Thursday, August 13, 2009

ROCK Your Feet! Vibram Five Fingers & Foot Fitness

Coach RJ's new VFFs-they ROCK!!!

Let's talk foot fitness! But first, where my recent interest in foot fitness all began...I was working at the US Olympic Training Center for USA Track & Field Elite Development the summer of 2004. One of the Olympic exercise physiologist came in for a presentation and start talking about how our shoes today are made so "well" that they are making our feet weak. They discovered with our Olympic athletes that their feet weakness was allowing "force leaks." Force leaks are lateral leaks that decrease the amount of force you are attempting to channel in a straight line--basically it means that you'll slow down and not move as efficiently--maybe even get hurt. He said that after the track workouts, our athletes were taking their high-dollar shoes completely OFF and running...gasp...BAREFOOT running drills on the grass! The barefoot drills were increasing their foot fitness and improving their run times. Fascinating!
Foot Biomechanics 101: The foot is supposed to stabilize. It claws and grips the ground as you walk barefoot. When you wear shoes, the foot does not do as much work; therefore, it gets weaker. Many people NEVER go barefoot! They end up having really detrained and weak feet. Let's look at the kinetic chain from the ground up to the waist. We'll assign only ONE primary function to each major joint area. We have the foot, ankle, knee, and hip. Here are the assignments if everything works correctly:
  • Foot=Stability
  • Ankle=Mobility
  • Knee=Stability
  • Hip=Mobility

If the foot is too weak, it is not stable but too mobile. The excessive mobility in the foot causes a compensation in the ankle. The ankle then gets "stiff" but in an unhealthy way. The ankle being too stiff then requires the knee to shift towards more mobility. The knee does NOT like mobility! The knee is a hinge joint and likes to move in one line. In its optimal line, the knee is very happy. Push it out of alignment, and your ACL, meniscus, etc. will start barking at you or even fail. There seems to be an increasing amount of ACL injuries going around. I'm seeing these concerns in my research journals and other health/fitness postings. Why? Our shoes are at least part of the reason! There is a new book a lot of people in my business are reading and talking about called "Born to Run." The book examines many aspects of ultrarunning but the most amazing one is a tribe in Mexico that has been running hundreds of miles WELL for generations with NO SHOES and without all the "Western" injuries we see in cultures that wear shoes! There is a theory now that conditions like plantar fasciitis, ACL injuries, meniscus injuries, etc. many times are being caused by our shoes that weaken the biomechanical structure of our feet! Let's think about this SIMPLY...if you're running with a fancy air-sole running shoe, you're probably doing a heel-toe strike (unless you're a Chi Runner). If you tried to run heel strike first barefoot, you'd break your foot! So essentially, our "modern" shoes have completely changed the way we've been running for generations. When people run barefoot, they strike on the mid foot for the most part. Your mid foot is where the suspension system is--your "arch." The arch of your foot is spring loaded--it can absorb the foot strike shock. The heel's ability to absorb shock? NOT! You've got a little skin and very thin fat pad then your calcaneous bone underneath. Hit the heel first and you'll get way more shock up your leg into your back. Strike on the mid foot and you'll be absorbing the shock the way the foot is supposed to absorb it. Pretty cool isn't it?!!!

Basically--our shoes are made too well and make our feet weak and lazy. Everything up the kinetic chain from our weakened bases of support (feet) are then compromised. Again, I'm fascinated with all this talk on foot fitness!

Fellow RKC Kettlebell Instructor and author of "The Four Hour Work Week" Tim Ferriss put up a GREAT post and video on the Vibram Five Fingers. It's an absolute must if you're interested in what I explained above. Here's the link:

