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Looking at the Vibram FiveFingers shoes, I find myself wondering why?

What possible benefits do they bring as opposed to a traditional sole?

Their web site (in the why barefoot section) seems to suggest that they are a more natural way to use your feet and then suggest a series of exercises to do to become used to the shoes. I'm not convinced buying a very expense pair of shoes that I can't wear until I complete a rigourous training regime are a good idea. I've not once looked at my boots and thought I wish I could feel all the rocks under my feet.

In all their marketing material (that I can see) they make no substantial claims as to what the tangible benefits are.

I'm tempted to suggest that they are simply a marketing gimic, or am I missing something?

Does anyone love these? Can they explain why and what benefits they bring?


As a side note to this question I was speaking to a friend of mine at the weekend who's a manager of a national UK outdoor chain store (by far the largest chain in the UK). Apparently this company have decided they are a gimic and that their day's are over, apparently sales have been dropping for some time. As such they will no longer be stocking FiveFingers in any form.

Thought is was an interesting perspective as it seems to point to a decline in these types of shoes. If you really like these you may want to think about stocking up!

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Great question I have wondered the same for a while, I have never tried them and don't think I will. I am happy with my New Balance Minimus. –  AM_Hawk Feb 12 at 18:09
    
I've been wondering as well. Personally, I have decided that instead of taking the time to adapt to "barefoot" shoes, I take the time to adapt to barefoot without shoes. (Though there are some rocks looking through the soil around here and some parts of the meadows have thistles, there's enough more suitable terrain around for getting used to that) –  cbeleites Feb 12 at 19:10
    
I LOVED my Vibram Five Fingers. But my partner complained, rightly, that they stank horribly. Now I wear the New Balance Minimus. For really long days, like running a marathon, the Minimus are slightly more comfortable, because they don't have to be as tight. –  theJollySin Feb 12 at 23:50
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@Liam Comfort. For walking, or any run under 12 miles, they are the most comfortable shoe I've ever owned. By far. The major downsides were: the un-cleanable smell, and the fact that every idiot in the grocery store would ask me about them. –  theJollySin Feb 13 at 16:13
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Personally, I use Vibrams for roughly 10k runs, and I prefer them over conventional running shoes. But you might want to take a look at these two, very popular questions on the Fitness StackExchange site: What are the downsides of minimalist runnings shoes? and experiences with 'barefoot' running - there are lots of opinions and facts there. –  Eyal Feb 15 at 7:49
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The whole topic of sports equipment, sports health, and sports injuries is one in which the scientific quality of most of the information tends to be extremely poor. However, there is a group at Harvard that does research on barefoot running, and they have a web page with a lot of good information on it.

As far as I've seen from browsing through their materials casually, it seems like one argument in favour of barefoot running is the following:

When you get injured, it isn't just the amount of force that determines the damage, but also the rate at which the force changes, i.e., how "jerky" it is.

If you know calculus, this is a statement that the third derivative of the position with respect to time is important. This is pretty well understood for machines, and probably applies to the human body as well. For example, a machine like a mill or a lathe can be damaged by vibration, and you can't make the machine vibrate by using a steady force, only by using a force that changes rapidly.

The Harvard group has data showing that shod runners have more "jerky" impact with the ground and, like machines, are more prone to vibration damage or injury.

There is also evidence that the factors you'd think would affect injury, such as cushioning and distance, actually don't have much effect, because people subconsciously adjust their bodies. However, these subconscious adjustments may make barefoot runners less efficient.

Some other info:

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Hi Ben, I've edited your answer to make it a little more clear. Hope you don't mind. Good answer with actual evidence, which I did not expect! –  Liam Feb 13 at 9:12
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Ben Crowell already answered the "why minimalist" angle better than I could have, but he didn't specifically talk about Vibram FiveFingers (hereafter VFF). This is intended to complement his answer.

Generic pros of minimalist footware

  • Little or no heel drop. As with other (true) "minimalist" footwear the VFF have little or no heel drop. This works with the gait learned from barefoot running and walking. I find that after adapting to this gait putting on a pair of shoes with a raised heel feels like I'm walking on blocks. The low heel makes the foot more stable, reducing the chance of rolling your ankle, and it lowers the lever-arm acting on the ankle so that if you do roll it there is less force upon it.

  • Better ground feel. You wrote: "I've not once looked at my boots and thought I wish I could feel all the rocks under my feet." Once your feet toughen a bit this may change. I do want to feel the features under my feet, though of course not painfully so. In "regular" shoes or boots my feet feel numb. Much like getting a new pair or climbing shoes with thick, stiff soles after climbing in ones that are worn thin, you suddenly realize how much less you can feel, and it's not a good thing. Like the climbing shoe analogy there are benefits to a stiffer sole as well, but (lack of) feel isn't one of them. For me a minimalist sole is the perfect compromise; ground feel without pain. (Barefoot feels great on smooth sidewalks, packed earth, and glacier-polished rock but I can't tolerate sharp gravel.)

