Regular advice is to buy expensive running shoes or have custom orthotics made to avoid common running injuries. As injuries are so common nowadays, many runners are looking for alternative options. A small minority believe in the growing trend of barefoot running and the idea that the best running shoe may be none at all.
Vibram Five Fingers (also refereed to as VFF’s) attempt to take your feet back to basics to strengthen your running stride and decrease injury. Instead of your shoe absorbing shock, VFF’s utilize the arch of your foot- which is one of natures best shock absorbers.
With modern running shoes, stiff soles and the lack of foot movement they allow has decreased the strength and flexibility of our feet. Our calves and achilles have been weakened since the heel is more elevated than the toes.
Five Fingers, unlike conventional running shoes, involve your toes when running. Vibram takes the view that our toes should not be squashed up when running because 18 out of the 19 foot muscles are connected to the toes. Strengthening these muscles will improve our running stride and apparently have flow on effects to other muscles in our body.
Vibram Five Fingers fit into the category of minimalist running shoes. They are designed to mimic barefoot running and give you the whole range of benefits it offers, whilst still giving your feet adequate protection. What makes this shoe different from other minimalist running shoes is the individual toe pockets which will be discussed later.
For those of you who haven’t already, check out my article on barefoot running. This will give a better overview of barefoot running and will help you decide if you want to purchase a pair of Five Fingers.
Features (Or Lack of Features?)
Most running shoe reviews talk about new technology or innovative additions to the shoe. Let me tell you now, Virbam Five Fingers have absolutely no features, except maybe a velcro strap for some models.
There is no arch support, no padding, no shock absorption, no gel pockets, no shit.
All the models are fundamentally the same, yet have slight differences according to the use it’s intended for. Some have tougher and thicker materials for trail running, some have a covered instead of open top while others are specifically designed for women’s feet.
Why Wear Vibram Five Fingers?
There are many benefits associated with wearing Five Fingers, not all related to the barefoot argument. Taking the foot back to basics and allowing for a near-barefoot experience makes running fun, at least for me anyway. VFF’s enable you to enjoy yourself more than running completely barefoot. Not only is it less painful, but you don’t have to be paranoid of stepping on sharp or dangerous objects.
On my first run wearing KSO’s, I was unsure of the amount of traction Vibram Five Fingers offer, especially because it was raining outside. The flat sole does not look as if it offers too much grip. At first, I deliberately took corners slow and avoided steel grates and other obstacles associated with city running. I eventually gained confidence and realized that there was no need to be cautious to start with. VFF’s feature razored soles which improves their performance and I did not slip once. Even though I have not tried a lot of trail running yet, I imagine they would offer a satisfactory amount of traction.
Running on the side of a hill can be uncomfortable and put strain on ankles while wearing normal running shoes. Surprisingly, when wearing VFF’s, it is much easier as the feet take some of the extra bending. Also, this probably gets better with time as previously unused foot muscles toughen up.
Many runners initially question the amount of padding VFF’s offer. Basic models have very little, others have slightly more. You can feel most of the ground underneath you and avoiding certain objects is necessary. Just like barefoot running, some discomfort should be expected at first. However, it will not take long for the feet to toughen up.
Glass as other sharp objects still need to be avoided. In addition, rough terrain can be uncomfortable at first. While gravel is not uncomfortable to run on, smaller amounts of gravel on harder surfaces such as concrete can be uncomfortable.
Most runners choose to wear no socks when wearing Five Fingers. While this makes them smell after just a few weeks, washing them is extremely easy. Most types can be machine washed and dry out reasonably quickly.
At first look, one would think that VFF’s wear out faster than regular running shoes with such a thin sole. However, they are much better in terms of durability than regular running shoes. Since they force your body to run with less impact, they will wear less. Some runners report their Five Fingers still going strong at 350 miles, 900 miles and even 1200 miles.
Vibram Five Fingers are designed to fit tightly on your feet and in some ways they are more like socks than shoes. Because of this, not everyone will get a perfect fit. Basically, you find a size that fits from your heel to the end of your big toe. For those in between sizes, always go up a size. While there may still be some room, it will have a better outcome than wearing a size that is too small.
Not many runners will achieve a perfect fit in all areas. While my pair fits comfortably from heel to big toe, the toe pockets become increasingly empty all the way to my smallest toe. However, this isn’t really a problem in terms of the Five Fingers functioning and does not really bother me anymore.
Some runners experience problems in regards to the big toe jamming into the front of the toe pocket, usually when running downhill for long distances. A few black toenails every now and again is expected for anyone serious about running anyway. This problem can be avoided (or just lessened) if proper nail trimming is performed and attention is paid towards the sizing.
