On Running Speed in Vibram Fivefingers: A Post by Matt from Run Luau Run

My buddy Matt, author of the Run Luau Run blog, just put up an interesting post in which he discusses the issue of performance as it relates to his personal experience running almost exclusively in the Vibram Fivefingers shoes. Matt is one of the most experienced minimalist runners that I know, having run well over 1000 miles in Vibrams, and having completed 3 marathons and a glut of shorter races in them. We will be running the Hampton Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon in NH together this October, and he has his eyes set on a BQ time – we run a similar marathon pace, so we might just wind up running together for a good chunk of the race. In his post, Matt makes the following observation:

“People are constantly asking me, ‘Can you run fast in those, uh, things?’ They point at my Vibram Bikilas or Treks, not sure what to make of them.”


This, or some variant upon it,  is a common question asked of those of us who venture out into public wearing the Fivefingers. I was once surrounded by the entire staff of a Finish Line shoe store in our local mall and peppered with questions about the shoes. What Matt focuses on in his post is the question of speed – although anecdotal, his experience tells him that he can run faster in the Vibrams than he can in more traditional shoes, even though he still tends to be a heel striker (there are excepetions to every rule, and Matt might just be the guy to show that not everyone switches to midfoot/forefoot in these shoes). He’s probably too modest to mention it, but a few days ago he ran a near 5:30 mile in the Vibrams. He speculates that for him the issue might be a combination of less weight on foot and a more efficient stride in the Fivefingers:

So what am I getting at?  Vibram Fivefingers are my racing shoe. They literally are half the weight of my old Brooks trainers and I am convinced that they have helped me reached times that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Between forcing me to run in a more efficient manner and allowing me to carry less weight, my speed has picked up. At the age 40 and with only a little over a year of consistent running under my belt, I was able to record a sub-40 in just my second 10K. I was not a runner before November 2008.  Was it solely because of the shoes? No way! But I don’t doubt that they had a huge part in my race that day (of course, I still missed the podium by a few seconds).

Matt’s a great writer and a great guy, and I’d urge you to check out his full post here: http://runluaurun.com/2010/07/27/its-all-relative/

Update 7/29/2010 – #1: After reading Matt’s post, I had to try it myself in my Bikilas. Went for one mile at full speed, and finished in 5:52. Pretty close to my fastest recently recorded mile, and right in line with what I have run in my racing flats. Excited to try again with fresher legs!

Update 7/29/2010 – #2: Apparently I started a mini-challenge. Another on-line friend of mine, Dennis M., saw my workout post on dailymile/Twitter and decided to try a Vibram mile himself. His result? 5:42 – fastest recorded mile of his life in VFF Sprints. Check his workout out here: http://www.dailymile.com/people/dennymayo/entries/2686971

About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.



Comments

  1. Steve-o says:

    With all due respect. I simply don’t believe a runner with a little more than a year of consistent running is a good judge of whether a runner is faster in V V Fs. Most runners ARE dramatically faster in their second year of running even if they have big bad shoes on. Given his time Luau also seems to have some talent for running.

    Abebe Bikila (and Budd) proved many years ago that one can be quite fast while unshod in winning the 1960 Olympics- although he was a full 3 minutes faster while wearing shoes.

    One could also lose a few lbs for the same effect.

    • Pete Larson says:

      The point Matt’s making is not that he got faster because of his VFF’s over
      the past year, but that if he ran today in VFFs and tomorrow in his Brooks
      shoes (or vice versa), he’d be faster in his VFF’s. Matt is basically
      addressing the fact that many people seem to think it’s impossible to run
      fast in Vibrams – he and others are evidence that this is not true.

      Abebe Bikila did run faster in shoes, but the two races are not a controlled
      comparison. Maybe the course was easier, the weather more favorable, or
      maybe it was the three years of additional training that made him faster.
      Using him as an example basically makes the same mistake that you are
      criticising Matt for, does it not?

      Pete

      • If I ran tommorrow in VFFs, I would be slower in them because I am used to running in shoes. Would that “prove” VFF make you slower? My point stands, a new runner simply doesn’t have the history to judge. Sorry.

        Besides, while he may be “fast” to some, he really isn’t all that fast in the spectrum of running. I don’t doubt that good times can be run in VFFs but shoes will always be faster.

        And he did make the EXACT point that VFF made him faster (although he didn’t give them sole credit- get it “sole” credit.

        • ok, a couple of things here. Steve-o, you are right, you may well be slower if you ran in VFF’s tomorrow because you are used to running in regular shoes. You are also right that in the grand scheme of runners out there, I am not fast…faster, yes! Outright fast, no. Also, I fully admit to being a novice. There is no doubt about that.

