My saga with the Vibram FiveFingers Sprints began with one of my friends. My friend, who I will call "E," is a barefoot runner, meaning that he runs without shoes. But, he doesn't just run barefoot; he runs 15 to 20 miles per day barefoot! One day, I asked E about running barefoot and he regaled me with the benefits of running barefoot, particularly about how running barefoot compels one's body to correct its own gait and posture and how one's feet and legs instinctively adjust to the terrain. He went on to describe how running with shoes largely shields people from feeling the terrain and impact of the feet to the ground, which in turns separates us from the biofeedback that sends messages to our bodies to adjust our legs here, our feet there, and so on. As I listened to E, I found myself completely accepting what he was saying and how because of running barefoot his pelvis and knee issues had virtually disappeared. Having been plagued with foot issues of my own, my mind chewed on the concept of barefoot running. Thus, I resolved myself to start running and, particularly, attempt barefoot running.
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My first attempts at barefoot running happened shortly after that conversation. Initially, I found the sensations of barefoot running to be a stark contrast to shoe running; I felt every step, every pebble, and every gradient difference. My feet seemed to automatically adjust to each step, and I sensed myself running more on the mid- and front parts of my feet than on the heels. Then, the inevitable happened: one part of the sidewalk was higher than another part and my left foot clattered into the higher pavement, which resulted in a bone bruise. It took a few days for me to fully detect the pain, but I reasoned that though I enjoyed barefoot running, I wanted something that would protect my feet to some degree. That is when I remembered E mentioning Vibram FiveFingers, which led me to research for a vendor, find the cheapest price, and give them a try.
This review focuses on the Vibram FiveFingers Sprint model -- the model I purchased from TravelCountry.com for $50 plus shipping and handling. Many other vendors, including vibramfivefingers.com, sell the Sprint, KSO (or Keep Stuff Out), and Classic models at varying prices.
It is difficult to compare any Vibram FiveFingers product to the common athletic shoe because they differ in so many ways. Many of us can recognize most pairs of athletic shoes, such as sneakers, running shoes, and high-top basketball shoes by identifying certain features: soles of variable height and thickness; material that encases the toes and feet; some kind of foot-securing convention, such as laces or velcro straps; and innovations that claim to prevent foot torsion, pronation, supination, heel striking, ankle rolling, and so on. This general description includes almost all athletic shoe types out there. The Vibram FiveFingers Sprint model completely breaks from tradition footwear as it been realized over the past forty years: with separate encasements for each toe (!), two-millimeter flexible soles, and one Velcro-strap to secure these footcoverings, the Vibram FiveFingers Sprint are a rebellious departure from anything we have come to recognize as athletic footwear. Yet, as one may find when reading the blogs and reviews of the FiveFingers' most ardent supporters, all Vibram FiveFingers models are designed to aid walkers, trekkers, and runners to return to an even more traditional form of foot exertion: being barefoot.
Construction aside, to state it plainly, Vibram FiveFingers footcoverings look, for lack of a better word, strange. They do not resemble traditional shoes insofar as the toes are separate, there is no elevation or support, and the securing mechanisms that keep FiveFingers on one's feet are more akin to sandals. But, more crucially, FiveFingers Sprints make one's feet look simian or even frog-like; they may evoke jocular reactions or drawn-out stares from passers-by; and they may invite endless questions from people who are even remotely interested in them. In this, wearing Sprints, or any of the FiveFingers models, is an exercise in drawing attention. My advice: look straight ahead, don't look at your feet, and respond to any question with short, factual answers. Nonetheless, be prepared for whatever comment or misperception any person may have.
Sizing Issues (Please Read)
Before I ordered the Sprints, I navigated to vibramfivefingers.com and read about how to size my feet for the various FiveFingers models, which are manufactured and sized based on a Euro/Italian scale. Here are the instructions for sizing your feet as given at the Vibram website:
1) Stand with your heels flush against a flat vertical wall.
2) Slide a ruler under each foot and measure the distance from the wall to the tip of the longest toe.
3) Take the longer of the two foot measurements.
4) If the foot length varies more than 1/6 in., it will be difficult to get a precise fit for both feet.
5) If your second toe is more than 1/6 in. longer than your big toe, it may be difficult to get a precise fit.
Armed with this procedure, I sized me to a size 43, which is roughly an American mens' size 10.5. To be sure, I went to a local Sport Chalet to try on the Vibram FiveFingers for myself. Intending to buy the Classic model, I tried a pair of Classics on and they fit very well on my feet. But, when I navigated to TravelCountry.com, I found that they were selling Sprints (which are usually $5 more than Classics) at the same price as Classics. I had read that Sprints are versatile as water-sports footwear, so I ordered the Sprints at size 43.
When I received the Sprints, I tried them on and instantly discovered that they were too small. Why? The Vibram FiveFingers Sprint model is different from the Classic model in three crucial ways:
* The Sprint model has one velcro strap across the top of the foot to secure the footcovering to the foot
* Unlike the Classic model which has one drawstring behind the heel to secure the foot, the Sprint model has two velcro straps
* Most importantly, the heel of the Sprint model is more drawn toward the foot than the Classic model, which means that the Sprint forces the foot more forward than the Classic.
These three differences result in a sizing discrepancy that must be considered. In other words, when ordering the Sprint model, order one size larger. In fact, as many bloggers and message board posters have noted, a potential buyer should choose a size to fit their toes more than fit their feet; basically, choose a size that feels good on the toes. With the Sprints, even if you go a size larger, a consumer can simply tighten the back straps. Needless to say, I sent back the smaller pair for a pair that was one size larger.
