Five Toe Shoes

March 31, 2011

Jim Fitzsimmons
Director of Campus Recreation
University of Nevada, Reno

If you haven’t seen them yet, my bet is you soon will. The Vibram Five Toe shoe, think toe sock on steroids and you’ll get the picture. More and more people are wearing them for running, sports leisure and working out.
Some facility operators have banned people wearing these shoes as they see them as a liability. Some believe they violate the intent and spirit of an ‘athletic dress code’. Most fitness facilities have some sort of a policy regulating footwear and often you will see the terms ‘closed toe’, ‘athletic’, ‘sport’ or ‘appropriate fitness type’ used to describe acceptable footwear.

Where did the five toe come from? You may not have heard but there is a bit of a grass roots rebellion going on against the running shoe industry. In the eyes of many this industry has perpetrated one of the largest crimes against the running community by introducing us to the cushy- heel countering-supination/pronation correcting- gelled-air injected- arch supporting shoe. When used for running these shoes allow the runner to over stride and heel strike in a unnatural manner leading to a running stride that is mechanically bad, inefficient and in the opinion of some, pathologic. We could go into this argument and the supporting data, but that is not the purpose of this article.

Enter the growing practice of barefoot running and the off shoot of the five toe shoe. The Five Toe is flat, and does not provide any of the high tech gizmos of the common running shoe. It looks weird and appears a bit fragile. Your first response may be to ask yourself if it offers enough protection? If you have had a pair on your feet the answer is probably ‘yes’. If you have not tried a pair, all I can say is, I run on hard, pebbly, goat head strew trails in the Nevada desert in them every day, and I am here to say you feel the earth, but it doesn’t hurt.

Let’s get back to the purpose of this article. Why do we require shoes in the facility? Sounds like a stupid question, but really why? Hygiene and safety are generally the two primary reasons given. I am in agreement. I want whatever is growing on your feet to stay off my floors, and I want whatever is growing on my floors to stay off your feet. And I want your feet to leave my facility in the same great shape they came into it in.
So let’s consider these goals and the Five Toe shoe. Does it provide for an acceptable level of foot hygiene? I would say it adequately keeps the good and bad stuff separated, and does not, in of itself, constitute a threat to the hygiene of the facility or fellow patrons.

But what about protection of the foot? Good question. Again what are our common pedal injuries in a fitness facility? Ten years worth of accident reports here at my facility suggest that stubbing and crushing are the foot injury leaders. Having worn the Five Toe shoe and spoken with countless others who wear them and other facility operators who allow them, there does not appear to be an epidemic of toe stubbing associated with the shoe. As a fellow professional you will have evaluate the threat in your facility and make a ruling that you are comfortable with. As far as protection from crush injuries goes I have been in the fitness industry for over 20 years and I have yet to see a shoe, other than a steel toe, that does much in the event a five, ten or forty-five pound plate is dropped on a foot. The level of protection provided by any athletic shoe is minimal especially in the ‘toe box’ of the shoe. But again you may have something going on in your facility that compels you to consider the Five Toe as a higher risk for a crush injury.

In reality we were built to run and function barefoot. The best foot wear for weight training, short of a pair of purpose built weight lifting shoes, is the bare foot. The bare foot provides a more stable surface to work from and transmits the force produced by the muscles directly to the load being moved without the energy depletion created by a soft running shoe going ‘squish’ under foot. Having anyone do a squat, lunge, dead lift, clean or any other ground based, compound movement in a pair of running or cross-training shoes is creating, for that individual, a potential injury. Because what do these types of shoes do when loaded? They collapse under the foot. Watch how the instability, which is a product of the shoe itself, is propagated up the kinetic chain from the shoe through the ankle and knee, up to the hip, pelvis and back. It’s not efficient, effective or safe.

My personal and professional opinion is that the Five Toe shoe is no better or worse than any other athletic shoe you will see walking into your facility. I do not believe there is a higher risk of injury due to their use, nor do I believe they constitute a increased liability exposure on any level. But again you as a professional need to evaluate the purpose and intent of your polices and decide for yourself if you will allow them in your facility.

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