Vibram Five Fingers Review: Why You Need Barefoot Shoes
Vibram Five Finger Shoes Quick Facts
- Overview: the Paleo shoe – barefoot running and trekking with 5 toes
- The Good: grippy, flexible, light, quick dry, strengthening, toning, easy on the knees
- The Bad: not made for cold, snowy or wet conditions
- To Get or Not to Get: Get (I’m on my 6th pair)
- Products Reviewed:
- Vibram Classic (the Vibram water shoes)
- Vibram Spyridon LS (barefoot running shoes)
- Vibram Lontra (Vibrams for hiking)
The short of it is that I LOVE my Vibram Five Finger shoes. They remove an unnecessary layer that impedes our physical connection to the earth. I’ve owned a total of 6 pairs and still use three of them. The other three (one of them pictured above) saw too much trail time and necessitated retirement. When weather permits (or sometimes stubbornly and regrettably when it doesn’t), they are my preferred trail shoe. I appreciate having the ability to use my foot’s full potential for balance and stabilization. It’s difficult to feel grounded if you can’t actually feel the ground beneath you.
For the most part, our feet are the only points of contact between our organism and the external environment. All about removing barriers that hinder this physical connection, Vibram’s Five Fingers are the Paleo shoe of modern footwear. Unlike traditional shoes, which restrict toe movement, five finger shoes rely on the foot’s whole musculature to balance and move the body across diverse surfaces like jagged rocks or fallen tree trunks. Like a reinforced sock, their flexibility allows you to grip with your toes and squeeze your foot around things for stability.
Since one wrong step in these bad boys could mean piercing your foot on a sharp stone, rolling your ankle with improper placement or ending up on the receiving end of a cactus attack, Vibram barefoot shoes force your brain and body to reconnect with your feet. Because your feet aren’t being aided by protective soles or modern support features, the rest of your body has to pick up the slack to exercise conscious, controlled movements that require added mental processing and work from various stabilizing muscles. The dynamic process of attending to where all your parts are in space and fine-tuning your movements to reduce impact force helps you gain a lot of respect for both your relatively small feet and how much your organism works together as a whole. Your brain has to build up a new set of neuronal connections to manage and respond to all the novel sensory and motor feedback requirements that come with wearing barefoot shoes. Luckily, research has shown physical activity to both trigger new brain cell growth and improve synaptic efficiency, so you’ll have plenty of healthy brain particles to work with.
Barefoot Shoes and Human Foot Evolution
Human feet did not evolve to traverse almost perfectly flat, hard, uniform surfaces. Unlike modern floors, roads, and sidewalks earth’s natural surfaces exhibit infinitely diverse, ever-changing properties and are usually much more giving when it comes to absorbing impact. As such, both our feet and our proprioceptive systems (i.e. the sensory system that tells us where our body is in space in relation to itself and other things) evolved to receive an assortment of sensory feedback from the natural ground we once traversed in bare feet.
Prior to first the invention of shoes, and then the invention of thick, shock-absorbing, feeling-inhibiting soles, our senses were responsible for protecting our feet from the many elements that posed a danger to them. Treading lightly was the essence of survival. Step too hard or too fast without a protective layer of modern technology and you risk any number of what would once have been considered life-threatening injuries. While barefoot running, the body has to sense various earthly protrusions and dynamic elements so as not to get stabbed, stubbed, or otherwise become mobility impaired. When hunting or escaping an ancient predator, failing to sense a fallen branch, tripping over a rock, or slipping in mud could have made the difference between life and death.
Today, our feet have been restricted from this once vital-to-our-survival sensory experience, and our physical connection to the earth has been replaced by a thick, synthetic layer of plastic. If you’ve spent time in your bare feet you know what a visceral experience it is to feel the ground beneath you. It has so much depth and texture. You’ve also probably noticed how sensitive your feet are. That’s because the feet have a ridiculous number of nerve endings and as such, are also a main target area for both acupuncture and sexual arousal. Notice the below image of the human somato-sensory homunculus, which is essentially a body map that shows relative feeling of different body parts. The more sensory information a body part feeds to the central nervous system (CNS), the larger its representation in the homunculus. As you can see, the feet on this guy are quite huge, signifying their large sensory feedback abilities.
Since actually being barefoot on trail is too extreme for most people, barefoot running shoes with five toes are a safer way to bring our feet closer to their natural sensory state. A slight optimization on the human body, Vibram Five Finger Shoes provide just enough support and protection to brave dry, warm elements without hindering movement and flexibility.
The 6 Major Pros of Five Finger Barefoot Shoes
1. They are grippy. Five Finger shoes have just enough sole and toe flexibility to give you a solid, full-footed grip.
2. Your toes can do things. Shoes with toes make that possible. Given their frequent restriction by traditional shoes, sometimes even pointy-toed high heels, most people’s feet aren’t very flexible. Shoes generally squeeze the toes together, inhibiting their motion as well as resulting in reduced balance and weird foot issues like bunions. Spreading your toes in a shoe that stays relatively true to the shape of the human foot provides a whole new sensation of actually using your toes for grip and balance the way nature intended.
3. Take pressure off the knees. By making the ball of your foot the first point of impact, you absorb some of the shock that comes with striking ground. With heel strikers, this impact normally travels directly from the heel up to the knee, but by moving the initial impact to the part of your foot that actually evolved to absorb it, you lessen the amount of stress that travels up through your joints. Since, running or hiking tend not to be the only activities most of us engage in, removing even small amounts of the impact our bodies absorb can make a huge difference in extending their lifespan.
