Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Vibram FiveFingers Review

The now 'world famous' and 'conversation starting' individual toed footwear, that arguably started and has carried forward ever since, the barefoot running craze, definitely deserves a blog post of its own.

You either love or hate these shoes, and I love them with a passion!

Before the Vibram FiveFingers (VFF's) arrived on the scene, shoes had taken us far away from natural movement, encasing our feet in strange shaped, supportive and cushioned structures that ultimately resulted in the weakening of one of the bodies most amazing biomechanical tools; a coffin for the strength and development of the lower legs and feet. Well done and congratulations Vibram for jumping straight in the deep end and giving the world a shoe that allows the user to move as God intended us to.

Never before in my lifetime has footwear managed to bring us right back to nature, enabling us to move in the way our bodies want and need to, to allow the natural biomechanics of the foot to work as they have evolved over millions of years to do.

The shape difference of VFF and trainers
The problem with 'normal' shoes
The problem with shoes is that they alter the natural biomechanics of the foot, walking and running gait. This can have consequences from head-to-toe, literally. It doesn't take a scientist to help us realise that if we change the way our body moves and stands, it is likely going to have an effect somehow and somewhere. By squashing our feet into restrictive unnatural shapes, removing the ability to allow the toes to work individually, supporting the arch of the foot from underneath and raising the height of the heel above the height of the forefoot it is no 'slight alteration' going on here!

Why are Vibram FiveFingers so great?
- the positives...

But why does this mean VFF's are any different? Well, there are a few simple points to make here. As you can see from the picture above, the shape of traditional trainers is simply not the shape of the human foot. Why? I haven't got a clue. It seems strange to me why you would make a shoe that does not match the shape of the foot to go in it. Your guess is as good as mine. Then look at the Vibrams above; recognise the natural shape of the human foot?! What I do know is that the foot is designed to work in its natural form and shape. The toes are actually designed to work as individuals rather like your fingers, and so by constricting them and bunching them together you will reduce function of the foot. The toes are designed to aid balance and conform to uneven terrain, so by restricting them we reduce these abilities.

Weight is another factor to take into account when comparing VFF's to traditional trainers. Excess weight swinging around on the end of your foot acts like a pendulum weight. I have run with many different runners, and one thing I have noticed is that traditional shod runners run with a more pendulum clock swinging action, a longer stride length and less control, rather than lighter minimalist runners who run with a cycling motion (knees drive forward and heels cycle up to the glutes more). When traditionally shod runners try minimalist shoes, the first thing they note is how light the shoes feel and how 'great and natural feeling' this is.

Some people think that supporting their feet with stability controlled trainers and highly cushioned soles will help them avoid injury and aid them in running faster and longer. But how can supporting one of the bodies most incredible biomechanical structures allow it to strengthen and develop? Runners and athletes spend endless hours training their bodies to be stronger and cope with increasing levels of exercise. Why then, should we forget to strengthen our feet? With the muscles, ligaments and tendons combined coming in at over 100 in total, there is a lot to strengthen in your feet, and just like the rest of your body; if you want your feet to be strong then you need to train them. Being barefoot or in VFF's allows you to strengthen your feet and lower legs, with the feet working completely unadulterated by the restriction of traditional trainers. Vibrams are 'one step away' from being barefoot (pun intended). They are just a basic protective layer for the foot to aid in avoiding puncture, cut and abrasion injuries. From this point, VFF's are incredible.

Feel the ground beneath your feet
Then, there is proprioception to consider. In bulky running shoes the cushioning results in next to no ground feel whatsoever. With VFF's, every little undulation, stone, crack and crevice is felt. This is actually a very positive feature of lighter, minimalist shoes. By feeling what the terrain is truly like underfoot, your body is able to instantly adapt its stride, speed and posture to accommodate for its surroundings. Wearing heavily cushioned trainers takes away the bodies natural defense mechanism that prevents over-striding and ankle sprains/breaks, and removes the connection with its surrounding environment. You might say that this 'connection' all sounds a bit airy-fairy, but I can tell you from experience and discussion it is something that bareform and barefoot runners find greatly increases the enjoyment of running and improves the overall experience. I will say no more on this except to try it for yourself and you will soon find out what we are all rambling on about!

We mustn't forget, when raising the flag for bareform running that heel-toe drop is a very important consideration. Vibrams sport a 0mm drop from heel-toe, which barefoot and bareform runners should be looking for. The whole point in bareform running is to wear a shoe that mimics barefoot running as closely as possible whilst still giving some protection from the more dangerous, sharp and spiky elements of the environment! The shoe, therefore MUST not change the angle at which the foot strikes the ground. Any elevation of the heel immediately changes the biomechanics of the running gait, which in the eyes of barefoot/bareform runners is NOT a good thing. This is therefore another very positive point to remember when weighing up the pros and cons of VFF's.

