The Vibram FiveFingers shoes are funky, eye-catching and super lightweight, but can you run in them or are they a gimmick? I put them to the test and concluded that they can be a great training tool. – BY SEAN FALCONER
I arrive at the track and one of my clubmates gives me a quizzical look, then jogs over to ask, “Why you wearing spikes? You turning professional?” No, I answer, I’m testing these new shoes, and I lift a foot to show her that my sleek, low-profile black shoes are not track spikes, but the latest Vibram FiveFinger Speeds, the lace-up version of the sock-like shoes with the individual toes and super-flexible thin rubber soles. “Cool, I’ve heard about them. Tell me what you think!” she says, leaving me to my running and note-taking.
Conventional running shoes are traditionally ‘built up’ to provide cushioning thanks to their foam rubber midsoles, and many of us modern runners with our soft feet and pampered joints need all the cushioning we can get. They tend to encourage heel-strike (the heel hitting the ground first) because of their higher, cushioned heels. But there is a new line of thinking, that our feet are over-protected and ‘lazy’, thus contributing to common running injuries, and that we need to get back to running barefoot to strengthen our feet and make them more biomechanically efficient.
When running barefoot, we tend to naturally land on the forefoot, directly below our centre of gravity. This results in optimum balance and stability, less impact, and greater propulsion. FiveFingers actually encourage forefoot striking by having the heel and forefoot on the same level. Some wearers complain of sore feet at first, but this is natural, given that the muscles, tendons and ligaments in your feet and lower legs are working harder, and the discomfort soon disappears as your feet get stronger.
I started by wearing the shoes around the house and found them comfortable, but my toes did have some initial separation issues! Seriously though, I started by running on soft grass, then changed over to a hard-packed grass athletics track, then a tartan track, and finally I headed out onto the tar. On soft grass, I was still heel-striking naturally, but when I went on to the grass track, I naturally started running more on my forefeet. Hell, I just wanted to go faster, because it felt like I should be up on my toes, giving it gas!
What I really liked was how stable they felt – when I looked down I could see the forefoot stretch with my foot and the separated toes spreading to give me a wider footprint. That’s when the funky toe design really made sense! (Funnily enough, the only time the shoes felt genuinely weird was when I was driving and my big toe slipped off the accelerator pedal.)
Overall, I was seriously impressed by the shoes – they delivered on their promise. Yes, my feet were a bit sore afterwards, but ironically, not where I expected. I thought the bottoms of my feet would feel it most, specifically the heel and arch area, but instead I felt it most on the top of my right foot, just behind my smaller toes. That is obviously the area of my particular foot most protected by my conventional running shoes. You do need to give your feet time to get used to these shoes – very few runners can just go run a half marathon in them straight away. Many runners thus initially use their FiveFingers only for track work or shorter distances, but some make the full switch and eventually discard their normal running shoes.
CHOOSE YOUR MODEL
The Speed and Bikila are the two main running models, offering slightly more rubber outsole padding and grip. I chose the Speed because I found it easier to get my foot into the laced nylon mesh upper – I have naturally high tops of my feet, so I struggled to get my foot into the Bikila, which has a tight-fitting stretch upper and velcro strap (the upper does stretch a bit with time). The Speed retails for around R1400, while the Bikila sells for about R1500 at select Due South, Sportsmans Warehouse and other stores. (Prices may differ from store to store; other styles range in price from R900 to R1300). For more info and a handy store locator, visit www.vibramfivefingers.co.za, or call 021 511 1943.