Friday, March 19, 2010

A Review of Vibram FiveFingers

[Full disclosure: I do not have any relationship with the Vibram shoe company other than that of costumer and supplier.]

Several months ago on the suggestion of a few people I trust I decided to purchase a pair of Vibram FiveFingers shoes. At first I was hesitant wearing them, only intending to be seen in them at the gym, but now that I have spent so much time in them I wear them everywhere, and would like to present this review to you in hopes of convincing you to share that value with me.

For those who don’t know, the product I’m referring to is a brand of shoes designed specifically to simulate the experience of going barefoot while still having one’s feet protected by a coating of rubber. I first heard of this product several months ago, but I was not willing to purchase it until this past December and did not take to wearing them consistently until a few weeks ago. At first I was completely repulsed by the design of the shoes – shaped like a foot! – but then slowly came to being indifferent to their appearance and am now even pleased by it. To summarize my conclusion, these are the best pair of shoes I have ever owned, and I will certainly be a continued costumer of the Vibram shoe company.

As for my specific thoughts on the shoes:

Functionality: The shoes do deliver on their promise to simulate barefootedness, though with a somewhat reduced experience. For example you would be able to feel every bump you step on, but the actual texture of the surface cannot be felt due to the protective coating. This, however, is not a negative trait of the shoes: they can only be so flexible while at the same time still providing protection against cutting your feet on glass or stubbing your toes against a wall.

One of the best features of the shoes, if not the best, is the premium level of comfort they provide. For those of you who have days when you just can’t wait to “get these shoes off,” such feelings will completely disappear when putting on a pair of VFFs. On Thursdays I spend the entirety of my day at college, from approximately 8:00 AM to 9:45 PM, and my Vibrams stay entirely comfortable the entire time. In fact, sometimes they get so comfortable that I forget I’m wearing them and feel as if I’m actually barefoot. For those with consistent foot pain or shoe discomfort this should be reason enough alone to purchase a pair.

However, there is a short adjustment period for those who are inexperienced with going barefoot. I have conditioned my feet beforehand by constructing a makeshift stand-up desk and doing all of my pencil writing and some reading there, but still when I began consistently wearing my VFFs I felt a small tightening pressure in my lower back (not painful) for about one or two days. Also, the first day in each pair of shoes (I own two pair) an uncomfortable amount of pressure was exerted on my toes given how precisely the shoes are designed to fit one’s feet, but I haven’t felt it since then in either pair so I assume it’s only a first-day thing and I have stretched the material sufficiently to fit my individual feet perfectly like a glove.

One upside to the adjustment phase is that it actually feels pleasurable to be walking nearly barefoot all the time. For the first few days I was thoroughly tempted to simply walk about to enjoy how good it feels. The sensation has since faded, but still my feet never feel uncomfortable in these shoes and putting on “real” shoes (I keep a pair of Pumas and regular dress shoes for situations where my VFFs would be inappropriate) feels strange as it makes for an unnatural and uncomfortable weight distribution, and makes me feel like I’m wearing blocks.

As for the protective coating, it will certainly protect your feet from getting cut or your toes from being hurt from hitting against the wall, but it will not protect you from, say, smashing your foot by dropping a weight on it. It is obvious that these aren’t professional work shoes and you shouldn’t trade in a pair of steel-toed boots for them, but such a warning applies to those who may want to use these shoes to workout, as the brand is mainly marketed towards the athletic crowd. Be careful when you lift weights while standing up, but otherwise these shoes should provide all the protection you need.

The shoes also seem to be altering the anatomy of my feet for the better as well. I noticed that my feet are becoming broader, that that I can spread my toes further apart, meaning my feet are no longer mashed into “arrowheads” anymore. I do not possess the right camera technology to photograph my feet, so I’ll emphasize the change with these research images:

What my feet similarly used to look like:

How my feet are starting to look:

[Images cited from , here.]

So to summarize, these shoes are entirely practical, minus the adjustment phase and no upper foot protection, and are excruciatingly comfortable.

Weather: Many have been concerned with how well these shoes handle in winter weather (since I live in Michigan). Believe it or not, I find these shoes to handle cold and wet weather much better than conventional shoes.

Though as forewarning I must mention that my feet are already slightly adapted to this rough weather by the time spent at my stand-up desk, as the desk is located in my laundry room, placing me to stand directly on a cold stone floor. For a few weeks while adjusting to the desk my feet would throb and be sore as I was building up a thicker padding on my soles (though not visibly noticeable), but now such discomfort has ceased. Now standing on the stone floor bothers me not in the slightest except for my back and legs after prolonged standing. When I take to the cold outside in my Vibrams I can feel in my feet that the temperature is different than the area I just left, but to me it doesn’t register as cold. Even when walking in the snow and getting my feet wet I do not feel bothered. Strangely enough it’s my hands and face that are the most uncomfortable in this weather, even when covered. So I say it’s completely unnecessary to put away the Vibrams for the winter season unless one is going to spend prolonged periods outside, but one may have to do some conditioning of the feet first. It wouldn’t take long to make the proper adjustments.

