Have you ever caught yourself staring at someone in the gym for a little longer than you should because you can’t quite figure out what it is they’ve got on their feet?
Vibram or “five fingers” are the toe shoes which I’m sure would have grabbed your focus at some point by now as they’ve gained popularity with the latest wearable technology craze, but do they do what they say? Should I be wiggling my toes into individual pockets?
The History of Vibram Five Fingers
Five fingers design starts at the very beginning with feet. Before the shoe, feet were sprawled with toes separated. After the shoe, we suffer with bunions and other health issues as the foot adopts the shape of the shoe it’s in, hence why Chinese women bind their feet and young children are encouraged to wear correctly designed footwear to help their feet grow with proper alignment.
Robert Fliri was the designer who first had the idea of creating shoes with individual toes in 1999 after researching foot anatomy and spending a lot of time outdoors in the mountains of Italy barefoot. He said: “We have five toes: when they can move and grasp the ground independently, and when you can really sense the surface under your feet, your body is able to do what it is designed for by nature. That is a powerful feeling." The concept he came up with was that if the feet were designed to experience the world naked, why were we covering them in so much cushioning in our footwear?
Fliri’s idea remained but a figure of the imagination until 2004 when Fliri met Bramani, founder of Vibram. As the legend goes, Bramani believed that "Five Fingers" (because the Italian word for "fingers" is the same as that for "toes") might make a novel choice of footwear for use on sailboats or in other activities that required greater ground-feel. Bramani brought Fliri into his grandfather's company to develop the world's first toe shoes.
In 2006 Vibram first entered the market as the strange, but novel barefoot shoe. Since then they have grown in popularity to become phenomenon they are today.
What do Vibram say?
“We believe that moving and running in FiveFingers can make us healthier, happier, and more connected to our bodies. We hope to help you discover how you can safely explore the joys of natural movement.
Wearing FiveFingers for running, fitness training, water sports or just for fun will make your feet stronger and healthier—naturally. And while we do love our Vibram FiveFingers, we don’t believe it is the only footwear you will ever need. There are many times when you need the protection and security of a shoe or boot. Like all things in life, there is a balance, and Vibram FiveFingers provides a healthy alternative to traditional footwear.”
What it’s like Wearing FiveFingers
Let me start by introducing you to my relationship with feet, trust me, it’s relevant. I can NOT stand feet, I’m not afraid of them as such, but I’ve been known to request socks over going barefoot and I just don’t like them. I’m sorry.
So when the time came to review the Five Fingers, I was dreading the thought of 1) Being able to see my toes separately and 2) Not wearing any socks. Now I’ve set the scene, let’s crack on with the review.
Step 1. Putting the FiveFingers on.
I’m a size 4, with what I would call ‘normal’ feet, with the toes decreasing in size as you move down the foot. The FiveFingers are made with the largest toe and second toe at equal length and then the toes decrease in size as you move down the foot. This is the design they found works for most people. My toes fitted in each pocket with about a cm spare at the end, but I think a size down would have been too small. The shoes have their own unique lacing system which is really easy to use, simply pulling a toggle locks the shoe closely to your foot and prevents and slipping. It takes a little practice to get used to putting each toe into the pockets, but once you’re doing this on the regular, it becomes second nature. The shoes are also really easy to slip off, release the toggle and you’re out in seconds. So far, so good.
Step 2. Getting used to being ‘barefoot’.
Whilst I do hate feet, the Vibrams really were comfortable and even on a short distance run, I noticed I was running with better form, I could feel myself pushing off the ball of my foot and keeping my back up straight, rather than hunching over as I often do. The shoe is incredibly light and it does make you feel lighter as you run along, think more spring to your step, less plodding along. Despite the fact the shoes have 0 drop, I didn’t feel unprotected. Yes, you feel very close to the ground, but the shoes soles are a strong barrier between your foot and anything nasty. The key with getting used to FiveFingers is to ease them in. The website says it can take anywhere up to 6 months to make the transition to barefoot and overdoing it can lead to injury.
