Vibram Five Fingers = Barefoot Running- Almost!


I remember clearly the summers of my youth running barefoot through the woods, fields, swamps and creek bottoms.  The coolness of the fallen leaves and the mud squishing through my toes felt natural- and good. I could stalk right up to deer and other wildlife without them hearing me. I could run through a blackberry patch without flinching. Only hidden bits of glass or old barbed wire slowed me down.


At my very first 50-k ultramarathon, I saw a woman wearing a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I didn't know what they were at the time but have been intrigued ever since. There is quite a subculture of barefoot and minimum footwear runners out there.


I finally decided to get a pair of Vibram Five Fingers KSOs (Keep Stuff Out) myself.


Perhaps they  will enable me to return to that feeling of freedom and connectedness with the earth?

There may also be medical reasons to spend more time out of our shoes and walking and running barefoot. 


growing body of scientific evidence suggests that many of the foot problems we see in both athletes and non-athletes are due to modern societies’ love of shoes.  Many sports medicine doctors and podiatrists feel this way; it is no longer an opinion on the fringe. Calluses, ingrown toenails, blisters, bunions and corns might disappear if we got out of or at least changed our footwear.


The Chinese used to bind the feet of their women. That sounds barbaric- but how is that all that much different from us squishing our feet into tight fitting shoes from childhood and never letting our feet develop the strength they were evolved to have? The difference is only in degrees.


Think about it.  How many other species put coverings on their feet? 




The above photos were published in a 1905 study  which examined the feet of native barefoot populations in the Philippines and Central Africa- note the difference!


Primitive cultures have been served well by minimum or no footwear for tens of thousands of years. Some cultures such as the Tamahuara indians of Copper Canyon Mexico run long distances barefoot or with footwear such as huaraches. Only us modern folks have become “tenderfoots.”


There are case reports of bare foot runners from Africa and other countries who “made it” in the international running scene and were then encouraged to begin wearing running shoes as part of their sponsors' contract. Soon afterwards, however, they experienced injuries that they had never experienced in a lifetime of running barefoot. Many believe it was their shoes.


I have met people from other cultures who had feet that were dexterous, almost like a hand. They could move each of their toes independently, like a finger.


Don’t forget, we are apes after all. 


Wearing shoes changes our gait from a fore/mid-foot to hind foot landing. How many of you have heard another runner slamming on by and thought: “Ow! They’re going to be hurting later!”? The sound of someone slamming along irritates me more than the screech of chalk on the board!   


One of the best ways to know if you are running efficiently is listen to how quietly you are running. If you go barefoot or in minimal footwear, you are forced to run with proper biomechanics. If you don’t, you will know it immediately- it hurts! Shoes allow us to get lazy and cheat. That’s fine for the short term but results in weak feet and injury later.


Once someone, a non-runner, wrote an article about me. In the story they referred to me as “pounding the pavement” which irritated me greatly and which I demanded they take out (fortunately they let me read the story before it went to press).


For one: I'm a trail runner and avoid the pavement whenever possible.


For two: I strive to never ever “pound”- if I am, I know that I am running incorrectly. 



One of the greatest lessons I have learned from “going long” is simply how to run correctly and efficiently. Until I did, I experienced injury after injury.


Many new runners could learn much from going slow and long, while paying attention to the sound of the footfalls, how much  they are bouncing while focusing on eliminating unnecessary motion such as side to side arm swinging etc.


You can get formal gait analysis at a running shoe store with the goal of trying to get you to purchase one type of shoe or another. However, if runners focused on simply running quietly and with minimal bouncing and extraneous motion, they would be way ahead of any info a gait analysis told them.


Running shoes and orthotics have been marketed heavily. If you don’t have this sort or that sort of shoe or arch support, all kinds of bad things will happen to us-  or so we are told. 


My experience has been that the majority of supposed “trail shoes” are simply over done road shoes, hardly suited at all for trail running.  These manufacturers have experience selling shoes to runners who indeed do “pound the pavement.” They are now trying to market their trails shoes to that crowd.


For those of us who prefer to float silently and lightly down those mountain trails, our choice in shoes has been limited. I love my INOV-8s- they feel like moccasins but with traction.


