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!