          However, I would point out that I have done more running in my Brooks this past year than people may realize (Winters…love the temperature, hate the snow!), so I feel like I have some, if maybe shaky, legs to stand on when I compare my pace in my VFF’s vs my Brooks.

          The bottom line for me in my post was that I believe that lighter weight on the feet can lead to faster times because you are carrying less dead weight. The weight that you gain or lose on your body will be a mix of muscle and fat and to me, and mind you I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but to me that weight is more important to keep than the dead weight that is your shoes. I’d compare it to carrying a water bottle in each hand while running. Over a short distance like 5K, those bottle may not have a great effect on your pace, however, over the course of 26.2 miles, I would imagine that you would race better carrying 2 6oz bottles vs 2 12 or even 20 oz bottles (AND you’re not allowed to drink from those bottle because you have to carry them the entire way).

          I’ll finish by quoting a comment Ken Skier left on my post:
          “…once you are running, your body is basically moving in a straight line, with very little acceleration. But your feet have extreme acceleration and deceleration with every stride. And of course they are at the end of a very long movement arm. Accelerating or decelerating an ounce at the end of a leg takes a lot of energy–much more energy than is required to keep an ounce around your middle going forward.

        • Pete Larson says:

          I’m not trying to argue that VFF’s make you faster, just that for a
          given person, it is possible to run fast in them (speed is relative -
          what’s fast for me may not be fast for someone like Steve M. here in
          another comment on this post). I ran a mile in them yesterday that was
          about equivalent to my fastest mile in flats. Right now, over a 5k
          distance or further, I’d probably be faster in flats. Given a few
          months of running regularly in Vibrams, maybe this would change as my
          legs and feet strengthen and adapt to the shoes. People have only been
          running in Vibrams for about a year, so in that sense Matt, although
          he hasn’t been running a long time, is probably one of the most
          experienced Vibram runners out there. This is all anecdotal, and I
          admit that, but there’s a lot of fun in the experimentation and
          discussion.

          Pete

  2. stevemagness says:

    Interesting.

    Just from my experimentation, VFF’s are slower than spikes and flats but faster than regular trainers.

    The weight is probably the primary cause, but that’s negated with spikes or racing flats as there are a couple spikes/flats that are just about as light as the VFF’s.

    I think you lose some traction with the VFF’s, and you may lose some high force generating ability when full out sprinting.

    I’ve experimented around with it a bit and I’m slightly slower in sprint work with VFF’s then spikes. For example, when doing some 100′s or 200m sprints in spikes I get down to 11.7-8′s and 23.5-24.0, while in VFF’s the fastest I seem to get down to is about 11.9 and 24.0-24.2 range.

    Haven’t tried a fast mile in them, only stuff in the 4:40-50ish range and it felt relatively similar.

    One problem I see for shorter races is that I think (at least it feels like it) the VFF’s shorten the stride a little.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Steve – funny how things are so relative – I see 4:40-4:50 and view it as
      blazing fast!

      I think you’re right on the money about stride shortening. I’ve been running
      a lot in my Bikilas lately, and I really get the sense that my stride is
      shorter, and that was very noticeable when I ran the mile today. I really
      had to pick up my cadence to go that fast. On the positive side though, it’s
      very hard to over-stride in the Vibrams, which is why I think Matt might be
      able to get away with heel striking in them. I even find it hard to force
      myself to overstride in regular shoes these days.

      If I had to guess, I’d probably be just a bit faster right now in my
      spikeless Brooks Mach 12′s (my racing shoe of late), which weigh about the
      same as the Bikilas. Given a bit more strengthening work in the Vibrams, and
      it might be a close call. I’m tempted to run my next 5K in Bikilas just for
      kicks.

      Pete

    • I’ve never run on spikes so can’t comment on that. But the shorter stride definitely makes me more efficient and so, faster.

      • stevemagness says:

        Pete -
        Ya it’s all relative. Plenty of guys who can tempo at my race paces. Around 4:45-4:50 is 10k type effort usually to give you an idea.

        MsRitz- That’s why I specified sprinting. Efficiency is great, but there’s a time when being efficient by having a nice compact stride doesn’t help much, such as in sprinting.

        There’s probably some crossover speed in which the reduction in stride length caused by VFF’s negatively effects speed more so than the benefits in weight/efficiency. Where that crossover line is, who knows?

