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Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) -- Are they the closest shoes to running barefoot?

Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) — Are they the closest shoes to running barefoot?

Barefoot running is on the rise, as it should be. For many people, it is healthier and more enjoyable than running in big clunky, supportive running shoes.

The recent surge in interest in barefoot running is largely the result of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. In it, McDougall weaves a well-written, fascinating tale about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s remote Copper Canyon who can run ultra marathon distances (perhaps 100 miles) in flimsy sandals called huaraches (tire tread with leather straps), and often finish in top place—without running injuries.

Huaraches

Huaraches

Previously, I have written on some advantages of barefoot running, and perhaps this is why Vibram recently sent me a pair of their Vibram Five Fingers KSO shoes to try.

Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) KSO shoes are unique in that they have extremely flexible soles. In fact, the entire shoe is flexible and truly is the poster child for “minimalist footwear” or minimalist running shoes. (Today’s New York Times reports on the success of minimalist shoes in an article titled, Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants.)

Is This The World's Most Flexible Shoe?

Is This The World’s Most Flexible Shoe?

Vibram says they conceived of the Vibram Five Fingers as an alternative to traditional footwear, and it incorporates “barefoot technology.” That is, the shoes strive to allow you to let your bare feet control the shoe.

According to R. Squadrone  and C. Gallozzi at the Institute of Sport Medicine and Sport Science in Rome, Italy, Vibram may have succeeded. In their research paper “Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced runners” they found that the movement of the foot and ankle during running when wearing the Vibram Five Fingers was similar to the movement when running barefoot.

Squadrone and Gallozzi state that the Vibram Five Fingers allowed the stride length to increase the force of pushing off the ground to increase when compared to running barefoot. These differences were due to the thin sole of the Five Fingers shoes, they suspected. Most importantly, the researchers found the Vibram Five Fingers allowed the wearer to sense the ground and moderate their running movements in response to the terrain.

Further, when running in Vibram Five Fingers were compared to shod (regular shoe) running, the Five Fingers were found to be more energy efficient. The researchers found 2.8% less oxygen consumption when running in Vibram Five Fingers as compared to running in shoes that weighed 400 grams.

Many studies have compared oxygen consumption (as an indicator of energy consumption) in running barefoot or shod (with shoes). The results have been conflicting. It seems that the heavier the shoes, the more oxygen required. However, oddly, Squadrone and Gallozzi found that wearing Vibram Five Fingers when running required LESS oxygen than running barefoot.

Does this mean that all barefoot runners could conserve energy by wearing Vibram Five Fingers? The answer is maybe.

The great thing about scientific research is the more research papers and studies one reads, the more one finds holes in the research. In this case Squadrone and Gallozzi’s study size was small and the researchers themselves questioned their own results, speculating that for their particular test subjects the Vibram Five Fingers when combined with the surface the subjects ran on may have made their running more economical compared to the shod and barefoot conditions. Further, their sample size was relatively small (8 subjects).

Testing the Minimalist Vibram Five Fingers

Testing the Minimalist Vibram Five Fingers

The Vibram Five Fingers KSO that I tried are not only unique in their flexibility, they are the first shoe I have seen that has five individual pockets for your toes. Firstly, this explains the name Five Fingers, though, technically, a more precise name would be Vibram Five Toes, but it doesn’t flow off the tongue quite as nicely.

The benefit of the pockets for the toes is that they allow the toes to flex and extend, approximating the toes complete range of motion. This is great, as extension of the toes is limited in most shoes. Extension of the toes is important to allow the tissues under the ball of the foot to stiffen/tighten to absorb the force of impact on the ground and the muscles contracture of extension helps pump swelling out of our feet (Finn Bojsen-Moller & Larry Lamoreux 1979).

(From a podiatrist’s perspective, one downside of pockets is that people who were born with two toes fused together cannot wear these shoes.)

As I tested the Vibram Five Fingers KSO shoes I was reminded of the story of the winner of the longest marathon ever held in the U.S. The race was called the Bunion Derby in 1928 and it coursed from Los Angeles to New York and took 84 days to complete. The winner, Andrew (Andy) Payne, ran the 3,400 plus miles in a plain “rubber-soled canvas shoe.” It is interesting that he ran this incredible distance in relatively simple footwear (by modern standards).

One has to wonder when seeing the incredible distance run by Payne in his rubber-soled shoe and the success of the Tarahumara in their flimsy sandals, if minimalist running shoes such as the Vibram Five Fingers shoes are a better choice for runners’ footwear.

I enjoyed wearing the Vibram Five Fingers KSO shoes and I would recommend them to those people who want to run barefoot but want their feet to have some protection. As my podiatry colleague said, “Running barefoot is good until you step on a rusty nail.” I am not sure Vibram Five Fingers would protect you from a rusty nail (and perhaps, your average running shoe would not either), but the Five Fingers shoe will provide some defense against stones, pebbles and other debris, while giving your foot, ankle and leg muscles a great work out!

I give Vibram Five Fingers KSO my top rating, 5 Toes Up

If anyone has tried Vibram Five Fingers (VFF), I would be very intersted to hear your thoughts/comments on your experiences with these shoes. For more information visit Vibram Five Fingers and these links:

To Run Better, Start by Ditching Your Nikes

The Barefoot Alternative

Review: The Vibram Five Fingers Classic

Barefoot Ted’s Adventures

Time Magazine: Do Fancy Running Shoes Do More Harm Than Good?

