After seeing the Virbram Fivefingers on Mark's Daily Apple and Theory to Practice, I decided to give them a try. So, I rode my bike out to the Kayak Shack and bought a pair yesterday. Here are my initial impressions...
They look nice. Just like the photos online. The sales clerk measures my foot and picks out a Sprint. First time, my toes all go in the wrong holes. After working it a little, toes go in.* First (R) fits perfect. Very comfortable. Then try a KSO (R) in one size larger. Feels okay, but probably too big. Decide to take Sprint and wear out of store.
These are very strange feeling compared to shoes--flat and not bouyant, but very light. I know they are supposed to feel like you don't have shoes on, but I wasn't expecting the effect to work quite so well. They aren't like wearing sandals. You can really feel the terrain under your foot. I would imagine they are uncomfortable on concrete for any long period.
With both on my feet, the left feels much snugger than the right and I can feel something in the left sole rubbing on my arch. This is a chronic problem with shoes--my left foot is bigger (same with my brother and mother!). While walking, the left is uncomfortable. However, I discovered that while running, the area that rubs is never an issue because of being up on the balls of your feet.
I wore them to ride my bike home from the Kayak Shack. The grips on my bike pedals didn't touch the Vibram soles, but they did touch my feet right through the soles. It hurt to pedal hard or stand. Very uncomfortable to ride a bike, and not stable feeling. Plus, my big toe almost got caught between the pedal and crankarm while riding. Definitely not recommended for biking.
That night, I took them to the gym and did a very short HIIT workout of 10 minutes. It was not what I was expecting at all. My heart rate barely got up, and I couldn't feel my glutes or thighs being used at all. The entire run was on my balls and calfs. As the website indicates, you really do run differently in Fivefingers. It's hard not to fall back into landing on the heel, but when you do, you know it: bound, bound, bound, slap-lurch; bound, bound, slap-lurch. Mostly, the lateral aspects of my calfs got worked, which I expect is from gripping with all the toes rather than rolling from heel to big toe, as in shoes.
One big difference from running in shoes was a lack of pain in shins and knees. Part of my motivation in getting the Fivefingers was the recent development of shin splints and ongoing knee pain. My thought was that switching back and forth between my normal New Balance 1224 and the Fivefingers might help alleviate the shin splints. It's hard to say. I was once told by an NCAA x-country coach that my shin splints were caused from over-development of my calfs. If that's correct, then it seems like running on my calfs would make the problem worse. But can you argue with an absence of pain? Maybe the Fivefingers are helping me utilize my calfs correctly?
As for knee pain, again, can you argue with the absence of pain? The pounding braking motion I could feel when my heels did come down first (slap-lurch) suggests to me that heel-running is putting a lot more force through your joints with every stride. I can easily believe that a better use of body mechanics could help my knees.
Recommendations from the store owner and the Fivefingers website are for easing into running to avoid hurting previously underutilized parts of your foot. The only foot pain I had was a little place at the top of my right foot, and it appeared after the biking, not the running. I often go barefoot indoors, and in summer wear huaraches everywhere, so it could be that my feet are already better acclimated.
I'm definitely going to try the Fivefingers again. They are a little awkward feeling and hard to get used to. I ran a little pigeon-toed, I think. And I'm not sure how useful they are for fitness/weight-loss if you don't get your heart rate up or use your larger lower body muscles. Too efficient? We shall see.
While at the gym, I also used a stair-climber and did an upper body free-weight routine. The Fivefingers lacked traction on smooth plastic surfaces but were otherwise fine. Wearing them with light nylon running shorts made me feel like I was lifting in the nude, but I kind of liked it. Ancient Greece, here I come!
I'm not sure if I'm going to try them for a lower body routine or not. Since their traction isn't as good as shoes, I'm not entirely comfortable with the thought of using them on hack sleds, etc.
When my brother saw them, he said the Fivefingers were "hippy shoes." As a huarache wearer and general skeptic of modernity, I can live with that.
* The secret to getting these on your feet easily and swiftly is to start with the big toe and work down to the little toe. Once the first three toes go in, the 4th and little slide in automatically.