Posted by: Lowell | February 13, 2010

Vibram FiveFingers / Barefoot Talking Points

Lowell at Meadowwood Farm wearing Vibram FiveFingers

I’ve been a card-carrying barefoot believer since… well, looking at my Vibram FiveFingers order history, shortly after July 1, 2009 last year.  But, as I don’t want to build up barefoot calluses, would rather not violate no shirt/no shoes rules, and do appreciate protecting my feet from modern issues like broken glass, oil slicks, and other sharp/nasty things, I’m all about minimal or barefoot footwear.  Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot line is pretty good, especially if you want something that looks like normal shoes, Nike Free isn’t terrible… but nothing approaches Vibram FiveFingers in terms of providing the benefits of a natural barefoot experience with as few drawbacks as possible.  None of the other choices allows for free and natural toe movement, for one… and, well, they’re the only ones actually shaped like feet.  That’s a good sign they’re going to provide the most foot-like experience.

Anyhow, wear VFFs for even a short time and—unlike the other barefoot shoe choices—you are going to be asked questions.  Lots of them.  Often incredulously.  As many of my friends and family are making the switch to Vibrams, I figure it’s important to be prepared for the interrogation.  Read on for my Barefoot Talking Points guide!  Links and references at the end.

Why I go barefoot / wear minimal footwear- the super short version:

  • More natural (i.e. more biomechanically correct)
  • Decreased chance of injury, medium-to-long term
  • Increased strength and agility
  • Healthy foot shape (check out the pictures here)
  • Overall increase in comfort… it’s foot freedom!  Like taking off a tie… or handcuffs (after your feet recover from years of shoe wearing and rebuild their natural strength… initially they may cause discomfort and take time to get used to)

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: Are those shoes?  Are those socks?

A: They are barefoot shoes.  It’s just like going barefoot, except that the shoes provide protection from cuts, scrapes, and abrasions, as well as different amounts of warmth and water protection (depending on model); you’re barefoot, except you don’t have to build up big calluses… your foot can stay soft and supple.  Humans evolved barefoot, were naturally selected for strong bare feet, and we have only worn shoes for a tiny fraction of human history.  While toe boxes have been around a little while longer (but are still bad– they deform the front of the foot and cram your toes together… compare shoe-wearing feet with barefoot tribesmen), arch support and cushioned heels have only really been around since the 1970s.

Q: Aren’t those only good for those people who have “perfect” feet?  I’ve been told I have flat feet/weak arches/need orthotics/some other foot issues/have foot pain.

A: Actually, this is largely a myth, and one that most medical professionals largely buy into.  Most foot problems we have today are the result of too much support, too many orthotics, and too much unnatural foot mechanics.  It’s true that humans have a wide variety of foot types, arches, and shapes… but those are all the results of normal natural selection.  It’s far more likely that the vast majority of people are better off barefoot, and studies and evidence bear that out.  While there is initially a lot of discomfort in going barefoot, that is because our feet have effectively atrophied, because they haven’t had to support themselves in years, or for some people their entire lives.  It takes time to stimulate the muscles to build up the strength necessary to support themselves again… but if you make the transition carefully and give it time, almost everyone can eliminate foot and leg pain, build strength, reduce the risk of injuries, and have healthier feet and legs… by getting rid of those foot coffins we call shoes.

Q: You don’t wear those all the time, do you?  I could only go barefoot for a few hours, max.

A: I do, actually.  Since July 1, 2009 I’ve only worn regular shoes a few times—maybe 3.  And only when I have to.  After I rehabilitated my feet from wearing normal shoes and rebuilt my natural strength and flexibility, I’ve had no issues going barefoot or wearing VFFs.  Like any rehabilitation, it takes a little time, but it’s worth it.  Also, for me personally, I find normal shoes now feel restrictive and somewhat uncomfortable—primarily around the toes in the front.  Even normal shoes with a big toe box restrict toe movement and prevent your toes from spreading naturally when you walk and run.

Q: What about arch support?

A: It’s a common myth that we need arch support.  If you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense; if you consider arch structures in the world around us, they are supported at either end, but not in the middle.  Pressing up in the middle of an arch destroys it, or at least greatly weakens it.  And if you look at your foot there are obvious striking surfaces intended to make contact with the ground (toes, ball of the foot, outside edge, heel), and then there’s the arch… which is not build to support direct pressure/impact.  Your arch provides the most support when it is not in contact with anything.

