Since I switched to Newton running shoes last year, I've been really keen on the "less is more" concept of running footwear. Previous to the Newtons, I was wearing various stability shoes from New Balance and other manufacturers. But as I increased my mileage, I started getting plantar fasciitis. So I went to the local running store, got a proper gait analysis, and learned two things. Firstly, I am a neutral runner. Secondly, I am a heel striker. I switched to Newton and have not had any problems since.
For those of you not familair with Newton Running, the company makes running shoes that promote forefoot running through the use of 4 lugs molded accross the soles under the front half of the midfoot. In short, the lugs help promote a mid foot strike, which is thought to be more efficient and less stressful on the body. These two points happen to be a large part of the basis for barefoot running.
Yet make no mistake, they are still running shoes. Though Newtons are closer to racing flats in terms of upper construction and weight, there is plenty of cushioning and energy return from the soles, and you don't feel the road any more than you would with any other running shoe. It's a shoe that borrows heavily from the mechanics of barefoot running.
Two things inititially attracted me to Vibram 5 Fingers. The first was reading "Born To Run" by Christopher McDougall. The book spends a lot of time examining the Tarahumara, a Mexican Indian tribe who are arguably the most naturally gifted distance runners in the world. The Tarahumara run for days through the mountains and valleys in the Mexican state of Chihuahua with little more than primitive sandals or even less.
Secondly, my balance isn't the greatest. At the gym I am hopeless when it comes to doing one legged shoulder presses or anything similar. I've sprained my right ankle 3 times over the last 10 years and it's never been the same. Per the Vibram website and other sources, one of the benefits of running barefoot is access to a level of strength and stability not normally gained through running in traditional shoes. I'll try anything.
There are a number of 5 Fingers models, ranging from the "Classic" which is a very minimally constructed slip-on to the "Flow" which includes a thin neoprene panel over the top of the foot and a compression strap. I chose the the "Spint", which is open on the top, but includes the compression strap. The primary difference between all the models is the construction of the upper shoe (staps, etc.). All models have the same thin molded rubber sole and individual toe pockets.
The "Classic" has very little to it with the open top. Basically a pair of aqua shoes with toe pockets.
My initial reaction? When surface conditions are good the 5 Fingers are great but when the surface got a little rough things got a little painful. Once I got them on (it can be a little tough to line up your toes into the pockets), they where immediately comfortable. Though Injinji makes a wide range of socks with toe pockets, my gut preference was to go sockless. And it was a good choice - there was no point of contact between the shoe and my foot where I felt anything contrary to a comfortable, glove-like fit. When I started to run, I felt a whole new kind of connection between my feet and the ground, which was a pretty amazing experience. Problems only arose when I stepped on a small rock or had to run through some loose gravel. The thin soles offer little cushion and protection against the ground, and that hurt. The Vibram website does seemingly and/or broadly address this by stating that like in any major change of running footwear, easing in to use is recommended. I have no doubt my feet will get tougher as I continue to use them.
I am writing this 4 hours after I ran. My feet do have a few hot-spots, but they are not blisters. Rather, I have a few sore spots borne from stepping on a particularly sharp rock or something. That said, I feel absolutely zero muscle fatigue. My legs are as fresh as they where before I ran.
Stylistically speaking, Vibram 5 Fingers are very contextual. When I bought them, I wore them out of the store. On the way home I had to stop by the post office, and I got quite a few stares. When I was running, however, I had a few other runners call out something to the effect of "Oh cool, how are those Vibrams?". So either you look like a super dork or a super dedicated runner, depending on ones perception.
So I'm not sure I'll be wearing these much outside of training. Even wearing them to a pre-race expo or post-race BBQ would be a little bit of a stretch for me - I've warn either flip flops or Keen sandals almost every day since I moved to California, and they will continue to suit that purpose. And I'm afraid that if I wore them anywhere outside of running I would be guilty of "that guy" syndrome.
But I understand why these things are so damn popular (I had to search all over for my size and and had to go with a different color choice than I would have preferred), because the truly are a whole new footwear experience. But even like Newtons, they are specialist footwear and thus not for everyone. My short term plan is to use them once a week, and work up to 5 mile sessions. But I'll do all my other running in the Newtons.
My natural pace was slower than that of running shoes. But I think that was more my mind and less my body - because running in Vibrams is definitely a whole new experience. In fact, my second mile was the "perfect mile". I had the wind to my back, a good surface, good tunes on the Ipod, and felt great. Runners live for miles like that.
I'll report back in a few weeks.