If you've ever seen anyone wearing Vibram Five Fingers then you will probably know about it. They're the kind of footwear that make people turn their heads when you pass them in the street, they're the kind that people stop you to ask you about, and they're the kind that everyone has an opinion on. The concept behind them is as intriguing as the bizarre look (Goof says I look like a chicken in them) and their touted benefits are pretty alluring too. It seemed to me to be a kind of mix between something very old fashioned and very futuristic and the kind of concept that wouldn't be out of place in a futuristic free running game like Mirror's Edge or an advert for an isotonic sports drink... cool...
So I was psyched to try on my first pair the other day and the good news is... I'm still psyched. On with the Vibram Five Fingers review! Which can be found just below the Amazon widget (where you can check them out on Amazon).
What Are Vibram Five Fingers?
If you've read anything on Vibram Five Fingers then you know the score by now, but for everyone else here's a little catch up. Essentially, the Vibram Five Fingers look like rubber gloves for your feet - that is that they have separate toe holes for each of your toes (surprising that...) and have no support for the ankle or heal whatsoever. They're also really tight and have been described as a 'second skin'. Of course they look pretty bizarre.
So basically it's a shoe that strips away all the things that normally make a shoe... a shoe. They're elaborate toe socks, made from a wet-suit like material, and that means they're pretty good for you. Why? Because in the wild, where we evolved, we'd never have had shoes and we'd never have had ankle and heel support. Barefoot is how we are naturally evolved to run, and every time we run in shoes we are damaging our feet as we are training the wrong muscles and using an unusual heel-to-toe gait. Sadly because the floor is now covered in hard concrete and general danger you can't safely walk in barefoot anymore, and that's where the Vibram Five Fingers come in - with all the benefits of going barefoot but with some protection to stop you stepping on some glass or a big pile of shit (though if you step on shit you can feel it squelch between your toes... bonus...).
Benefits of Vibram Five Fingers
So we are evolved to run in barefoot and that means we are evolved to run on the balls of our feet and to walk on the flats of them. We'd never have had heals in the wild so we are patently not meant to be standing on them when we walk around (that said, high heels on girls are sexy so I don't want to completely rule them out...).
Running (or walking) barefoot then means your heel isn't weighed down and it isn't padded, and that means that you have more natural biomechanics which in turn leads to more natural muscle development up your legs. It also means you can run faster and for longer - and there are many studies that suggest going barefoot can increase endurance - which is why members of certain tribes are able to run for miles to track prey without ever having to stop.
Another benefit of going barefoot running or walking is that your feet and toes can bend to adapt to meet the contors of the land you're running on. This firstly means you develop more muscles in your feet and ankles - muscles that you have until now been allowing to go to waste. The first few times you use the Vibram Five Fingers your ankles and feet will feel achy but this is a good thing - it's the feeling you get after a workout - and by building more muscle you will create more harmony throughout your body, burn calories (the maintenance of muscle requires energy) and increase your production of growth hormone (resulting in a more anabolic state which leads to muscle building and healing).
On top of this, because your feet bend and your ankle will strengthen, you'll barely ever twist your ankle or trip, and you'll find that you adapt much more quickly to changes in the landscape because of the immediate feedback you get from the bottom of your foot. That's what it's designed to do, and as soon as you try running around in them you'll notice it. Honest.
And many people find they benefit from having the ability to feel what's underneath their feet in other ways too - for instance it allows them to better judge where they are and feel more 'connected' to the world around them, and it makes them better able to push of the ground with their toes and to get a good footing.
Vibram Five Fingers Review: KSO
So I knew all this when I decided to buy my own set because the word was convincing and because they were perfect to review for this site (and because I'm writing this Vibram Five Fingers Review I can also claim it back on tax... booyah!). When they arrived in the box I was pretty excited and after putting them on I went outside to give them some rigorous testing - I went walking, running, free running and did a bit of climbing. The next day I spent walking around town and then did a workout in them. What did I make of them?
First impressions were initially slight concern - even after sizing them in store and measuring my feet online my KSOs were slightly too big (I don't like to admit how small my feet are if I'm honest...). I wish that was a little more straightforward. And at the same time I was a bit disappointed to find out that the toes are flexible to let you curl your toes up. I have very dexterous feet and was hoping to be able to pick up balls and things with them, or did them into the grass for purchase... but nevermind (Vibram if you make another model this is what I want!).
The KSO in Vibram Five Fingers KSO stands for 'Keep Stuff Out', the idea being of course that you can go trekking in these and not worry about dirty and debris in your shoe (there are other models such as the Sprint, but the KSOs are the all-rounders and what most people own). What they don't keep out though is water. So if you walk on wet grass your toes get wet. In these shoes it doesn't feel like it matters - which is nice I guess, but it's a tad irritating and especially if you are wearing the toe socks too.
