During last year’s Race to the Top of Vermont, a running and cycling race up Mount Mansfield, I spotted a guy charging up the toll road wearing the most ridiculous footwear I’ve ever seen, aside from jelly sandals. The runner — Dan Zucker, avalanche survivor and outdoor-adventure nut — was sporting what amounted to foot gloves. The shoes, if they could be called that, were Vibram FiveFingers: basically black mesh slippers with toe pockets. On the bottom was a thin piece of rubber meant not to support the foot but to protect it from stones and rusty nails.
Zucker said later that he had just tried out the slippers for fun. And he liked them.
The Danville runner is not alone in his praise of the minimalist FiveFingers, which were originally intended for boating, kayaking and yoga. Retailers are having a hard time keeping the shoes on the shelves, thanks to heightened interest in barefoot running, and the company is making a tidy little profit off the craze. According to a recent article in the New York Times, sales of the shoes have tripled every year since they were introduced in 2006; North American revenue in 2009 was $10 million.
I am skeptical of trends, especially those that make otherwise sane people don absurd footwear in the name of performance. (Remember the heel-less jump-training shoes? Exactly.) So I decided to try a pair of these FiveFinger things myself and see what the eff was up with them.
A couple weeks ago, a pair of FiveFinger KSOs, size 42, arrived in the mail. Thrilled, I ripped open the box. No sooner had I squeezed my boats into them than my coworkers unleashed a torrent of teasing aimed at my slipper-shoes. One said I looked like a tree frog. Another said I reminded him of Golem. Charming.
But they were right. While the shoes had a much-appreciated slimming effect, they looked, in fact, silly. Not only that, but they were hard to get into. If you happen, for example, to have a big toe the size of a kosher pickle and a little toe the size of a jellybean, getting the shoes to fit right is tough. Just maneuvering my little toe into its corresponding pocket left me a little winded.
The instructions recommended that one ease into the shoes, wearing them not more than one to two hours a day. The Vibram website advises, “You will need to work into wearing your FiveFingers gradually, as your muscles will need time to adapt and strengthen.” Since feet are accustomed to being in shoes, the shock of being nearly barefoot can be a bit much.
I started off using the FiveFingers to take my dog for walks of a mile or less. My feet felt different. They didn’t hurt, necessarily; I just noticed how heavily I landed on my heel with each step. I tried to shift to a more forefoot-strike gait, but my flat feet weren’t ready for it and felt a little achy after my walks.
Later in my trial period, I walked longer distances — two, three miles. The product website reassures that a little soreness is natural as your feet adjust to doing the work themselves, without the assistance of a mattress of shock-absorption material. The thin rubber did its job protecting my metatarsals from broken glass and dirty hypodermic needles, but it wasn’t doing anything for my arches. After a particularly long walk, my back and quads were killing me. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be doing any running in these shoes.
And that’s just as well, says Burlington physical therapist Eric Elsinger. Because people’s foot and ankle mechanics vary widely, the FiveFingers aren’t for everyone. They probably aren’t for most people, he suggests. Barefoot running is to running what single-speed mountain biking is to mountain biking, Elsinger analogizes — it’s only for the most experienced athletes.
Elsinger, whose practice at Green Mountain Rehabilitation & Sports Medicine deals largely with runners and cyclists, says he likes the idea of recreational runners using the FiveFingers and similar shoes as a supplement to regular training. But, he warns, “The risk of injury far outweighs the benefits” of regular use. “The pressure on the joints results in a lot more work for the musculoskeletal system,” Elsinger says. “That can be amplified if the biomechanics aren’t ideal.” Not everyone is Zola Budd.
Despite these concerns, the Five-Fingers — and barefoot running in general — continue to gain legions of devotees. One of them is Ruben Ortiz-Rivera of Burlington. The 51-year-old casual runner started using the FiveFingers at the suggestion of his doctor after arch pain hampered his running. So far, he’s thrilled with the results, despite his assertion that they’re “terribly overpriced.” “I felt relief immediately,” Ortiz-Rivera says.
The takeaway is that FiveFingers work for some people and not for others. And that they’re one heck of a goofy-looking shoe.