You've probably seen them around and if you have seen them then you will no doubt have recognized them. Essentially they look like gloves for the feet and that means that they fit around the foot perfectly snugly and enable you to see the shapes for the individual toes. Think toe socks but made from the same material as wet suits and you're along the right lines. They certainly look unusual and stand out, and that's why you've probably encountered them yourself by now at some point.
That's part of the genius of the 'Five Finger' shoes from Vibram – they look so unique that as soon as anyone sees them they want to ask questions about them and that means that the owners end up effectively doing free marketing for Vibram. Even better news for Vibram is that many celebrities have recently started wearing the shoes and that includes everyone from Scarlett Johansson to Prince Harry.
But what are these shoes? Why do they look so unusual? And why is it that they are supposed to be so beneficial for our health and our body? Here we will look at the benefits of the Vibram Five Finger shoes and precisely how they work – as well as whether or not they deliver on their promises.
What Are the Five Fingers?
Essentially the idea behind the Five Finger shoes is that they fit snugly around the foot and toes in the same way that a toe sock would. This means that the individual digits are able to move freely and that that the foot retains its original shape (Vibram the manufacturers describe it as a 'second skin'). At the same time on the bottom of the shoe is a very thin patented rubber that provides the protection and the grip that you would expect from a high performance shoes, but without severing that all-important connection between your foot and the ground. While your feet will be protected if you step on a stone or something else, you should still be able to feel the texture and the shape of the ground under foot. So stepping on a grassy field feels very different from walking down a cobbled street – and in that latter example you will be able to feel each cobble and contour through the bottom of the shoe.
The idea behind this is to try and mimic the effects of going barefoot – and barefoot running itself is supposed to have many different advantages and benefits for your overall health. The problem is that to go barefoot would mean running around with nothing to protect your feet from shards of glass, cold puddles or piles of manure – whereas with Five Fingers you are well protected from all of those things but you still get the benefits of going barefoot. That's the idea anyway, and we'll come on to whether or not it works shortly.
Benefits of Barefoot
So the idea of the Five Finger then is to try and mimic the effects of running barefoot. In order to appreciate it then, you really need to know what the benefits of running barefoot are. So here we will look at that.
Running barefoot is something that is gaining more and more popularity with time and it's something that more and more people are taking up. Proponents claim that it's much healthier for you, as well as resulting in better performance – and the idea makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; seeing as we evolved without shoes, surely we don't stand to gain anything by wearing them? Evolution means that our bodies adapt to the way we use them over millions of years and that means that our feet and our legs are designed to be used without shoes. That's a compelling argument on its own, but it also makes sense from a mechanical point of view. For instance if you think about the actual purpose of the toes, it is to help us to cling onto things and to get extra grip on the ground and to help our feet to adapt to the shape of the ground we are stepping on. So say you step into a small divot in the ground – if you are barefoot then your toes will bend and splay in order to fill that divot and you will remain upright and well positioned. Likewise if you step on a stone then your toes are meant to splay in order to surround it, while your foot would bend in order to allow you to step on the stone without it twisting your ankle. In shoes the only option is for the whole foot to topple to one side and that is how we end up with so many sprains.
Then look at what happens when you run on a slippery surface. If you do this in shoes then you won't have any 'feedback' from the ground telling you whether or not your feet are gripping and that will mean that you can easily try to launch yourself off of your foot and end up slipping over. If you are barefoot – or wearing Five Fingers – then you will be able to feel the ground underneath and know whether it's safe to jump or run. You end up far more sure-footed and much less prone to injury and this makes you less likely to hurt yourself.
Likewise going barefoot alters our bio-mechanics. In particular this is because you don't have a large rubber heal protecting the bottom of your foot and weighing it down at the back, and this means that people end up running more on the balls of their feet and less on the heals when they use Five Fingers. This means they are leaning more forward and puts a more direct line of gravity from their body to the floor resulting in fewer leg injuries. At the same time it builds more muscles in the legs and in the feet.
One worry you get from many people is 'what about my arches?'. Well if your ancestors could survive without all that arch support – running for days at a time to track down wild antelopes – then no doubt you can manage as well without any arches. What happens is that the muscles in your feet become better defined and then they provide the support and they help you to run faster and more safely.
A great piece of evidence for the pros of barefoot running is to look at the primitive tribes that still exist without contact from modern man. They don't use shoes and they track animals for miles at a time still for food. All of them demonstrate the impressive ability to run for hours at a time at fast speeds without becoming out of breath and this suggests that we are doing something wrong by using big clomping shoes.
