This guest post is by Ross Gilbert.
My Vibram FiveFinger KSO Treks were a Christmas gift, and the thought of starting out in them, and getting starting with barefoot running, in mid-winter meant I opened that gift with a look of ‘I’d rather have another silly tie’. But I was persuaded by the benefits of barefoot running and wanted to give it a try – at least this way maybe my feet would be a little warmer and drier than if I went totally barefoot.
My first thought as I pulled them out of the box was about how will I get these things on? With a good fit, they are a glove for your feet, and somehow my wife had taken some pretty accurate measurements of my feet so they were going to be an exact fit without much room to spare. I did get them on, but it took a while, and even I had to admit maybe it was time to read the instructions.
My pair were kangaroo leather (there are some manmade materials available for the FiveFingers too) which meant that they were soft as velvet. The manmade sole inside the shoe felt smooth. The straps didn’t pinch but it does take some practice to get them on, partly because they are so soft.
Keeping them clean isn’t difficult. My kangaroo model dries out quickly, and I’ve put them through the washing machine a dozen times now and they’re holding up fine. You do need to plan ahead though, because to protect the leather you need to dry them gently, and that takes a while – at least overnight. The synthetic ones may dry out faster.
Pretty excited about giving them a try, I got them on and set out to run around our neighborhood, which is about a half mile loop – perfect for a barefoot newbie! A Seattle Christmas is pretty much always cold and wet, and this was no exception. For the mile or so I did of running and walking, my feet stayed warm enough, and I actually felt like I had more traction than in my running shoes, even on the wet asphalt.
Despite it being less than 50 degrees and raining, while my hands were getting plenty cold, my feet continued to feel fine. I wouldn’t say they were warm, but they certainly didn’t get uncomfortably cold. Even in subsequent runs in colder weather, I have never felt the need to go back inside because my feet were cold.
Staying dry is another matter. My feet did get wet, inside and out. My feet never sweat when I run truly barefoot, even in the warm environment of the gym, but on all runs, my feet sweat in the Vibrams. Not much, but enough that I need to take steps to keep them clean. If it’s raining heavily, they’ll take on water, but so far I have run in most of Seattle’s drizzle without the Vibram’s filling up. Step in a puddle, though, and you’ll squelch for the rest of your run.
I had heard that some Vibrams wear out quickly, so I kept the packaging and all the paperwork carefully stored in case I needed to use the warranty. I didn’t need to – I’ve run in these for six months now – in the wettest winter I can recall – and on roads, tracks, and trails, and so far the seams and stitching are sound, the sole looks worn but isn’t showing any holes, and despite some careless steps on the trails they haven’t torn or punctured.
So you can tell I like them. But now for the big question – is this the same as barefoot running? Yes and no. You feel most of the surface underfoot, much like being totally barefoot(especially if you hit a rock or you’re on the trails) so you quickly learn to watch where you step. I’m a severe underpronator, and since I’ve incorporated running in Vibrams to my training, all the knee and ankle pain has gradually faded away. I do run differently – my stride is shorter, my cadence faster, and I’m definitely ‘on my toes’ much more. So yes, the Vibrams do give you the biomechanical benefits and much of the awareness and sensations you have of going completely barefoot.
But remember that you aren’t copmpletely barefoot. Don’t think that because you run in Vibrams you can leave them at home and go totally barefoot without some pain. My soles haven’t toughened up too much, and when I’ve left the Vibrams dirty or wet and decided to go for a barefoot run anyway I’ve come home pretty quickly. If the sensitivity I’m talking about is keeping you from trying barefoot running, then Vibrams are a great answer. I can image that if you are a die-hard trail runner, or if where you live is very cold – or very hot – then Vibrams will give you many more opportunities to run ‘barefoot’.
If you are already a ‘real’ barefoot runner, then adding Vibrams from time to time probably won’t hurt, and again you might be able to get out more than you would otherwise. The plus side for me is that I get all the biomechanical benefits I was looking for from barefoot running, but I have yet to get cold, cut, or sore feet.
Photo courtesy of Vibram website.