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Running in Vibram Fivefingers: First Impressions

If you’re part of the on-line running community, you’ve probably heard of the Vibram Fivefingers. Described by my family and friends as “monster shoes,” “yeti shoes,” “foot gloves,” or “reptile shoes,” Vibram Fivefingers (or VFF’s for short – see picture below) are sort of like water-socks with toes that runners have flocked to as an alternative to over-engineered running shoes. Spurred in part by the book “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall, and its call for a return to more minimalist footwear (or even barefoot running), the Vibram Fivefinger craze has begun to spread from a few vocal proponents (notably @BarefootTed) to the world of mainstream runners (for example, my running club coach just sent out a plug for “Born to Run” to the entire club; for those interested, I also have a review of Born to Run posted on Runblogger). I’ve posted a few times in the past on the Fivefingers (e.g., see this VFF post and this one on some new Vibram Fivefingers models), but am now at the point where I have a bit of direct experience to share.

New Shoes

Never one to turn down the chance to try out a new running “shoe” (I openly admit to having a running shoe addiction), I ordered a pair of VFF KSO’s about a month ago from City Sports, and have now worn them out on two separate runs. My first VFF run was about 2.75 miles, and though it went OK, I felt some pain in my right forefoot on landings, and had some ligament/muscle strain on the top of my foot for several days afterward. I shelved the VFF’s for a few weeks to make sure I didn’t aggravate anything in my foot, and decided this morning to give it another go.

The original plan for today was to be conservative and just do 2 miles in the VFF’s in order to get my dog Jack some exercise, but I felt so darn good out there that I rolled with it for a full 7 miles (at an 8:23 min/mile pace, which is right on my standard “easy” pace). I felt no pain during the run, and only one tiny heel blister appears to have formed (went sockless, need to give my Injinji socks a try). I’ve never been one to follow the CW when it comes to running (see my experience running 20 miles in Nike Free 3.0′s on my 3rd run in them), and I may pay for this one later, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

I think one of the problems on my first VFF run was that I was consciously trying to force a forefoot landing, thereby straining my foot in the process. In doing some reading online (notably this article by Barefoot Ken Bob), I tried to focus on my stride less today and let my feet land more naturally, hoping that they would find their own groove with time. Needless to say, I felt incredible, and could have probably kept on going for a few more miles (didn’t want to press my luck too far). To quote my 5yo son, this run was super aloducious awesome.

Perhaps the best part of the run occurred as I was finishing up. Two serious, fit-looking cyclists passed and waved – as they went by I heard one say to the other: “He’s got Vibrams on!” Apparently word about VFF’s is getting out, and I smiled all the way back to the house.


Update 2/27/2010: You can now view my entire series of posts/podcast episodes/videos on my experience running in the Vibram Fivefingers. You can also view my entire series of posts on Minimalist Running.

Update 12/10/09: I just added a new post comparing slow motion video of footstrikes from myself and a student of mine running in stability shoes, Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s, and barefoot. Amazing difference – check it out!: Vibram Fivefingers and Barefoot Running: Does Removing Heel Cushion Change Footstrike?

Update 12/5/09: I recently shot some slow motion video of myself running in the Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s. You can view it below.

Running in Vibram Fivefingers KSO from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s – appears to be a midfoot strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. More videos like this available at: http://www.runblogger.com/2009/12/relationship-between-running-footstrike.html.

Update 9/2/09: You can now read a post on how I felt on the day after this Vibram Fivefinger run.

Update 7/09/10: I just put up a post about my first run in the new Vibram Fivefingers Bikila. Check out my very preliminary Vibram Fivefingers Bikila review here.

**Disclaimer**: It is possible to strain or injure yourself by doing too much, too soon when transitioning to barefoot running. If you’re thinking about giving barefoot or VFF running a try, I highly recommend Barefoot Ken Bob’s site, Running Barefoot, as a source of advice and guidance. I also would not recommend doing what I did today – ease into it if you decide to give barefoot or barefoot-like running a try. I’ve been running in Nike Free 3.0′s nearly this entire summer, which are a transitional, “barefoot-like” shoe, so I think my feet and legs are a bit more conditioned for the shock of a VFF run. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow!

If you’re looking for more information on Vibram Fivefingers shoes, I highly recommend Justin Owings’ great blog: Birthday Shoes – For the love of feet and Vibram Fivefingers.

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. seetedrun says:

    I am kind of reluctant to try the reptile kicks. In a way, I don’t want to hurt myself in time for the RI marathon. I will have to wait to see how it goes when I hear more and more are using the reptile kicks. Who knows? I might give it a try. I do have Saucony Fastwitch and that might be a good transition for me.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Ted – If you’re hesitant, I’d wait until after the marathon to try it. I
      know a few people on Twitter/Dailymile who are doing just that, but I’m
      terrible at holding back under any circumstances, so I went for it. Legs
      are stiff tonight, but no real pain of any kind – just feels like i did
      resistance training with them for the first time in a year!