Does it Work?
When you put on Five Fingers you are struck by a feeling of liberation. One of the first things you notice is how much lighter your feet are and already that makes you feel a lot quicker and more sure-footed. At the same time you will be struck by how much you can feel underfoot and this is something that is very enjoyable at first – being able to stand on grass and feel the soft mushy mud beneath your feet, or being able to stand on polished wood and feel the firmness and the flatness underneath. You can identify where you are almost by the feeling in your feet alone and this is a fantastic way to increase your connection to what you're doing.
The downside at first is that this hurts rather at times, and if you run on cobbles or concrete then you are likely to sting your feet and to feel numb. At the same time though this is something that you start to adapt to over time and after you've been using Five Fingers for a while it's not a problem – which is just an example of your feet toughening up.
Likewise you will find that when your feet first use the Five Fingers they are going to feel achy in a very muscular way and it's normal to experience some muscle ache in your ankles and your calves as well. If you want a real calf workout then you should go for a run in these shoes and you'll feel stinging in them the next day.
This is not a downside though – this is a positive because it shows how much your feet do adapt to this new way of running, and it shows how different it is to how you normally move. At the same time you genuinely do feel quicker and faster and if you are interested in climbing or parkour then the ability to jam your foot into cracks and jugs will enable you to boulder and scramble in them, while the feeling of being more connected to the ground will enable you to balance along thin beams and jump between roof tops with confidence (for balancing they are actually particularly practical and you will find that your foot bends around thin bars and rails and you can much more easily help right yourself by changing the muscles in your feet).
On top of that running in Five Fingers is fun and even just spending time in them means your feet never feel hot and bothered and you always feel ready to go. And they have plenty of practical benefits too – being very light to transport places and even being machine washable.
Downsides of Five Fingers
So are there any downsides to the barefoot shoes? Well sadly yes there are a few and they stand just in the way of the shoes being an absolute revolution.
The first downside is that they let in water. This is true of the 'KSO' model even (which stands for 'Keep Stuff Out' reportedly) so if you stand on wet grass you aren't just going to feel the pleasant sensation of the grass between your toes – you're also going to feel the less pleasant sensation of water soaking into your feet. This is a shame as it means that you really can't wear the shoes at all if it's raining, and when you have been it means you won't want to put them on the next day for fear of getting your feet very wet. Another thing to bear in mind is that while the shoes do help to keep your feet basically protected, you will have the odd moment when you end up hurting them. Stand on a very sharp stone – it'll hurt. Stand on a pin – it'll hurt a lot. Stump your little toe on a curb – it'll bruise. Some reviewers even recommend Five Fingers for the gym, but that is neglecting the fact that they have absolutely no protection on the top – a dropped weight would result in some badly broken arches. From a self defense point of view someone could easily stamp on your foot too and it would hurt.
The lack of completely defense does have some benefits though – such as the fact that it encourages you to look where you are putting your feet which is something you should be doing anyway, and the fact that it helps to toughen your foot up more. Just be careful and particularly when you are starting out. The unusual sizing and the fact that no one has the same length toes also means that you struggle to find a pair of Five Fingers to fit you perfectly and you may well have to wait until your second set until you get them even close to right.
The main downside of the Five Fingers though is the look, and while you might enjoy looking different and having people ask what you are wearing, it's not something everyone will enjoy. At the same time it does mean that you can't really wear your shoes if you are wearing a suit or going to work – they just won't match and they won't look professional. You likewise can't really wear them to a nice meal, or to meet your partners friends – and the lack of sole means you tend to look quite short when you do wear them in company.
Sadly the above drawbacks prevent you from wearing the Five Fingers at all times and this means that you are constantly switching between barefoot walking and walking in big shoes – how this might affect your health is hard to predict but it's likely that it's not as beneficial as going just barefoot and could potentially cause complications in itself.
So unfortunately a few practical drawbacks and aesthetic issues prevent the Five Fingers from being the end of shoes – but they are certainly a step in the right direction and they do demonstrate that there is at least 'another way' and another way to experience running. They are also great fun and sure to attract curious stares, so if you like an experiment or if you enjoy attention then they are certainly worth taking for a spin. Furthermore if you want to improve your running performance or your climbing, and if you want to be at the forefront of a movement – then you should certainly consider investing.