Other runners raise issues regarding the protection the Five Fingers offer, both in terms of kicking objects and regarding ankle twists. There is still a need to watch where you are running. If you think of yourself as running completely barefoot you will be fine. Even then, I would rather step on broken glass or a sharp rock wearing Five Fingers than barefoot. In regards to ankle spraining, your foot, ankle and leg muscles will eventually toughen up and you will actually be less likely to incur this type of injury in the future.
Buying Vibram Five Fingers
There are three challenges when buying your first pair of Vibram Five Fingers. The first step is finding somewhere in which you can buy them from. Although they are becoming more common, large sporting chains and running shops do not carry them (at the time of writing this anyway). Instead, you are more likely to find them in trekking and adventure stores. For a list of locations that sell VFF’s, visit the official website.
Secondly, you need to choose what model of VFF’s are best suited towards your needs. These options will be outlined in more detail below. Lastly, sizing is something that you need to get correct. The only way to achieve this is trying on different sizes and deciding which is more comfortable. If you are in-between sizes, always go up a size.
If possible, try on a pair of Five Fingers before purchasing, even if you eventually buy online. At the very least, if you do decide to buy online, do so from a store which offers a return policy. Vibram Five Fingers have a tighter fit than normal running shoes and is something to keep in mind when buying. Although a tight fit is optimal, your toes should not be squashed against the toe pockets.
Foot width is not really a problem since Five Fingers stretch to accommodate most foot types. Both women’s and mens styles can be purchased, the major difference being that the women’s models are slightly narrower.
Types of Five Fingers
When buying your first pair of Vibram Five Fingers, you should focus on three types: the Classic, Spring and KSO. Since starting with a single design, Vibram has continually added to their product line, in my opinion diverging from what they truly stand for. Consider other types if you are looking for a specific use such as trail running.
The Classics are exactly what the name suggests- the original design and also the cheapest. Although the classics are mainly used for general wear, it can also be used for running and other types of fitness. However, it’s not the most ideal choice for a runner because of the open topped design. The heel is secured by a bungee cord, however some runners remove this to improve comfort.
Most people that purchase classics are those that are not buying them for a specific use such as running. The biggest user would be someone that discovered the VFF’s and was convinced by the barefoot argument. They are looking for something that resembles barefoot as close a possible, is easy to put on and take off, is the entry/cheapest model and also does not have any additional features that they do not require.
On the other hand, the Classics might in fact be the best choice for you. Many runners that buy their first pair have been using traditional running shoes for many years. Since it takes time to adjust to wearing VFF’s, it could be a good idea to buy a pair of classics for everyday use in order to get a feel for them. You will be able to use them for a small amount of your runs whilst continuing to wear normal shoes for the majority. This way you will be able to get a feel for VFF’s without spending extra money and if it does not work out, you still have a pair of casual shoes to wear around.
It will be more logical for some people to jump strait in and buy a type more designed for running. After all it is why you are buying the shoes anyway. This is exactly what I did when purchasing my first pair, opting in for the KSO’s.
Advantages: Most basic option, Cheapest, Easy to put on/off
Disadvantages: Bungee strap can be uncomfortable, Rocks, dirt etc getting in shoes
The Sprint is essentially the same as the Classics. However, the bungee cord is replaced by a velcro strap, which is more ideal for running. Not only is there a strap over the top of the foot, but also two small straps on either side of the heel. The same minimal sole is used as the Classics so a similar feel to barefoot running can be achieved.
Advantages: Velcro Strap more effective than bungee cord, still relatively easy to take on/off
Disadvantages: Slightly more expensive, rocks, dirt etc can still enter shoe
Keep Stuff Out (KSO)
KSO’s the most common choice for runners and also popular for general use and other sports. They are very similar to the sprint model, however they have a covered top and feature a single strap for adjustment. The soles are also slightly thicker than the Sprint and Classic.
They are slightly more expensive but worth the upgrade for many runners. This was my first choice of Five Fingers and I would choose the same if buying again. The KSO’s seemed like the best choice after trying on each pair in the store. Do the same and choose something which feels right for you.
Many choose the KSO’s simply because they look the most like traditional footwear. However, they are by far the most difficult to get on/off, especially when you first purchase them. They are the most versatile out of the Sprints and Classics and can function as the only pair of VFF’s you own.
Advantages: Most versatile, look most normal, most popular choice for runners
Disadvantages: More expensive, difficult to get on, less breathable
Flow: This design is most similar to the KSO, however more catered towards water sports and winter wear. If you live in a cooler climate and your feet are sensitive to the cold you probably should consider these.
Bikila: This is the first Vibram shoe that is designed specifically for running. It features a slightly thicker sole again and has strategically located grip, even though the traditional grip is more than satisfactory. It is most comparable to the KSO’s and has a nicer overall look.