Q: Won’t you stub your toes?

A: Sure, it’s possible.  Of course, without steel-toed boots it still hurts to stub your toes wearing shoes or sandals.  Going barefoot (or wearing VFFs) all the time you learn to be more aware of where your feet are, and what you’re walking on.  One of the main reasons you stub your toes wearing shoes is that you can’t feel what you’re walking on; that separation between you and the ground reduces your awareness.  Going barefoot/VFF you feel the texture of the ground and know far better where you are; you’re less likely to be oblivious and stub your toes.  Of course, if you do, it will hurt… and you’ll learn not to.

Q: Are they warm enough?

A: Absolutely.  It depends on the model somewhat, so if you wear the minimal Classics with no socks then it’s more likely you’ll get cold.  But wearing the KSOs or Treks with a pair of wool toe socks (Injini makes some great ones) I never get cold feet, even in the winter.  Also, more natural biomechanics improves foot circulation, so warm blood gets to your foot more easily.  I find that my feet don’t get cold until I start feeling chilly myself.  And the thin soles are strangely insulating– I’ve walked on ice and didn’t much notice it.

Q: What about if it rains?

A: Only the VFF Flows are waterproof (neoprene upper layer), but it’s not normally an issue.  Most shoes aren’t waterproof either, and with more fabric to soak up water and vents to let it in, when shoes get wet, they stay wet.  VFFs, being very minimal, dry out extremely quickly, so even if they get wet they don’t retain water.  If you step in a puddle, the water just runs back out, and the thin fabric dries out quickly.  The KSOs and KSO Treks (my favorite two types) also keep rain from directly hitting your foot, and the KSO Treks have a leather upper that is water resistant and shed water pretty well.  You can wear the Treks in the rain and effectively stay dry, if you’re careful not to step in puddles up to your ankle.

Q: Won’t your feet get tired having to support themselves, without the cushioning?

A: Nope.  They will at first, but much like exercise makes our bodies stronger, using our feet makes them stronger too.  The more you go barefoot, the more capable your feet become.  Within a pretty short time they’ll be even more capable than they were before you made the switch.  You can stand– or even hike– all day and if you’re used to it, your feet will be too.  It’s the natural human condition, and our feel are willing and able to rise to the challenge if you let them.

Q: What about rocks and roots?

A: It’s true that without the effective armor that shoes provide you have to be more careful where you put your feet.  In the city this isn’t a huge problem– the VFF soles protect you from glass and other sharp objects– but out in nature in particular things like rocks and tree roots are more of a challenge at first.  Many people hike in their VFFs, and to do so you just need to be more aware of your footing and surroundings.  Personally, I find I’m more in touch with where I am and that this enhances my outdoor experiences– plus, the extremely light weight means I can hike faster and farther than with heavy hiking boots.  Back to the point– humans evolved barefoot out in the wild, so our feet can handle rough terrain no problem.  You do have to pay attention, and not step on sharp rocks or anything that can’t support a human reasonably.  Crossing rock fields means looking for tolerable places for your feet… but it becomes almost second nature when you’re used to it.  I hike at full speed now, and I don’t have to stare in front of me, I can use the edge of my vision and my feet to find good placement, and enjoy looking around.  It took some practice, but now it’s normal.  Kind of like learning to walk as a kid.

Q: Won’t that hurt your heel, especially if you run?

A: Surprisingly, no.  Shoes, especially those with cushioned heel cups, allow humans to run with an unnatural stride biomechanic.  Specifically, they allow a longer stride length that ends with a heel strike.  Without the extra shoe protection, humans naturally learn to land with a mid- or fore-foot strike.  Try jogging in place barefoot– notice how you land on the ball of your foot, then absorb the impact and transfer the weight back to your heel, then push off of the ball of your foot again.  That’s the motion– if you do that while running forwards you’re running like humans have for 99% of our history.  Studies at Harvard (see links below) have recently found that the heel strike, even with shoes, produces a stronger force on the foot than the natural front strike barefoot.  So… yes, running barefoot the way you’re used to running with shoes will hurt, and hurt your heel the most.  But it’s easy to relearn the right way to run, as it’s a more natural human movement.  Many people will do it without even thinking within just a few seconds of switching.  Running barefoot the natural way, without a heel strike, results in less impact, less pressure, and less stress to the body.

