Saturday, March 7, 2009

Vibram FiveFingers - Review 5 months on - New Body?

After five months of wearing vibram's fivefingers (vff) footwear pretty steadily anywheres indoors over the winter, and now again finally outdoors, a few things have happened: my gait has improved (i credit z health drills with free footing footwear like the vff's), but in particular
i don't like wearing shoes anymore - even sneakers. They feel - funny. And what's weirder still - heavy.

Since i wrote about how to fit vff's , it's been cold and wintery, or cold, wet and wintery, and i've been wearing the vff's mainly at the office and at home - not outside. And they've been great. They've been particularly super in long haul airline flights - so nice to wiggle toes, get a bit more comfortable and be able to go for an aisle stroll to stretch. I've been glad of the Injinji toe socks as liners for these to keep the feet a treat warmer, but the main thing is, these shoes induce positive change not just at the feet, but in overall being-in-the-bodiness. This enhancement/awareness may be in part because my feet are now connecting more with the world more of the time. That perhaps enhances or better enables the proprioceptors in my feet to say where they are in space. Also, because the foot is more free to move, a more natural and appropriate gate is coming back. It's a treat to ditch the orthotics. Why is wearing thin soled foot wear with toe pockets such a big deal?

Proprioceptioning the World through Sole(s)
One of the issues with shoes is that they separate us from the environment. Now most of us would see this as a good thing. For those who like their kodiaks or other steel-toed work boots for office attire, we fear something could drop on one's foot - a block of photocopier paper perhaps - and that would smart. And outside, there are hazards on our streets, we feel. Broken glass must be everywhere. We want to protect ourselves from that. That's what a thick sole provides. Or because these concrete roads and walks are SO unnatural, we want shoes with extra cushioning to protect ourselves from these surfaces. Similarly, standing on our feet all day, surely we want the best cushioning?

Everything affects everything?
The costs of each of these foot binding strategies is two fold: awareness and gait. If we wear padding we don't have to be so aware of moving around objects that might bump into us. If we don't have to watch where we put our feet and can be casual about our stepping - in fact step poorly because there are no consequences to our feet, does this lack of movement subtlety or envirnoment awareness start to impact the rest of our bodies?

Take gait: problems with gait in running - such as over pronation - are often addressed by orthotics - and artificial support placed in the shoe - rather than on thinking about the whole movement and improving the gait itself - as if gait can't change. Gait is not just something that happens in the foot. It's a whole body movement. If something is hinky in the foot, it will work its way up the chain through the rest of the body's connections with stride and each step we take. Orthotics (by way of example) also only focus on the foot as both the site of the problem and the solution. But what if the problem starts in the shoulders or the lower back and just manifests in the foot that seems to over pronate? So what does this have to do with thin soled shoes?

When our feet are in inflexible, well padded sneakers, say, we actually have less awareness of our gate - we are protected from it - that awful heal strike is counteracted in some respects by the Super Cushion, for instance.

What happens when we take off our shoes and run barefoot - outside. Most folks i've chatted with would not even contemplate going shoesless on sidewalks - never mind the oceans of rusty nails and broken glass, it's "the impact" of course that is feared.

And yet there are growing numbers of barefooting runners. Are they built differently than the rest of us?

Running Outside on Pavement without the Cushion
Here's where i've really noticed the change that z health and vff's hath wrought. I used to run alot of x-country. Now i occasionally run to work or home. When i first wore the VFF's and had my first run experience in them, ya it was a little funny - couldn't do the heel down at all without jarring myself silly - had to run up on the balls of my toes. But from what i read about gait and stride, that's not entirely "natural" either not to have the heal come into play.

Then the winter really kicked in and it became too cold to wear the VFF's to work. In the past few days, it's become warm enough a 7C to wear 'em again. And so i ran home - including a big down hill pounder that should really test heal work. And it was easy. Simple. Dare i say natural. Was not thinking about stride.

So intriguingly, at least to me, after walking around daily in VFF's *indoors* my stride is such that it's now easy to run outdoors. On pavement. In as near to barefeet as one's likely to get with some kind of foot covering.

