Barefoot Running in the Vibram FiveFingers

FiveFingers are an athletic shoe created by Vibram.

Vibram makes rubber soles for a variety of shoe products, and surprisingly, have been around since 1937 – recently hitting their 70th anniversary.  Time Magazine tagged their FiveFinger athletic shoes as a best invention in 2007.  These toe shoes are marketed as a ‘barefoot alternative’; initially towards climbers, sailors, and light-trekkers who love barefoot shoes.  They have since become popular with runners, martial artists, hikers, travelers, and a variety of other adventurers – which is exactly how I found out about them.

What’s Special About FiveFingers?

I originally read about these minimalist running shoes some time ago in a gear related article by Tynan of Life Nomadic.  I then spotted some odd shoe-socks on Tim Ferris via a YouTube video.  He has since written a more detailed article about his own experiences with the athletic shoes.  His article thoroughly explains a variety of the health benefits he has researched regarding barefoot running shoes (or near barefoot running shoes with FiveFingers).  Wikipedia does a solid job of summing these benefits up:

The shoe is not only supposed to make running more enjoyable but is beneficial for a persons posture, strengthen muscles in the feet and legs, increase range of motion in ankle.

Fitness & Benefits with FiveFingers

Before purchasing the FiveFingers, I had been running frequently, maybe three times per week roughly 4 miles per run, in a pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS 8.  I had purchased these from Kelly’s Running Warehouse just over a year ago for $71.97, at the time, the cheapest price online for those shoes.  They were a big improvement over what I had been running in, some random pair of old sneakers.  I noticed that the lighter weight and solid, supported sole made for an easier run.

Finding Inexpensive Vibram FiveFingers Deals

After seeing another article pop-up with some YouTube stars sporting FiveFingers, I decided it was time for me to go ahead give these things a shot.  They sounded like they were right up my alley.  Then I realized they were $74.95, just a few dollars short of my recent running shoe purchase that I had already balked at – and these things certainly did not seem to have as much material to them.

Lucky me, I found the ’08 model on closeout at Travel Country and managed to pick them up for a steal, just $39.95.  I even talked a friend of mine into a pair.  I went with the Classic and he went with the KSO.  After returning the original pair pictured above due to a slight sizing problem (they seem to run a bit big, and with European sizing only), I ended up with a pair less attention-grabbing colored Classics that fit properly.  So how are these things for actual excursions?

Avoiding Ankle Roles

One of my biggest problems running was an occasional ankle role that would take me down in fairly moderate pain for several minutes, trying to shake the sharp rising sting and tingle off. FiveFingers offer virtually no support to your foot position and ankle, meaning, the ankle has to do its actual job. Really, the shoe is often the cause of a rolled ankle as it creates a leveraged platform on uneven terrain.

I also do a fair amount of climbing around the James River outside of Richmond, VA and frequent indoor exercises (check out the 100 Day Burpee Challenge).  Needless to say, running shoes aren’t the best choice for these activities.

I found them to be a mind opening experience on any surface that is softer than asphalt.  It really was amazing to feel all the intricacies of the ground – the small twigs under your feet, the variations in the level of the dirt below, the tiny bumps here and there, the grass softly cushioning your foot-fall.  It was a different experience than I had imagined.  Now, I don’t typically run barefoot, had I done that on a normal basis, perhaps my first experience with the FiveFingers would not have been so enlightening.  Beyond the surreal feel of the earth below your feet, I also found there to be a significant increase in my ability to grip the ground and properly predict how my foot may need to be positioned, my weight balanced, and even how my next push-off should go.  I certainly am not a ‘professional runner’, but I genuinely did notice these new aspects of each step when using my new freak-feet.

Wearing FiveFingers and the Attention

Yes, freak-feet. Toe shoes. These barefoot shoes are certainly something that will attract attention.  It’s hard not to notice the eyes following your oddball toe shoe covered feet if you wear them out to run some errands en route to your next run.  The kids at the grocery store will indeed point, smile and maybe even ask you about them.  If you like the attention, this certainly won’t be a bad thing.  I have found them to be an interesting topic with the ladies, but not something they particularly like – no surprise here, might not want to wear them to the bar.

Beyond the questionable social aspects, there is a significant ‘breaking-in’ period for your body when wearing these.  Your body has adjusted to accommodate for thickly cushioned shoes and wide flat soles.  This unnaturally forces a step that has an impact at your heel with a roll to your toes.  Humans were designed to have a more flat, full impact with each step. The ultimate minimalist running shoe is undoubtedly your naked skin.

