Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Barefoot running: The transition and Vibram Five Fingers

Economic instinct initially held back my enthusiasm for Vibram Five Finger (VFF) shoes.  At first glance getting less shoe for your money is bizarre.  At next glance it feels like a step backwards - expensive well-cushioned running shoes, the result of countless hours or research and design, should be the pinnacle of human endeavour toward running excellence.  There are so many people running in this world, both amateur and professional, that you just expect the current technology to be supreme. 

But there are a few reasons I became convinced that making the transition away from traditional running shoes (and shoes in general) to VFFs or barefoot was not a step backwards, but a simplifying step forwards.

- I generally prefer to be barefoot where possible
- The book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall was very persuasive
- Harvard researchers have been analysing the difference in running techniques between barefoot and shod and now running with shoes just looks wrong
- I saw a guy wearing VFFs at an adventure race (about 4hours running, kayaking and mountain biking) and thought he must have got the wrong information about how much time is spent in the water and worn his scuba shoes. 

I also tried running barefoot in the park a few times a week for a month before buying VFFs (the KSO model).  Apart from getting sore calves for a little while, the toe strike technique felt comfortable.  I considered forgoing VFFs and simply running barefoot.  Nowadays it’s either barefoot or VFFs depending on the distance, my mood, or the weather.

Let me share the experience and comment on the bizarre barefoot running culture that is developing.

It has been six months since I have stopped wearing traditional running shoes. I now run about 30kms a week in VFFs or barefoot.  During the first weeks of transitioning to a barefoot running style, runs were about one kilometre.  It takes time to build up strength in you calves and I recommend taking it easy at first.   Now, my longest single run in VFFs is 24kms while completely barefoot its 10kms, and I plan to run a full marathon in June.  I live close to the city centre and run on concrete, bitumen, grass, gravel, and have had no major problems (although small pebbles occasionally get stuck in your bare soles at first).   Two weeks ago I went for a quick run in my old running shoes and realised that I had crossed over to the dark side and couldn’t go back – they felt bulky, heavy, clumsy, and unnatural.

Two important questions remain.  How have the VFFs held up, and at a more social level, why hasn’t anyone thought of this barefoot running idea before?

VFFs are not perfect.  The durability of the soles has impressed me.  There are no pockmarks or signs of wear on the sole after more than 500kms of running.  The soles are even tough enough to allow you to ride a mountain bike with platform or cage pedals.

However, the abrasion-resistant stretch polyamide fabric of the upper part of the shoe, while light, thin and breathable, has not really stood up to its name.  I have stubbed my big toe on the bitumen at night a couple of times, and while the wrapped over sole at the front of the toes protects them, it results in the less durable fabric on top of your toe scraping the ground.  A hole above my big toe nail became large quite quickly and I decided to stitch it up before it spread (see photo above). 

Curiously, there has been no toe stubbing since the first month - maybe I watch where I’m going now, or maybe my running style has become more graceful. 

The second problem I have is that the internal stitching beside the knuckle of my right big toe (right next to the V in the yellow Vibram label but on the other shoe) is not sitting flat.  All the other seams are unnoticeable, yet the peculiar angle of this one makes it rub.  It is not a problem for short runs or when walking, but runs above 5kms generally need some Micropore tape on the skin to stop a blister developing.  This works a treat and 24kms later they still feel good.

It takes time for your feet to adjust and you may get hotspots from rubbing here and there both in the VFFs or barefoot (I have had blisters under my toes a couple of times) but the skin on your feet toughens up eventually.

In all, VFFs are very good at allowing you to run with a more natural barefoot style without having to condition your feet to the sometimes hot and unyielding urban surfaces (Brisbane roads in summer will destroy bare feet).

If barefoot running is superior to shod running in the latest $200 shoes, why didn’t we collectively realise that this whole industry was taking us for a ride?  $200 seems absurd when free is a better alternative (although I appreciate the irony that this post reviews shoes that cost almost that much).

The reason conventional padded running shoes dominated without competition can be explained by theories of path dependence.  Once society has been conditioned to accept a particular behaviour, custom, or object as 'normal' and as the best solution to a problem - we find it very difficult to break from the crowd and question it.

Think about a knife and fork.  These tools solve a problem of getting otherwise very messy foods into our mouths without much waste.  Does anyone ever think about improving the fundamental design of the utensils?  Maybe there is a better way, and maybe that way is to eat with our fingers as some middle eastern cultures might suggest.  Some Chinese might add that chopsticks are superior.  But inherent social conditioning makes thinking outside the square extremely difficult.  It is very difficult to eat with your hands at a restaurant if the norm is to use a knife an fork, even if there is a strong reason for it being the superior technique.

Interestingly, as far as I understand, the idea for a thin-soled separate-toe lightweight shoe did not arise out of a quest for a better running shoe, but was marketed as a shoe for boaties who wanted good grip and feeling of the deck.  It was not until Barefoot Ted found them and used them to give his bare feet a break that running in these odd things was even considered.  Once he became a lead character in McDougall’s book, the running world changed.

But to change the world there must be an underlying theory that demonstrates why a barefoot running style is superior to shod style.  If you use your hands to eat at a restaurant your friends might expect an explanation before they adopt your custom. 

McDougall explains that it took some time before researchers who first proposed that long distance running is an evolutionary advantage for hunting to find strong evidence.  Apparently, a few years after first publishing the idea, they received a phone call from a guy who had been living with an African tribe for a few years and said that they regularly used a technique now called persistence hunting, which uses a combination of running and tracking to pursue prey to exhaustion.

Hence the title of McDougall’s book and the strong evidence that our bodies evolved to specialize in barefoot running.

I will leave you with a little anecdote .  I was wearing my VFFs to teach a university class last week and on the footpath a fellow walked up to me and commented on my shoes.  “Nice Vibrams.  You run?” He wears them, except when he’s headed to the chemistry lab where more serious protective footwear is encouraged, loves them, and is happy to chat to anyone else who does.  It appears we have a secret society emerging.  Should we have a secret handshake?


  1. I can't keep up with all the great new innovations that is going on around the world. This Internet is giving us so much. It’s as though we are on a ever increasing speed of development that is multiplying at an astonishing rate. ALIENS!!! I bet it's Aliens, They have taken over our minds. Just kidding. Good one Cam, please keep them coming. Cheers Roy

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  3. I am another KSO owner. I'm very happy with them, but if I was to buy a new pair in some years I would probably go for something more like the Sprint. KSOs are that much harder to get on.