The Vibram Five Finger shoes have recently become very popular. Receiving lots of press and praise, Vibram has released new styles and colors this year. More stores are stocking them and more people are wearing them. I’ve been enjoying mine for almost two years now, and have read many reviews, commentaries, and editorials on the topic.
Dare to Bare? Take it slow. While I will recommend them to anyone, be careful with what you read and what you expect when making the switch. I have found a few truths in the claims made by many proponents of running barefoot. I’ve also noticed that barefoot runners seem to be overly eager to convert others. Not every claim I’ve read holds water. Please note that I use mine primarily on primitive trails with lots of elevation gain. Road runners may have a very different perspective than mine.
Claim #1: “I feel more connected to the environment”. This claim is half true. When running barefoot, your environment shrinks down to a few feet in front of you. Running becomes a playful foot placement game on running trails because each landing becomes strategic. It’s an intimate connection with the terrain immediately under my feet. However, rarely do I look up or around when wearing my Five Fingers. In some ways, I miss all the scenery because of the hyper-focus required when running barefoot. A few stubbed pinkie toes have taught me to pay close attention. If I want to look around, I stop and stretch which has become a fun routine. Rather than being “connected” to the macro environment, when running, you are “connected” to your micro environment. For me, barefoot running is an intrinsic event. Gait and foot placement become all encompassing. This is nice because a runner ends up totally engrossed in the run. Nothing else can exist. It is a complete escape.
Claim #2: “I have stronger feet, ankles, and knees”. True, period. If you commit time to training in your Five Fingers, you will have stronger feet, ankles and knees. This is why I picked them up. The benefits here transfer to mountaineering, backpacking, skiing and hiking which are the reasons I train in mine year round.
Claim #3: “Evolution has designed the foot to run. The minimalist style of these shoes allows me to experience the natural way of running and reduces injuries”. I agree as long as you slowly work your feet into them. However, the newer designs are becoming loaded with technology and gadgets. Soles are becoming more padded and the rubber and Velcro are becoming more robust. If you are looking to get back to a minimalist approach, get the classics. In particular, get the Smartwool classics. They clean themselves, never stink, and monitor temperature better than any man made material. They can handle any terrain. If you run in super muddy conditions, or you swim with them, the Velcro models are nice because they won’t come off. I just ran three miles with 1000 feet of elevation gain in the mud and snow. My KSO’s were nice to have under these conditions. The pictures above are after returning from that trip. The clean pair are the Smartwool’s which I use far more often.
In regards to injuries, I believe injury reductions that people claim to experience are more from slowing down and carefully placing each foot than from some evolutionary return to the way it should be. When I began using them, I ran too fast and had too long of a gait, suffering two pretty bad injuries. Since then, I’ve simply slowed down, shortened my gait, and taken more care with where I place my feet. The running has become very enjoyable, and injuries are non-existent.
If you are thinking of joining the barefoot revolution, remember to take it slow. This refers to the time period of breaking your feet in and strengthening them. It also applies to your speed. For me, running has become a different kind of event, even if I put shoes on. I run slower and with more intention. My exercise has also become an exercise in discipline, patience, and self control. I love my Five Fingers. If you accept them for what they are, you will too.
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