Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dr. Fung’s Five Fingers Experience

From a cursory glance on the web, social media, streaming channels, and on the running trail – one can quickly notice the growing trend of barefoot running and the minimalist shoe movement. Currently, the “Five Fingers” fascination is in relative infancy and predictably, as with any emergent phenomenon, is under initial skepticism and scrutiny which is well matched by fandom and craze.  Caution to new explosive trends is wise as many entities in the past have tried to pass their own version of the magic pill, secret serum, or superman exercise apparatus – each debunked over time. As time passes, controlled trials and repeated research will be combined to give the public a middle ground conclusion on the matter which will be revisited every decade or so with gentle sways in the valence of support or caution. Despite the science, there is a very human element that needs to be addressed in the world of human movement and physical health.

As a clinician, I hold myself to the standard that I will never ask my patients or clients to do anything I wouldn’t do myself or ask of my loved ones. Since the minimalist trend has piqued my interest, I’ve been looking for a way to satiate my curiosity of the “five fingers” experience. My interest in barefoot mechanics stems not only from clinical curiosity, but also from my early life experiences in martial arts and my background in surfing - both which are primarily done in barefoot or minimalist footwear. Additionally, there are a good number of high performance sports of which athletes participate or train barefooted, or, in minimalist footwear.

Thanks to a Twitter connection with @MoveFowardPT and Pacers Running Stores (@RunPacers), I was finally able to procure a pair of Vibram® Treksport and experience it for myself.

The first thing I did once I got my Vibram®’s was take a quick trot around the neighborhood. I noticed immediate differences in my gait and running mechanics. I then decided to test it for some prolonged ambulation. 6400 steps later (according to my pedometer), I noticed definitive activation of my foot instrinsics and that much of my weight bearing occurred in the forefoot. Additionally, I felt that my weight acceptance during each stride was much more evenly distributed over time; it felt as if was I walking “softer” and “smoother” – my family stated in jest that I was walking around like a ninja.

I followed this little experience with a basic pair of flat sneakers to compare the difference. While the only “strain” I noticed using the Vibram®’s was increased forefoot use, I noticed in less steps an unsettling experience in left hamstring/gluteal fatigue, poor eccentric control during heel strike, lazy posture, and bilateral medial arch & hindfoot soreness. I did not expect such a pronounced difference between the two types of footwear.

For high mileage bipedal travel, I typically wear running shoes and use a custom foot orthotic due to my generously flat medial arches. However, what tends to happen with orthotics is that my feet are simply supported by the device - much like a sling or a splint. The difference I specifically noticed with my “finger shoes” is that the device was able to work WITH my feet; the subtle tension when wearing my Vibram®’s gave me the perception of increased proprioceptive sensitivity.  This was a familiar sensation for me. It actually reminded me of when I train kettlebells, barefoot in the sand. I was compelled to mix the two to top off my Five Fingers Experience and find out for sure. Indeed, training kettlebells, using Vibram(R)’s allowed for a more sensitive proprioceptive experience during exercise. For those of you who haven't tried performing heavy snatches or windmills in the sand - try it! It will blow your mind.

It may be too early to make a definitive judgment of the Five Fingers Experience, however, I offer an analogous anecdote in my experience with kettlebells. It goes without saying that I highly support the use of kettlebell exercise as a mode for fitness, physical therapy, and corrective exercise. However, I do not prescribe kettlebell exercise to ALL patients or clients; only those who are appropriate and would benefit from the exercise receive instruction.  Similarly, my initial impressions of the Five Finger’s experience is that it certainly has its place in the world of fitness, health and wellness. For my own two feet, the Five Fingers experience was definitely a positive one; I traded out soreness at the medial-arch & hindfoot for increased use of my instrinsics and a slightly sore forefoot.

Only time will tell what the scientific literature makes of the barefoot movement - not to mention what prolonged use of the "finger shoes" will do to my body (you can be sure I will blog on that experience when it comes). If history is any measure, there will always be several trains of thought regarding the minimalist footwear experience. However, when it comes to application, it all comes down to matching this experience to the right person, in the right manner, for their best outcome.


  1. How about an update? Have you continued to use the "Five Fingers" and if so have you noticed any issues?

    1. I have indeed! I'm planning on posting a 6 months later follow up... though, I can always bump it up for August :) Stay tuned!