Now i've been doing z drills to work on the over pronation that i have in my asymmetrical stride, and i'm looking forward to getting the improvement checked in a few months, but in the interim, i know that having barefoot like footwear has made it possible for me to be more aware of my stride - to feel the whole foot move. That awareness is both challenging to achieve in shoes, and then challenging to apply in shoes, since shoes are typically too ridgid to respond to the whole foot move.

Consequences are that the issues with my back are also finding greater relief.

So in the end, here's what i'm thinking: i had a z health assessment that helped me find appropriate drills to address my gait issues; i practice these drills. But i also practice walking. It's something most of us do every day, everytime we stand up to move to somewhere else. Where i work it's a long building. So walking from one end of the building to the other (90 secs) is a lot of steps. That's good practice. With the VFF's i can be far more aware of my feet - feel what they're doing across each joint. IT's very cool. Really. I feel like i am more in my body, more aware and just feel better as a result.

The down side - if it is a down side - is that i just reached a point the other day where i couldn't stand wearing my winter shoes anymore. They just felt heavy and it felt like my feet were all trussed up, and i just said ok that's enough. Lucky for me, i guess, the weather has turned sufficiently in the centigrade to allow me to wear a pair of VFF Flows. It felt quite daring the other day wearing them in the real world - onto the train platfrom, onto the train, walking around an unfamiliar city. But it was great. It was really great. My feet did not feel weighted down or tied it. It may be difficult to believe that one's feet *could* feel so encumbered by cross country goretex runners (what my winter "boots" are), but that's how it's been feeling.

I'm not quite sure what i'm going to do about some time i have to spend this coming week where it's currently -20C. Suck it up and wear the shoes, i guess, until Vivo gets its boot sizing worked out, and be glad it's only for brief jaunts.

There have been a number of places where people have said "those look really comfortable - wish i could wear them, but i'd never get away with it where i work"- I wonder if that's true. If one could wear black pumps, why not black vibrams? or black crepe soled shoes, why not black vibrams?

Not that one has to wear VFF's - there are it seems a variety of thin soled shoes that many folks in the z community and other free-feet-is-best spaces suggest. My past 5 month experience has been with VFF's - i've enjoyed how light and easy they are to shove in my pack to get to work or take on a trip. I also like how my feet have adapted to learning how to be multi-jointed instruments again.

So, if you're contemplating freeing your feet, only half a year-ish on, at least in my experience, it's been entirely worth it. Recommended highly.

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Martin said...

Hi MC,

Excellent feedback! My KSO's are on my feet pretty much permanently and feel great. I was getting a satisfying ache for a while around my ankles and up my shins where the muscles were working again but now those aches are gone and I feel more 'natural' on my feet. What is your opinion on the Onitsuka Tiger tai chi shoes by asics? Are they better/comparable to the Vivo? I am looking at getting one or the other for times when the Vibrams are not suitable.

Boris said...

You've almost sold me on those hideous things and I swore I'd never get them when I first laid eyes on them!

Nice write up.

dr. m.c. said...

Emby: on the tai chi's - if you have to wear shoes, they're fine. I know that kathy and eric at z wear 'em alot. I find 'em a bit wide (they're only boys sizes).

No they're not like the vivo really. The vivo is more of a moccasin type fit - very nice (if you can get a size that fits!)

The vivo's are more dressy and a bit heavier; the tai chi's are just thin leather uppers and thin rubber sole.

BORIS. thank you.
really, try 'em on. they're not hideous, and you'll find out quickly the folks who feel comfortable engaging in conversation with you.
And vibram's just intro'd some new colours - very nice browns, and also the men's get some rad wild stuff too.

i've found it's worth the trip to free your feet.

Max Shank said...

I had a similar reaction to Nike Frees... I've been so happy with the frees up to now. You might have me convinced to try the vibrams...

dr. m.c. said...

thanks for your comment,
far be it from me to try to convince anyone to do anything. If you like your shoes that's grand.

There are a couple of things to check about shoes

One is do they pass the twist test? free's likely do. Way more so than a standard jogger


do they have a heel? yes, so they are pitching your pelvis forward. not natural.