Moving down to even more minimal footwear has been a logical next step for me.   


I've been using the KSOs once or twice a week as part of my training to improve strength and balance. At first, I had muscle soreness in my feet and ankles as new muscle groups were used than had not been used in this way before.


One surprise: my plantar fasciitis all but disappeared after only two weeks of running in them. I've tried all other methods to manage plantar fasciitis: stretching, exercises, arch supports, orthotics, Strassberg socks, ice massage, acupuncture, NSAIDs- althought they all helped somewhat, nothing worked completely.


Maybe arch supports and orthotics to manage plantar fasciitis really is a bunch of hogwash as many barefoot runners claim? If you need arch support- strengthen and use your own arches! 


Running in Vibram Five Fingers does take some getting used to. I can no longer run with a sloppy heel-first foot-pounding when I get tired. I must focus on landing quietly and lightly, as if I am a coyote or a mountain lion. 


Another benefit: wildlife such as deer are not as afraid of me. They see me and smell me; they must recognize that I'm human. However, they don't run away until I am very close because I don't sound like one. If I keep running and don’t stop, many times they don’t run away at all.


If I ever take up archery hunting again, I will definitely wear these. Will it give me an unfair advantage?- probably not that much. Most animals have an uncanny sixth sense that tells them when you are interested in them out of more than just curiousity- such as for dinner.


My friend Sam left me a catalog for Thunderbird Atlatls… Me running around in the forest in my KSOs carrying spears seeking big game- now that is a picture I can imagine.   It would add new meaning to the phrase: "fair chase." (Note: there is no official atlatl hunting season in most places… if you choose to hunt primitively with an atlatl, check into your state's hunting regulations first).


I love running through puddles and streams with my KSOs. At the Mystic Mountain race a few weeks ago, I slammed through mud puddles and streams, splashing myself and all runners around me.  While everyone else was trying to find a way to cross the streams without getting their feet wet, I ran right through them. I loved it…. it was like I was a kid splashing in the water!  You wouldn't want to do that with shoes on because it would take too long to dry out and you might get a blister. 


I don't know what the other runners thought. No one said anything. In hindsight splashing everyone with mud in my exuberance was probably a bit rude.


The Five Fingers leave a pretty cool foot print in the mud.  I admit to picking out soft areas on purpose and leaving quite a few footprints for others to see.


What will tourists hiking will think when they see them? Could there be a Bigfoot living in the Black Hills? 


It has been interesting to run up hills with them. My toes curl and grab to gain traction in the ground. The first few times I ran in up hills in them my foot muscles cramped. They were weak and not used to being used in this way. Now, I can feel my toes gripping but without cramps or discomfort. .  




My longest run in them thus far was a 12.9 mile trail run in the Black Elk Wilderness (the KSOs are pictured above). I also placed 2nd overall at a 10-k race (my first 10-k race ever) in them in Iowa- on asphalt no less.  


I ran the Mystic Mountain race in them but pulled a calf muscle from staying up on my toes to protect my heels from the rocks on the downhill. Fortunately, the muscle pain went away in a few days.


Wanting to give my feet a break, I returned to my shoes for a couple of weeks. In comparison my shoes felt tight and cramped without room for my toes.  




I wonder what shoes would feel like to someone who has gone barefoot their entire life? 


Some of my family and friends have gotten into wearing these as well. Jeanne found a pair of Vibram Five Finger Sprints in her size for only $20 at a resale shop (My KSOs cost $80 brand new). She is not a runner but loves to walk. I thought she looked great in them. Of course as her husband, I think she looks great no matter what she wears.


Our friends from Texas, Sam and Corinne and their two children came up for a visit with us recently. Sam had recently acquired a pair of KSOs for himself. We all went for a hike along the Grace Coolidge Walk-in Fishing Area in nearby Custer State Park.  Sam, Jeanne and I wore our Five Fingers.  I alternated between fly fishing and jogging to catch up with them.


I don’t think I’d ever run an ultra in them- well OK, perhaps I might try a baby ultra such as a 50-k or a trail 26.2 mile.




 LOVE my Vibram Five Finger KSOs!  


