VIbrams’ FiveFinger, Five Finger or 5 Finger shoes are fantastic, however you pronounce them. The shoe itself is built to provide the wearer with as little ground feel, or perception of the ground as possible.
Why is minimal ground feel important you may ask? Well, the answer is surprisingly simple, and actually pretty elegant.The human foot is described by many as being one of the most fantastic evolutionary marvels on planet earth. It has evolved to deal with various situations such as being supportive when walking and standing, flexible and strong while running and sprinting, and sensitive to what you are actually walking on. That last point is of particular importance.
Sensitivity to the ground
Human feet have about as much nerve endings as the human hand. Feet are sensitive to everything the hand is and then some. Have you ever been walking around barefoot and stepped on something sharp like a thorn perhaps and felt how your whole body reacts to the sensation? Your feet are designed to prevent injury and keep you standing, the reaction you experience is one which is designed to “lift” all your weight off the affected foot.
However, when you wear shoes, this reaction is near to impossible, and while most shoes typically protect against thorns and sharp, dangerous objects, it is the ankle that is the weak point when wearing shoes.
How many times have you sprained an ankle with shoes on? Many times I’m guessing!
The reason you sprain an ankle, or over extend or pull something while wearing shoes is that your feet are unable to detect the imminent trouble. Your ankle is not bad just because you have sprained an ankle once or twice, it is simply because you wear shoes and subsequently have less sensitivity to what your legs, ankles and feet are doing. From my own reference, I have never had any injury while doing physical activity while barefoot or while wearing minimalist shoes such as Vibram’s FiveFingers. This is largely due to the fact that as a result of wearing minimalist footwear, my ankles, feet and general coordination of my legs has improved substantially.
It all started when I began running in Vibram Five Fingers
I have never been a runner and I never really saw myself as a runner. I played track sports in school though, and while I did enjoy them, I hated the running part. I thought it was a necessary evil which was required to get fit. I used to get shin splints, sore feet, and blisters. I was completely unaware as to how weak my feet and ankles actually were at the time.
I then discovered the barefoot movement thanks to the Internet, and I thought that I should give it a try. A radical new “barefoot” shoe was in the market called a FiveFinger by Vibram. It took the world by storm with its individual toe pockets and zero-drop sole.
The idea behind Vibram’s FiveFinger shoes is that in order for a shoe to provide a barefoot experience, the shoe should be thin, very flexible and have a zero-drop. That is, no difference in thickness from heel to toe. Vibram went one step further and designed and produced a shoe that has individual toe pockets for each toe. This feature alone makes them awesome, and surprisingly comfortable.
I did my research and found that the Vibram FiveFinger KSO’s were my best choice to go with. I wanted an all-round experience, and seeing as the KSO’s had Vibram’s original sole , it was as close as I could get to the original intended experience Vibram had in mind with the FiveFingers.
They were FANTASTIC. I loved them. My only gripe was that they were a little on the small side. I should have gone one size bigger to ensure a comfortable fit. My fourth toe on my left foot is a little longer than that of my right foot, and so I have had some sizing issues with VFF’s(Vibram FiveFingers).
Running in Vibram Five Fingers is a completely different experience, as I’m sure you would imagine! The ground feels intimately close with your feet, and they react to everything you feel. I could feel the grass texture beneath my feet and the cool breeze when I started to sweat. Everything seemed to make perfect sense, my body felt free. Free from shin splints, ankle injuries and clunky shoes. Until…
My calves started to hurt. They felt like they were on fire. I had never experienced such pain in my calves before. And this was from running the way my body was meant to run.
The solution, which seems pretty obvious now, was to run more. My muscles had atrophied to the point of almost being running-useless. I could run for about 1km maximum, and then what followed were days of not being able to walk or do anything physical. However, the more I ran, the better it got, and because I had converted to only wearing FiveFingers as my primary shoe, I got stronger feet and legs by default, without exercise. I think that if you can’t transition into barefoot footweare completely, start slow. As in, run 100metres, then stop. The next day, 150metres, and increase distance as you get stronger and your feet get stronger. It really is a different experience entirely, and it effects your whole body as well. For the first two weeks my back was sore, not because of the minimalist footwear, but because of the corrective nature and the natural nature of being barefoot. My back was now merely being used properly.
I now found that I was standing up properly and really using my feet to move my body around. While running my posture transformed into an upright, strong form, with my arms barely moving and my feet landing just below my forward-falling centre of mass. Acceleration while running barefoot is effortless and while the overall workload is perhaps higher than heel-strike running form due to the shock absorbing action required by the calf muscles, it feels more natural, efficient and effective. Even while walking my form has changed. I am quieter, lighter and smoother on foot, and I have found that I no longer experience any pain or strain while running.
My advice for transitioning into running either barefoot or with minimalist footwear like Vibram’s amazing FiveFinger shoes is to take it slow initially.
Steps for easy adoption of barefoot/minimalist/FiveFinger running:
- Start with small distances. Run 100metres for the first day and increase in small increments. Monday: 100m, Tuesday: 150m etc.
- Run barefoot first, then only use minimalist footwear. Your feet will need time to gain strength and develop the necessary calluses for protection. A good idea is to run carrying your Vibram’s, and put them on when you feel your feet getting sore, then turn home and call it a day.
- Set some goals and run with them in mind. Some goals may be to cover distance or to simply harness the new forefoot-strike running form. This is a big one for me as even after having run “barefoot” for over a year now, I still am conscious of my form all the time. Even a small correction, such as raising your eyes from the ground right in front of you can improve your form, which will in turn increase speed, decrease effort and ultimately make your runs that much better.
- Run without any music. Embrace the simplicity that is running. Feel the ground, get runner’s high, hear your body working. One thing I have noticed is how quiet forefoot-runners are. There is no slap, grind or squelch from rubber running shoes, just pat-pat-pat-pat.
- Increase your cadence. Aim for a high cadence(amount of strides per minute). Olympic athletes run at a cadence of around 180, recreational runners hit about 150. I’d suggest aiming for 160 and then increase as you get stronger and fitter. The higher the cadence, the less work you need to do to keep moving forwards. A higher cadence form is better because there is less load on the skeletal system, you engage more elastic functions of your muscles and ligaments and it just feels lighter and faster.
- Enjoy and learn to focus on the run. Forget everything else. Smile.
And there is my write up on what it’s like to go from not being a runner to being a barefoot runner. It’s quite a journey, and if you are looking for something to master it’s a great way to engage with your body and learn how to do one of our greatest and most underrated abilities, to run, and run well.