Fast forward a couple of years and I heard yet more about foot fitness related to our feet being too weak and less than biomechanically efficient. Nike created a new called the "Free" which is supposed to mimic "bare foot" running then a book came out called "Chi Running" which talks about completely running with a different foot strike--basically more like barefoot runners where you lean forward from the ankles and make a mid-foot strike instead of the heal-toe strike that most of us use when running.
Fast forward again to May 2008. I took my very first Russian Kettlebell class from RKC Delaine Ross in Atlanta. When I walked in she was wearing these weird reptilian looking shoe things that had toe fingers in them. I was fascinated! They were Vibram Five Fingers. She said they made her feet stronger...hmmm...there is that foot fitness thing again. As I got heavily into the kettlebell scene with the RKC, I began doing my KB workouts barefoot or with really hard soled shoes. The first week of kettlebell training one area of my body was the MOST sore. Guess which area? A likely guess would be my butt--but it was my FEET! I could barely walk for a week! And yes, my ass was on fire for a few days too, but mainly the soreness was in my feet! Why? They were weak from wearing shoes too often!
When I started running collegiate X-country, my feet hurt like hell. I had to get orthotics made. The joint pain in my feet went away. When I started training more for function, my feet got stronger from all the balance and proprioceptive challenging drills I was doing along with the speed, agility, quickness drills--but I was still wearing my shoes with orthotics. When I shifted to barefoot kettlebell training, my feet got stronger yet again.
So here we are today. My kettlebell mentor Dr. Mark Cheng of Kettlebells Los Angeles showed up one morning a few weeks ago wearing his new VFFs and was talking about his daily runs in them. Okay! I had enough at that point! Time to do the barefoot throw down! After 14 months of hearing about the Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs), I finally purchased a pair. My feet loved them the first day! Now I'm wearing them all over the place. I just got my second pair in black. I prefer the KSO model because they have more covering over the tops of my feet. Most of my kettlebell workouts are on the grass at the park, so they Keep Stuff Out--hence the name "KSO."
On a side note, I've had horrible issues with plantar fasciitis the last three years from all my excessive driving. As a corporate Wellcoach, I have to cover a lot of ground on my site visits. I can be in my car for 3-4 hours per day. The static posture of my accelerator foot has messed up my foot's biomechanics. I've been through hell with my foot, and basically had to stop running for the most part. My biggest fear when I started the kettlebell training was my foot. I was scared that the "barefoot" training would aggravate my plantar fasciitis condition, but guess what? The barefoot workouts never bothered my foot. My foot actually seemed to get better as the foot got stronger...fascinating!
The last few weeks of wearing my VFFs has been pretty amazing. I have even done some barefoot running while on the grass. My plantar fasciitis got better the FIRST WEEK I wore my VFFs! For the first time in three years, I did a one-hour trail run without any foot problems last weekend. I did use my trail running shoes and orthotics for the actual trail run though as my feet are not quite ready for that much work, but you never know...I might end up running the whole way with them one day!
If you would have told me I'd be running barefoot with VFFs a couple of years ago when the pain in my foot was so bad it felt like someone was driving a nail through my heel, I might have attacked! I have been absolutely fascinated with the function and strength of my feet throughout the last 14 months of Russian Kettlebell training while barefoot or with hard soled shoes and now with my new Vibram Five Fingers. I'm hearing stories from people I know, respect, and trust about how they have not been able to run but now are running with the VFFs! People saying that their chronic back pain or knee pain is GONE now that they are wearing the VFFs and the feet are doing what they are supposed to be doing--stabilizing and clawing the ground. While the jury is still a little out, I think the VFFs are going to significantly help my feet and the entire biomechanics of my body. If you have foot, knee, hip, or back problems, you might want to consider the above comments and consider going bare foot once in a while...maybe even some VFFs for yourself!
Where to Buy VFFs?
In Los Angeles, you can buy them at the Adventure-16 outdoor store, but both times I went in there they did not have my size available. Your best bet is to just order them on-line right from Vibram. They'll come in about a week. The trick is sizing. They give some tips on-line for sizing, or you can find a retailer and get your foot measured. If they don't have them at the retail store that day, you've at least sized your foot properly. If you order off the Vibram Five Fingers website, click on any shoe product page to get their conversion chart for self sizing.
I hope this helps a few people. I've learned a lot about feet the last few years and how important they are to movement. Take care of your feet Comrades--take OFF your shoes!
In Foot Fitness, Coach RJ!


Anonymous said...

Awesome post Coach! I'm still rockin' my VFFs and am considering a 2nd pair so I don't have to wash them everyweek. I have the classics and are thinking about the Flows for the winter or at least the KSOs.

I'll keep you posted!

Juan said...

Great stuff on foot biomechanics. This encourages me to ramp up my running and not be worried about my knees wearing out before their time,(something I've heard all my life)! I will have to give the VFF's a try! Thanks again coach RJ!

Coach RJ said...

Thanks for the comments. So far so good Joy! We both have felt the benefits...Juan is close behind! Rock the feet!

Delaine R said...

Great post with lots of really good information! I love it! See you in a couple of weeks.

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Felcy said...

This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and needs to be appreciated by everyone.

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Unknown said...

Yeah vibram five fingers shoes definitely rock because of its comfort brings on your foot.


Unknown said...

I was surprised at how quick my plantar fasciitis disappeared after a few walks in my VFF's.

My right foot would hurt for 3-days after a hike. A couple of weeks going for short walks in the VFF's strengthened up my foot so that now I can hike (in VFF's) pain free.

Pretty amazing.

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