I recommend them to anyone wanting to experience barefoot running without the pain.  They are a great way to strengthen the muscles of your feet and lower leg. They also give you a sense of connection with the earth beneath your feet, difficult to acheive while wearing shoes.  


My only regret is that I can't wear them all the time. I don't think they would go very well with dress slack and a tie.  My patients would probably wonder about their doctor too, if I showed up to clinic wearing them.


I am not alone. There are many other ultra- and trail runners who run with Vibram Five Fingers. More runners are becoming converts every day.


One runner-blogger who has written extensively about his experiences in Vibram Five Fingers and inspired me is Keith-in-Training. If you have any interest in all in Vibram Five Fingers, I strongly recommend that you check out his blog.  


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13 responses

  1. Doc,I've really enjoyed reading your blog these past several months.

    August 9, 2009 at 1:48 pm

  2. Tom,

    August 10, 2009 at 6:53 am

  3. They handle very well on the trails. Others have worn them on rugged mountain ultras… my feet are not up to that level. Even without treads, they have great traction because you are better able to sense the trail.
    In the snow, your feet would get cold, but probably not much more than if you had on soaking wet shoes. I wear wool Injinji socks with them. It is if they were made for each other.
    They'd hurt like a #$%#$! if you ever kicked a rock in them. If I ever do ultras in them, it'll be a short flat 50k first, then move up to longer races.
    As a Bighorn fifty miler this year, I was blessed with only having to run down that hill. The miles of josting and bouncing may have explained why my gut hurt so much so early in the race and why I had to DNF.
    I did think to myself, "I'm glad that I registered for only the 50 mile this year, this hill would be tough to climb, at least I know what's in store if I ever do the 100."

    August 10, 2009 at 8:19 am

  4. [esto es genial]

    August 10, 2009 at 10:23 pm

  5. Nice review. I would love to have a pair as walking shoes at least…but of course having the webbed toes makes it difficult. But there is definitely truth in shoes causing injuries. and I think adding in orthotics etc, is not helping as much as strengthing could help. (Except for my poor Pop, who had one leg shorter than the other and really needed the orthotic to even it out…).

    August 11, 2009 at 6:51 am

  6. Fantastic posting, on a product I have never come across before. stock them, so I can get hold of the easily….I think I may well give them a go?The only other "innovative" option I was looking at was a pair of "Newtons"?

    August 13, 2009 at 6:02 am

  7. Thanks! As for whether these will fit you or not, it depends how significant your syndactyly is. The material stretches so mild/partial may work, but more significant obviously wouldn't.
    Too bad that there is no evidence webbed toes improve swimming ability, or you might have a real advantage in triathlons.

    August 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm

  8. Thank you for reading/commenting! I do recommend that you get fit in person, I had to try three different pairs in the store before we decided what might work. I've heard of Newtons, but do not know too much else about them.
    Vibram Five Fingers are amazingly comfortable, even if they draw a few stares…

    August 15, 2009 at 12:22 pm

  9. Thank you for reading and commenting!

    August 15, 2009 at 12:23 pm

  10. Thanks!
    After wearing shoes at work all week, my feet felt tight and constricted. So I've started wearing these around when doing outside chores and gardening. As long as I'm not doing something where I need a foot protection such as cutting the lawn or putting up firewood, they're great.
    PS: T-minus one week until Lean Horse! I WILL do it!!!

    August 15, 2009 at 12:28 pm

  11. I am also experimenting with barefoot running. So far only on the track. I want to get a pair of these really soon. Barefoot running feels so naturale to me, and I can keep a very good pace. Thanks for the review

    September 4, 2009 at 8:30 am

  12. Thanks for reading and commenting.
    If you like running barefoot; you'll love the Vibram FFs. They allow you to go over any surface without fear of cuts or puncture from glass, sharp rocks, thorns or bits of wire.
    Some take time to adjust. I adapted to them immediately. If you are already doing some barefoot running, it should not be difficult. The most difficult aspect is being conservative and allowing your foot and stabilization muscles of the lower leg enough time to adapt to this new (and better!) way of running.
    Good luck!!!

    September 5, 2009 at 9:36 am

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