Minimalist Shoes Improve 'Running Economy'

New study showed better athletic performance in five weeks
Staff Writer

In a four-week training process with Vibram FiveFingers, experienced runners significantly improved their running economy, according to a study published in the Scandanavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.

Running economy is measured by how efficiently athletes use the oxygen they breathe while exercising. The better your body becomes at economizing oxygen, the faster you can run.

The study also showed that, at the end of the integration process, runners were much more economical in the five-toed shoes than in conventional running shoes.

For the study, researchers had 15 experienced runners gradually increase their mileage in FiveFingers. The athletes were all well trained with an average 1500-meter PR of 4:00 (the equivalent of about a 4:17 mile). This fact helped cut down on the number of miscellaneous factors that could affect the results. The experienced runners had already trained in ways that would improve their running efficiency, such as incorporating speed work into their workouts. Improvements in running economy in such a short time could therefore indicate something significant was happening beyond normal results from training.

At the start of the study, researchers measured subjects’ running economy twice—once while each person ran in conventional running shoes (the Asics Nimbus) and again when they ran in the Vibram FiveFingers. The subjects ran twice at paces of 11 and 13 kilometers per hour—a relatively level for well-trianed athletes. The runners selected were not used to exercising in minimalist shoes.

The results of the first tests showed that runners were slightly (1.05 percent) more economical in the minimalist shoes than in the Nimbus. The finding was consistent with previous studies and was attributed to the lighter weight of FiveFinger shoes.

For the next four weeks, the runners slowly integrated FiveFingers into their training regimen. They began with two, 15-minute runs the first week and worked up to three or four 30-minute runs by the fourth week.  

The runners were not provided any information about how to run in FiveFingers or given any running drills. To alleviate the standard aches and pains in transitioning to minimalist running shoes, hey did calf-raise exercises and rolled their heels on a golf ball. 

Four weeks later, the researchers again tested runners’ running economy and found two notable changes. First, runners had become eight percent more economical in the FiveFingers than they were at the beginning of the study. Furthermore, runners were now 6.9 percent more economical in minimalist shoes versus traditional shoes—a significant improvement.

Lead researcher Joe Warne believes the improvement is due not just to FiveFingers’ weight and design, but also to biomechanical changes in running technique, he told Runner’s World. For instance, minor changes in stride frequency can also increase running economy. The study, like many other studies on minimalist shoes, found that runners made changes to their movement—such as shortening their stride—while wearing FiveFingers.

Although the study showed no carryover benefits when athletes trained in conventional shoes, Warne thinks further studies could find a correlation.

"I absolutely believe that once some degree of barefoot or simulated barefoot running training is included on several occasions per week, that we will see carryover benefits with regard to running form, etc.” He told Runner’s World.

The potential for minimalist shoes to improve performance at race pace is still unknown, according to Warne. Because the subjects ran at an easy pace, more studies would be needed to assess any benefits on faster runs.

Via Runner’s World.