Why are so many of Ultramarathon Man’s readers running in Vibram Five Fingers?

A discussion of Dean Karnazes survey of his long-distance running readership in light of the realization that a large number of his readers wear Vibram Five Fingers. I believe this is because distance running requires running with lower impact forces.

A few days ago Dean Karnazes, also known as Ultramarathon Man — you might remember him as the guy who went for a 30 mile run in his undies on his 30th birthday — posted survey results comparing his reader base to results from a survey by Running USA. You can read Dean’s post here.

The gist of the comparison is that Dean’s readership “tends to work out longer, work out harder, and participate in more rigorous events.” For example, the Running USA respondents average 26 miles a week compared to Ultramarathon Man’s readership averaging 44 miles a week. Or when asked about favorite race distance, only 2% of Running USA’s athletes cited the ultramarathon as their favorite race distance compared to 13% of Dean’s readership.

Makes sense that readers of man famous for running ultramarathons would lean to running longer distances and pushing themselves harder than the average runner. And here’s where it gets interesting. When Dean asked his readership what their favorite footwear was, the top contenders out of the 250 respondents were, in the following order:

  1. Asics (24%)
  2. Mizuno (13%)
  3. Brooks (11%)
  4. Saucony (11%)
  5. Nike (10%)
  6. New Balance (7%)
  7. Vibram Five Fingers (6%)
  8. Everything else (18%)

Vibram Five Fingers came in ahead of Adidas (5%), Newton (2%), Inov-8 (1%), and barefoot (~0%), among others.

Right about now you should be raising an eyebrow or two. Dean was even surprised at the popularity of Vibram Five Fingers. So what is going on here?

I confess my bias — this is a site dedicated to Vibram Five Fingers, specifically, and barefoot and minimalist footwear generally. For that matter, I readily jump (gently landing, I might add) to conclusions. In a nutshell:

I believe modern, thickly cushioned, high-heeled, form-correcting shoes effectively force you to run with a heel-strike. Heel-striking results in greater impact forces experienced by the runner. These added forces result in injury for many, many runners.

What’s this have to do with Dean’s poll? Simply put: the more you run, the more impact forces will affect your body. Run longer distances in typical running shoes and you increase the likelihood of sustaining injuries.

run naturally and SMILE!Here’s my hasty generalization: I’m not surprised to find a large number of Dean’s readership base seeking out a foot glove over the standard running fare in hopes of running longer distances with less injury. It’s from this perspective that Vibram Five Fingers not only allow you to run with the softer-impact of a forefoot strike a.k.a. natural running — they demand it. You simply must run naturally or reel in pain at heel-striking. The result is less impact on a runner and, in turn, fewer injuries.

I hope Dean repeats his survey a year or so from now. It would be interesting to see if the percentage of his readership running in Vibram Five Fingers grows going forward.

That’s my take. What do you think?

Leave a comment below and spread the word. Let’s get this discussion going!

(H/T to Joggling Joe Salter!)

By Justin

Justin Owings is a deadlifting dad of three, working from Atlanta. When he's not chasing his three kids around, you'll find him trying to understand systems, risk, and human behavior.

7 replies on “Why are so many of Ultramarathon Man’s readers running in Vibram Five Fingers?”

I have to imagine it goes something like this:

1. Person gets into running wearing standard shoes (Nike’s, Asics, etc.)
2. Person gets more serious about running and starts thinking of distance running (marathon/ultra.)
3. Person reads Ultra Marathon Man (great book by the way…even for a barefoot/minimalist runner!)
4. Person starts seeing more (and different) injuries due to the longer distances and pushing themselves harder…and not having the mutant super-body that Karnazes has.
5. Person starts researching ways to minimize injuries so they can continue to run distances.
6. Person reads Born to Run and learns about Vibram Five Fingers or barefoot running and gives it a try, using Barefoot Ted’s run of Leadville 100 in VFF Treks as additional inspiration.

Now you have someone much like myself, who has been running in Vibram Five Fingers and barefoot lately, but who aspires to run a marathon in them (or even ultra-marathon down the road.)

