Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vibram FiveFingers: like gloves for feet

by frédérik sisa

Strictly speaking, Vibram FiveFingers are probably not what come to mind when it comes to footwear that is “fashionable.” (Unless, that is, you can take the view that even sportswear has its fashionable side – cue all that fancy yoga wear.) In fact, fashion isn’t so much the point. Rather, it’s about an anti-shoe, barefoot philosophy that sees shoes as corrupting the natural biomechanics of the foot. Like a glove for the foot, FiveFingers provide protection without hampering the foot’s natural mobility. Runners who have adjusted their running techniques for barefoot running swear by them. Of course, given how quirky these things look, it’s not surprising that they’ve achieve a similarly quirky trendy status. Aqua, of course, will now be running out of the room trying to decide whether to vomit or merely gouge her eyes out with knitting needles, but speaking as someone who finds toe socks so much more fun and comfortable than regular sausage casings, I can see the appeal of FiveFingers both functionally and aesthetically. So when I learned Adventure 16 received new stock, I went to try them out.

I have to say that my intentions really weren’t about any sort of fashion – FiveFingers, with one exception, are definitely sportswear – although I did hope they would have a bit of sartorial flexibility. My mission was to evaluate them against my hiking shoes because I could definitely see the advantage of having better toe grip and range of motion in walking or climbing rocky, steep trail sections.

Although they have different FiveFingers with varying amounts of coverage and straps, I tried on the KSOs because I though they were the best option for hiking:

They were really hard to get on. (My wife was surprised as I normally don’t have issues with toe socks.) But from the rubber sole that goes from sole to toe pads, the FiveFingers have a certain stiffness that makes it harder to get toes into place than with socks. Still, once they’re on, they’re on – just as intended. They literally do fit like gloves.

I walked around, tried them out on the sample stone inclines, tested their mobility. They felt strange, but comfortable (more or less). Yet after months of eyeing them, I chose to pass on them. Reason the first had to do with the fact that I think they’re much better suited for runners than hikers. It’s not that they would be bad for hiking in terms of actual walking. But for those areas that have poison ivy and ticks, the exposed skin above the ankle can be a problem. In order to be nicely sealed in, you need shoes, socks, and the proper pants. It would be possible to wear socks with a slightly larger-sized KSO, I suppose, but I think it would hamper the barefoot feeling as well as the possibility of wearing the KSO without socks in less rugged terrains.

Reason the second had to with the fact that I while I could envision wearing these in places other than the trails, those places seemed a bit limited. Besides, I really prefer to actually be barefoot, or wear nice, airy sandals, and I have some shoes I like to wear during those times when sandals won’t work.

Altogether, and given the fact that I bought a pair of hiking shoes not too long ago and they’ve worked out very well for me, I simply couldn’t justify shelling out money for these bad boys. The fashion factor isn’t quite high enough on its own without the function factor. Maybe I’ll reconsider when it comes time to replace my trusty pair of hiking shoes.

One thing, though. Vibram does have the FiveFingers MOC, which is geared towards indoor use. I would have liked to try this one on, since they would make for a very nice indoor shoe. However, Adventure 16 didn’t have them and the uppers are made of kangaroo leather – I struggle with having animal products in my apparel.

That sound you hear is, of course, Aqua heaving a sign of relief. As for me, well, you can’t win them all...maybe someday I’ll consider the classic if a practical reason presents itself:

For now, my venture into the strange land of FiveFingers is a bust. But I'd love to hear from you runners out there. Have you tried FiveFingers? What do you think?

Note: Images borrowed from the Vibram FiveFingers website for illustrative purposes.


rebecca said...

I'm a runner and I always wear Vibram FiveFingers! I love them! Like you though, when i first tried them i struggled to get my feet in them and to get used to them. But they just take some getting used to - once i'd had them for around a month and had been wearing them regularly it was just as easy as puting on a pair of socks!
Running in them has reduced the pain in my knees and back that i used to get when running. This is down to the fact that they have improved my gait and posture.
Deffinitley give them a try!

Frederik Sisa said...

Thanks for commenting! What surface do you run on? I wonder how FiveFingers handle hard pavement with arguably less cushioning than conventional running shoes. Or does the change in running technique alleviate some of the impact?

Amanda said...

Thanks for sharing Frederik! When I've tried running "barefoot" - at this time with socks on a treadmill for 10 minutes max - my gait is like night to my normal day. Try it yourself: when you run in standard running shoes, you will land heel first. When you run in socks are just your feet, you will land on the front pad of your foot. As a result, the impact is dispersed through the foot and then your leg instead of directly up your leg and into the back area. :)

I'm keeping with the nike frees until after the marathon but then want to try these out for the summer/low mileage recovery months. I think it will take some time to develop my foot muscles to where I can wear them for longer distance runs.

I will keep you updated!

Nick said...

I met up with a friend recently who swears by these for exercising. Thing is I could have sworn they were a made by a different company. Still they're interesting but not very useful in snow!

Frederik Sisa said...

@Amanda: I've been reading about the biomechanics of running, how they change between running with and without shoes. Fascinating!In fact, it was in relation to something you might be interested in as well: the Tarahumara's running sandals (being a runner, I wouldn't be surprised if you've heard of them.) http://www.fashionoclast.com/2009/12/tarahumaras-awesome-running-sandals.html

Good luck with the marathon, and I look forward to the update!

@Nick: Vibram actually has a FiveFingers model for running in snow/cold weather, made from neoprene. It's called the Flow: http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/products/products_Flow_m.cfm

justin said...

Sorry to hear you passed on VFFs, but the cost certainly makes it a tough decision.

I like hiking in my KSOs as well as the Five Fingers KSO Treks but I've only hiked/trail run on trails that weren't super gnarly with lots of brush (like poison ivy). Roots and rocks, yes, but not stuff that could rub on my ankles. I do have some cargo pants with ties at the bottom and they can further the "keep stuff out" aspect of any KSO.

Oh also, you *should* be able to wear socks with KSOs without sizing up -- only if they're already particularly tight on your feet should that be a problem. And as for getting them on, it gets much easier with practice. I can put on Classic Five Fingers with no hands and KSOs only take me a second.

Speaking of Classics, after trying every model out the Classics are my favorite Five Fingers -- but that's wearing them for everyday use with the occasional active use. Think: wearing them like you would flip flops, but with the added benefit of being able to go for a spontaneous run in them or climb a tree. So keep those in mind.

Hope you reconsider one day -- I'm certain you can find an application that you will love for their use. Oh and I'd not bother with the Moc -- it's way too niche to serve a purpose for 99% of people (in my humble opinion).

Frederik Sisa said...

Hi Justin - thanks for sharing your perspective and insight! I can see from your website that you're quite the VFF fan and expert.

I haven't discounted them entirely, and I do recognize that putting them on gets easier with practice. And I think you're onto something with the Classic. As I mentioned, the kangaroo leather of the MOC gives me pause, but the Classic might be more practical and less twinge-inducing. The more I think about it, actually, the more the Classic appeals.

As for the hiking, I also wear "military" cargo pants with drawstrings. They still expose my ankles. Thankfully, I haven't gone on a trail that involves swimming in ivy, but I am working towards more rustic trails. Insofar as the KSO is concerned, I'd really have to try out a sock-VFF combination. The clerk at Adventure 16 mentioned the need to go a size larger for socks, which is why I brought it up. While I think you have the superior expertise, a good ol' fashion empirical test is probably the best way to sort it out. Science!

So, stay tuned. I'm sure this isn't the end of my adventures with VFFs.

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