I'm a reluctant athlete on my best days - things have gone south, the joints have been abused, Ibuprofen has become Vitamin I, etc. Grinding out a couple of miles on a treadmill or elliptical trainer, the couple of days a week doing yoga - these have been miserable chores, not life-affirming activities. Vibram Fivefingers shoes are in the process of changing all that for me.
There's been a slow-brewing revolution in the study of athletic biomechanics and performance, based on findings that human motion seems to be impaired, not helped, by heavy-soled, padded sports shoes. The popular book "Born to Run" is only the latest and most visible statement in favor of barefoot running. The theory is that the human foot has evolved with a natural spring in the arch, so that running on the forefoot minimizes forces on the knees, hips and spine, while the spread of the toes improves balance. The neural wiring in the foot provides kinesthetic and sensory feedback which helps to keep the rest of the body in an optimum running posture.
Padded athletic shoes tend to concentrate forces on the heel instead of the forefoot, resulting in increased impacts on knees, hips and spine, while constraining the toes and deadening the nerves. Recent studies have shown that your likelihood of serious "overuse" injury (shin splints, foot, ankle, knee, hip and back problems) actually increases with the cost of your athletic shoes!
So barefoot running seems like a sensible proposition, especially given that the most talented Olympic runners in the world run all their lives without shoes. Unfortunately, we didn't evolve in a landscape of concrete and broken glass, and this is where most of us do our athletics now.
Enter the Vibram Fivefingers design. Imagine a glove that fits your foot comfortably with "fingers" for each toe, and a puncture-resistant Vibram sole that extends around the sides of the foot and over the tips of the toes. The "upper" is a stretchy and reasonably breathable Spandex-like material that just reaches over the forefoot like a Mary Jane-style shoe. There's an adjustable drawstring to snug the upper around the forefoot and heel, plus an anti-bacterial lining.
The manufacturer recommends wearing the Fivefingers for no more than an hour or two at a time initially to allow the musculature of the foot and leg to strenghten. I'm barefoot whenever I'm indoors so this wasn't much of an issue; a few miles of walking the first day didn't bother me at all. In fact, I sprinted across a couple of streets, did jumping jacks, ran up and down stairs and generally made a fool of myself within minutes of buying them. It seems I got Superfeet.
Unlike conventional shoes, there wasn't any "breaking in" period. These things are so disgustingly, sluttishly comfortable I didn't take them off for hours indoors. The synthetic material content will make your feet sweat, though - the antibacterial components were well-considered. It helps that the Fivefingers are machine-washable, though I would air-dry rather than subject them to dryer heat which might break down the adhesives.
I was fortunate to find a local store for the purchase. The Vibram website has fitting information - sizes are European, not US, and you'll definitely want to try them on if you have long or uneven toes. I tried several pairs, and noticed that there were quality control issues (the store clerk told me that Vibram is having trouble keeping up with demand) - some pairs had one toe too short, others had noticeable smears of colored adhesive on the fabric. The fit at the toes also depends on how you adjust the upper drawstring.
Color choices are limited and sometimes unfortunate, considering that Fivefingers are like a second skin. It seems there's an "uncanny valley" for feet, and green camouflage print makes you look like you stepped in Incredible Hulk. People will definitely look at your feet when you're wearing them. South Florida is home to some pretty extravagant footgear - you'll see everything from six-inch spike heeled boots to rhinestone flip-flops all the time - and I still had people stopping me to ask questions.
The soles have great grip for slippery or wet surfaces - my husband, a recreational kick-boxer, commented that this would be a drawback for martial artists who need to be able to pivot smoothly without unduly torquing their knees. They're terrific on a yoga mat, though - no more "Downward-facing Dog with Accidental Face Plant" postures.
The Fivefingers Classic isn't recommended for kicking sports like soccer or football, hiking, or running in sand, since there's no protection for the top of the foot and grit inside would cause major problems. Vibram also makes a KSO ("Keep Stuff Out") model with full foot enclosure.
Though it's only been a few days, I've had a noticeable improvement in running speed (about 8 - 10%), pain level, and recovery time after exercise. As much as I've tried to practise conscious effort and awareness of posture and form, it's really obvious how much easier and more fluid everything has gotten. I don't have to keep reminding myself to square my shoulders over my hips or avoid overextending my stride. Most of all, now that I'm learning to trust my feet again, I can look around and enjoy what I'm running past!
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