  • Contour to the terrain. Related to the point above, a thin, flexible sole will contour to the terrain under foot. Combined with improved ground feel this can make you significantly more surefooted. To a limited extent your feet can wrap around bumps and undulations, increasing contact area and giving you better grip.

VFF Pros

  • Fits my foot without excess. I have squarish feet with mostly straight toes, and I like to have enough room for my toes lie flat, splay and move. My foot is shaped almost exactly like the VFF so for the first time in my life I have a shoe that actually fits. The rounded bulbous end of "regular" shoes is nothing like the shape of my foot; if I fit such a shoe large enough to keep my toes flat there is a bunch of excess rubber at the front. This is the problem I have with other minimalist shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove and New Balance Minimus; not only do I feel like I'm wearing clown shoes but it significantly interferes with feel and motion. The VFF also have a more naturally contoured heel than some other options (e.g. Minimus), allowing for a comfortable rolling step. The VFF just feels like a foot with a rubber sole on it; there's no extra shoe, unlike just about anything else.

  • Acts as a toe-spreader, restoring natural alignment during exercise. Feet that have habitually been stuffed into constrictive shoes may be deformed from the natural and healthy shape, and may not fit the VFF last, but unless it is a matter of relative toe length or overall width this is probably not the fault of the VFF but of the feet. The VFF helps restore toes to a natural position, at least while they are worn, which I believe will improve joint health and prevent, limit, or at least slow a hallux valgus deformity. As one who grudgingly squishes his feet into tight shoes for the sake of climbing I think it is especially important to counter this deforming force as much as possible.

VFF Cons

  • Flawed design lacks durability. I've had two pairs of VFF tear through the fabric between the great and second toe while the soles were still in great shape. Other people have reported the same thing: "Bottom line I love how these slippers work compared to a regular neoprene surf bootie, but it’s sad to know I’ll shred the tops after a couple months of beach use while the soles are good for 10 years of abuse."

  • They cost too much. Especially in light of the durability problem described above these things cost too much (MSRP). I have spent far more (effectively, per year) on "minimalist" shoes that I did on conventional ones, which just seems backwards. However, you can on occasion find them on incredible sales; I found my father a pair of KSO Trek Multisport for $24 after discounts (MSRP: $125!). (My size was sold out.) Hereafter I am simply unwilling to pay anything close to full price for a shoe that will fall apart long before the sole wears out because of a flawed design.

  • No mud lugs. I find VFF have good traction on most surfaces (for a rubber-soled shoe; I know of nothing but crampons that will work on a wet, mossy log jam), with the exception of mud. Sometimes you just need cleats like the Inov-8 racers have.

  • They let in and hold water. I have no complaints with how the VFF function in dry weather, while they last. However they let in water in even a light rain on pavement because the fabric between the toes joins the sole just a couple of millimeters from the ground. (This is where it wears through.) I don't mind my feet getting wet (I've gone barefoot in the rain a number of times; it feels good!), but the padded footbed and upper material hold water, which I do not like. When I first started wearing VFF I thought I could hike right through a stream and out the other side like I would if barefoot (but with some protection from broken glass, etc.) but my experience is that I'll have soggy feet for the rest of the hike; they don't dry like I wish they did. Some other minimalist options such as huaraches with a simple, unpadded rubber sole will perform much better in this regard.

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I found this while shopping for a new pair and I figured I'd give my input. I left my Bikilas at my parent's house so figured I'd treat myself to a new pair.

First off, to answer this:

I wish I could feel all the rocks under my feet.

Vibrams will accomplish this. Barefoot will accomplish this even more, but it really does a beating on your feet. I actually recently ran around downtown (barefoot because I don't have my Bikilas) and I got blisters on a pretty short run.

Speaking of which, blisters are just about the ONLY problem I've had with my Bikilas. I've actually felt like cutting off the big toe or something because I was having so much blister trouble. Actually though, and my last paragraph actually might be evidence of this, I might just have sensitive feet. Maybe my feet, which have been in regular shoes their entire life, just develops blisters because they are adapting to the roughness that they have been sheltered from.

Other comments about barefoot running: There is some learning/strengthening to do. Of course there's the typical strengthening of your calves you will go through at first. Just take some big breaks, I stand on steps with the front of my foot and lower/lift my heel as a good exercise for them. You want to control how you run, but also do it naturally. If you strain to run in a bad way, you will get injured. If you feel pain, stop, or you will get injured. I've gone through some long term (multiple month) knee pain on both of my legs (maybe illiotibial band, there are good stretches for that), as well as heel pain and problems with the tendon going to my big toe (I believe mostly from bad form after running with blisters).

My calves are strong now, I don't get blisters if I'm wearing socks (used body glide for a while, no blisters even without using it now), the injuries are healed and I feel no pain (been doing the illiotibial band stretches before every run: lay on side, bring leg to butt and hold knee down with other leg, put foot on table and lean forward on it). I've only been running pretty lightly though, since my last injuries. I'm confident in getting back into it without any problems though.

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