Vibram Five Fingers Shoes: The Barefoot Alternative

678 Comments

Tim Ferriss on Vibram Shoes from Kevin Rose on Vimeo.

“The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.”
—Leonardo Da Vinci

“OK, dude, what’s up with the goofy shoes?”

It was the second day of Pavel’s RKC kettlebell course, and I’d seen more than a few people wearing what appeared to be gecko feet. The sheer goofiness compelled me to ask Rudy Tapalla, a CrossFit instructor from Chicago, why on earth he would put these ridiculous gloves on his toes. He seemed to have good mojo — he was shorter than me but had a vertical jump to match Michael Jordan — so I figured he might have good reasons.

He did, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I remained a skeptic but tested them a month later. Now, I have three pairs and find it hard to wear other shoes. Vibram Five Fingers shoes (“VFFs” to the die-hard fans) are worth a closer look.

After two weeks of wearing them, the lower-back pain I’d had for more than 10 years disappeared and hasn’t returned since I started experimentation about 8 weeks ago.

Sound ridiculously implausible?

It doesn’t once we look at how feet and posture adapt…

Nasty Pictures and Maladapted Feet

Each human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles and tendons. It’s a surprisingly malleable structure.

From the cached version of the most excellent Nature’s Magic Bullet, referred to me by Joseph Mascaro:

Most people, including doctors, have never seen a natural foot, unaltered by footwear. The following images of habitually bare feet are taken from a study performed almost 100 years ago, published 1905 in the American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery, which examined the feet of native barefoot populations in the Philippines and Central Africa. A line can be drawn that runs through the heel, ball, and big toe of a habitually bare foot. The little toes spread naturally and fan out to provide a wide, stable base for walking or standing.

How do our shod feet compare? The following more common image, also taken from the 1905 study, demonstrates feet that are shaped like the owner’s shoes. No such line can be drawn, and the little toes crowd to a point—a comparatively unstable, narrow base for walking or standing.

The Simple Biomechanics of Bad Posture

Postural compensation is unavoidable while wearing shoes that elevate the heels. It’s necessary to maintain balance.

Chronic use of heels can result — and usually does — in some degree of kyphosis-lordosis and related pains in the lower back and mid-upper back.

Reversing Degeneration – Embracing the Barefoot Alternative


Vibram Five Finger models: KSO (blue), Classic (brown), Sprint (gray)

Laboratory studies show that the plantar arch alone returns at least 17 percent of the energy of impact. Running shoes have largely replaced our arches, but they are neither as effective nor as durable. Barefoot runners can clearly do as well as shoed runners, but it takes time to develop the strength in the foot to use our natural arch fully.

(Source: The Barefoot Route)

Ethiopian Abebe Bikila ran a world-record 2:15:17 marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Barefoot.

The unadorned human foot is built for running. In fact, some researchers have proposed that bipedalism is an evolved trait related to “persistence hunting”, which is common among predators like wolves. Don’t think a human can run an antelope to death? Think again.

So how do we reclaim our rightful arch strength, our stability, and undo the damage of years of unnatural posture? Not to mention rediscover the joy of feeling the terrain under our feet?

Going barefoot is one option, and one that I enjoy, but there are limits. In the concrete jungle, glass and other dangers make going Bushman a roll of the dice at best. Tetanus or a trip to the ER? I’ll pass.

The Vibram Five Fingers shoes, to differing degrees, allow you to both walk without a heel (as would wrestling shoes, Vivo Barefoot shoes, or thin flip-flops) and condition toe-spread, especially the big toe, for lateral stability.

I first tested the KSO (“keep stuff out”) model, which fits most like an aqua sock and has more padding than other models I tested.

I then tested the Classic model, the least complicated of all, and the Sprint model, which is almost a hybrid of the KSO and Classic.

I wear a size 9.5 men’s shoe in the US and tested EU 42 for the KSO and Classic, and an EU 43 for the Sprint.

The results, in brief:

My favorite model is, by far, the Classic. It’s easiest to get on, even with my worthless nub of a little toe, and it most closely mimics the true barefoot feel. The only downside is that, to get a snug fit and not have the heel come off the foot, you must slide the top slip-tie until it is quite tight. This will feel unusual for the first 24 hours or so. I have used the Classic to go trail running in SF and it is euphoric.

I love the KSO, but it is more of a process to get on, and far more conspicuous. At first, it’s fun to get a lot of attention with the shoes (gentlemen, you will not believe the “peacocking” effect of these puppies), but giving each person you meet a 5-minute explanation gets old fast. The Classic blends in more than the KSO or any model with straps. Black will help all models fade into the ground, but I prefer colors.

The Sprint model was so uncomfortable at first that I shelved them, never intending to test them again. It was the only model, and not due to size differences, that oddly pulled my little toe out, causing minor pain but great discomfort after even 10 minutes. I sent an e-mail to their US CEO, who responded back with a suggestion to “seat the heel”, particularly with the Sprint model. This means:

Slide your foot back to nestle your heel into the heel pocket. It’s important to get your heel deeply seated. Secure the instep strap BEFORE latching the heel straps. This will ensure the foot is positioned properly.

