Vibram Five Fingers Shoes: The Barefoot Alternative

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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.

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

  1. Hi Tim-

    A couple questions:

    1) What if you have flat feet? Does barefoot running adversely impact knees and the foot ligaments due to pronation?

    2) Our ancestors probably never ran on anything as hard as concrete sidewalk. How does this play into the barefoot running concept?

    Thanks in advance for your time.

    Dan

    Like

    • I have webbed toes. So, I use Nike Free.
      I also have a neck and lower back fusions, so no free movement of my spine.

      I would like to try these but do know now how they will fit my toes?

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  2. Big calls Tim. If you are right I will Tip Joy your favorite charity big time. My only concern is I have tragically flat feet and have been wearing orthopedic insteps nearly my whole life. Like you, I have lower back pain. If I go bare feet it flares up as my tendons and muscles pull me into a forward leaning posture.
    From what you know so far do you think the concept works for the flat footed folk?

    Like

    • Hi Cameron,

      I should have mentioned this and will add it into the post.

      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. Needless to say, these 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”.

      Hope that helps. I think they’re worth a shot.

      Tim

      Like

      • I have flat feet and run with Vibrams. Prior to Vibrams I could manage a mile tops before my knees and shins prevented me from going any further. After close to 5 months of running in Vibrams I run 5-8 miles on a weekly basis with ease and no pain. My feet are getting stronger and I am developing an arch in my foot. Also running on pavement doesn’t change anything because your foot strike is completely different than with sneakers.

        Like

      • i’m just an average freshman coming into band, but when i walk, my circulation in my feet is cut off on the down part of every step. my feet are so flat they make a suction cup sound on wood floor if they’re wet or sweaty and i can even stand on my bone that’s supposed to be my arch. my mom wants me to go to a podiatrist and my dad always wants a quick cheap fix like what he does to his feet, but i don’t want my feet to end up wrecked like his from too many quick fixes. i just want to know will this help my feet unlike all the other cheap fixes. i need to know if this will help one of the most severe cases possible. thank you.

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      • Hi,

        You NEED to see a qualified doctor, ideally a podiatrist, to assess your feet. The reason is that there are two types of flat feet: flexible, and rigid. Yours sounds like rigid, in which case things are more complicated. I could be wrong though. In the case of flexible flat feet, I strongly suggest that you DON’T wear insoles no matter what your doctor says, and go with barefoot strengthening instead, with things like Vibrams, etc.

        Doing lower body workouts with squats etc. is great too.

        Hope that helps.

        Like

      • I just wanted to add to the flat foot question with an anecdote of my own. I have flat feet and often find shoes to be uncomfortable. The only kind of jogging I’ve done in the last 7 years was barefoot on a semi-padded floor in a martial arts studio. When I’ve tried jogging with shoes on, I’ve found that my arches hurt quite a bit. In contrast, jogging barefoot on a padded mat, wooden floor, or sand doesn’t hurt.

        I’ve tried on a pair of Sprint’s before and they were very comfortable. If I could rationalize spending $90 on shoes on a University kid’s budget, I’d buy a pair… right now I’ll just read reviews online until I actually go out and buy some…

        Like

    • Cameron, PLEASE do not buy insloes. I have been going to a guy who does MAT (Muscular Activation Technique) and he has shown me how devestating it can be to imobilize one’s foot in a shoe, an insloe, and orthodic or anything else. THe foot needs to be able to MOVE, even within the shoe. THat’s why the Vibram shoes are so great. The warning about these shoes are an individual one…if you have any toes taht are weaker than others and you are stretching them out in these shoes it can throw you off balance. I bought these shoes to try and get rid of my back pain and it made it worse. This is not really because of the shoes as much as it is that my feet were in bad shape and this particular new shape that my foot was in changed my posture and cause worse conditions for me. Again, not necessarily the shoe. I love to go barefoot and I do as often as possible and I will still wear the Vibram shoes after I get my body back in shape. Look up MAT and read about it and find a trainer in your area that does it. I have had to roll out of bed in the mornings for about 6+ months and I am almost pain free after only 4 sessions. Not only that, my mind is clearer, I don’t need as much sleep, my mood has improved, because energy is now flowing properly. Here is the Info For Jake in San Diego if you can’t find anyone else in your area. I cannot reccommend the craft or him highly enough. 858-212-6732 http://site.socalmat.com/index.php/about-us