      Pete

  2. I had a tear in my Achilles at the first of the year, and since I had to sort of start all over after that, I went and got a pair of KSOs. I walked in them for about 30 miles before I started running. About two weeks ago, as I topped 85 miles of running I noticed that on the right middle toes the rubber has worn through. I just put the 100th mile on them Sunday, and noticed the the ball of the left foot is Very thin. You are a much more serious runner than I am, and I’m wondering if you notice the KSOs wearing out after so little mileage. I love (absolutely love) the way it fees to run in them, but at $90 a pop, I’m not going to be able to support my rather low mileage running habit.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Are you a forefoot runner or do you push off hard with your toes? It’s
      interesting since I have very little wear on the sole of my KSO’s, which I
      have had for about a year. I tend to land midfoot, so wondering if this
      might explain the difference?

      Pete

  3. WARNING! I just got a metatarsal stress factor running in my KSO’s. I am in my 2nd week and was doing about 2 miles a day on roads to get used to the shoe, then bam! Stress factor. I am experienced runner, been to Boston and have never had a foot injury before. I dislike the feel of the KSO and was enjoying the freedom feel it gives you. I am so bummed to get a stress fracture, and can’t figure out how it happened. I didn’t think my form was bad.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Sorry to hear about your injury! We’re you running 2 miles every day in them
      - that could be the problem?

      When I started, I just went once a week in my KSO’s, and anytime I felt
      anything unusual I took a break for a bit. Vibrams expose you to a whole
      different set of forces, so being a long term runner probably doesn’t have
      much bearing on the adaptation process. What happens is you begin loading
      your metatarsals in ways that they are not used to (particularly if your
      footstrike moves forward toward the forefoot), and if you don’t allow time
      for bone remodeling to occur, that can lead to a stress fracture. Sore
      calves from initial Vibram running can also compromise shock absorption, so
      that can play a role as well. You can think of it not that your form was
      bad, but rather that it was right for the shoe, and the body just needs to
      adapt to that new form.

      I’m at the point now where I was able to do 13.1 in mine last week, and have
      been doing a lot of miles in my Bikilas lately.

      Pete

      • Thanks Pete! Love your blog and thoughts, keep it up. I meant to say i like the Virbam – so freeing!

        You are dead on how the injury came on- makes total sense. I am glad to hear that there might not be a good translation from running in shoes, aka, cloggers, to five fingers and that there needs to be a deliberate process to change the biomechanics. I guess i had some irrational exuberance going on. The Five Fingers just felt great and didn’t want to put on the old cloggers!

        Now that i have this injury, do you think i will be predisposed to this injury in the Five Fingers? or if i changed my routine and went back to typical running shoes with five runners interspersed will be ok? I want to keep running in my five fingers, but now am a bit apprehensive. Course I now need to sit out 4 to 5 weeks!

        • Pete Larson says:

          Initial exuberance is what gets most of us when we try out the Fivefingers -
          I had some pain in my foot after the first run in them, and opted to hold
          off for a few weeks. I’m not a medical guy, so hard to say if you’d be
          predisposed to further injury. You definitely want to let things heal up
          fully before you get back at it, and if you do start mixing Fivefingers back
          in, take it very slow. I used Nike Free 3.0s as a transition shoe to the
          Fivefingers – I was still heel striking in them, but the lower heel and
          extreme flexibility did seem to help with strengthening my feet/legs. A
          racing flat mixed in can also help – I’m running in Brooks Mach 12′s right
          now for racing and speedwork and I like them. Saucony Kinvara also has a
          lower heel, and is cushioned enough for longer runs. I do know several
          people who have recovered from metatarsal stress fractures and are now
          running great – Steve is one of them (ran a sub-3:00 at Boston about 9
          months after his non-Vibram related met fracture):
          link to runbulldogrun.com….

          Pete

  4. Patepluma says:

    I’ve been running only in KSOs and Treks for five months now, both on and off road. There was certainly a conditioning period: 1) the ‘de-atrophication’ of 35-years worth of about 20% of my leg and foot tissue that had been lulled into sleep by the use of the modern running shoe; 2) the stride adjustment phase; and 3) the callous building phase.

    It has been a worthwhile journey. My legs and feet haven’t felt this healthy since being a teenager in the 1970s.

    The only painful part of VFF running is frozen toes in the winter.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the comment! Regarding the frozen winter toes, try the Injinji
      socks – I ran down to about 10 degrees F last winter without much trouble as
      long as I paired the socks with my KSO’s.

      Pete

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