What are the down sides of VFF's?
- the negatives...

Lets be honest; it's not great during the winter months when you have constantly cold and wet feet! I am sorry to say that this is what often happens with VFF's. I know there are now new models coming out that battle the cold and wet. There is already the Flow Trek, a European-only model (to the best of my understanding) and the KSO Trek and Treksport which offer either thicker soled protection or a warmer upper. Coming this autumn is the new waterproof/resistant Speed XC and Lontra (see for more info). But for the time being, and with the majority of popular VFF models, cold and wet feet are just an occurrence you'll have to put up with if you want to wear your VFF's through the winter.

Nobody likes smelly feet and VFF's can certainly cause this unpleasant happening! If you just wear them day-in-day-out, then they soon start to stink. You can easily battle this by sprinkling talcon powder in them pre-wearing and washing them in the washing machine BEFORE they really pong! Also, having a couple of pairs allows you to rotate them, giving them time to fully dry out between each wear. This really helps reduce aroma, as constantly re-wearing the same shoes without suitable drying time (48 hours) creates the perfect environment for bacterial growth.

Lack of protection on technical trails and hazardous landscapes is often said to be a problem encountered by vibram wearers. If you are running on one type of surface, buy the correct and suitable pair! For example, if you are running on road and compact trails, get the KSO or Bikila. If you are trekking or trail running in your VFF's then get the KSO Trek or Treksports, which offer a greater level of protection for the sole of the foot against sharp rocks and hidden obstacles on the ground and in puddles. If you run a variety of terrains, then that sounds like a perfect excuse to buy a variety of VFF's!!! Simple. Also, the new Spyridon trail VFF's will hopefully be hitting the UK market shortly. These have been specifically designed for harsher trail running terrain. As an avid trail runner myself I have to admit that I eagerly await their arrival!

Finally, price is a slight downside to the VFF's range, with some models retailing in the UK at around £150. Yes, they are unique and offer what no other footwear can, but I am confused to why such little material, manufactured in China (or so says the inside of my pair) can retail at such a high price??!! This can leave people with a limited budget feeling that VFF's are just not an option; it is a lot of money to try out barefoot running for the first time. Other companies have started to copy the design, with Fila Skeletoes, Adidas AdiPure and Bodyglove 3T Barefoot trying to cash in on the toe-shoed barefoot running market. I have not tried any of these VFF's alternatives, but reviews and word on the block says they are just not up to scratch with Vibram. But they are cheaper. I will stick with VFF's though. The quality, comfort, versatility, customer support and experience provided by Vibram and its official UK suppliers is yet to be challenged. Maybe, as other companies become more popular, we can always hope it may bring the price of the VFF's down to a more affordable level for those of us with a limited budget?! Time will tell...

Are their times when other footwear is more suitable?
Yes of course there are! There are times when steel toed boots may be more suitable to protect our precious feet. Maybe, as briefly discussed previously, walking on technical, wet and cold trails over long distance, you might find that a pair of water resistant boots may suit better. But, companies do need to make a lighter and more suitably foot-shaped 0mm drop boot for people wishing to be more natural in all situations!

For me, the positives far out-weigh the negatives. I adore each and every pair of VFF's that I own. Each performs outstandingly well in its own field. VFF's are my 'go-to' running shoes, as well as what I prefer to wear for everyday use.

The freedom that your feet experience when you have adapted to wearing them is liberating

I have gone from a 'I like running once in a while' to a 'I just cannot wait for my next trail run' type of guy, and I largely owe this new found enjoyment to the benefits I have experienced since I started bareform running. And this is most of the time in a pair of FiveFingers! I feel that my posture, strength, alignment and efficiency have all improved considerably since throwing away my old traditional running shoes. This is of course largely due to a serious amount of time and effort spent improving my running technique, but it is definitely made easier through wearing VFF's, allowing me to run with a barefoot technique and form but providing the protection I need from the rugged terrains I encounter during my runs.

Thank you Vibram for such an outstanding product

Happy running and walking everyone. Get outside and play more!

Disclaimer: Vibram FiveFingers are not guaranteed to solve all your running and walking problems. Most problems come from incorrect running form and technique. The opinions in this article are the opinions of CavemanClarke and are yet to be fully backed by scientific research which is currently on-going. If you do decide to wear VFF you must transition slowly to allow your body time to adapt and strengthen. For example, when I first wore VFF it took me 6 months to get up to 10km comfortably. VFF closely simulate the feeling of being barefoot in terms of biomechanics whilst providing some basic protection for the foot in terms of puncture and cut wounds. 

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