If you run, you have an opinion on Vibram Five Fingers. Has there been anything more divisive in the running community in recent Memory? The message board of my local runners’ group, North Brooklyn Runners, is regularly taken over by pissing contests between heel/ forefoot strikers, all convinced that their way is the only way. Vibrams are a godsend/ they’re an abomination/ they will cure all your running problems and injuries/ they are so hideously dorky that they may cause the human race to stop breeding and go extinct. I can’t promise to deliver some elusive truth on the subject as we all run for different reasons with different goals—indeed, one of the reasons we love running is that it’s as specific and intimate and personal as love itself—but here’s my take.
Like many newbies, I was introduced to ultrarunning and minimalist footwear by Christopher McDougall’s excellent Born To Run. We value good running books for their power to inspire us to run. Born To Run is powerful and exciting enough that I wanted to throw the book down when I finished it and go run 50 miles in my boxer shorts in January in the middle of the night. Obviously, that would have been a horrible mistake. While it’s not as obvious, snagging a pair of Five Fingers after a lifetime of running in ‘traditional’ running shoes and banging out an eighteen miler would be an equally horrible mistake.
Vibrams are clearly a radical departure from what we understand as a running shoe. As such, they’re an invaluable tool but I don’t think they are the end-all, be-all Greatest Of All Time. I grew up a barefoot kid, was a drunk for nearly twenty years and comfort has always been my guide—my shoes come off the minute I walk in the door and my pants immediately after—so I didn’t have to transition from a lifetime of running in huge-heeled running shoes. I know my experience is atypical, though, so if you are just starting to run barefoot (or “barefoot”) GO SLOW. The more time you take to transition to the barefoot style of running, the less likely you are to injure yourself and the more likely you are to stick with it.
Use your Five Fingers wisely. Twice, I’ve started trail races in Vibrams and switched to more traditional shoes halfway through. The first race started on beautiful, dusty single-track… and transitioned quickly to jeep trails strewn with golf-ball sized rocks that had me hopping and cursing for miles. The trail on the second race was riddled with roots and kicking a couple of those in a row just about ruined my day. Hell, I was following a guy in Five Fingers at Virgil Crest and every time I heard the soft ‘thunk’ of him kicking a root, I winced on his behalf. Though I love the unfettered feeling of running through the woods in Vibrams, ironically, I use them more for roadrunning. Though most people think of them as a trail shoe, I find them to be a better road shoe. On trails I don’t know or trails I know to be rocky, I default to New Balance MT-101s or, my old standby, Montrail’s Mountain Masochist, which is a far cry from a barefoot or even a minimalist shoe.
Still, my Vibrams and real, nothing-on-my-feet, actual barefoot running very much inform how I run and why I run. I run to feel free. And running in Mexico, down dusty streets, narrow jungle paths, on and off the beach, in and out of the surf, wearing only a pair of flyweight shorts, I feel gloriously animal, almost completely naked, free of all human concerns. So I wholeheartedly recommend investing time, effort and maybe even a little money in barefoot or ‘barefoot’ running. It’s good for you, like patting a smelly old dog is good for you, and it’s also good for your running. Now, even when running in my heavier trail shoes, I occasionally accidentally sneak up on people. I used to sound like an elephant falling down the stairs. Just match them to your purpose and to the terrain you’re running. And for God’s sake, do not wear them when you are not running—you make us all look bad.