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Barefoot and injured: How safe is the popular new fitness footwear?

Serious runners were the first to embrace the Vibram FiveFingers (VFFs to the cultishly devoted). Now even casual gym-goers are also velcroing on these curious Aqua Socks-meets-Mork from Ork shoes. Well+Good predicts a Croc’s so-ugly-they’re-hip aesthetic takeover for these must-have athletic shoes (and, invariably, a NYC walking-around shoe) for summer. Be afraid.

The sudden VFF craze stems from the compelling thesis of Christopher McDougall’s NY Times’ best-seller Born to Run. The greatest long-distance runners in the world—Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians—don’t wear shoes, he explains, and neither should we. It’s a theory that has a lot of buy-in from the running community. Reviews in Runner’s World give the Vibrams the thumb’s up. Evolutionary biologists are on-board too. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, recently said in an interview with Wired, “People have been running barefoot for millions of years and it has only been since 1972 that people have been wearing shoes with thick, synthetic heels.”

"Safe on asphalt?" Probably not.

But not everyone agrees that the barely-there Vibrams are a panacea for injuries or a boon for a stronger foot. Well+Good talked to holistic podiatrist Dr. Sherri Greene about whether New Yorkers should throw out their sneakers in favor of these glorified sock substitutes. “Barefoot activity strengthens the foot and I’m a huge fan of yoga and martial arts for this reason,” says Greene, “But for runners to suddenly replace their sneakers with Vibrams could introduce problems like tendonitis, inflammation, or stress fractures, depending on the individual. I would urge caution and slow change.”

Exercise physiologist and Urban Athletics owner Cara Macari goes a step further, “There’s no reason to risk injury in the Vibrams when you can achieve the same result—to develop a forefoot strike—in a lightweight running shoe.” Macari is seeing Vibram wearers with strained calf muscles and Achilles tendon pain because the zero-cushion Vibrams are better suited to trail running than NYC cement pounding. “You can develop good running mechanics, and limit joint strain, by alternating your regular running sneaker with a lightweight trainer like Acis’s DS-Trainer or Mizuno’s Wave Elixir 4.” So, if you simply can’t resist replacing your Crocs with the latest in ugly ergonomic footwear, then walk–don’t run–in them.

Are you considering buying a pair of Vibrams? Tell us, here!