But other than that... wow. They really are awesome and as soon as you've been in them you realise you're not going back to trainers as your day to day shoes. The thing is you really do feel more connected to the ground and like you won't fall over which is a massive bonus. You feel a lot freer too and having a shoe that has literally no weight to it is highly liberating, and the workout is great too. Most importantly for me is the fact that they practically gave me superpowers - helping me to be more agile, faster and more energetic. But I'll come to that in a second.
And surprisingly they are also really comfortable and feel literally like wearing a glove. Surprisingly they're not at all sweaty and even when wet they feel the exact right temperature. They really are like a second skin and you pretty quickly forget you're wearing them.
But the Five Finger Vibrams are not designed for just walking around... they're designed for trekking, running and climbing. So here's a different Vibram Five Finger Review for several different activities after a bit of testing from yours truly.
Vibram Five Fingers for Running
Running is what's hurt my foot muscles, calves and ankles, but it's great because I know it's strengthening them and soon I'll be invincible. And generally I just love running in Vibram Five Fingers - I've always been an advocate of running on the balls of my feet and this lends itself perfect to that. At the same time the lightness just makes you feel so deft and quick that you have to physically stop yourself from running around everywhere. As this is the way you're meant to run too you will find that you get into better habits and reduce the chances of getting shin splints, plantar fasciitis and other conditions. Finally, I'm not sure what the mechanism for this is, but you really do have better endurance in these things. I can run non-stop now - you really feel like you can keep going forever (and fast). The only slight downside is that the grip could stand to be a little better, but I presume the Vibram Five Finger Sprints are better in this respect.
Vibram Five Fingers for Parkour/Free Running
If you want to use your Vibram Five Fingers for parkour then you're not alone and this is something that they are popularly used for - and I have to say I can see why. Wearing the Vibram Five Fingers for free running practically gave me superpowers and particularly when it came to precision jumping and balance. I balanced along a thin beam that must have gone on for about 400 meters and I could have done it with my eyes closed - being able to feel the bar where it presses into your feet makes readjusting to balance a doddle and I'm just so, so much better at it. I also have no fear now when standing by ledges - I can feel that my feet are planted firmly on the ground. Vibram Five Fingers for this aspect of parkour are incredible.
Where they're trickier is when it comes to jumping from a height onto concrete. There's no cushioning and so of course this is going to hurt on the old balls of your feet - I'm not convinced that some of the aching in my feet right now isn't bruising. However that said this should encourage you to practice good technique and to do good PK rolls, so it may actually foster better technique. Maybe better for more experienced traceurs?
Vibram Five Fingers for the Gym
I did hear someone mention that wearing Five Fingers in the gym would help me feel more grounded when pressing and squatting, but to be honest it didn't really make much of a difference.
Vibram Five Fingers for Rock Climbing
When I asked in the shop about having Vibram Five Fingers for rock climbing I was told that was a bad idea, because I'd be putting all my weight onto individual toes rather than the point of all five as in a climbing shoe. However I've since done this and found that that's fine - and as a result I climbed a brick wall in town which I would never have been able to climb in shoes - simply because my feet fitted into the ridges as well as my fingers and my big toe is strong enough. It also means my big toes and other toes will get stronger so it's good training that way and I would hazard a guess that it's better for your feet than climbing shoes too.
When I got really excited was when I used my Vibram Five Fingers to climb the fence around a tennis court and then later a tree - I was actually using my toes to grip and hold on. Like a monkey. My climbing skills have vastly improved.
For climbing actual routes and crags this would be fine too I imagine but you must bear in mind that they're not designed for this purpose and that they will wear through quicker than real climbing shoes. In particular the heal is not rubber enough to withstand many heel hooks, so for whole days out climbing you might want a spare set of climbing shoes still. But if you really love rock climbing then you should at least experience Vibram Five Fingers.
Vibram Five Fingers are also good for trail running, scrambling, hiking, walking, martial arts, watersports and more.
In conclusion then, the Vibram Five Fingers are inspired and will make you rediscover your agility and endurance while liberating you and helping you to feel the ground beneath your feet. They'll strengthen your muscles and prevent injury and you'll feel like you've had a revelation.
There are one or two floors with them that mean they're not perfect for everyone, and that stop them from replacing your trainers or climbing shoes completely (and if you're the self conscious type you might not want to wear them into shops), but for anyone with an interest in outdoor sports, extreme sports, fitness, free running or human performance in general... for anyone who reads this site regularly, they are a very good buy.