Monday, February 1, 2010

Vibram FiveFingers: Lessons Learned on the Nearly-barefoot Trail

I first tried Vibram FiveFingers a little over a year ago, after returning to running following my meniscus surgery. For a refresher, here were my thoughts at the time. Somehow a year has passed, and I a now feel older and, well, maybe I just feel older. But, wow what a difference a year makes in my approach to shoes.

This isn't so much a running shoe review as an opinion on minimalist shoes for everyday living. You see, after I took my tentative first steps in my neoprene FiveFinger Flows, I began the slow return to my roots: my barefoot roots as a kid. Funny thing is, my feet get cold easily so all-out barefoot isn't that appealing to me and gravel still hurts a lot to walk over un-shod. But I love the feeling of being connected to the ground, of having extremely lightweight shoes, and experiencing the feedback from the ground to my feet and body that are so utterly lacking in more conventional shoes. It was really fun wearing my FiveFingers not just for running, but more for everyday use.

I would love to say that I've been racking up the miles in my nearly barefoot shoes, and that I have moved on to completely barefoot running to take the minimalist approach to the next level. Truthfully, my feet still are pretty wimpy. They get cold easily, and I got pretty lazy in the fall and did very little running at all. I've even had my share of injuries along the way, a side-effect of exposing my long-sheltered feet to the sometimes cruel, unfiltered world below them.

Among those injuries were a severely sprained foot after running with numb, cold feet in my FiveFingers at Stupidathon I. Truth is, my feet were thoroughly frozen from the preceding bike ride. They were numb by the time I even started running, and I learned that nearly barefoot running requires that the feedback from nerves in the feet to make micro-adjustments to how I land with each foot strike. This is more important when your feet lack the cushioning of more conventional shoes. When running shod, your feet are pretty numb anyway and rely on the cushioning of the shoe to protect your feet. Therefore, having cold feet when running with normal running shoes isn't such a big deal. The shoe continues to do what it always does. So, perhaps my most important lesson on this journey, is that if I was accept that this increased connection between the ground and my feet was a good thing, I also had to realize that it required my full sensory involvement. In practice, this meant my feet must be warm enough to provide sensory feedback about the ground underneath them. Otherwise, I was taking a huge risk in running. The next few weeks were spent hobbling along, recovering, and often wearing regular shoes with cushioning. It made my sprained foot just numb enough to tolerate walking.

There were some other pains before the foot sprain that I would classify as good pains. I am referring to the calf pain I experienced as I began to run occasionally in the FiveFingers and walk in them all day long at work. I have never had a proper calf muscle. My lower legs make chicken legs look like tree trunks. That's just the way I am built. Wearing low profile, flat and flexible shoes forced me to develop these muscles in a hurry. I assume the loss of the raised heel found on traditional shoes, along with a slight forward lean and landing with my foot underneath rather than in front of me all contributed to a lot of stretching and recoil of these underdeveloped muscles. I would ache a lot in my calves after the first short runs. Still, it never felt terrible, just sore, and I was very patient and didn't rush it. Having a recent injury helped since I was content to rebuild very slowly after some time down from running. Over weeks, my lower legs and feet became stronger, working out these long-dormant muscles in ways that I hadn't in years.

At work, I had a little more spring in my step. It is striking how a small decrease in weight at the end of your feet can make you more nimble. I began to notice that my back didn't hurt at the end of a busy day. I am on my feet walking between exam rooms for much of the day and with regular shoes my back would start to ache by the end of the day. With flatter, lighter and more flexible FiveFingers, I didn't have that problem anymore. I think most of this is due to having my heel flat on the ground rather than slightly raised. It puts less stress on my lower back and even a centimeter adds up over the course of the day. I found myself making small adjustments to how I stood on my feet in order to protect my heels also. You don't notice this in regular shoes, but you really can't stand with locked knees supporting most of your weight on your heels for too long before it gets uncomfortable in nearly bare-feet. I shifted more weight to the balls of my feet, and when I paid attention to it I found I was shifting my weight around all the time without really thinking about it.

One thing I wasn't prepared for was how unconventional my shoes were to people not familiar to them. After wearing them a while, you forget that they look really goofy and that most people find them quite odd appearing. So, there are lots and lots of questions, and you end up talking about them quite frequently if your job involves meeting with many different people during the day. The questions and comments were all over the place. Here are some of the more common ones.
"What are those?!?"
"Hey, you have gorilla feet!"
"Did you forget your shoes today? Those are socks right?"
"Those must be great for watersports."
"How are they in the (snow,rain,heat,cold,pool,bay, bed,etc)?"
"Where did you get them and how can I get a pair?"
"I had socks like that back in the 80's!"
"Are they comfortable?"

The last question is one of my favorites because yes, of course they are. I wouldn't wear such ugly things if they weren't. I didn't find them at all attractive myself when I first started wearing them but they have grown on me.

