Product Review: Vibram FiveFinger Shoes

Lots of people in my family got shoes for Christmas this year.  My wife got a black pair of Ugg Boots.  My kids each got a pair of “Heely” shoes, the hybrid shoe/roller skates that kids zip around the shopping mall wearing.  When these gifts were opened they evoked waves of “oooo’s” and “aahhhh’s”.  If a question mark could make a sound, that’s what you would have heard when I opened my new shoes. I had just received a pair of Vibram FiveFingers.  These unique shoes have become some of the most popular and controversial pieces of footwear out there.  Now that I’ve had mine for a little over a month here are some of my likes and dislikes.

First I should address what is unique about these shoes.  The FiveFinger is a minimalist shoe design with trademark individual compartments for each toe on the foot.  The sole of the shoe is thin with rubber pads strategically placed for added foot protection.

Vibram FiveFinger Sport

Vibram FiveFinger Sport

The materials are thin and the shoe is very flexible.  When I wear them and wiggle my toes the entire shoe moves.  These shoes are very popular among runners, particularly advocates of barefoot running.  Of course the major disadvantage of running barefoot is that there is no protection from the terrain.  The FiveFinger provides this protection while allowing a lot of freedom in how your foot moves.  In theory barefoot running reduces the occurrence of certain foot injuries such as plantar fasciitis and bunions.  Some advocates also claim that it allows a runner to run faster and farther with less foot fatigue.  However, it’s no magic bullet.  You can’t just throw on a pair of Vibrams or throw all of your shoes away and expect never to have another foot problem.  Even the folks at Vibram suggest working with your doctor or transitioning into this shoe.  Some opponents of barefoot running claim that there is a higher incident of stress fractures and other foot problems.

You could read all day about the different sides of the argument.  That’s not my purpose here.  I want to give you my personal experience with these shoes.  I have some definite likes and some clear dislikes.  So there’s my disclaimer… this is all my opinion and is not couched in science, research or any of that other stuff you think is boring to read.

I threw mine on right away and they felt… weird!  It is a strange sensation at first to have all of your toes separated, especially when you’ve got a couple of gnarly ones like I do.  My second toe likes to cuddle with my third toe and the first thing I noticed is that they missed each other.  The inside of my second toe became a little sore from so much rubbing.  Not bad though.

Besides fitting my foot well they also fit with my personal philosophy on how the foot should work.  The human foot is complexed in its construction with about 20 muscles, 26 bones and 33 joints.  This allows for a lot of versatility in the type of terrain we can walk across.  The construction of the foot is a large part of why humans are able to get around on just two feet.  I think the shoes we are most accustomed to wearing limit the function of many of these muscles and joints.  They definitely change the shape of our feet.  When babies are born they have fan shaped feet and over time we develop feet that are shaped like shoes instead.

I like that the Vibram FiveFinger shoes encourage this natural shape.  After a few weeks wearing them I started to notice that regular shoes started to feel weird, like wearing a box on my feet.  I also noticed that I could suddenly move each of my toes individually.  Before, on my right foot in particular, I could really only move my big toe individually.  The rest of them had to be doing the same thing.  I think that wearing these shoes has activated some of the muscles in my foot to give me better range of motion.  It didn’t take long for me to adapt to the shoes although I understand it can take weeks, months and even a year in some cases.  I tell people that with normal shoes you have to break them in to be comfortable.  With the FiveFingers you break in your foot rather than the shoe.

As a test I decided to wear my FiveFingers instead of cleats in a recent game of mud football.  It was a lot of fun and I had a clear advantage.  I moved faster and slipped less than anybody else on the field.  I think it’s because the minimalist design of the shoe gave my body more neurological feedback allowing me to balance better.  Being able to dig my toes into the mud gave me better traction.

I’m not an avid runner but I have tried them out on the treadmill, in-town runs and trail hiking.  The worst experience was running/walking on concrete.  There is very little cushioning in the heel and I have gone my whole life wearing shoes with generous heel padding.  After about a mile it feels like you are pounding away at your feet.  What starts to happen naturally is that you shift your gait so that your foot strike is more toward your arch and less on your heel.  This is a good thing though because your arch is a natural dynamic shock absorber.  The treadmill did not have the same problems because they are more bouncy.  The problem with barefoot running on a treadmill is the friction which starts to feel like you’re burning your feet.  The FiveFingers solved that problem for me.  Just yesterday my family went hiking on some local trails and I wore my FiveFingers.  It was great up until we hit a jagged rocky part of the trail.  For the most part it was just fine but occasionally I would hit a rock that stabbed into my foot.  It didn’t feel good but I just chalked it up to reflexology and kept going.  After mud football, hiking, running, etc. the shoes actually clean up really well in the washer.

I find three big problems with the shoes.  First, they will not keep your foot warm.  You can get toe socks to wear with them and this helps.  They should be pretty thin otherwise it can make the fit of the shoe uncomfortable.  The best brand sock I have found for this in Injinji.  The socks lead me to the second thing I dislike.  The shoes are not water resistant.  If you step in a puddle your feet will get wet.  Socks make the problem worse.  So if you’re going to be splashing be prepared to have wet feet and ditch the socks as they just hold on to the moisture.  Third and most annoying, people will want to talk about them where ever you go.  I may snap the next time a stranger walks up and asks me if these are socks or shoes or for a detailed review on how I like them.

Overall they are some of my favorite shoes for right now.  Heck… I’m wearing them while I’m typing this.  I feel like they are good for my feet.  It’s neat to feel the ground as I walk and I love the feeling of freedom.  Sure they aren’t for everybody but they are working good for me.

I know some of you have them too.  What is your take on these shoes?  Pros?  Cons?

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