        I think Pete made a great comment about if he could strengthen his feet/lower legs then it might be close between flats and VFF’s. My guess is that if the lower legs are strong enough to take the impact load when fatigued, then there might not be much of a difference between flats and VFFs. The problem is I don’t think many people are strong enough quiet yet. Only those who do a large amount of barefoot/VFF training.

        • Pete Larson says:

          Steve,

          I think it takes serious effort and dedication to build up the strength
          needed to run both fast and long in Vibrams – probably can’t be done by
          running just once a week in them like I have in the past. It’s amazing how
          much of a difference there is even between the Vibrams and XC flats,
          particularly if you go forefoot. I’ve put in a lot more miles in the Vibrams
          in recent weeks, and my calves have been almost continually fatigued, but it
          is slowly getting better. The initial soreness has mostly subsided.

          I’m mainly doing it as an experiment just to see what will happen, but
          probably not wise timing on my part with a Fall marathon coming up :) Who
          knows, maybe the added lower leg strength will help over the 26.2 distance?
          We’ll see…

          Pete

  3. stone6976 says:

    Running in VFF and definitely see significant differences in my gate, running efficiency, and speed than running in traditional shoes. My question though is does this ever translate to better running efficiency in traditional shoes over time. I play basketball and obviously can not use them due to lack of top side padding and other reasons. Can a person’s running form/DNA get changed by using Vibrams through repetition or some placebo effect as you need to use different shoes. Interested in comments and real experience here. Thanks

    Shawn

    • Pete Larson says:

      I have founf that my stride change has translated to my other shoes. It’s
      basically a learning process for your body – setting up new motor patterns
      that can change how you run. Running in VFFs has had a huge impact for me.

      Pete

  4. RunDash says:

    I’ll be honest Pete, I have never been interested in running barefoot, but I’ve been following you since you blogged about the Kinvaras. I am a toe striker (a little higher up than the forefoot), not from trying, due to mother nature. Your posts on the Bikila’s and now Matt’s have me trying to locate a pair (sold out everywhere) to see if I will like them. I have a funny feeling, I would. Thanks!

    • Pete Larson says:

      If nothing else, they are a lot of fun to run in. Good luck on your search,
      they are tough to come by on-line – City Sports seems to stock them most
      frequently.
      Pete

  5. Nextgenlibrarian says:

    I’ve run 5:40 miles in my FiveFingers KSOs (on an indoor track). Definitely faster than running in trainers. But I’ve never run in racing flats, so I can’t comment on whether I could get faster times running with flats vs. FFs.

  6. Dan (Milan, NH) says:

    I’ve only been running for about 14 months and only the past month in my KSO’s but I feel faster with them on. It feels more natural. I’d love to find a pair of Bikilas before our 1/2 marathon in September.

    BTW: My wife and I wanted to run the Hampton Smuttynose marathon in October but it’s only a week after the Dixville 1/2. Not enough time between…

  7. Out of curiosity, how many elite/pro runners wear VFF’s or train significantly barefoot? I’m sure some do barefoot drills/strides/a few minutes of running. But what type of significant training is done barefoot or in VFF’s? This would be a very interesting study.

    Elites tend to be minimalists out of necessity – with a full racing schedule (in spikes/flats), they have to wear them for workouts to get used to them. I doubt any of them wear VFF’s though. Alan Culpepper said something like, “The barefoot movement seems more about lifestyle than performance.”

    I own the Sprints and will keep wearing them only for walking/light hiking. Can’t beat the feel of them, but I won’t be running in them.

    - Fitz.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Fitz – not sure about the Vibrams, but a lot of elites use the Nike
      Free according to the Nike website. The Free is a lot more shoe than
      the Vibram, and I too would be curious regarding the answer to your
      question.

      Pete

  8. I had the same question myself and decided to experiment too and blogged about it a few weeks ago. I was running slower in the VFFs as I was a bit scared that I didn’t have enough “support” to push harder. Then one day I decided that if some people were racing in them there had to be a reason why and I tried to speed up! Oh, not only was I faster because of the lack of extra weight on my feet, but also I was running in more efficient way so I was WAY faster. I wish I hadn’t been so scared before!

  9. This is a really interesting discussion for me. I regularly run faster fartlek and interval workouts on a dirt track (down to around 4:30 pace for a 400).

    I usually wear Mizuno Waverider trainers, but sometimes run in flats or spikes. The calf strain and sore shinbones with very minimal footwear has so far frightened me off of using Vibrams.

    • Pete Larson says:

      I’m intrigued by this too – enough so that I’m going to go out and see what
      I can do for a mile right now!
      Pete

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