Q: Are there different styles?  Do they come in my favorite color?  How many do you own?

A: Slow down a sec, one at a time.  Yes, there are absolutely different styles, more each year; some are designed for indoor use, others for wet and cold conditions, some for trail running (yep, barefoot trail running, easier than you think), others for the beach… you get the idea.  And there are lots of colors.  In addition to my Vivo Barefoot shoes (that I rarely wear… they are just in case I need shoes where you can’t see my toes), I have owned Vibram FiveFingers in the following styles: Sprint, KSO, Flow, Moc, Trek… everything except the Classic.  My favorites?  The KSO and KSO Trek, by far.  I sold my Sprints to my friend Will, who loves them (for some reason the Sprints didn’t fit me as well as the KSOs).  I usually wear my Mocs to the gym, and my KSOs or KSO Treks around for daily use, and the Treks when I go hiking or do things outdoors.

Want to know more?

UPDATE:

I neglected to mention BarefootShoes.com, a site I’ve been visiting since the beginning of my love affair with FiveFingers.  When Vibram announced the KSO Treks, I learned all about it from BarefootShoes.  If you want to learn more, or interact with other FiveFingers fans, share stories, etc… it’s a great resource.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. We must have started within a few days of each other. I don’t have my VFF receipt but I’m pretty sure it was in July.

    We have very similar stories and experiences. I have two pair of VFFs. One that I run in (when I can’t go completely barefoot) and one that I wear EVERYWHERE else.

    Gonna grab your RSS feed for the future. My blog is http://www.downtown-runner.com.

    Take care.

  2. My left foot pronates. I knew I couldn’t just get these new shoes and go; I needed to ease into it. I feel like the pronation has improved on a low carb, gluten free diet.
    To ease into it, I started wearing no shoes in the house (work at home) about two months ago. I now have tarsal tunnel syndrome in my left foot. I am going to try to strengthen that foot more systematically with rehab exercises. Just FYI for others with foot issues.
    Any suggestions for strengthening exercises and/or estimates of how long this might take would be welcome.

    • @Bob – very cool… those rocks and sticks are going to keep me up at night, and now I have your blog to blame ;-).

      @egk – It can be tough; good job on the low carb / gluten free diet, that’s definitely going to help your health overall. My personal advice would be to always keep in mind that in strengthening any part of your body, you build strength while you rest and recover, not while you exercise (or work). The biggest mistake I see people make in rehab or athletic training is to increase the amount of work they are doing if they feel like they need results faster. The rehab and exercise provides the stimulus to the body to improve, but only by effectively breaking things down. It’s in the rest and recovery that you surpass your original strength and ability. That’s why– as I’m sure you well know– going straight from normal shoes to barefoot all day will likely just hurt your feet and cause injuries. Small steps and variety are key, lots of rest, and careful about repetitive motions (like running in place on treadmills, etc). Beyond that, I’ll defer to the Physical Therapists to help with the tarsal tunnel… sorry to hear about that. Hopefully it all clears up for you soon. I’m more of a nutrition/health/disease/exercise specialist than I am an injury treatment guy.

  3. Oh man… I completely missed a great opportunity here. There is a Kung Fu film titled “The Five Fingers of Death”… the movie poster would have been great for my post here.

    http://thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/2010/02/five-fingers-of-death.html

  4. Nice comprehensive post and FAQ on fivefingers. Based on my reading, it sounds like you are in the upper tier of VFF fans who wear Vibrams almost exclusively.

    One note: Flows aren’t waterproof. Case in point: this past weekend I wore my Flows out in the snow with Injinji socks. The socks were dry everywhere except around the toes — basically, water seeps into the seams there. They’re more waterproof than the Treks for that matter, but still not waterproof. They *do* keep moisture in like crazy though — indoor wear will leave your feet downright sweaty.

    I’m a bit surprised that (based on my reading here) you haven’t been to my fan site for VFFs – birthdayshoes.com. It’s basically a site to share user stories and also keep up with the latest scuttlebutt on new models. It should be a pretty solid resource for anyone interested in VFFs — in particular, I created a beginner’s guide to Vibram Five Fingers — it’d be old news to you, but could be useful to others you know as it covers the basic models with what people do in them (photos, links to stories), sizing, etc.

    Nice to meet a fellow VFF-fan.