The second question relates to what's in the blog piece above about proprioception - awareness of yourself in space and optimization of gate associated with this.

free's are squishy - so you're not getting optimal feedback about where you are in space. the proprioception is cut way back.

Now again, frees are way better here than sneakers and most shoes, but there are better alternatives for optimizing gait that comes from proprioceptive awareness, and the benefits that accrue to the body from that.

Speaking for myself,
Spending time in the VFF's and going back to frees is really hard. i feel like my feet are in boxes.
imagine if you had to work all day with your hands in oven mitts. yuck. that's what i feel like now if i have to wear regular type shoes/boots - it really does feel like a whole chunk of my sensory awareness has been cut off.

Also the shoes feel HEAVY. i'm really aware of the weight. and we know that shoe weight is a real drain on us that most of the time we just try to adapt ourselves to accept.

thinner soled shoes that also twist, like the vibams or tai chi's mean that you are really really feeling the ground, and as much of your body as possible is responding and adapting to that ground.

the vff's are even more in contact than the tai chis because they are like gloves whereas the tai chis are still like thinner mitts. but at that point well, sometimes you need somethings that look like shoes. but with the vff's i aslo find i wriggle my toes a lot more, and that's sending lots of great signal back to my nervous system so ya hoo.

and, again, the biggest thing for me is the effect on gait. i'd been doing z for about 7 months and wearing frees most of the time, combined with Z. The change in my gait - improvement - in the last five months with the frees seems exponential in both the speed and degree of progress. i'd put that down to that proprioception - more of me available to make contact with the environment and get feedback to get that gait right.

i hear lots of folks say how much they love their frees, and i've been there. as said so have a lot of z folks.

but as said, they're just now way way too thick for me for everyday or sport wear.

so ya frees are great if all you've had are regular footware. but it's just that much further - significantly - to go from frees to even freer footwear.


Anonymous said...

I just got my KSOs today and it's love at first feel. My plan is to use them outdoors while I can and use them indoors instead of traditional slippers in the winter.

The running stride you describe sounds like that promoted/taught through Chi Running (

Bitsy said...

My first reaction to these shoes is, funny, someone trying to sell me something because it is better to be barefoot which I just do anyways for free.
After reading this post, I think you really understand why I like to be barefoot. I like feeling the rough side walk, squish of the grass, or the cool marble.
I think I'm going to try these shoes out, because I hate shoes, but culture thinks I really must wear them and it gets cold in MN and MA. (I've been going barefoot for 10 year, there really isn't as much broken glass, even in DC, Boston or NYC as people seem to think there is.)

Anonymous said...

Great write up, yeah running on pavement is still to much for me at this point but it sounds like it is possible if you stick with it.

Roland said...

You all are way cool. I just read "Born To Run" by Christopher McDougall. He buries the shoe industry, starting with Nike. I am in old Teva sandals some of the time, but practicing going barefoot regularly, jogs in the morning dew. I want the 5fingers, but price and looks from my teenage son are holding me back.

Maria said...

Great to read your story! I experienced a similar transition out of heavy shoes and into my VFF almost full time. I just completed my first backpacking trip in my Sprints as well. When I need "fancy" shoes, I wear a pair of Vivo Barefoot boots:


Chris said...

Hope you’re still enjoying the FiveFingers. I certainly have. Unfortunately they seemed to have a defect though and have started to fall apart! I wrote a review to explain.

Ax said...


dr. m.c. said...

@ Ax,
wow that sounds awful. sp
sorry for your pain. glad you got it under control.

In my experience, something that lets your foot be a foot - is effectively exposing more of one's body - is not going to "give" one anything - except an opportunity to discover how well we do in the raw.

Periostisis is a pretty specific diagnosis - but is not uncommon in many runners, related to shin splints. Interestingly the accute stuff is often an infection, but the shin splints type is more chronic.

As we say in Z, pain is a signal to change, but it's not a diagnosis.

In working with folks who get shin splints or inflammation up the tibia, yup good not to cause it to get worse - definitely back off - but there's a myriad of possibilities in terms of movement that regular sneakers may be compensating for.

maybe. dunno without seeing a person move. but may be worth checking.

here's another bit about common vff complaints about cramps in vff's may help?



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