Those Weird Toe Shoes

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Vibram FiveFingers Bikila Running Shoes

A couple of weeks ago I got a pair of Vibram Fivefingers Bikila running shoes and already the questions are coming in from friends and strangers on the trail. "Are they comfortable?" "Are they any good?" "Are they worth it?" I can't answer strangers' questions here* but I can at least write down my stock answers to avoid re-answering the same questions over and over from my friends.

So, first off, I'm no expert, certainly no great runner, and I've only had these things for a few weeks. But here's what I think I know.

For a couple hundred thousand years, people ran around barefoot. And then for the recent few thousand years runners have worn simple strips of leather and such -- which lasted even into the twentieth century. It's only been in the last 50 years or so that science has gotten in on athletic shoes and those shoes have gotten more and more engineered, spongier, and cushier. Which is great -- science is awesome and comfy shoes are comfy. But… there's maybe been some evidence in the last few years that comfy shoes let you run in a way -- with your heel striking the ground first -- that's fine in the short term (the comfy shoes absorb the heel impact that if you were barefoot would having you screaming in a minute) but that can cause injuries and problems in the long term. When you land on your heel, the argument goes, the impact that isn't absorbed by the comfy shoe is passed along up your leg to the knee, which isn't that great at handling that kind of jarring. If you run with the front of your foot hitting the group first, the impact is handled more by your calf muscles acting as a kind of big spring.

Shaun has been yammering at me about this kind of stuff for years, and even more so recently after he listened to the audiobook of Born to Run, so it was a few years ago when I switched up my stride and started running more on the front of my foot. It took a little getting used to, but it wasn't a very long transition. I did this, though, wearing the same old generic Nike running shoes I'd always worn.

A month ago, Erica and I were at REI and there was a big display of all the varieties of Fivefingers and I figured I should get a pair. Three things attracted me to these weird shoes. 1) I was already running in the way that these shoes are supposed to be ideal for -- the theory goes that if you're running with a forefoot strike, you don't need or want all of the cushioning of a standard running shoe, and in fact, why carry around that weight. 2) I have wide feet. I wore sandals, and went barefoot through a lot of my teens and early twenties partly because it was hard to find comfortable shoes. As an adult, I've discovered 4E width shoes, which are awesome. But the fact that Fivefingers let your toes spread out where they will, rather than jamming them all together in a narrow little shoe, was very attractive. 3) They're weird! Why not?

So how has it been? The advice from everyone -- the Vibram site, Shaun, people in the shoe store -- was to take it really slow and easy at first. Run a mile at most, a couple times a week, in the new shoes. Well, I didn't need to do that, because I had already made the running adjustment years ago that most people are making as they switch to this style of shoe. So I ran a couple of miles, a couple of days in a row. And ouch! I've had calf soreness, which I expected, and have also had some heel pain that I'm worried might be a harbinger of my old nemesis plantar fasciitis. Maybe I am already used to the style, but it's still an adjustment to go from padding to almost-no-padding. So now I'm taking it as slow as I really should have from the start.

Are they comfortable? They're not comfy, as I've using the word above, but once I get them on (getting all the toes in the right slots can be a bit tricky, especially when I'm sleepy in the morning) they hardly feel like I'm wearing anything at all.

Should you get a pair? I'm not going to tell you that you should (and especially not until I get this heel pain under control) -- if you're a heel-strike runner it's going to be a big adjustment. And, as I've discovered, even if you're a fore- or mid-foot strike runner, it's still an adjustement. And all for the eventual benefit of… having strangers stare at your weird shoes and ask "how are those, anyway?"

* Well, I suppose I could print out cards with the URL of this post and hand them out when asked.