I have since been able to wear the Sprint model for 1-2 days at a time, no more than 1 hour of walking at a stretch, but the velcro strap can still bite into the skin without the KSO-like mesh below it. I find it the least comfortable of the three models.

But what about flat feet?

I had clinically-diagnosed arch problems as a child — flat feet supreme — and was prescribed not only custom orthopedic insoles but also exercises for the feet themselves, rolling up towels with the toes, etc.. For those who like random anecdotes, my mom e-mailed me this addition after I published this post:

You didn’t mention that you leapt at the orthopedist examining your feet, like Spidey to a wall.

Sounds like me. I was a little hellion. But we digress…

Needless to say, the exercises fell by the wayside, and I took to increasing levels of support through the shoes themselves. VFFs have been nothing short of spectacular for me, despite my history of flat feet.

Barefoot runners are often asked “but what do you use for arch support?”, to which they respond: “your arches”. I’ve found that my arches, and foot as a whole, feels better with less support rather than more.

Cautions and Cons

-Do not overdo it at first. Chances are that the ligaments and musculature of your feet is underdeveloped. Use them for no more than 1/2 – 1 mile in the first 24 hours, then take a day off. I suggest alternating VFFs with “normal” shoes or flat-soled shoes like Chuck Taylors for the first week. I now use VFFs for no more than three days in a row, as I’ve had some bruising on the heel with more, and such bruising is slow to heal and massively inconvenient. Asphalt is somewhat forgiving, concrete much less so (The Embarcadero in SF, for example), and marble or stone is brutal (casino floors in Las Vegas, etc.).

-Beware the sizing. There are complaints online of the VFF website sizing suggestions being inaccurate for some people. Get sized at a retail location that carries VFFs if possible. If you can’t, check the VFF return policy on their site or order through Amazon to ensure swaps are simple.

-Be prepared to wash them. VFFs are machine washable and should be air dried. There are five-toed socks like the Injinji brand, but I have found all of them to be incredibly painful between the toes, no matter which model of shoe is worn. I now only wear VFFs barefoot. One nice side-effect of the toe separation? No more athlete’s foot or foot skin issues.

In Closing

To embrace barefoot living or the barefoot alternative, you will have to change how you walk and run, avoiding the heel strike we’ve all used since putting thick Nike padding under our soles. No need to obsess, though, as your gait will adapt naturally — reverting to a natural state, as it were — as you avoid the discomfort of doing otherwise.

The fastest runners have a style quite similar to that of a person running without shoes. They absorb shock by landing lightly on their forefeet rather than on their heels, and their landing leg is beneath the torso, with the leg slightly bent to absorb impact.

According to exercise physiologist and Olympic marathoner Pete Pfitzinger, the key to starting out is to go slowly. He advises walking barefoot for a few weeks to toughen up the skin on the bottom of the foot as well as the muscles in the ankles and feet. Once you are ready to run, start with a mere five minutes, increasing slowly and running barefoot every couple of days. From there, build to up to 20 minutes over a month. After a few weeks of this, the feet and ankles will be stronger, thus reducing the risk of injury. Possible places to train include sandy beaches and golf courses.

The barefoot running technique has been described as falling forward. It has also been described as gently kissing the ground with the balls of your feet.

(Source: The Barefoot Route)

For those interested in developing the most efficient and low-impact running gait, I suggest starting with the Chi Running DVD (skip the book, which gets into too much pseudo-Asian chi mumbo jumbo) and moving to the Pose Method of Running book if interested in more specific details.

Experiment with rediscovering your feet and proper biomechanics.

If a few weeks can eradicate 10+ years of lower-back pain for me, it might just do something for you.

At the very least, you get to wear some goofy shoes that encourage you to wiggle your toes.

###

If you enjoyed this post, check out my latest book, The 4-Hour Body, #1 New York Times and #1 Amazon bestseller. You will learn: How to lose 20 pounds in 30 days (without exercise), how I gained 34 pounds of muscle in 28 days, how to go from running 5K to 50K in 12 weeks, and more.

You can also get the Expanded and Updated 4-Hour Workweek, which includes more than 50 new case studies of luxury lifestyle design, business building, reducing hours 80%+, and world travel.

Other things you might not have seen:
Tim Ferriss in NY Times Styles: Too Much Information? Ignore It.
Tim Ferriss on Twitter – what I am doing right now?
Tim Ferriss Investments – what have I invested in recently?

Posted on: May 7, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

678 comments on “Vibram Five Fingers Shoes: The Barefoot Alternative

  1. I’m 60 and have had painful, unhappy feet for most of these years. I have the opposite issue, high arches and so called pronation. I was put in AA width shoes and orthothics. Result – knee, hip and neck pain. To run, I changed my shoes every 4 months, plus more and more extreme orthotics. Resulted in severe achillies tendonitis. After reading Born to Run and taking a lesson from Barefoot Ted, I got some 5fingers. After about a year, I no longer suffer from any biomechanical distress, am way more flexable and generally more fun to be around. My feet have become wider and I really cannot tolerate any stiff, foot controlling shoes anymore. Love my funny VFF’s.

