Q&A: Are Vibram FiveFingers Right for You?

You may have seen people from time to time, wearing those odd looking “toe shoes,” called FiveFingers, with individual toe pockets. If you have not yet had the pleasure of owning a pair, you may have a lot of questions. Here is some information about them so you can make an educated decision about whether they would be right for you.

Q: Why are they called FiveFingers?

A: The style of shoe was invented in Italy. The designer convinced the Vibram company, who makes shoe soles for many other brands, into manufacturing the shoe. The word for “toe” is the same as for the word for “finger” in Italian. Since they are a bit like a glove for your feet, it is a just a clever play on words.

Q: What is good about having toe pockets?

A: After you have worn FiveFingers shoes for a while, you will notice something very interesting happening to your body. You will find that you walk differently and use your toes differently. You will gain seemingly “new” muscles in your toes, feet, ankles and calves. Your toes will spread out and you will use your toes more for balance and stability. For example, if you like to hike in the woods, you may walk over uneven terrain, walk on logs or even hop from rock to rock in a stream. You will find yourself curling your toes around the contours of obstacles and you will become very aware of what is under your feet. You will become as sure-footed as a mountain goat. The new mechanics of walking you will use will have a transformative effect on your body. You will become stronger and may even experience a relief of chronic back or knee pain. You may even start to feel odd wearing “regular” shoes, and feel like your toes are unnaturally constrained in normal shoes.

Q: Will they support my arches?

A: The short answer is no. Much advertising goes into pushing shoe features of comfort, arch support, and padding. There is also a huge business for shoe inserts and custom orthotics. Some people find this to be one big scam, and note that sometimes the first thing a podiatrist wants to talk about is selling you hundreds of dollars worth of custom orthotics, before they have even examined you. You can think of FiveFingers shoes as being like going barefoot, but with something akin to a second, super durable extra skin, to protect your feet from cuts and to give you extra traction. They are just a fraction of an inch thick and are made of durable material and rubber. Our bodies evolved to our current shape before shoes were invented. We are built to be barefoot. One of their models is called Bikila, and is named after a famous Ethiopian runner, Abebe Bikila, who won the Olympic Marathon barefooted. After you get used to wearing Fivefingers, your muscles will adapt and you won’t need the padding and arch supports of regular shoes.

Q: Can wearing them hurt me?

A: Actually, yes. You may have heard that Vibram was sued, because of the results of a study that showed that some new users ran in them and got stress fractures. You can take these results with a grain of salt though. Most of us, who are not trained runners, run badly. Most people pound their feet into the pavement when they run and don’t have good body mechanics. All that padding and support in traditional shoes does help reduce the damage we cause to ourselves with bad technique. If you run badly and run with FiveFingers or even barefoot, you can hurt yourself. Some professional athletes train in FiveFingers to help enforce proper technique. If you get Fivefingers, as the enclosed literature and information on their website suggests, wear them just a few hours a day at first and learn how to use proper movement techniques before you do full-scale workouts or running. Once you get used to them and the new way of walking or running, you may never want to take them off.

Q: Will my feet get wet or cold?

A: Maybe. They do have models that are waterproof, but most are not. If you are in a heavy rain or step in a creek or puddle, your feet will get wet. Spraying your shoes with a waterproofing spray, like you would use on jackets, helps them be more water resistant. You just probably won’t want to wear them in the snow.

Q: How do I make sure they fit right?

A: Whether you buy them in a brick-n-mortar store or online, you should at least try each model on in a store before purchase. Vibram usually has at least 15 model styles available at a time, with new ones coming out each season. Each model has slight differences in the fit. You may find that because of the shape of your particular feet, the toes might be too long or short on a particular model, or that you prefer speed laces over the velcro strap closures. About half of US shoe stores carry their shoes and you can find them in almost any shopping mall. They are fit in European sizes, measured in centimeters. Once you know your size and which kind you want, you can save a lot of money, by shopping for them online, at stores such as Groupon Coupons page for EastBay.

Q: They are so light and thin, will I cut my feet if I step on rocks or glass?

A: No. They are virtually indestructible. Walking on gravel is a bit disconcerting at first, but you will quickly get used to feeling exactly what is underfoot and actually may really learn to love the extra sensory input. For example, the vibrations you feel in your feet, driving a sports car while wearing FiveFingers makes the car feel more of an extension of your body, and can be quite fun.

So if you haven’t tried FiveFingers, go out and get yourself a pair soon. You may never want to wear regular shoes again.