The Shoes That Mimic Barefoot Running

Are Running Shoes Making Your Feet Soft?

References:

Squadrone R, Gallozzi C. Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009 Mar;49(1):6-13.

Bojsen-Møller F, Lamoreux L. Significance of free-dorsiflexion of the toes in walking. Acta Orthop Scand. 1979 Aug;50(4):471-9.

Kastner CB. The Bunion Derby. University of New Mexico Press; 1st edition, edition (October 15, 2007).

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  • http://www.americaspodiatrist.com Dr. Nirenberg

    Here is an interesting comment I received:

    I successfully converted my running from running shoes to VFFs in order to
    improve my form and to reduce the risk of injury. I now only run in VFFs.

    I am of the view that most runners should move to a minimal shoe
    independent of the state of their feet. Its not so much ‘if’ one should
    go barefoot but rather ‘how’ one gets there that is the critical factor.
    If you are weak or injured it is ever more important to embark on a
    barefoot strengthening program. However, managing this type of program
    is a real challenge for runners.

    I would like to see podiatry focus on recovery programs using barefoot
    training in response to running injuries. Your article could also be
    entitled ‘Consider Wearing This Shoe if You Want to Run’.

    I appreciate that fact that you are being very progressive with your
    articles. I would not have done well to listen to the advice of podiatry
    while I was researching barefoot running. I believe that your line of
    reasoning will become increasingly popular as more and more runners
    abandon conventional advice.

  • Sabrina Marthaler Hoppe

    I battled a strange chronic running pain for 11 months. I went to 7 different doctors, spent over $1000, and nothing solved it. Every doctor eventually gave up and suggested I find a new hobby. I refused. Until a doctor could tell me exactly why an otherwise perfectly-healthy 30-year old couldn’t run, I believed that I could. And now I am!

    What finally worked? Running barefoot or in my Vibrams, along with foot-joint mobility moves. I went from being able to run only 5 pain-free minutes to 5 pain-free miles–and counting!

  • ultra1bob

    I’ve run in the VFFs. Is it a transition shoe to barefoot running? For me, I need a transition shoe to this shoe. This might be of no surprise for someone 62 years old who’s run maybe too many marathons and ultras.

    Many injuries are going to be caused by people trying to run barefoot. The VFF is too close to barefoot to be a transition shoe.

    What we need to see are a series of exercises and steps to follow for the transition to BF that reduce the chance of injury. And this is where podiatrists can be of great help – assuming they don’t try to fit you with orthodics instead.

  • http://www.americaspodiatrist.com Dr. Nirenberg

    UltraBob – I agree with you. I do not believe VFF is a transition shoe to BF running. VFF is very close to barefoot running and it is the shoe I now wear to BF run. Terra Plana makes a Barefoot shoe and I will posting a review of it very soon. It may be a transition shoe. Right now, I suggest to people, buy a cheap running shoe, very flimsy, very little support and get use to that, and then move on.

    I also agree about the need for some exercise and good gait. I am working on developing these. Not there yet!

  • http://running411.org Nick P

    I used to wear orthotics with my Asics running shoes and a heel-to-toe runner. Anything more than 10K, I get back pains and knee pains – I’m 50 yr old.

    Now I run only in VFF KSO. It took about 3 months before I got used to it – calves hurt like crazy, blisters on my toes. Key is focusing on your running style. No more heel-to-toe, just landing mid-foot and taking off again like a sprinter! Maybe Injiji socks could have helped.

    With VFF, I can run almost pain-free and currently training for the Senior Games!

  • Jason

    I have just purchased and started running in VFF Sprints. I have only gone 4 miles in 2 jogs, but love them. I am a huge heel striker and typically wear out a pair of NB shoes in about 150-200 miles. The outer heal is so bad, that my knees and hips start hurting. I have noticed with my first 2 jogs with VFF, I am landing on the balls of my feet like I should. I just can’t wait until the calf soreness goes away from using new muscles.

  • Thadeus

    Hey I love my VFF they have been my favorite pair of shoes to wear since I purchased them in december 09. I typically attempt to wear them every day weather permitting, they make me feel free and I love the way my feet feel in them.

  • Bob

    I have been running in VFFs since October of 2009. I started with Classics and then went to the KSOs. I ran a 5k in VFFs after about 3 weeks and ran a 15k in December. Initially, my feet started getting tired after about 8 miles but I’ve gotten past that.

    When I ran my first half marathon in January, I decided to go with my Mizuno shoes as a precaution. My feet started getting tired and sore after about 2.5 miles! Since then, I’ve run 3 half marathons in my KSOs including two in the last 10 days and my feet feel great. No soreness or pain. I’ve run in snow and ice (temperatures in the teens), dry and wet conditions, trails and pavement, all without the foot, back and leg issues I experienced prior to switching to VFFs.

    I should mention that I am 45 and have also adopted the ChiRunning method. I highly recommend the shoes and the method.

  • Pingback: Five finger pockets for your toes? « The Bench Press()

  • emily

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  • Ddge

    nice post