Saturday, July 4, 2009

Vibram Five-Fingers Shoes and “Barefoot” Running

I have always been something of a maverick with regard to sports equipment, resisting the latest gear marketing efforts in favor of minimalist and homemade equipment whenever it seemed to make sense. I also look for what actually works for me instead of what the pundits tell me I must have to optimize my performance and protect me from injury.

For example, I’ve been riding a recumbent bicycle for more than 25 years now, one with handlebars under the seat. Before I adopted the recumbent riding posture, I would routinely pinch nerves in my hands holding onto conventional handlebars. For rides of more than a few miles (I did a lot of longer rides of 50 to 100 miles or more in those days, as well as some extended multi-day trips), I would end up with numb hands. Since manual dexterity is important, this was unacceptable, and the recumbent riding posture fixed the problem. I also feel safer on a recumbent bicycle, largely because, if I fall off, I am much less likely to go head first over the handlebars. There is a visibility issue in that I ride lower to the ground, but that is readily fixed with a flag.

I also often find myself choosing footwear that is intended for some other purpose than the one I'm using it for. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and continued to participate in orienteering, I found that even shoes that were allegedly specially made for orienteering did not work very well in the Bay Area hills, where I often found myself contouring along steep hillsides that could be anything from soft mud to loose dirt and rock. I abandoned my special orienteering shoes in favor of some cheap football shoes that had wraparound cleats that provided much surer footing.

My primary sport right now is trail running. There is, of course, huge amounts of hype supported by lots of allegedly “scientific” research that has created an ever-changing array of running shoes with all kinds of “features” based mostly around various allegedly needed forms of support and/or cushioning. “Trail running” or “all terrain” shoes have mostly tended to be shoes with a fair amount of both support and cushioning as well as deep treads for all the apparently obvious reasons. At the same time, serious racers on trails have tended to opt for lighter weight “racing flats,” at least for competition, just as for road and track running; they want to minimize the weight of the shoes. I, too, have found myself migrating toward lighter and lighter shoes with less cushioning. Most people in the business of selling you shoes will insist that it is dangerous to continue running in shoes after the cushioning has started to deteriorate (usually deemed to be a few hundred miles or a few months). I’m the kind of guy who thinks his shoes are just getting broken in at that point! And I never missed the cushioning beyond the occasional minor bruise if I step too hard on a small sharp rock. I’ve done all my recent ultra-marathon running in well-worn New Balance 790s. These are lightweight shoes with minimal support and cushioning, and the cushioning they do have tends to break down after a few hundred miles, well before I’m ready to replace the shoes. I’ve never had any foot problems with them beyond some toenail bruising on long downhill running. (I should note that I grew up wearing arch-support shoes to “correct” my flat feet. I still have very low arches and a tendency to pronate, but I’ve never sprained an ankle or otherwise had problems that I could attribute to the low arches, and I haven’t used arch supports in more than 30 years now.)

I’m also a fan of going barefoot. I rarely wear shoes around the house. I haven’t generally chosen to run barefoot, except on sand, though my feet are tough enough to withstand a few miles of barefoot pavement running. So I was intrigued when I encountered the Vibram Five-Fingers shoes. They were originally developed for water sports, but have been increasingly adopted by advocates of barefoot running. On something of a whim, I decided to try a pair. I’ve had them for a couple of months now, and they have become my primary running shoes!

There have always been a few people out there who have developed tough enough feet to go barefoot in all but the most dangerous conditions. A few have run marathons barefoot. But most of us non-bushmen haven’t got enough callouses to manage, say, a marathon without at least some protection. The five-fingers shoes can provide that protection and give us a chance to get a lot closer to true barefoot running under more ground conditions and run lengths.

Others have written more than I can about why you might want to run barefoot. There are links you can follow from the Vibram website. Check out Barefoot Ted and the Pose running method, for example. (And read Christopher McDougall’s new book, Born to Run, A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a surprisingly great read, that has quite a lot to say about running footwear [and Barefoot Ted]!) I’ll just focus on my recent personal experience.

I guess this still represents something of a preliminary report. Shortly after I acquired the shoes, I injured my Popliteus muscle, and have only just gotten back to where I can run my usual 40 to 50 miles per week, so I still haven’t got a lot of miles on my Five-Fingers. In some ways, though, the enforced slow recovery gave me a convenient opportunity to learn how best to take advantage of the Five-Fingers. Some observations:

1. If you’re going to be a “barefoot runner,” you are naturally tempted to forgo socks altogether with your Five-Fingers. I’ve now experimented quite a bit with and without socks. My current preference is to use socks only for hotter temperatures and runs of more than an hour or so. I don’t bother with socks for runs of an hour or less. The primary issue is that I start to develop hot spots after my feet start to sweat significantly. Socks help reduce the chafing and wick away the sweat. I don’t seem to need very much sock; I use very thin Injinji “liner” socks made from bamboo fiber, and I’ve had good luck up to the maximum run of about 16 rough trail miles I’ve tried so far. I did get a blister on the bottom of one heel on a hot hilly 8-mile run early on when I wasn’t wearing socks (and was still running with a heel-strike gait). Of course, if you’re not wearing socks, then the shoes are absorbing the sweat and dirt that normally ends up in the socks. I rinse the dirt and sweat out of the shoes every few days, something that I practically never do with “normal” shoes. Keeping the insole surfaces clean is important to minimize wear on the feet.