4. A lighter strike. Since the minimalist running shoes lack thick cushioned, shock-absorbing soles, you have to become conscious of how hard you strike the ground. As you can no longer rely on a sole to protect you, minimizing striking impact requires exercising greater control over other body parts and often leads to great calves and awesome abs.
5. Heightened awareness. Five finger shoes allow for greater use of the entire foot and since they don’t offer much by way of protection, wearing them successfully requires additional effort from other muscle groups to control leg and foot movements in such a way so as to minimize the force of impact. You have to pace yourself and place your feet down slowly enough to allow your brain time to assess whether or not you’re about to stab yourself on something sharp and jagged underfoot.
6. Improved proprioception. Proprioception is your body’s ability to perceive where it is in space and how close it is to other objects. While this process eventually happens incredibly quickly once you start, it takes a little time to develop as it’s not something we normally have to think about. Traditional soles make stones in the road unnoticeable. Your proprioceptive system, the nerves in your body and the synapses in your brain all have to be trained and strengthened in order to respond to these new stimuli, for which they were previously not responsible. While stubbing your toe is not generally a concern with hiking shoes, your proprioceptors must now be able to predict and prevent this stubbing of the toe on rock from happening. Stepping into Five Finger Shoes after a winter in snowboarding boots is always a delicious shock, because while I definitely make use of my entire foot in yoga practice, it’s not quite the same as prancing around variable Rocky Mountain terrain. Moving your body quickly through the often less-than-predictable outdoors introduces a whole new set of variables and forces you to think on your feet.
Vibram Five Fingers Classic: The Original Vibrams
- Quick Dry
- Very Breathable
Looking at the Vibram Five Fingers website, I’m pretty sure they don’t make these anymore, but 6 or 7 years ago, these bad boys were my introduction to barefoot runners. The photo above was taken this summer, and as you can see based on their relatively intact condition, I don’t use these much. Soon after purchasing them, however, I was smitten by the idea of five toed shoes and immediately wanted more. More foot protection that is. These minimalistic of runners were the original Vibram toe shoes and the beginning of my barefoot shoe love affair, but when it came to feeling comfortable on sometimes treacherous trails, they didn’t always cut it. I still sometimes put them on for beach, river and general water activities because their lack-of-much-fabric design makes them ideal for getting wet, drying quickly, and removing sand from the depths of their toe holds.
Vibram Spyridon LS: The Barefoot Running Shoes
- Quick dry
- Easy tightening pull cord
- Not cactus proof (refer to cactus image above)
The minimalist Vibram Five Fingers Spyridon runners are my warm weather or summer trail shoes as well as what I wear when I’m climbing into crawl spaces to accomplish handyman tasks, as shown in the image above. The easy drawstring pull cord allows for quick tightening and loosening action. The Spyridon LS Vibrams are easy to slip in and out of, they breathe well, they dry quickly and they have just enough sole to protect my feet without inhibiting movement or the sensory experience. These five-toed wonders and myself have shared many fine mountaintops together and about 3 years into their lifespan they still appear to be holding strong.
Vibram Lontra: The Vibrams for Hiking
- Not quick dry
- Water resistant (but not really)
- Fleece lined (warmer, but not warm enough)
- Velcro strap
What happened to the animal in the photo above is basically what happens to Vibram Five Finger shoes when they encounter snow. Vibram advertises the Lontra five finger shoe model as water-resistant, however, this is a serious over statement. Notwithstanding, they are the most mountain-functional of Vibram’s Five Finger shoe line. Since they are made from less breathable materials, have thicker soles and are lined with fleece, they are warmer and more resilient compared to other five finger shoe models, making them the most appropriate for versatile, snowless mountain conditions in cooler months. Although they are mildly more water-resistant than other five finger shoe pairs, they still get wet almost immediately upon contact with any moisture. They do not stand up to mud or snow, let alone rain. Even with wool socks providing an extra layer, my feet tend to get really cold after about 30 minutes of trail time in anything below around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite their shortcomings, I’m on my second pair of Vibram Lontras (last suffered from too many holes), and they’re my trail shoe when I don’t anticipate snow or when it’s warm enough for some moisture not to matter.
Five Finger Socks
There are times when I like to go completely barefoot, and times when I don’t. If it’s blistering hot and sweaty or cool and ominous I prefer adding some wool five finger socks to the mix. I keep my socks in three weights, light, medium, and heavy for cooler days or nights. My preferred five finger shoe socks are the Injinji Performance Toe Socks.
Getting Started in Vibram Five Fingers
I like to break my five finger barefoot shoes in by stuffing them with some wet newspaper. Then, I walk around the house with them and finally, bring them on the trail. Sometimes, I take them straight on trail and am reminded that laziness doesn’t pay. A Five Finger shoe with a death grip on your foot is not something you want to think about while struggling for breath uphill. If you’ve never worn Five Finger Shoes before or if you’ve just spent a winter in seriously restrictive foot gear, start slowly to train (or re-train) your brain and body. If you don’t, you’ll regret it.
Buy Five Finger Shoes
Visit the Vibram Five Fingers website to check sizing, shop online or find a physical store location near you. You can also buy on Amazon.
What Do You Think?
Have you tried Vibram Five Fingers or other barefoot shoes? What do you think?