Fitness writer Roy M. Wallack gives a thumbs up to toe shoes.
Debbie Bumgardner is smart. I already guessed that when she told me that she’d lost 70 pounds in the last year by riding a Trikke nearly every day (which I wrote about in a recent L.A. Times story), but I became sure of it when I looked at her feet last month at the Last Saturday of the Month Ride in Long Beach.
That’s because she was wearing a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, the funky “toe shoes” that seem to be everywhere now.
Vibrams are trendy right now, but that’s not why Debbie is smart. Vibrams are simply the most efficient footwear for carving. They give you a unique, tactile contact with the road (through the foot platforms) that lets you read, respond and balance on the terrain far better than heavily-cushioned running shoes do.
All that cushioning not only provides a wobbly, unstable leverage point, but it blocks the vast array of sensors on your soles from doing their job. Actually, all footwear blocks the sensors, but the thin-bottomed Vibrams do it far less than conventional athletic shoes while still offering some protection for the foot.
As Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton and I discuss in our new book, Barefoot Running Step by Step, the foot is the body’s most important structure for safe movement given that it bears the weight of the entire body, and its job starts with the sole.
Your sole is like a coat of smart paint — loaded with sensors and nerve endings that specialize in keeping you from falling. Besides the inner ear, there is nothing more important for staying upright and balanced. Blocking your sole’s sensors even a bit makes you feet deaf and dumb and throws off your balance. The more cushioning you add, the worse it gets.
For runners, the imbalance caused by a thick shoe puts extra stress on joints during impact, increasingly injury potential. For carvers, who don’t deal with impact, the imbalance is more of a performance impediment. You simply won’t go as smoothly or as fast in thick shoes.
The soles are super-sensitive. In fact, University of British Columbia researchers P. M. Kennedy and J. T. Inglis found that the sole has 104 mechanoreceptors, sensors that respond to pressure or indentation (“Distribution and behavior of glabrous cutaneous receptors in the human foot sole,” Journal of Physiology, 2002).
A high percentage of them are specialized, “fast-responding” mechanosensors that allow you to instantly adjust your strength, speed, and flexibility to protect their foot as it lands (if you’re a runner), and to move optimally to keep a rhythm (if you’re a carver).
Because the sole’s job is to constantly gather information, the modern running shoe, with its 1-1/2-inch-tall piles of cushioning, has a dark side. In a landmark study in the journal PM&R entitled The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques, detailed motion analysis was used to compare the form of sixty-eight healthy young adult runners while they ran alternately barefoot and in shoes. The findings revealed “substantial biomechanical changes” when shod, including “disproportionately large increases” in impact to hip, knee, and ankle joints as compared to going barefoot.
Other researchers have found that anything blocking the sole weakens the feet and muffles the information — including Vibrams, flip flops, paper medical booties and socks. So in an ideal world, we’d all be riding barefoot — and be more balanced, faster, and maybe fitter. But even though I now run exclusively barefoot — often for a couple hours straight — you won’t catch me carving unshod, because it’s too dangerous if you take a fall at 15 or 20 mph.
I’m going to be smart like my friend Debbie and wear my Vibrams (or some other minimalist shoes) when I go riding. It’s the next best thing to bare feet.
Check out Roy’s review of toe shoes.