Born again Triathlete

Vibram FiveFingers - First Impressions

justalby justalSep 20th 2012
I've recently been given a pair of Vibram FiveFingers to try out and blog about. You've probably seen Vibram FiveFingers before - they are the odd looking shoes with individual toes and they are developing a bit of a cult following amongst those advocates of barefoot or natural running.

FiveFingersThe whole idea of barefoot running is that it allows you to adopt a much more natural running style, allows you to strengthen your feet and hopefully in turn reduces injuries that are all too common with runners. I've written a bit about barefoot running before explaining that the foot itself is a complex arrangement of bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles and as with any such part of the body, using it regularly in the way it has evolved to be used will help to strengthen and develop it. Conversely, wrapping it in all singing, all dancing hi-tech running shoes that support, stabilise and cushion it essentially stops it working as it should and leads to atrophy.

That's the basic premise behind the idea of barefoot running. That and the fact that the foot is full of sensitive receptors that help you adjust accordingly to the terrain you are running over and maintain a stable and efficient gait and posture. Purists obviously think that even the thin soles of minimalist shoes such as the Vibram FiveFingers interfere with these neural signals, so in their view such shoes aren't really barefoot running and I can see their point.

However, as I now have some I was keen to give them a go. One thing to note though before jumping in and running barefoot is that it is a very different experience to running in 'normal' running shoes. Your foot is no longer supported, no longer cushioned and no longer stabilised by all manner of hi-tech features. It is therefore a very different exercise than running in shoes. More improtantly, as soon as you start minimalist or barefoot runing your entire gait, foot-strike and posture will change. You'll now be running on your toes, taking smaller, faster strides and you become more fluid. It is therefore important to ease into it slowly. Just like any new exercise you should start off slowly and gradually build up the volume giving your body time to adapt to the new stresses you are exposing it to.

I'm fairly fortunate in some respects as I already run very much on my toes. In fact I even walk and stand on my tiptoes - I have done all my life and my brother does too. Despite various attempts and incredible amounts of achilles stretching the doctors have never been able to get us to put our heels on the floor and although we can just about get them on the floor, it's difficult for us to do so we spend all of our time on out tiptoes. This is actually a good thing for minimalist running as I probably already have a running style that suits running barefoot. You only have to look at wear patterns of my usual running shoes to see that the heels never touch the ground, so the transition to Vibram FiveFinger should be easy for me.

Even so, I shall start slowly with them and ease into longer runs, especially seeing as I seem to be suffering a bit with shin splints at the moment. I gave them a quick go last night with a short run along the beach and through the sand-dunes.

First things first, the looks. They do look a little odd, but I quite like that and the pair I've been given are black and white and fairly understated.

Secondly, the fit. To get the right size you should really try them on in a shop but as I was receiving these by post I had to measure my feet and work out the correct size from that. The sizes don't correspond to usual shoe sizes so comparing them with other shoes is pointless. The ones I've got fit OK though, but as I have funny shaped feet - a podiatrist once said she'd NEVER seen feet the shape of mine before - they probably don't fit me as well as they'd fit most people.

Thirdly, getting them on is a bit of an art. Again, this may be due to my funny shaped feet, but getting my toes into the individual toes holes is particularly difficult. It takes me a while to wiggle my toes into the correct holes and my smaller toes always need a bit of re-arranging by hand once they are in the shoe. I guess they may mould to my feet over time, but they certainly wouldn't be any good in a triathlon as you'd lose far too much time in transition.

Once on they feel fairly comfortable if a little weird at first. When you start running in them though they really come into their own. They are super lightweight for a start which is lovely. They certainly promote a forefoot running style and they provide good grip on a wide range of surfaces, mould well to the ground contours and flex nicely with your foot. They also provide good feedback from the ground but still protect your feet from the worst of the stones and thorns etc.

I can't comment on how they'll affect my running long-term yet or how they'll improve injury rates etc. but first impressions were good. The feeling of lightness, flexibility and feedback from the ground is a liberating experience making you feel more in tune with your surroundings and the surfaces you are running over. They free your feet from the shackles of running shoes and make you feel as though your are gliding along more effortlessly than you would be with traditional running shoes.

I don't think I shall wear them for all training runs though simply because I might get to like them too much and then having to wear trainers in a race would feel like a step backwards. At the moment I tend to wear standard running shoes for most of my training runs and then lightweight racing trainers for races. This makes me feel lighter and faster on race day, going the other way wouldn't be ideal.

I shall however use them regularly, and try to think of sessions wearing them more as foot strengthening and form development rather than actual run training. If I were solely a runner without a need for speedy transition then they could well become my shoe of choice, but time will tell. I can't wait to run free through the hills and beaches and enjoy the minimalist barefoot feeling without the risk of puncture wounds and worn feet. I shall keep you informed with how I get on with them.

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