As for wetness, that is yet another great feature I discovered that puts these above conventional shoes. On one of the first few days in which I began wearing my KOSs there were about two inches of snow on the ground, which I thought would freeze my feet and keep me wet for most of the day. Surprisingly, not only did the snow not bother me even as water got directly into my shoes but the shoes also dried extremely fast, and I mean within mere minutes. Water merely passes through the mesh lining rather than being retained, so one’s feet is minimally wet after exposure and takes no time to dry. If I had been wearing conventional shoes in this weather and had gotten snow in them my socks would have stayed soggy for the better part of the day or until I changed them.

While it may seem like common sense to put these shoes away until warmer weather, my experience indicates that it is not only completely unnecessary but also undesirable since conventional shoes don’t seem to fare as well. Of course, let us be sure that we distinguish shoes from boots, so I am not asserting that wearing VFFs might be better than boots.

Appearance: As I mentioned in the beginning I was at first completely opposed to purchasing this brand since I thought the design was too silly, but staying consistent with my value of good health I reluctantly purchased a pair and have grown so attached to them that I actually enjoy their appearance now, though I still believe women may have a better time looking good in these than men will.

People may, of course, stare incredulously at you as you pass by; it happens to me all the time. Experience may vary depending on the cultural atmosphere in your area, but I find in my own context people by and large only give a surprised glance and very few actually go so far as to comment on them. The people that have commented so far have said virtually all positive things and also inquire as to where I purchased my pair, and so far I’m responsible for one person buying himself a pair and my neighbor states she intends to get herself some. In general people are pleased by the novelty. I too was amused by the novelty and for the first few days in each pair I would intentionally walk in public spaces to entertain myself with other people’s curiosity, but such a desire has faded now and I am completely comfortable being on display with my VFFs no matter where I go. It does not bother me in the slightest that other people see me in these shoes given my positive evaluation of them and my high value of personal health and comfort, so nowadays I walk around completely unconcerned with other people’s perception. To those that are bashful I say give the adjustment period a chance.

I’ve heard that barefoot running and barefoot shoes have been in public discussion lately, so I can only hope that this influences public opinion so much as to make a greater variety of styles available.

Price: For being such a special construction of shoes I consider them decently priced. My Vibram Sprints cost $80.00, about the same as my conventional Pumas, and my Vibram KSOs (Keep Stuff Out) cost $85.00. The different varieties do fluctuate widely on prices depending on what type you desire to purchase, but all in all I’d say it’s pretty affordable given what a high quality product you obtain. How much you spend entirely depends on what you plan on doing with the footwear. If you want it only for casual wear or mild exercise (walking, yoga, weight lifting, etc.) then a $75.00 pair of FiveFingers Classics will do you just fine, but if you want to do something rougher (hiking, trail running, climbing) then maybe you need a $125.00 pair of KSO Treks, but you’ll have to decide based on your values and habits. I find that for me the near bare minimum is sufficient.

On the plus side of finances, I’ll probably be able to save money on shoes by making an effort in spring, summer, and part of fall to go actually barefoot outside whenever possible. I could conduct my walks around my neighborhood just fine without footwear, and there’s a prairie in the nature park in front of my house that I could do my barefoot running in, so my shoes will be kept in one piece longer by limited warm-weather use.

Cons: A review cannot be a review, of course, without mentioning the pros and cons together. The cons are surprisingly few, and I would have to say they’re so insignificant that they shouldn’t have an impact on purchasing decisions.

As I mentioned previously there’s that uncomfortable adjustment phase that may come with the very first day of wearing the shoes, where the shoe fits so precisely that it exerts an uncomfortable amount of pressure on the toes, but again I’ve only experienced that phenomenon the first day and believe I have stretched out the material so as to have a looser fit since I’ve never experienced that problem again. Keep your nails groomed and everything should be fine. The tightness in the lower back I mentioned earlier is more of a weird sensation rather than something uncomfortable, so I would not count it as a con.

This may also be due to the adjustment phase, but the first or second time I went sprinting in my Sprints they gave my ankle a minor cut. It was so insignificant – or else I was really mentally involved in my running – that I did not notice until I got into the locker room after my workout. It wasn’t painful and the shoes hasn’t scratched me since (this happened over a month ago), so I again attribute it to not having stretched out the material sufficiently at the time. My KOSs are designed differently and I use them only for casual wear, not exercise, so I have not had any similar problems with that pair.

It is inherent in the design of the shoe, but I do not like the toes on my Sprints as much as I do my KOSs. Since KOSs actually cover the top of the feet my feet feel like they’re actually enclosed in something and my toes feel like they’re in a glove, but when I contrast this to my Sprints (which do not cover the top of the feet) it feels like the toes are only stubs and that I don’t have as much flexibility. However, the feeling disappears after taking a few steps, though in retrospect I am wishing now that I had originally purchased two pairs of KSOs.

Honestly these are the only three bad things I can say about these shoes. They’re simply too well made otherwise.

Conclusion: These are the best pairs of shoes I have ever owned in my life, and this is coming from a guy who used to dread going shoe shopping, as I could never find a pair I liked the appearance of or truly felt comfortable in. While I’ll make sure to have at least two pair of conventional shoes on hand to have the appropriate dress for situations where VFFs would be inappropriate, I definitely consider Vibrams as my favorite brand of shoes and will be a continued costumer of the company in the future.

As to whether or not you may want a pair for yourself will depend on your own habits, and values, but I have to say the pros are overwhelming and the cons so piddly that there’s little reason not to want a pair.

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