      Like

  3. Awesome,

    yesterday we talk about running, barefoot und lower-back pain. My I give it a try. But it isn’t easy to get them in Germany…

    It’s easier to get some “Knobelbecher”, sorry couldn’t resist.

    cfb

    Like

  4. I’m lucky enough to be able to walk completely barefoot around the area I live without the fear of stepping in glass etc, and I have been doing that for just under a 2 months.

    However, for those occassions when I go into the city, or need an actual shoe I’m a big fan of the Vivo Barefoot Aqua shoes. They seem like very traditional shoes but feel identical to barefoot walking.

    I’ll still probably pick up some Vibram shoes however because I’m guessing they’d be better for running than the Vivo’s.

    Like

  5. “…and condition toe-spread, especially the big toe, for lateral stability.”

    I’ve been using flat heel shoes for some time for walking and lifting (chucks, etc) Lateral stability is new to me – thanks for pointing that out man…

    Cheers,

    -Yavor

    Like

  6. I’ve been wearing these for about half a year now and hate wearing anything else. at first, those in close enough relationships with me to be honest thought they were hideous, but in time, most of them bought/want some. I tease and tell people they’re the only way to make friends.

    I don’t mind giving the explanations everytime as I’m usually just waiting in line or in a bus. people tend not to ask when the wearer is walking like he’s busy. most people think I can’t hear them but nearly always someone is listening.

    the best uses I’ve found for them are running and hiking. simply amazing! for hiking though, I really want some vibram flows. reviewers say small sediment can still get in the kso’s.

    I own the sprints and can vouch for the baby toe pain. I had to wear them in small doses at first, even after being a barefoot advocate. I decided that it was simply helping reposition my tiniest toe to a better position after years of being cramped and stuck with it. I can assure you, it doesn’t hurt at all after the break in period. I really love the sprints. they give you incredibly odd tanlines, though.

    I have the grey ones as well to not attract more attention, but that seems widely unsuccessful.

    I do tell people they can be bought new on eBay for under fifty if you can get lucky with size/model/colour.

    while I do have to fight my elitist urges to look with disdain upon articles about vibrams that are just discovering them when I’ve known about them for quite some time, I know I didn’t find them first, and this article was well written.

    keep spreading the word. I swear I’d be selling about a dozen a day if I had access or even pamphlets for them.

    Like

    • I HIGHLY suggest you do not recommend Ebay as a viable source for Vibrams. A majority of sites you find when you Google “Vibram FiveFingers” are selling fakes, and most of the ones sold on Ebay are fake as well. The only way to get true Vibrams confidently is through either their website or authorized sellers (birthdayshoes.com has a list of authorized sellers). Buying some anywhere else is asking to waste your money on fakes.

      I would not mention this (it’s two years since you posted) but I just stumbled on this post, which means others could too, and purchasing some on Ebay is BEGGING for fakes.

      Like

      • I agree with this…I’m one of those unfortunate souls who got scammed. In Trinidad we don’t brick and mortar stores so I had to buy online and bought from a site that looked totally legit. If you saw the shoes they sent me…totally fake…inferior materials and design but a pretty good imitation none the less…had me doubting until i was able to compare them to some real ones. And they cost me $80!
        So beware! Only buy from authorised retailers online and in the actual stores. Vibram’s site also has some stuff about spotting fakes.

        Like

  7. You know, I’ve been meaning to give these bad boys a try for a while now. There are a lot of people at my command that wear VFFs, and they all rave about them.

    I’ve been to Papua New Guinea twice, and I’ve seen the fanned-out toe phenomena for myself. I didn’t know if the big “Hobbit Feet” were a genetic thing or a result from walking barefoot. This clears that up!