When it comes to weight lifting Arnold Schwarzenegger famously trained barefoot in order to maximise his lifts. Some bodybuilders argue that because your feet are the only point of contact between your body and the floor on most lifts, some of your lifting success is dependant on the foot's proprioception (the ability for your feet to sense of where they are in space). The more precisely your feet work to grip the floor, the better you will activate the muscles farther up your kinetic chain. Weight training with the FiveFingers allows you to feel the force of the weight you’re lifting, pushing through your heels and maximising your effort.
Vibram’s number one rule is to “Listen to your body” and I think for someone who is ready to make the switch to a barefoot running style, then these are a great pair of barefoot running shoes. They do look weird, but Vibram have their reason for that and if you can handle it, you’ll reap the rewards. I still don’t like feet, but, I did experience the benefits of the FiveFinger design.
Common Vibram FiveFinger questions answered
What on earth are on your feet? Vibram FiveFinger trainers.
Can you feel the ground? Yes, if you run over a rock you know about it, this is the entire point of sensory feedback and barefoot running. The idea is the FiveFinger sole protects the foot whilst still mimicking a barefoot ride.
Do your feet get wet? In this version of the shoe, yes they will. However there are other versions such as the trail runner which provide more protection against rough terrains and wetter weather.
Are you worried about stepping on something sharp? When should you not be worried about stepping on something sharp? Believe me I’ve had glass slice through a flip flop and wedge into my foot before and it hurts. As you run in the shoes you do tend to find yourself looking down to scan the path ahead and knowing you have a reasonably thick sole does encourage you to be more cautious as you run.
What if you have oddly shaped feet? The shoes are designed to fit most feet, but they won’t work for everyone. If your second toe is longer than your first one, you’d be better off finding an alternative barefoot running shoe such as the Vivobarefoot which we’ve reviewed.
Why do you look so small? I’ve just lost an inch of height from my trainers and at 5ft 2, every inch counts!
Vibram and Vivobarefoot are probably the two biggest brands designed specifically for the barefoot runner, while other industry giants may have dabbled, these two are first and foremost barefoot brands.
In my experience, I’ve always found that those who train in barefoot or minimalist shoes, tend to like to tell you about it. They’ll scoff at your padding and wiggle their toes until they go blue in the face, but why are people so enthusiastic about being barefoot? Should we all be ditching the padding and reverting to a barefoot style shoe. It seems like in a world where technology is constantly advancing, the fitness industry is constantly trying to rewind history, first with the Paleo diet and now barefoot shoes!
Vibram vs Vivobarefoot
As a twenty-something female, when it comes to trainers, as much as I want function, I’m in it for the aesthetics. I want to look good in my trainers and wear them as casualwear as well as whilst I’m training. I would not wear either of these trainers as casualwear. Make no mistake, neither barefoot trainer blends into your workout wardrobe. They stand out. They create a reaction. People will stare. People will ask, are you prepared to answer? Once you’ve tried them, I bet you will be.
5 Finger KSO Evo
Sole: The hugging sole of the Vibrams is less than 5mm (so very very thin). The soles are made with the XS TREK technology that is said to provide traction, stability, comfort and durability. Although they are barely existent. The soles do feel like you are directly on the floor and I think combined with the fact you have no socks on, you’ll feel bare.
Lacing: The shoe fastens with a speed lace system, which features a toggle fastening. I rate the lacing system on these. It’s quick and easy and stays really secure. I often have to stop and re- adjust my laces, so this was a real bonus. The lace allows plenty of adjustment as well meaning it's suitable for both a wide and narrower foot.
The toes: This is where I struggled. The Vibram is designed with individual toes to mimic being barefoot as closely as possible, allowing each toe to grip individually and strengthen the toes. The difficulty here is that people’s toes are rather different. Some people have a longer second toe, some people have toes which decrease in size as they move down the foot and some people's toes just have a mind of their own. The toe sockets on the Vibram have the first and second toes as equal and then decrease in size. For me, this was no good, I have small toes and they didn’t manage to fill the sockets, leaving the empty space at the end which was annoying as well as uncomfortable.
The Vivobarefoot Stealth has a very flat sole, whereas the Vibram contours around your foot, the Vivobarefoot sits completely smooth against the ground. The trainers are very flexible and very lightweight. The toe box is really wide allowing plenty of room for your toes to wiggle about, but with this shoe they can do so whilst snug together in one box. The upper is seamless with the Vivobarefoots signature hexagon laminate upper, which allows breathability and endurance in one, plus it looks cool. I feel more protected in these than the five fingers, whilst remaining grounded.
