I have been running for about 5 years now, going through a couple pair of shoes a year. But a little over a year ago I tried out a pair of Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) and really like them, kind of. They were so lightweight that it felt almost like I was floating. It only took a block or so before I was convinced that this was the shoe for me.
But wearing VFF’s is not something that I was able to quickly transition into. While I can’t speak for everyone, I know that for me the transition from thick soled shoes to VFF’s was slow and oftentimes painful. If you are considering the use of VFF’s there are a number of things you need to be aware of up front.
VFF’s are a really strange looking pair of shoes. The most noticeable feature is the each toe has it’s own little enclosure rather than the single toe box of a regular shoe. To me, the advantage of this is that I no longer have to deal with blackened toe nails caused by my toes impacting the end or sides of the shoe. With VFF’s my toes can easily go where ever they want. The other significant feature about VFF’s is that the sole is only about 1/8 inch thick and provides no cushioning. This is at least a part of the reason they are so light, but it also contributes to some of the struggles with learning to wear the shoes.
Previous to running with a pair of VFF’s I had pretty much always run using a heel first landing, absorbing much of the impact in the shoe cushioning. But VFF’s have no cushioning. So a heel strike gets really old, really fast; it hurts. So I started trying to land on my toes, and that was good; for about 1/2 mile. At that point my calves rebelled. I now run with more of a mid foot strike and that seems to be the best compromise for me.
Until I have warmed up well, several miles into a run, I have to be really careful with my calves. They never cramped before I started wearing VFF’s. They have dropped me in my tracks a number of times since. A calf cramp is nothing to laugh about, believe me. And they seem to take a couple of weeks to recover from. Stretch your calves well both before and after running, and occasionally during the day. And try to relax your calves as you run, at least for the first few miles. That seems to help a lot.
Calluses are another thing that surprised me. I get them now on the ends of toes as well as on the end of my foot just behind the big toes and their immediate partner. Learning how to keep the calluses there softened up makes using the shoes more comfortable.
When you run with a regular pair of shoes on you can flop your feet just about anyplace you want to. With VFF’s that is a bad idea. When you land on a rock with your arch it hurts. I have become much more sensitive to the surface I am running on and more careful about where I place my feet. I actually have two pair of VFF’s. The KSO Trek model has a more substantial sole than the KSO and I am finding that makes it easier for me to run in. My feet have been nestled in shoes for most of my nearly 60 years, and it is taking time to get them toughened up.
Fit is really important for VFF’s. I would highly recommend that you buy them from a store with knowledgeable sales folks and a good return policy. If they do not fit good, you will not be able to wear them for long. But get a good fit and they are actually fairly comfortable.
One of the points touted for barefoot running, or minimalist shoes is that ultimately they help to prevent running injuries. I don’t know how long it takes to get to that point though. I have run 600-700 miles in them over the past year and haven’t noticed any less injury. And have actually had more because of my calves.
Injini Toe Socks
While the weather is colder and wetter I generally wear socks with my VFF’s. Injinji makes a nice pair of toe socks that work well for me. Wearing socks also helps to hold down the stench that can develop in the shoes. Another way to resolve the smell is simply to wash them. Mine go in the wash every week along with the rest of my running clothes. Just be sure to close up the Velcro straps first and don’t put them through the dryer.
Given all the issues, at least for me, with wearing VFF’s, why do I continue to wear them? Because in spite of issues with calluses, calf cramps and rocks on the roadway, I like the shoes. I recently tried going back to regular shoes for a month or so and it was like running with ankle weights on. The VFF’s are very light weight and, so long as I exercise a bit of caution, have become much more pleasant to run it. I would recommend them to anyone who is willing to endure the long transition that is required from standard running shoes. Just be sure to do it slowly.