Barefoot running involves pushing from the ground with the ball of the foot rather than the heel, foot landing directly under the hips. ‘The force to drive you forward should only be applied after the foot has settled on the ground completely. Striking the ground, especially with the heel, causes trauma and makes the runner susceptible to injury’. It follows that running shoes with heavily padded heels will impede this natural motion. Although there is much research to still be done, there are many studies that suggest that running shoes contribute greatly to the high incidence of injuries among shod runners.

Dr. Gordon Pirie

Barefoot Running and Foot Impact

FiveFingers help move you back into your natural flat impact style running, where most of the impact is spread across your foot rather than at the single point.  Why not just run barefoot?  Well, it may be reasonable in a non-urban area, but I live in a city and there is plenty of glass, nails, and other nasty bits that I do not want driven into my foot.  The FiveFingers provide a very tough sole that is more like a thick rubber sock than a traditional running shoe sole.  After just a few weeks of moderate use of my FiveFingers (slowly incorporating them into my runs), I found my feet became adapted to the less cushioned and covered style of running I was used to.  I initially had a very slight amount of heel and toe-ball pain from the higher impacts of the FiveFingers, which even forced me into a different running style that involved a flatter, spread impact with each step.  I also initially had some light blisters from the rubbing of the FiveFingers due to the lack of socks.

Hole developed on big toe, FiveFingers

So, a solid 100+ miles and three months later, where do I stand on these FiveFingers?  Well, I have a problem.

Yep, there is a hole above my left shoe’s big toe, as you may have seen in the lead photo.  There’s also some smaller holes on the inside of the that same toe, as well as one on the other big toe.  They have become gradually worse.  I feel I have maintained them quite well, they have only seen the washer once (they are washer compatible) and on a light cycle mixed with towels on cold.  No dryer.  It seems as the fabric’s ‘knit’ has come apart at the top, perhaps pushed by a light drag across some terrain or from brushing a bit of brush while running.  It appears to be a manufacturing problem with the product as it is appearing on various toes and both shoes.  I am currently attempting to have them returned to the retailer or if necessary, Vibram.  I hear their warranty service is good, so I will have to hold a final conclusion for after I have finished the warranty service procedure.

As a side note, my friend who purchased a pair of the KSOs has had no significant problems with the FiveFingers, likes them quite a bit, and has not had any similar ‘defect’.

As of now, I would say that the Vibram FiveFinger Classic barefoot running shoe offers an excellent bridge to barefoot running.  They can provide a solid level of protection while also gradually moving you into a barefoot running style.  They have a bit of an initial learning curve, but more than make up for it with an enlightening experience as you feel the Earth below your feet.  The FiveFingers do not create the seesaw like problem that exists when your solid sole shoe’s weight shifts on an uneven surface causing a rolled ankle.  No rolled ankles in the months I have used the FiveFingers.  I imagine I have merely had a one-off poor experience with the manufacturing which will probably be cured.  Take a look and see if the barefoot running experience might be for you!

Replacement Order – Update: October 3rd, 2009

I finally received my replacement pair of FiveFingers from TravelCountry.com after an arduous wait involving many phone calls and far too much time spent rock-hopping in big fat soled trail shoes.  It took some time coordinating the replacements as apparently Travel Country had to go through Vibram for a replacement authorization before they could send me a replacement directly.  I was told Vibram was having some internal problems that caused some delays though as well.

As a side note, Travel Country had quite good quality customer service albeit a bit slow.  It was nice to be able to reach a native english speaker and not have to navigate through a 10-step phone system to do so.  Once things were straight with Vibram and the authorization (I suppose credit back) was cleared, I received an equivalent replacement set within 3 days.  The replacement set is a slightly newer model, as my original pair were a 2008 closeout.  One of the representatives I spoke with told me he had seen several returns with similar problems.

The construction of the new pair does not seem any bit different from the originals, although the color is just ever-so-slightly different.  I’d been without my FiveFingers for about 2 months and it was great to break into the new pair with some rock climbing around the James River in Pipeline Park in Richmond, VA.  I have since put a solid 20 or so miles on them and have not noticed any of the problems I had seen with the previous pair.  One thing is for sure: next time I find myself in need of a replacement pair of FiveFingers, I’ll be searching for a quick replacement source, living without them for quite some time certainly reduced my athletic enjoyment.  I will also be keeping my eyes open for closeouts and sales, I could always use an extra set!


on July 29, 2009
Last modified on October 24, 2017
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