  5. Justin– actually, I love BirthdayShoes.com! Watched the early Trek videos with great excitement. I keep up with it pretty regularly. I should have mentioned it in my post above… when pulling links/references together I was trying to focus on data supporting going barefoot more than Vibrams in particular, but BarefootShoes would have been an excellent addition. I’ll update the post shortly.

    My personal KSO Flow experience hasn’t been too great. I find that they squeeze my toes too much, and reduces circulation such that, while my feet are very warm, my toes get really cold. I don’t have that problem with any of the other VFFs. It could be water seeping into the toes as well… I thought it might be sweat from my warm feet collecting inside, but some seepage is certainly possible. Anyhow, I find wool Injini & KSO Treks or regular KSOs have been good to me on wet or cold days so far.

    • Phew! Glad you’ve been to the site — I know it’s a bit obscure (google vibram five fingers and it’s sorta buried) — so ya never know. Glad the site has been of some use!

      I’m still trying to push through on the Flows (they were the last pair I got to “complete” my collection!) to see if maybe I just need to break them in enough to make them more comfortable. I agree: the toes are *tight* and when I wore them this past Saturday in snowy/icy conditions for about a 10 minute walk, my toes were frigid by the end. I did have socks on with them and that might have made the circulation even worse. Still gotta test them a bit further.

      • Let me know if you figure out any way to avoid the toe-squeezing-coldness… my experiments with/without socks haven’t worked so far.

        It’s odd that your site doesn’t show up higher in the results… I know my friend Will has been there many times (and of course is a full-time FiveFingers convert) and my wife (also VFFs) found it independently from me as well. With the explosive growth in sales of Vibrams I’d be shocked if it didn’t move up soon.

        It doesn’t seem obscure at all to me ;-). The Trek Unboxing videos were great… as soon as we find out more about the upcoming Women’s version (my wife is about ready to kill me… her jealousy of my Treks knows no bounds) I look forward to reading all the juicy details over there. Keep up the good work, sir!

  6. Excellent!!! Thanks so much for this! I feel like printing this off and carrying it around with me so I can refer to it when I am out with my Vibrams on and the questions start coming at me!!

    I see your comments and Justin’s on the Flows and have to agree. The toes are too tight. I want to be able to wear them so badly but have not been able to yet. I have pushed some screwdriver handles into the toes to try to stretch them out. They have been sitting this way for about two months and I am hoping that they stretch enough for me to wear them comfortably! I live in Pennsylvania and have been getting along Ok with KSOs but the Flows would be ideal!!

    By the way…..birthdayshoes.com is a terrific Vibram Fivefingers site! I love it and am glad to have found your site as well! Keep up the good work!!

    • Screwdriver handles huh? I’ve heard of people stuffing stuff into Flow toes to stretch them, but never screwdriver handles. Makes sense. I’m curious to know how that works out!

      Thanks for the props, by the way — glad you like birthdayshoes.

  7. I ordered my VFFs on June 13th, 2009.

    I have had flat feet all my life and even had to wear special corrective braces to sleep in for the first few years of my life. I have no idea whether they helped anything or not.

    Before getting the VFFs, I was having a lot of heel and Achilles tendon pain. I was doing a lot of stretching and had orthotics in all my shoes and made sure to wear shoes all the time–inside and out. The only time I didn’t have shoes on was in the bed or in the shower.

    I didn’t heed the warnings to take it slow with the VFFs. I wore them around the house the night I got them and then took them to work and wore them all day the next day.

    Rather than feeling tired or having pain, it was wonderful. In less than a week of going barefoot, the pain in my heels and tendons was gone and hasn’t come back since.

    I have mostly been wearing Vivo Barefoots this winter because I don’t like the way long pants feel in the VFFs (I need some longer toe socks than the ankle-height I have now), and then I have also been wearing some of my normal shoes, too, because my pants drag the ground in VFFs and Vivo Barefoots and I don’t feel like replacing them all. My wife has hemmed the pants that can be hemmed but there are still jeans to deal with.

  8. This is a comment to the admin. Your website is missing out on at least 300 visitors per day. I have found a company which offers to dramatically increase your traffic to your website: http://voxseo.com/traffic/ They offer 1,000 free visitors during their free trial period and I managed to get over 30,000 visitors per month using their services, you could also get lot more targeted traffic than you have now. Hope this helps 🙂 Take care.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: