jumped the gun on that one. That was a mistake. But I have a major issue with consumers who buy a pair of FiveFingers and jump immediately into their usual workout routines, then find themselves injured and complain that the shoes “don’t work.” That’s bullshit. It’s not the shoes. It’s “user error.”

Allow me to make another comparison. Gym equipment manufacturers advertise that using their machines will make your muscles stronger. However, if an out of shape person purchases a bench press machine, sets it up for the heaviest weight they can possibly carry, whales out a completely inappropriate workout for their muscle condition, and suffers an (inevitable) injury, would you say the gym equipment doesn’t do what it claims? Or would you say the user doesn’t know enough about exercising on a bench press machine to keep themselves from injury? The difference being, exercise machines have science and instructions to back them up, whereas Vibram FiveFingers don’t. But the concept is the same.

I have no research that proves or disproves the benefits or risks of wearing FiveFingers. What I do have is common sense, professional fitness expertise, and personal experience when it comes to exercise, running, and transitioning to “barefoot” running in Vibram FiveFingers. I switched to FiveFingers back in 2009, shortly after completing a 15K while struggling through yet another bout of plantar fasciitis. I’m completely flat-footed. For my entire life up to that point, I’d suffered chronic plantar fasciitis and knee pain. Every podiatrist I’d ever seen prescribed the same solution: ultra supportive shoes with custom cast orthotics. This worked fabulously for strolling casually through a park, or keeping my knees in alignment on a bicycle or in ski boots, but was totally ineffective when it came to preventing pain while running. After doing a lot of research and consulting with other friends in the fitness industry, I decided to chuck my sneakers and make the switch to running in FiveFingers.

I quit regular sneakers cold turkey. Having just run a 15K, most of my training runs had been around the 6 mile mark. The first thing I did after slipping on my first pair of FiveFingers was drop my mileage to two miles of walk-run intervals sprinkled with calf-stretching breaks about every quarter mile. I did this for an entire month. Why did I back down so much in mileage and pace? Because the muscles of my feet and ankles were severely atrophied due to a lifetime of wearing movement-restricting “supportive” sneakers. Most people have weak muscles in their feet and ankles from lack of use. I treated transitioning to FiveFingers like starting day-one at the gym. I focused on giving those support muscles a good, long time to get strong enough to support me on longer runs.

After one entire month of walk-run intervals for two miles I graduated to two miles of straight running… for an entire month. That’s right. I went from running six miles, four days a week to running two miles, three days a week for two whole months. Then came month three, when things got really exciting. I moved on to running three whole miles, three days a week! Crazy times, let me tell you!

At the end of three months of patient, purposeful, slow running peppered with walking intervals and gentle stretching, I was finally confident that I’d given the muscles of my feet and ankles enough time to strengthen to the point where I could finally get back to distance running. Not only was I getting through my runs totally pain free (no plantar fasciitis, no stress fractures, and no knee problems), my feet had grown considerably taller and my ankles were starting to thicken. My calf now sported that sexy, “heart-shaped” definition. In the following six months I registered, trained for, and completed my first two half marathons and my first full marathon, a feat I never could have attempted in my old sneakers due to chronic injury. Since then, I’ve completed seven marathons, countless half marathons, and a half-iron man, and I have done all of my training and racing in Vibram FiveFingers. I have never had issues with stress fractures and I promise you my feet are stronger than they ever were in traditional sneakers.

The moral of the story is this: if you’re planning on trying FiveFingers for your next run, don’t be like the newbie at the gym who takes on way too much on day one. Or even day 15. Transitioning to barefoot running takes a long time. It means having patience, backing WAY down on mileage, and allowing your small, atrophied support muscles enough time to grow strong. Only then can they handle your bigger, tougher, long distance workouts.

Training Plan for Transitioning to Vibram FiveFinger Shoes:

Month One:
Week 1 & 2, 2:2 run/walk intervals 3 days per week (M,W,F)
Week 3 & 4, 2:1 run/walk intervals 3 days per week (M,W,F)
Total distance per run: 2 miles
Recommended: Calf stretches every 1/4 mile.

Month Two:
Week 1 & 2, run 3 days per week (M,W,F)
Week 3 & 4, run 4 days per week (M,W,F,Sa)
Total distance per run: 2 miles
Recommended: Calf stretches every mile.

Month Three:
Week 1 & 2, run 3 days per week (M,W,F)
Week 3 & 4, run 4 days per week (M,W,F,Sa)
Total distance per run: 3 miles
Recommended: Calf stretches at the end of every run.

Looking for some movements to relieve foot and calf muscle stiffness? Check out this video from Essential Somatics:
Somatic Foot Explorations

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