When transitioning from a regular trainer to a barefoot running shoe, runners often experience pain. Why? It’s something other than what they're used to. Barefoot running requires different strengths and therefore both barefoot designers recommend a transitional period, starting with running short distances in their shoes while your muscles become accustomed to the new style.
Running in the Vibrams feels cool, granted I’ve only run for shorter distances so far, which is what is recommended as you transition, but I felt lighter, despite the lack of cushioning, I felt bouncier. Why’s this? Barefoot running forces you to run with better posture, landing on the front of your foot. Running over fields and other debris is fine as the sole of the shoe still has you covered. My path was reasonably clear but a few bits of rubble didn’t put me off, you can feel it, but it’s not painful.
Running in the Vivobarefoots felt equally as lightweight as the five fingers, but somehow a bit more protected. I think this is due to their design being more similar to what I’m used to, just having the comfort of all my toes working together, for me, was better. The wide toe box allows your forefoot to lead the way comfortably, whilst the tongue and laces ensure your foot isn’t slipping forward in the shoe. I also trained legs in these and found I could lift heavier and jump higher, being able to push off my heels rather than push into the cushioning of a regular trainer.
Both trainers are designed to be multi-purpose, I see coverts wearing Vibrams 24/7, not just for their gym session but for their daily food shop. Equally Vivobarefoot have a range of casual footwear for every occasion, with their barefoot sole design.
Vibram 5 Fingers
Heel to Toe Drop
Speed lace and toggle
£60 - 95
£50 - £90
Whilst both trainers put in a good performance on a barefoot run, personally I prefer my toes being together, call me old fashioned, but for me, this makes the Vivostealth my winner.For anyone new to running in a minimalist shoe, I would recommend reading up on the benefits of barefoot running. Either of these shoes would be good to support your transition when changing to a barefoot running style, I would argue that there is no clear winner and your decision is going to be down to personal preference and finding which trainer has the best fit for your feet.
Minimalist Running Shoes
Sales of minimalist running shoes have grown into a $1.7 billion industry in the US. Sales of minimalist running shoes grew from $450,000 in 2006 to $59 million in 2012, and grew 303% from November 2010 through November 2012, compared to a 19% increase in the overall sales of running shoes during the same time period. In the summer of 2012, both Vibram and Adidas were sued in the United States regarding allegations of deceptive claims of increased training efficiency, foot strength, and decreased risk of injury resulting from use of their minimalist running shoes. These lawsuits follow on the heels of recent settlements by Skechers and Reebok with the Federal Trade Commission over claims that their barefoot shoes strengthen the body in ways no shoes ever had before.
As a barefoot runner, I was really excited to see Sundried add women's barefoot shoes to their collection. I ordered the same day and delivery arrived promptly as I’ve come to expect, along with the usual cool wrapping within the Sundried motif black cotton tote bag (I love these for yoga and carrying my shoes).
The first thing to be noted is that these barefoot shoes are super lightweight and flexible, so I knew before trying them that they would move with my foot and not restrict movement as some heavier training shoes do. As a runner and personal trainer, I do encourage my clients to use gym shoes which allow for foot movement which helps strengthen the foot muscles and indeed ankles – both essential in trail running in particular. Also, by using a more minimal shoe in the gym, balance adjustments and body sensing become easier.
The fit did not disappoint – generous fitting with a wide toe box make these the perfect barefoot shoes. The toggle allows for easy adjustment and is neatly tucked. The fabric allows excellent air flow to keep feet cool and they look super stylish.
I have run and walked in these barefoot running shoes as well as using them for gym and yoga. I would highly recommend these women's barefoot gym shoes for gym work as the feel to ground gives balance and they are a great barefoot shoe to strengthen the feet and ankles. If you are not used to a minimal shoe, I would recommend using these just for walking and short distance running to build your strength gradually before increasing your distance.
I also think for distance runners these are the perfect recovery shoes for after a long run.
About the author: Sheila Rose is an ultra marathon runner, personal trainer, and Sundried ambassador.