    Like

  8. Hi Tim,

    I saw this shoes in one of your videos for the first time. I was fascinated, nut just because of the goofyness, but also the idea of a healthy back and the “nature walk”… I found a big german retailer (I am from austria) and will order a pair soon -> because of you ;-)

    Actually I want to take part at the KARTING WORLDCHAMPIONSHIP in BRAZIL and tryed to get Vibram as a sponsor for plane-ticket and hotel, or at least provide shoes, but the german retailer never gave response sadly.

    I hope you doind fine. You changed my life so much, it was a mess before i read your book. Honestly…

    Like

  9. Based on similar research/comments are Nike Frees. Nike created the shoe after they found that the elite runners on Stanford’s cross-country team were training barefoot despite having at their disposal free pairs of any Nike show they wanted (since Nike sponsored them).

    I’ve worn the shoes for years now, and I can attest to their goodness. I used to roll and sprain my ankle all the time and am now much more stable. My girlfriend can attest to the same phenomenon–she started wearing them after she started having hip and lower-back pain from the crazy shoes women cram their feet into on a regular basis, and she’s had similar results.

    All that to say, I’m not a shill for Nike; I’m just a fan of the barefoot (or as close to barefoot as living in a city will allow) movement. I might have to try out a pair of the FFS sometime. Great article, though–I especially like the diagram of the woman in high heels.

    Like

  10. Great Post! I’ve had great luck with the sprints, awesome powerlifting shoes, and the only thing I’ll take to the gym.

    the ‘vivo barefoot’ brand is a good alternative for not getting a thousand questions when you’re out on the town, and still want the barefoot experience

    Like

  11. I will second everything said. I have been wearing vibrams on and off for over a year now, and have began crossfitting and olympic lifting in them.

    Greatly improved my stability on heavy lifts over conventional athletic shoes, while at the same time making me a more efficient runner by forcing me to focus on form.

    A+ good stuff!

    Like

  12. A good place to start could also be the Nike Free…I’m waiting for the new ones to arrive (I’m in South Africa)

    So I’ll go from Nike Free to VFF, hopefully condition myself somewhat slowly! It’s interesting to note our natural running style i.e not landing on the heel.

    There was a great article in Mens Health a while back on this tribe of sorts who ran massive distances, wearing thin leather sandals, and they can easily outrun most modern day athletes especially in long distance runs.

    Like

  13. Wow they are pretty ugly. I’m going to try them on anyway at a store and see. Anything that will improve normal body function and integrity is worth checking out.

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  14. They look like a great compromise between shod and barefoot. I’m a big fan of the more natural approach to things, but I wonder about any potential drawbacks if your feet do spread? When in Mexico a couple of years ago, our tour guide pointed out his wide, spread feet – a result of being barefoot most of his life. He said it was difficult for him to get good formal shoes for the times when he did need them, because of his foot shape. He was OK wearing sandals or flip-flops, but lace-ups were a nightmare, and the women had given up all hope of ever getting into fashionable women’s shoes.

    It would be good to hear from someone who may have been using these VFFs or similar for a long period, and whether they now have problems in wearing ‘normal’ shoes.

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  15. Also – Zola Budd garnered world records at long-distance running in the 1980’s for Great Britain, always barefoot. She firmly believed it provided her with a bio-mechanical benefit.

    Unsurprisingly, her barefoot habits were not from Britain, but from her upbringing in South Africa. (I really can’t see barefoot walking becoming popular in Britain!)

    Like

  16. There’s a great article in NY Mag on foot vs shoe. Awesome illustrations too. http://bit.ly/Ciucr

    Have you had any run-ins with sharp rocks or glass? How did it feel stepping on something like that? How’d the VFF’s handle themselves? (Ditto for Vivos for those who wear them)

    Like

  17. I started going largely barefoot a few years ago. Whenever I can get away with it, my shoes are off. It is true that my foot has actually changed shape in that time. To the point that it makes it a bit more work on my ski boots to make them comfortable nowadays…

    I’ve never been attracted to the Vibrams though. When I do have to wear shoes, it’s usually a pair of Nike Frees. It’s not a perfect solution, but they have a lot less support than most other sneakers and allow my feet a lot opportunity to spread their wings. And they don’t look as crazy as Five Fingers… :)

    Cheers,
    Adam

    Like