After a couple months wearing the neoprene ones and reading more about the KSO version online, I went ahead and ordered a second pair- this time the KSO in brown. I found these to be a significant step up in comfort and flexibility. The toe separation with the KSO felt much more natural to me with the reduced fabric thickness compared to neoprene. They flexed more easily and provided more tactile feedback from the ground. My feet didn't get so hot when walking around inside during the day. They became my primary shoes, and I used the Flows only on really cold days where I had to walk in snow or really wet days where puddles were numerous.

Somewhere in this transition period, I did wear my black Flow FF's to Tuckahoe State Park for a ten mile trail run. This proved to be the site of my second significant injury in my FF's, and the one which might have made smarter people go back to regular shoes. While running on the leaf covered trails, I hit my big toes full speed on not one but two large roots hidden beneath the foliage. The first time was only a mile into the run and happened to my left toe. I shook my foot out a few times afterwards, howled a little, then ran on. The second one happened mercifully 8 and 1/2 miles in when my right foot collided even harder on a large submerged root, and I tumbled over in agony. Luckily my foot was a little frozen, so the pain was somewhat muted. I somehow brushed it off and finished the run, but my big toe was black and blue and swollen already. An xray the next day confirmed a fractured great toe that seemed to take a good six months to fully heal. That ended my running for a while, especially my trail running, but I wasn't done with the FiveFingers so easily. Perhaps a shoe with more protection or room in the toebox might have prevented the fracture. I'll never know, but it seemed like it might be prudent to stick to trail running shoes for the foreseeable future, and perhaps to be more cautious running on on trail with lots of leaves.

I remember the toe healing very slowly and needing to wear regular shoes to comfort my foot and allow for a buddy-tape splint I rigged with with a tongue-depressor and some athletic tape. Good times those were. But slowly, my toe healed, and I was silly enough to give the FiveFingers another try. I am happy to say that since that time I have been injury free. I haven't been running much, but when I do I no longer feel calf weakness or pain. My quads never hurt the way they used to after a longer run when I heel-striked. My feet generally feel strong and liberated. It is mostly good. Good enough to never miss conventional running shoes.

There are some practical matters worth thinking about before making the FiveFinger KSO a primary pair of shoes. They get soaked very easily in a puddle and take a long time to dry out while wearing them. They aren't nearly as comfortable in wet weather. This is less of a problem with the Flows, but they never feel quite as comfortable to me wet or dry.

There is also the problem of odor. I hope I never let my shoes get too smelly. I wash them every week in the washing machine and by then they seem to need it. I use hot water, detergent and Oxiclean then leave them over the heat vent in the morning to dry them out. It seems to work well. Since I wear them without socks, I think getting a week out of them is pretty reasonable. I don't intend to push it. The shoes have good longevity. My KSO pair is starting to wear through the rubber on the ball of one foot after about a year. This isn't too bad I think considering I wear them just about daily. The upper fabric has held up well to weekly washings, and I suspect with a little shoe glue on the bottom or a rubber patch I might get quite a few more months and miles out of them.

The other potential problem is that being unconventional, you will end of answering a lot of questions about your shoes. Most days, this is fine. They are a good ice-breaker. Most people genuinely are curious about the positive aspects of them. But there are days when you might just want to talk about other things or blend in. As a pediatrician, I am tickled when kids notice them and start smiling or a parent asks me "I would like to wear them, but they don't have any arch support do they?" It is then that I have a choice. I can either say, no they don't and move on. The second option is to get into a discussion about whether arch support is truly necessary since presumably the foot is well designed to do its job without shoes. The second pathway is far more interesting, but I don't always have the time for it. When I ask, do you ever walk around barefoot at home I will often get very accepting looks and a happy glint in the eye about the joys of walking around the house un-shod. Then I answer, well this is pretty close to that.

There are other options out there for people who want a barefoot experience while wearing shoes. They even look more like conventional shoes. I have an order a pair of Feelmax shoes called the Kuusa(they are a Finnish company). Apparently they are coming out with a running shoe called the Osma. There is another company called Vivo Barefoot that makes some interesting minimalist shoes, but they come at a higher price.

I have gradually been giving away my older, heavier and more conventional shoes, with the thought of having only lightweight shoes in my inventory. I already warned Megan that she might actually prefer the FiveFingers to a pair of Barefoot Ted's homemade huaraches. Those are coming next...

--Nearly Barefoot Landy


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zbsports said...

I learn more thing on your post too. I like vibram five fingers shoes because of its comfort brings on my foot.

john jacobs said...

I think I just sprained my foot in Vibrams too. Three weeks of healing isn't going to be fun. Xrays were negative so has to be a foot sprain. My feet weren't numb though and I was only a mile and a half into my run. Guess I found out how painful and debilitating a foot sprain can be!