I bought a pair of Vibram FiveFingers about a year ago to participate in the popular sport of barefoot running. I can't say they have changed my life, but they have certainly changed my running. Plus they get you some pretty funny stares when wearing them to the local discount store.
Popularity of Barefoot Running
The popularity of barefoot running exploded in the summer of 2009 after the release of an inspirational, if not a bit controversial, book called Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. The book has two main themes woven together. One is the science and philosophy behind barefoot running. The second is a real-life story involving the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico. This is an indigenous tribe of athletes who are known for their endurance. The book follows a group of ultramarathon runners from around the world who challenge the Tarahumara to a footrace in the Copper Canyon of Mexico.
Of course, barefoot running has been around ever since man has been running. But the reason the book was written was to raise questions as to whether we are being helped or harmed by running shoe companies and their footwear.
Some people have claimed that barefoot running has been the answer to all of their running injuries from the past. Others have never suffered more injuries than they have since starting to run barefoot. I think that some people can be helped by it, while others probably should not participate. I am a casual participator hoping for the benefits, but I am not throwing out my traditional running shoes.
"If you are running barefoot, why are you wearing shoes?" That is a fair question. The idea of barefoot running is that you avoid shoes that interfere with the way your foot naturally operates. By doing this you allow your foot to work with the physical mechanics your body was given at birth. This allows you to run with fewer injuries. However, if you have weak foot muscles because of running in traditional running shoes your whole life, then your foot mechanics may be different than the way your body was originally formed.
In the process of transitioning from shod feet to completely bare feet (if you ever get there at all), it is nice to have a layer of protection between your skin and the ground. There are many people who run completely barefoot, but most will have some type of non-restricting shoe, like the Vibran FiveFingers, or a thin soled sandal called huaraches like the Tarahumara wear. Our ancestors running with bare feet did not have to worry about asphalt, concrete and broken glass when running
Vibram FiveFingers are simply a layer of rubber Vibram soles held onto the foot with a stretchy cloth, neoprene or even kangaroo leather. Besides being extremely minimalist shoes, they are unique in that they have individual toe pockets, hence the name FiveFingers. Vibram is an Italian company and the word for finger and toe in Italian is dito. Therefore five toes is the same as five fingers.
Are Vibram FiveFingers Revolutionary?
While I have had the shoes for about a year, I have really only been running in them regularly the last couple of months. Previously I ran in them once or twice a month, but recently I have been running 20% to 25% of my weekly miles in them.
I can always tell when I have run in them because of the achy calves the next day. The FiveFingers work different muscles than running in regular shoes. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when starting to run in them is to think that you can substitute a run in these shoes for any normal length run in your traditional running shoes. You will quickly regret that decision. It is recommended that you start with running just 1 mile in them and slowly build up your distance over time. Your calves and feet will thank you for that.
One of the supposed advantages to running barefoot is that it will strengthen the bottom of your feet and you will have fewer arch and plantar problems. I don't know that my feet are any stronger, but I have never had these types of problems to begin with. It has changed my running style a bit, something I was wanting to do anyway. While barefoot running, you should land on your mid-foot, or forefoot, instead of your heel. It only takes two or three strides landing on your heel before you learn to never do that again. With the help of barefoot running I have been able to change my running style while wearing shoes.
Vibram FiveFingers For Everyone?
While I really like my Five Finger Sprints, I don't know that everyone would benefit from them. However, even if you get them and don't use them for running, they are great shoes for water sports. They were originally designed for boating purposes. The soles look smooth, but actually have a razor-cut pattern in them that open up to grip the wet deck of the boat much better than a standard pair of tennis shoes do.
There are many models to choose from. Don't think of them as slippers though. If you do, the $80 price tag will send you into serious sticker shock.
You probably won't find Vibrams in your local running store. There is a lot of polarity surrounding the barefoot running phenomenon. Running shoe companies exist because they have convinced us that we need over-priced specialty shoes. A running store has to make a decision as to whether they need their customers coming back and buying shoes, or if they want the customer to be less dependent on the commercialization of our simple sport. Some running stores will carry the FiveFingers as a running accessory, but many won't. You are more likely to find them in a store that sells outdoor and camping gear. Or, you can find them on line.