Wearing the Sprints
Putting on Sprints is very much unlike putting on sneakers in that one has to align one's toes with each toe of the Sprint. I put the smallest toes in first, using my fingers to maintain spacing between each toe as I gingerly push the toes into their respective encasements. Next, I place my heel into the Sprint and mash my heel as far back as possible. Then, I secure the back straps to fit around my heel and then I secure the top strap to both keep my foot in the Sprint and as far back as possible. This is the fastest way I have found for putting on the Sprints.
The biggest advantage the Sprints have over mere barefoot walking and running is protection -- one gets the foot workout and flexion of barefoot life, but with a thin sole to protect the foot from dangers like hot concrete, stones, sticks, and metal and glass shards that are almost ubiquitous in urban and suburban settings. Sprints are like protective gloves for one's feet, though this also reveals the disadvantage of wearing Sprints over being barefoot; despite the thin sole and separated toe enclosures, outside sensations are still dampened. Granted, one can tell if one is walking on grass, pavement, or rocks, but the feedback is still somewhat shielded from the wearer. For me, I found that though the Sprints more closely approximated barefoot walking and running, I still could not feel everything, unlike the information many bloggers and (as I can tell) salespeople tried to market to me as a consumer. In this way, wearing Sprints is LIKE being barefoot, but it is truly NOT being barefoot.
Running with Sprints
As my friend described to me with barefoot running, running with the Sprints is a entirely different biomechanical experience from running with modern running shoes. Unlike with running shoes, Sprints convey almost all the impact and sensation of every footfall, so long strides, striking one's heels on the ground, and straight-legged ground impact (which are all normally dampened by running shoes) make each step in the Sprints jarring and uncomfortable. Therefore, when I started running in the Sprints, I focused on what I had read was the best running style for near-barefoot running: bent knees, mid-foot landings, and shorter strides.
My first few outings with the Sprints were pleasant enough: I engaged in short walk-run outings where I would run for a short distance and then walk for a short distance. These two-mile outings were my way of easing into the Sprints, as was advised by many bloggers out there. Understandably, the soles of my feet had to adapt to having almost no protection or support, but that is ostensibly the wonder of the Vibram FiveFingers: the more you run without arch support and cushioning, the more your foot muscles are strengthed and adapted to running. I found this to be absolutely true, though my foot muscles (like any underused muscle group) were often sore after a walk-run, but this was alleviated the more I exercised in the Sprints.
After a few times of walking and running, I decided to go on a 2.5-mile run without walking. For the first half of the run, I felt good: unlike running with my old running shoes, I did not have any back pain and my quadriceps felt limber and unstrained. However, soreness began to creep into my left calf as my legs adapted with life without the elevated heels of running shoes. Then, my right calf seized and I was limping to the finish. What happened?
The simple ways to adapt oneself to running in Sprints is to start slowly and stretch adequately, particularly the calves because the impact of barefoot and near-barefoot running is absorbed by the spring action of the foot muscles, flexion of the calves, and the redirection of energy as one bends one's knees. Conversely, running shoes absorb a lot of this impact, but still put unnatural stress on the plantar fascia (the tissue connecting the ball of the foot to the heel) and the knees, promote pronation and supination of the feet, and creates torsion on the ankles. In any case, running with FiveFingers employs a biomechanical approach that is remarkably divergent from running with running shoes.
Other Activities with Sprints
Vibram primarily designed their FiveFingers models for walking and trekking, but barefoot enthusiasts, especially runners, discovered that the FiveFingers design was adaptable to watersports, as well. The Sprints are specially designed for watersport use as the Velcro strap that crosses the top of the foot secures the Sprint in place underwater. Also, considering the flexibility of the sole, Sprints can be worn swimming for short distances and for reef exploration, unlike the Classic model which is secured to the foot using an elastic drawstring and fastener.
The Sprint model is a versatile footcovering that allows the wearer to trek both on land and in the water without fearing the loss of them to an unexpected wave or current. For more intensive outdoor activity that may introduce particulant matter into the footcovering itself, the KSO model would be the best model to buy; conversely, for general walking and light running, the Classic model is more than appropriate.
Vibram FiveFingers Sprints are a complete departure from what we have come to expect from footwear: there is little cushioning or support; the toes are separated; the soles are more flexible than most footwear; and one's walking and running style has to be somewhat overhauled to truly enjoy wearing Sprints. These aspects are the beautiful aspects of wearing Sprints in that you are compelled to return to what may be a simpler, more holistic form of locomotion that uses all of one's foot muscles as well as the legs and back muscles that are directly related to running. Sprints also afford the wearer protection from road hazards and temperature. In many ways, Sprints succeed in approximating barefoot locomotion without the detriments of barefoot locomotion. That said, because Vibram FiveFingers models like the Sprints attempt to approximate barefoot life, one has to accept less support, less cushioning, and a downright unusual look from an appearance standpoint; honestly, Sprints just look strange.
For me, I like the look and feel of Vibram FiveFingers Sprints. Though they are unusual compared to what society deems as "normal" footwear, there are tangible physical benefits to wearing them, namely stronger foot muscles and less wear on one's knees and back. They would fit in well on the trail, climbing rocks, on the beach, or on the marina boardwalk. One thing I will say is this: beware the addictive nature of walking with heels flat on the ground. In this way, there is a mental benefit, as well; like my friend E, I am returning to a way of walking and running that Western society has largely forgotten and shunned.
Note: if you would like to read the tips, tricks, and realities of near barefoot running I've discovered through research and personal experience, please read this article: http://www.epinions.com/content_5346074756.
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