Yes, my shoes are very weird. Yes, I run in them. Even on pavement. No, it doesn’t hurt. They are called Vibram FiveFingers.
I cannot count how many times I have uttered these answers in the last 3 years. I simply cannot wear my VFFs in public without having a conversation about them. People find them fascinating, hilarious, ridiculous, hideous, and awesome. Kids point them out to their parents (“mom, look!”); people at the gym stare unblinkingly at them while I stretch; strangers approach me in the locker room while I change; everyone wants to look at them, touch them and try them. I’ve talked to so many people about these shoes that I should get some sort of commission from Vibram.
In this blog post, I’ll answer some of the common questions about VFFs and hopefully explain some of the motivation for wearing them.
What cushions your feet?
Many people are shocked that it’s possible to run in VFFs. What they seem to forget is that the padded shoes most people wear today have only been around for a few decades. For the millions of years before that, humans ran either barefoot or in very minimal shoes/sandals. If you read Born to Run, you’ll learn of Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe which has maintained the same running traditions for centuries. The Tarahumarans are able to run ultra-marathon distances in little more than thin sandals.
Isn’t it bad for your knees?
Actually, it turns out that it may be padded shoes that are bad for your knees. Take a look at the huge heel on your padded running shoes. This encourages a heel-to-toe running gait. Now take a look at your foot. See how there is no padding on your heel? If you try to run barefoot and land heel-to-toe, you’ll make it only a few steps before falling over in pain. It turns out that “natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person”. In fact, no study has ever shown running shoes to prevent injuries and some even suggest they may increase the chance of injury.
But what about arch support?
I have absolutely, positively no arch in my feet. According to my doctor, I have lots of loose ligaments, tight tendons and bones out of place. As a kid, my feet used to hurt a lot, no matter what kind of shoes I tried. Then, one fine day, I strapped on a pair of ice skates. My feet hurt like hell in them the first few times, but gradually that went away. Remarkably, so did my foot pain when wearing shoes. It turns out that there are muscles in the foot that work to support it. Padded shoes and arch supports act like crutches and prevent those muscles from developing. Ice skating, rollerblading and barefoot-style running all force the foot to work and let those muscles get strong. Nowadays, my feet never bother me.
How far can you run in them?
People have run marathons and ultra-marathons in VFFs and lived (and walked) to talk about it. My Crossfit training doesn’t include too much long distance running, but I’ve done 15k in VFFs without issues.
However, if you plan on getting a pair, a word to the wise: start slow. Very, very slow. It can take a long time for your feet to adapt to the new running style. Do not just go out and run your usual routine on day 1. Instead, start with a walk, a very short run a few days later, and gradually work your way up to avoid injury. Look into POSE running and barefoot running to get a sense of the proper technique.
Vibrams are fun
The first time I wore my Vibrams, I simply wandered around town and stepped on every surface I could just to see what it felt like. Bricks, gravel, asphalt, metal grates, dirt, and grass all have a unique texture to them and there is something satisfying about knowing what’s actually under your feet. The extra sensation you get from the ground seems to help balance. The light weight makes me feel faster when sprinting. Running care free through mud and huge puddles in Vibrams is also hugely entertaining; you can toss VFFs in your washing machine to clean them.
In fact, I’ve gotten addicted to them to the point where I want to wear them on a day-to-day basis. I would, too, if I could go 5 steps without someone asking about them.