Well, the first thing I thought was that all those people wearing Asics and Mizuno over Brooks don’t know shoes at all 🙂 But on a serious note…

Learning about ChiRunning (Evolution pretty much same thing) was the start of me being able to run serious, injury-free mileage. Through Sept-Dec. of last year I was averaging 55+ miles a week (at roughly 45/week this year) in my Brooks. Then I started getting into trail running…that’s where the VFF’s come in.

On the trails, getting instant feedback from my feet has been life saving. You just have to experience it to see how amazing it is. On just about every run there is a “oops that would have been a twisted ankle in shoes” type moment. I run about three 1/2 marathons on trails a week, plus some smaller runs. I am really experiencing first hand how my legs and feet are getting stronger and how the injuries just aren’t happening. I have no plans to switch back to regular shoes. And I am surprised Vibram’s only make up 6%.

I saw his survey but neglected to participate. Maybe I could have bumped up the barefoot running percentage up to 0.5%.

I think ultrarunners tend to be a little more experimental that average runners and more open to look for ways to runner longer and more injury free.

Ultra runner, Anton Krupicka, wrote a great piece on barefoot/minimalist running on his site a while back.

The idea of an ultramarathon is “outside the box” for most people, and requires a shift in worldview about what we are capable of for most people to accept.

Surveying a self-selected population of people who have already accepted one such shift in understanding of our abilities, I’m not surprised to see other common-world-view-shattering understandings like this ranking higher than average as well.

I think it’s also significant that both are messages of best selling running books in recent years, and this is a population that is obviously getting and incorporating information from these types of sources.

I actually *don’t* think that it’s about sensation of heel strike at long distance and feeling the need to change to footwear that promotes a natural stride. For most people modern running shoes are like candy for your feet, providing an illusion of reduced impact by altering the sensation but not reality of those forces. And that ultramarathon shuffle is probably relatively low impact itself.

While I’ve seen great discussion about the topic among ultrarunners, I’ve also seen more people digging their heels in (no pun intended) against barefoot/minimalist running in that group than I’ve seen anywhere else. This statistic doesn’t give a feeling for where the mean is in the group, just that what is a distinct outlier in other groups showed up in significant numbers here.


Z (Leif!),

Thank you for your perspective on this issue — insightful given your experience with regard to ultramarathons.

You bring up an interesting aspect of this debate that I’m reserving for a totally separate post (if I get around to writing it!), which is that there is a massive selection bias already in play in the running community and it has a huge bearing on this “debate.”

The selection bias I’m referring to here is that many adult would-be runners slap on their shoes and immediately experience running discomfort. They stick to it for a bit (assuming they just are out of shape or need to push through). The discomfort persists. It leads to inflamed knees and joints. At some point, would-be runner just throws in the towel, “Running is not for me.” Worse, “I hate running.”

I know these people exist because that was me. What I’m getting at is that this debate about barefoot running or natural running is occurring within a community of runners who necessarily didn’t give up and/or had form that was decent enough to enable them to run without major discomfort (at least up to a point). The debate completely ignores all the disillusioned would-be runners who never knew that there was a difference between forefoot and heel striking.

The selection bias is clearly at play within the running community — and it favors a heel-striking running form. To my knowledge, no one is talking about this.

I would be interested in seeing what you have to say on that topic of self-selection and the would-be-runners who self-select out of the activity due to the pain caused by shoes.

My discussion of this topic has gone something like this. Many claim that there is great diversity in running form, and that people should choose footwear accordingly. This rings hollow to me, given the high specialized trait that bipedal locomotion is in our species. It appears that the vast majority run naturally with a forefoot strike when their gait isn’t interfered with. However, what DOES appear to be highly variable is how well we can accommodate being pushed out of that natural running stride as modern running shoes do for most runners.

I’ll leave any more than that to discussion on your eventual post on the topic 🙂 It’s one that I’ve given quite a bit of thought to myself.


Great post, Justin. And wonderful discussion points by everyone. Plenty of good ideas and arguments mentioned that shed light on these important running issues. Looking forward to some future posts about running/minimalist footwear.

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