Fivefingers footwear is more efficient for runners than conventional running shoes

Fivefingers footwear for functional feet

When a new (or some may say very old) concept comes along, it is often met with scepticism and resistance.
The barefoot revolution, however, would seem to be an exception to the rule.  Training barefoot has been advocated by many of the leading thinkers in the strength and conditioning industry (Chek 2001, Yessis 1999, McGill 2002), in the running industry (McDougall 2009) and in the rehabilitation sector (Liebenson 2007, Beach 2008, Oschman 2008, Chek 2001, Janda 2007, 1999, Wallden 2008).

Nevertheless, there may be those who still maintain an air of concern – after all, we’ve been conditioned to believe that running on hard surfaces requires a cushioned sole; and that an arch needs support under it or it will collapse.  Yet any barefoot runner or gait lab assistant will be able to tell you something very different about the cushioning; just as an architect will be able to tell you something very different about the arch support.

For many years it has been well known that running barefoot is more efficient than running in a pair of running shoes or “shod” (Warburton 1999).  More recently, running in a minimalist shoe known as Fivefingers has been identified, similarly, as better than running shod (Squadrone & Gallozzi 2009).

However, something intriguing happened in that research study.  To this point, it has always been assumed that the decreased efficiency of walking or running shod (versus barefoot) is down the added weight of a shoe at the end of a very long and swinging lever; the leg.  Yet, in the study comparing Fivefingers footwear with barefoot and with running shoes, it was predictably the running shoes that were least efficient (higher oxygen consumption), the barefoot that was second and wearing Fivefingers was, confusingly, the most efficient (Squadrone & Gallozzi 2009).

Why did this result came about?

It may have been due to the increased grip the Fivefingers offered over barefoot.  Certainly it would seem the weight (a modest 6 grams per shoe) didn’t affect efficiency detrimentally.

Why is barefoot, and now Fivefingers, more efficient than shod running (Squadrone & Gallozzi 2009)? 

There are several clues the biomechanics offer us.  First, going barefoot or barefoot equivalent, results in an increased angle at the ankle joint (ie more plantar flexion) during running, which results in more of forefoot/midfoot strike.  Runners in shoes typically heel strike.  The former is associated with lower joint torques and greater leg stiffness (DeWit et al 2000) – a factor which means less energy from the ground reaction force is lost and hence can be utilised in forward propulsion.  Additionally, the ability to use the toes through their full range of motion (allowing at least 65 degrees of extension) means that the windlass mechanism – a means by which energy is stored and then released by the plantar fascia – can be actively engaged, something that running shoes may inhibit.

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