In an era when there’s a shoe for just about every type of sport, the design and manufacturing of these products is becoming more scientific and more specific. What if there was a shoe that scrapped arch support, comfort and everything else that’s thought to create the best shoe on the market? What if instead the shoe went back to basics? What if it went back to being not even a shoe at all? The creators at Vibram USA did just that when they launched the Vibram FiveFingers shoe.
Of course, at first glance it looks more like a sock with toe holes than an actual shoe, like a rubber glove for the foot. However, the design specifically simulates running barefoot on any type of terrain. What is the benefit of running barefoot? Couldn’t it cause injuries?
These are just two of many questions asked by people who have never run or trained barefoot. In fact, training barefoot brings several benefits to training, resulting in gains in speed and agility.
“If you are always in shoes and boots, over time, you lose strength in the muscles of the feet,” says Tony Post, CEO of Vibram USA. “The muscles start to atrophy. You lose range of motion. You lose some [neurological] function, [which is] important for balance and agility.”
The concept behind the shoe was to provide a barefoot sensation and allow the foot to work in a more natural way. “Our idea was to create something that would be solid but flexible, follow the shape of the foot and allow the toes to work individually,” Post says.
Post was formerly a competitive runner at the University of Tulsa, where his coaches introduced him to running barefoot.
“[My] coach used to have us do strides across the football field barefoot at the end of [practice], because it would help strengthen our feet,” Post recalls. “His concept was if your feet got stronger, it not only made you more powerful, it made you have better balance. Probably most important, stronger feet means that you’ll be less likely to get injured, and anybody who is an athlete and who is interested in pushing the limits, is fighting the risk of getting injured.”
Three of the four shoe models use a nylon material that stretches multiple ways so it conforms to different foot types. All of the shoes feature TC1 performance rubber, which Post says resists abrasion and slippage. Another design feature is the five individual pockets for your toes. This allows for complete independent control for the muscles and the barefoot feeling.
“A lot of lifters, cross fitters and pro athletes in general are starting to use the product,” Post says. “The pro athletes are doing it [to make] them more resistant to injury [and to] improve balance and agility.”
The perfect football example for training with the shoes is for linemen working to stop the d-line rush. “It’s really important for offensive linemen to have great footwork, and part of having great footwork is about being able to be in a solid balanced position when you’re blocking or defending a rush,” Post says.
The shoe also improves balance and agility. Post states, “Having a better sense of balance and agility can help [you] position yourself to be able to defend that rush better. If you don’t do things that work on balance, you’re really only gaining half the benefit. Balance has a lot to do with your ability to use leverage and to have control, so it’s important to work both things.”
As for competitive lifting, “traditional weightlifting shoes look like wrestling shoes,” Post says. “They have [a] flat sole because they really don’t want to be shifting their feet inside. They want to have as close contact to the ground as possible. What they want is not to try and support the feet, but to try and strengthen the muscles in the feet and really use the feet naturally in the foundation. That’s why they like using FiveFingers. The shoes are very flat and close to the ground.”
“FiveFingers help strengthen the muscles in the feet, which is the very foundation of the body. Your body is going to break down wherever the weakest spot is. You may be really strong in your core and your upper body, but if your feet are not strong, you’re not going to be able to plant or hold with any success,” Post adds.
“When people first start wearing FiveFingers, what they’ll start to notice is that they are going to be using a lot of muscles that maybe haven’t been stimulated or exercised,” Post says. “If you are using them for fitness training, for example, what you’re going to find is that there might be muscles along the top of the feet that are sore, which are used to control the toes. You may be engaging control of your toes more than in a typical shoe.
“There are a lot of sensory receptors on the bottom of the feet. [After] wearing the shoes [for] the first time, users are going to get a lot of feedback from the environment, and that is kind of a unique sensation for people.”
Over the past few months, I’ve incorporated FiveFingers into my weekly running routine, and right away I noticed a big change. After I wore them around the office and ran on a soft surface, my feet became sore. At the same time, it felt like I had more control of my foot. I definitely changed my running form to mid striker rather than heel. It felt like I was getting a better push off the ground. The big test was wearing the shoes for a four mile and 5K race back-to-back weekends. The shoes definitely held up, and my feet felt fine during the races.
Another STACK employee wear-tested FiveFingers during a weight training session. His feedback was very similar to mine: sore feet at first, but a noticeable difference in strength and the ability to better plant on the ground for Olympic lifts.
Our general conclusion is that there’s definitely a difference in how your foot feels. To learn more about the shoes before picking up a pair, since barefoot running and training are not for everyone, check out Vibram online.