KSO Trek: Similar to the KSO style, however toughened up to withstand trail running. There is a thick sole to protect your feet and the upper material is made from Kangaroo leather. Consider if you do a larger majority of trail running than normal running, otherwise go with one of the more basic models.
Trek Sport: As you could probably guess by the name, this is similar to the Trek style, featuring a thicker sole and designed to be more ‘sporty’. Instead of a leather covering, a high tech fabric is used (Coconut Active Carbon whatever this is). The Trek Sport is most suitable if you are looking for something in between the KSO and KSO Trek.
Speed: Constructed using the same sole as the Bikila, this type is the closest thing to an actual running shoe as it uses laces instead of a velcro strap. If you like the feeling of laces then consider purchasing this style. However, I would recommend going with something more basic for your first pair to truly have the VFF experience.
The more additional models Vibram release, the closer each is resembling a traditional running shoe. Choose what feels best for you and decide thinking about which will enhance your running experience the best.
Starting off with Vibram Five Fingers (KSO)
Some models of Vibram Five Fingers are difficult to get your feet into (at least the first few times anyway). The first time I tried a pair of the KSO’s, it would have taken around 5 minutes. However, over time you will develop your own technique and now I manage to get both feet in within 30 seconds or less. Try putting your biggest toe in first and continue progressing to your smallest toe. Lastly, pull the strap over your heel and move your feet around to get your foot into the right position.
If your not a barefoot runner or run in minimalist running shoes often, it will take longer to transition into running with Five Fingers. Starting slow is the key to avoiding injury and getting the best experience from your VFF’s. Don’t run without paying attention to your running style. Landing on the balls of your feet is essential, even if it’s excessive at first you will quickly pick up the right style. It only took me around 2 runs of 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) to feel comfortable in my new stride. I imagine it will only improve over time.
Avoid continuing your existing training schedule and stick with runs between 1 mile/1.6 kilometers in length. It will take weeks, even months for your body to be able to run significant distances without risking injury and overworking your muscles. The initial soreness of muscles is just an indication of how much your strength has been subsidized by modern footwear.
Blisters should also be expected, especially if your feet are not callused. Running in VFF’s is much the same as barefoot running and has many of the same effects in regards to muscle strengthening and the callusing of your feet. After a few weeks of running you will start getting blisters less as your feet adjust to the new footwear.
Vibram Five Fingers FAQ
Do they feel weird?
Like any new pair of running shoes, it takes a while to get a feel for them. Some runners find the feeling of their toes separated weird at first. However although it may feel weird, it will never be painful. In addition, the more you run in Five Fingers, the more you will master the barefoot running style and thus the more comfortable running will become.
Can I run in them?
Five Fingers were not originally designed as a running shoe, but more as a multipurpose shoe that simulates the barefoot experience. It was only a matter of time before barefoot runners caught on and VFF’s became highly popular, especially after the release of Born to Run. Since then, Vibram have released specific models catered towards runners.
Is it hard to run in them?
Running in Five Fingers is no different than running in regular running shoes. Although they feel slightly different and take some time to get used to, you will eventually find your running easier as you will likely experience less injury.
Is making the transition to a barefoot-like running style hard?
It takes takes time and persistence. Everyone will make this transition in different amounts of time. You can read about making this transition/whether barefoot running is for you, but the reality is you will only get a true feeling by actually going out there are trying it for yourself.
Is it hard to adjust them?
From a running perspective, different models of Five Fingers are different to adjust. For individual types of Five Fingers, it’s best to try on a pair before purchasing. Everyones foot is different in size and shape and therefore you will only find out by trying on a pair. In saying this, Five Fingers are very easy to adjust as most have velcro straps and material that will stretch to accommodate your foot shape.
Where can I buy them?
Vibram Five Fingers are becoming increasingly popular and it is much easier to purchase them today than a few years ago. Not many major sporting shops or speciality running stores sell Five Fingers. Instead, you would be better of going to a trekking or adventure shop. A store near you can easily be located on the official Five Fingers website. VFF’s can also be purchased online if there is not a store near you.
Will they wear out quickly?
Five Fingers have a much thinner sole than regular running shoes, therefore many think they wear out quickly in comparison. However, because you are running differently and with much less impact when wearing VFF’s, they are actually known to last much longer than regular running shoes.
Are Inigini socks required?
Inijini socks are referred to a lot when Vibram Five Fingers are mentioned. These socks have individual toe pockets and are suitable for all types of Five Fingers. Many runners start out running with these socks, only to end up running without them within a short period of time. This isn’t to say avoid buying them, I would definitely recommend to do so for those living in cold climates.