I’m generally of the belief that if humans were meant to run long distances, we would have evolved jet-propulsion systems on the soles of our feet.
Oh, I know that the human foot is a marvel of engineering and is actually quite well designed for ambulation of the slow or fast variety. But that doesn’t convince me that we’re supposed to run at times other than when we’re being chased by a horde of screaming teenage Twilight fans.
I am not a born runner. I didn’t develop the habit until I was about twenty-two, and even then it took me several years to work up to my current abilities. One of the things that helped motivate me to keep at it was the shoes—I relied on cushy, springy, comfortable sneakers designed to make me feel as if I were jogging on a bed of marshmallows. In addition to my discomfort with less-than-supportive footwear, I’ve also repeatedly described myself as “indoorsy,” and I am not fond of coming into contact with actual nature during my workouts, whether that nature manifests as wind, rain, cold temperatures, hot temperatures, gravel, dirt, or bugs.
All in all, I am not terribly tough. I like my runs comfortable, quiet, distraction-free, and mostly indoors. So when I received a pair of Vibram FiveFingers  running shoes, the funky foot-mittens that simulate running barefoot, I was skeptical. I understand why podiatrists say we run best when we’re barefoot, and although I can’t totally understand it, I can certainly appreciate the point of view that running barefoot brings its proponents more closely in touch with the ground, but that still didn’t make me excited to do my next workout caveman-style.
Besides what I thought was obvious—running barefoot would hurt—the thing that scared me most about the shoes was the possibility that they would expose me as a workout fraud …what if I could run only in standard running shoes? What if trying to run “naturally” exposed me for the out-of-shape lazypants I really was? I worked hard to build up my endurance, and although I’m no marathoner and probably never will be, I didn’t want the FiveFingers shoes to reveal that my success was due entirely to a footwear fluke.
Pounding the Pavement
The first time I took the FiveFingers out for a spin, I figured I’d start with an easy run of just a few miles so that if I got tired or sore, I could bow out without admitting total defeat. After all, running barefoot couldn’t be comfortable, could it? I expected that the constant pounding would bother my feet. I expected that I’d feel less aerodynamic. I expected that I’d go crawling back to my Nikes in shame.
But none of those things happened. As I took my first hesitant steps in the FiveFingers, I instantly understood how traditional running shoes alter our stride, because I felt a bit clumsy and uncoordinated, as if unsure whether I should land heel-toe or toe-heel. But once I found my rhythm, I settled into my run and found that my joints felt fine, my feet were energized, and darn it if I wasn’t more in tune with the ground. Or the treadmill. Whatever.
I’m not going to lie and say that running barefoot or barefoot-style is a breeze. It feels like running. Whereas I usually space out and watch some trash TV to pass the time while I work out, it was nearly impossible to disconnect my mind from what my body was doing. What surprised me was that I didn’t really mind it. I enjoyed running barefoot, and the best part was that I not only felt the difference in the moment, but I also felt the difference in my body afterward. The day after a barefoot run, my calves would ache just enough to remind me that I’d been working out, and I could feel every muscle in my feet. For a regular exerciser, it’s great to feel the burn and remember that you pushed yourself. I’d been running for years, but it wasn’t until I ran barefoot that I felt like a real runner.
When you’re wearing the FiveFingers, it’s easier to feel your toes spread out and grip the floor and feel your foot as it moves through walking and running movements. It’s actually pretty cool from a mechanical standpoint. I guess all those podiatrists and exercise physiologists were right.
Having to shove my fat sausage toes into little individual toe pockets took some getting used to, and if I’m not moving in my shoes, my pinky toe gets a little cramped. Also, the shoes make me look like I have outsize Hobbit feet. But these are small complaints, and the FiveFingers are otherwise very comfortable. The only real fault I found with the shoe is that they don’t accommodate the sensor I usually wear to track my mileage. Typically, the sensor sits in a compartment in the heel of my shoe; wearing the FiveFingers, I have no way to use the pedometer system I’ve become so attached to. Le sigh.
The FiveFingers are pretty darn versatile; I also wear mine to do some stair work at a local park, to do some light hiking, and sometimes just running errands. They’re also great for yoga or Pilates (who likes to go barefoot on icky mats?), and if I did water sports, canoeing, or kayaking, they’re good for those activities, too. At the very least, it’s fun to have a pair of shoes that doesn’t require the right outfit, doesn’t necessitate a day of recovery afterward, and makes you feel like you’re really using your feet and body the way nature intended. I’ve become incredibly attached to my FiveFingers. I’m still not totally convinced that humans are meant to run, but if I have to, these are the shoes I want to do it in.
The Lab Rat is dedicated to testing curious and dubious beauty, fitness, food, and lifestyle trends. If you’ve ever wondered about whether a particular pop culture fad is worth trying or buying, email The Lab Rat at Allison@realgirlsmedia.com .
Updated February 4, 2011