2. Five-Fingers shoes have a very smooth sole made of what I assume is a tough urethane material. (Vibram built their business around making tough long-lasting soles for hiking shoes and work boots.) So far, the soles show very little sign of wear, even though I’ve been doing relatively a lot of pavement running. I was concerned about traction, given the complete lack of tread, but I haven’t found it to be much of an issue. They slip a little on the typical summer dust on Bay Area dirt trails, but so do shoes with lots of tread. What you gain with toe grip generally makes up for the loss of tread grip. The shoes work fine in soft mud. Probably the most difficult terrain is tall grass and similar field conditions. The grass tends to get between the toes and get stuck. And, of course, anything spiny like star thistle can be a real problem. You wouldn’t want to run through a field of star thistle, cactus, or blackberries (not that I make a habit of doing so in any footwear…).

3. You do need to pay attention to where you put your feet. The soles spread the pressure points of ground features enough to dampen out the effects of fine and course gravel, but they don’t help all that much for isolated sharp rocks. I was already accustomed to sub-consciously paying attention to foot placement anyway, since I haven’t been using shoes with much cushioning for a long time, so I have yet to actually bruise my foot. If anything, the minimal cushioning really does force you to be more in tune with the surface you are running on. But extended running on rough trail does tend to abuse the feet somewhat more than running in shoes with more cushioning. Part of the adaptation one makes to running in Five Fingers shoes is to develop the foot muscles more to take advantage of the new-found capability to “feel” the ground you’re running on, and you can then adapt to longer running on rougher trails.

4. There is no fundamental requirement that you change your running gait to use Five Fingers shoes. However, the absence of heel cushioning certainly encourages a switch to something more like “Pose” running, where you land first on the ball of your foot rather than the heel. It’s a big enough change for distance running, that I didn’t do it immediately. But having made the transition, I really like what it does for me. It significantly reduced the stress on my injured knee, and it has probably given me a bit more spring
in my step and some resulting speed. Surprisingly, to watch me run, you might not even notice the difference. I already tended to land nearly level-footed, so the change is fairly subtle to a casual observer. I still land nearly level-footed, but tipped slightly the other way. From a muscle training point of view, it was necessary to develop a little more strength in the calf muscles, since they now play more of a role in absorbing the impact of each footfall, but that didn't take very long (for me, at least).

5. So far, my Five-Fingers are showing very few signs of wear and tear, though my total experience is probably still under 200 miles or so. One strap started to fray (possibly due to a manufacturing “defect” where the slot that the strap goes through was a bit too sharp), and I added a small piece of leather to repair the strap and take the wear. I don’t yet know what the ultimate failure mode that will cause me to retire the shoes is likely to be.

6. I haven’t yet worked up to runs of much more than a couple of hours, so I don’t yet know what issues will come up. So far, though, I’m not seeing any likely limitations, and I’m hoping that my chronic struggles with toenail bruising on multi-hour runs will be a thing of the past.



Paul Charteris said...

Something else you will notice David.

Your toes will spread out and your feet will become more muscular - just the way they evolved to be. Enjoy the new Vibrams!

Cheers, Paul Charteris

Jo Lynn said...

I would imagine they will build muscles in your feet too. They are strange to see.

Tell Cynthia I'm sorry about her knee. I hope it feels better soon. Thank you for your nice, kind words on my blog. ;)

Justin said...

Great post.!! I am totally impressed.. I would like to have a of Vibram Five-Fingers shoes. Those are amazing..

Methuselah said...

David - enjoyed your post. I have the exact same pair of Vibrams and have been wearing them more or less everywhere except to business meetings. I have also done some hiking, jogging and sprinting in them. On Saturday I will run an 8.5-mile, 4,500-feet mountain race in them - this will be the first time they will really have been tested. My suspicions are that I will have a real problem on hard, stony terrain when going downhill and on any muddy, slippy terrain; but I am more interested in the race experience than in getting a fast time, so I am happy to lose time because I have to place my feet more carefully.

I have pre-ordered a pair of treks in anticipation of their being more suited to mountain running.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Good luck with your race Methuselah! The more I use my Five-Fingers, the more impressed I am with the range of ground conditions that they can cope with at least as well or better than conventional shoes! Mud doesn't seem to be a problem at all. The toes grip better in mud than even fairly heavily treaded shoes, and one doesn't develop the "platform shoe" effect from attached mud nearly as much. Soft sand or equivalent (such as volcanic ash that was pretty deep in places when I recently went about a third of the way up Mt. Shasta in my Five-Fingers) also doesn't present much of a problem. Those isolated sharp rocks are the major hazard. Running down a hard packed road/trail with scattered loose gravel can be painful even for reasonably well-toughened feet. I can do it for short distances, but the feet take a beating.

Methuselah said...

Hi - the race was great fun but I had mixed results with the Five Fingers! I've written an acount of it here:

2 hr 45 min Mountain Race, Fasted, in Vibram Five Fingers

MereMere said...

Hi there! I'm a broadcast journalism student in San Francisco working on a story about barefoot running in the Bay Area. If you or anyone else would be interested in talking about your experience running without shoes, please email me with your contact information so we can chat. Thanks and happy running!


Anonymous said...

Such a great review - thanks for all the input. I was curious about five fingers and was considering them, but went with a more traditional shoe. Maybe someday I'll get there :-)

Parth said...

Fivefingers are good, but there is a manufacturing defect in the way the strap frays. I have two pairs for KSO's, one is 9 months old and the other is 6 months, and on both of them, the straps are fraying on the eye. This is a big surprise as I don't run in them and mostly use them in office and walking. The odd part is the I called the Vibram USA customer service, and Stefan there told me that they have not had any complaints about it. So well, now they have one :)..

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Parth: I absolutely agree that the strap fraying constitutes a defect! I would even call it a design defect rather than a manufacturing defect. I have patched my straps at all four slots, now, at least one more than once. But with some 2000 miles on my pair and lots of other patches now in place, I'm also about ready for a new pair. I've also heard rumors of a design change that would make the strap a replaceable part like a shoelace, which would suggest (if true) that Vibram knows about the problem.