Vibram Five Fingers (“VFF’s”), barefoot shoes, and Achilles tendonitis

Vibram Five Fingers VFF KSO Barefoot shoes
After having the tendonitis/tendonosis/whatever experience with my elbow (which, after more than six months, is now almost sorted, thanks to my physio I’d add)  I am extremely aware of tendon issues as they are just taking forever to heal, and only heal at all if you do the right exercises. So when after using my VFF’s and Merrell True Gloves my Achilles tendon started hurting a bit I contacted my physio right away. So here is the skinny.

Firstly, for men and women of a certain age (40 and above, but arguably even from 30 onwards) the tendons are deteriorating. Whilst they can bear incredible loads, I understand that they do not really like enormous load differences. What this means is that it is important not only to warm up properly before every tendon-stressing exercise, but also to program load and deload periods properly, ie one should not jump in at the deep end after taking two months off for example.

How is this related to barefoot shoes? Well, it turns VFF’s and Merrels are actually quite hard on the Achilles tendon, as I have experienced first hand. Now this is not enormously surprising I suppose – by definition barefoot is harder than nice cushioned walking – but there is an interesting twist. Obviously, the logical approach to getting used to your VFF’s is a first wear them at the house, then for walking around in general, and then for running. It turns out that this approach is false.

You might remember that I was in Kiev a couple of weeks ago, with my family and with my parents. Classical city visit, and I had only taken my VFF’s and my Merrell’s as shoes. The VFF’s were pretty now at this point, but I had been wearing my Merrels for maybe 4-6weeks already in London, without any problems. Of course, in London I am not walking around, but I am using my scooter. In Kiev on the other hand we were walking – a lot. On stone. I wasnt running at all. However, every evening, my Achilles tendons hurt. Not really badly – nowhere near where my elbow had been – but it was unpleasant, and got worse slowly but surly. So at home I stopped wearing any barefoot shoes for a day or two, and guess what? Things returned to normal.Micro Scooter

I had a discussion with my physio, and he was not as nearly surprised as I was. It turns out, that walking in barefoot shoes is tougher on the tendons than running, at least on a comparable effort basis. Why is that? When running (barefoot), one is running on the balls of the feet which provides a fair amount of impact-dampening. However, walking always goes heel-first, and it turns out that the latter is actually quite hard on the achilles tendon due to a hard lateral movement, especially if you have a lot of lateral ankle flexibility as I have, as it has to take care of all the extra stabilisation work, and it is bio-mechanically not very well equipped to do that.

The gist is that for getting used to barefoot shoes – especially when passing a certain age – it might be better to start using them for running and not for walking. Common sense of course applies: I am not saying that running for hours is better than walking for hours – running with barefoot shoes is also pretty painful, in particular in the muscles of the lower leg. So a good protocol might be the following

  1. Use the VFF’s for walking around the house / garden, but not longer than 1-2h per day, maybe for a week or so
  2. Then take them for a spin jogging – 5min tops on the first day, ideally on grass.
  3. Increase sensibly (maybe 5min every session) and ensure sufficient rest – say 48 hours, ie running only every other day
  4. Only start using them for serious hikes after 1-2 months or so, and again start slowly. 30min might be a good starting point and per-session increment.
  5. Be very attuned to your tendons – the muscular pain might well be much worse at the beginning (and drown out everything else), but it will generally go away quickly, contrary to a full blown tendonopathy.

So, no time to chuck out the nice old padded running shoes quite yet…

3 thoughts on “Vibram Five Fingers (“VFF’s”), barefoot shoes, and Achilles tendonitis

  1. I have started running with 5 fingers and have terrible pain in both Achilles. Tried on grass building up etc, but twice now have ended up in terrible pain. Running uphill not recommended. Begin on flat and very soft ground. Don’t think I can continue with them which is a shame as with trad shoes, I end up with shin splints…best thing I have experienced? Barefoot on treadmill…

  2. Most barefoot runners recommend that you allow your “skin” to be your guide. As you recommend, GRADUALLY increase your duration and distance with the Vibrams. On your first run, carry them in your hands and run barefoot paying attention to your stride. Your skin will tell you how your foot impact should be with the vibrams on. Too many people buy them and use them like just another new pair of shoes.

  3. This was completely my experience. I was running with VFF with no issues (other than extreme muscle soreness)… and then started running out a couple miles and walking back. I now have some new persistent pain in back of my heel. I thought it was the run, but noticed the other day the pain was invisible until I started the walk back. Bought another pair of running shoes and I am going to try rotating (once the pain goes away completely). Thanks for the confirmation of what I was wondering!

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