    Like

  2. I wear Vibram Fivefingers KSOs for martial arts and weight training and love them, but I wouldn’t run in the Classics or KSO’s, I’d want more cushion for running in urban settings.

    I am skeptical of the arguments in “Born to Run”. I just read NYT science reporter Gretchen Reynolds’ new book on fitness, “The First 20 Minutes” and she has a few pages reviewing the latest research on running barefoot or in typical running shoes, it’s a wash as far as efficiency goes, and many anthropologists say humans aren’t born to run, they are born to walk and that hunter-gatherers hunt by walking prey down, not running them down (running is a LOT less energy-efficient than walking).

    I wear Vibram Fivefingers for martial arts and weight training and love them, but I wouldn’t run in the Classics or KSO’s, I’d want more cushion for running in urban settings.

    Like

  3. Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know
    a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same outcome.

    Like

  4. I got a pair a while back and they were too small. recently i got a new pair, perfect size and thought I could go right back into it…2 weeks of running and one day my big toe joint hurt like crazy…still trying to recover. i want to run damn it!

    Like

  5. I have to say that the actual first time I saw these “VFFs” I was thinking, “Who would want to wear a shoe that looks like a foot of a frog?”. But my running buddy said that he would wear one because it looks “cool”. I thought these things are for running addicts that would spend money on those sort of “funny” looking shoes just for their shoe collection or something but I haven’t really considered on looking it up online to see what’s the fuss all about. Though I have actually thought about barefoot running and have admired runners who do this. I also have another friend who bought a pair and have said that she really liked them especially with walking. Interestingly, reading your take on it changed my mind as I now want to try Vibrams to have a go at barefoot running. I don’t have any problems with my lower back though but I think this is a great support and will improve my back health even more. Thank you for writing this!

    Like

  6. I picked up a pair of KSO’s a few years ago, and gave up on them altogether after just a couple weeks.

    I’ve been in capoeira, BJJ, Muay Thai, and Yoga on and off for the last decade, so I’ve already spent tons of time exercising while barefoot, and I love it – it feels so much more natural. Running barefoot, though, is something I’ve never been able to get into.

    I gave up on the KSO’s because they fit horribly. My big toe barely fits into their big toe – I really have to jam it in there – and my little toe is apparently much more little than they were expecting cause it always slips out and then slides into the same toe-compartment that my ring-toe is already in.

    I quickly moved on to a pair of Merrel Trial Gloves and use them for everything now. Hiking, trail running, biking, weight-lifting – you name it.

    Luckily for us people who’s feet don’t fit the perfect Vibram expectation, there is not a lot of options out there, and most of them are far better looking as well.

    Like

  7. got a pair of KSOs and fell in love with them right away. But started to worry that the soles would wear quickly with everyday city use. I talked to Vibram and settled on the Speed shoe for a 2nd pair. They look very like everyday shoes (leather tops, and laces!), but have a strong multiSport sole. That model is exclusive to REI, btw.

    Like

  8. Hey Tim, this seems like a pretty old post. I’m wondering if you still have zero back pain.. that is if you’re still rocking it VFF style?

    Great post. I like finding old gems like this and sharing them.

    Like

  9. I know a lot of people who found help for shin splints through barefoot running. I have learned that for a certain type of running gait the impacts are higher, specifically for underpronators. Using shoes like these depending on the training might not always be smart. But I would still recommend it for majority of people.

    Like

  10. As an avid trail runner, and fan of the minimalist running shoes, I have to say after having tried these during a couple half marathons, I’m so not a fan – not to mention they’re just not the best looking shoe on the trail either. I’ll stick to my New Balance minimalist gear for now – but certainly also doesn’t hurt to run in your bare feet either! Just be sure to run on the grass or sand though.

    Like

  11. I would like to assent with what David wrote above. I bought my first pair of Vibram Five Fingers over 4 yrs ago, and I have been using them A LOT. Mostly for outdoor running, but also when I travel to warmer countries (my last tour when to Thailand). They are truly outstanding and easily the most comfortable shoes that I’m currently aware of. Cheers.

    Like

  12. Don’t buy those. Vibram got sued and lost. It has been proven that the shoes have no effect on health, even worse, they may do you harm. Now Vibram has to pay a hefty sum for its mischief.

    Like

    • I hadn’t actually seen that Vibram has had to pay up, although reading through some of the comments on Runners World a lot of people still credit Vibram shoes with improving their posture and fitness. In fact there a lot of great reviews all over the internet!

      Like

  13. I am a 62 year old male,for the last 3yrs, I have only worn V 5-Fingers; I will never put any other shoe on my feet. The way my body has responded to V 5- finger is God sent. I call 5- fingers my structural adjustment shoe, no back pain,knee pain,no tender heals. I am playing basketball, distant running. I realize know that the toes are to move freely and when there was worn heals it would effect me in a negative way.

    Like