Barefoot Running Debate and Going On a Forefoot Strike

Bill Waterson's Calvin and Suzie argue the merits of running barefoot vs. using a motion-control running shoe with heel lift. After doing some more research, I’ve come to a rather obvious conclusion: barefoot running is a cause for much debate in the running world.

Ridiculous fad?

The truth “they” don’t want you to know?

A good method to strengthen otherwise under-utilized muscles for otherwise shod runners?

Does the science back up the claims of the barefoot proponents/cushioned and motion control running shoe proponents?

Even within the barefoot running community, there is debate. Minimalist shoe or truly barefoot? Do you use a minimalist shoe as an intermediate step to barefoot running, or should you begin your transition right off the bat by beginning a new regimen barefoot, supplementing with a minimalist shoe as needed?

A lot of people on both sides of the various debates get pretty worked up about it. Not sure why, other than that’s just part of our modern, troll-friendly Internet culture. As for me, it all strikes me as kind of silly – the getting bent out of shape part, that is. Ultimately, all that really matters is what works for you. If you use standard running shoes and can accomplish your goals without too many problems or issues, then no problem, right?

Of course there are many people out there who feel that way. It’s just that those people tend not to weigh in on discussion forums, blog posts, etc.

But at the end of the day, that’s all I’m really interested in, as far as barefoot running goes: what works for me and what doesn’t.

Barefoot: It Works (For Me)

Initially, the primary argument for barefoot running/minimalist running shoes struck a chord with my intuition, the first time I came across it: whether you believe it was the design work of god(s) or Mother Nature and evolution – I fall into the latter camp, as you might have guessed – the human foot is built to work without shoes. The idea of running barefoot seemed absurd, at first, to be quite honest. But, this made a certain amount of sense.

Furthermore, science aside, there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence to support this, not the least of which is that we are born barefoot. Then there is the fact that except for the last couple thousand years, we as a species have been living many thousands of years (or just 5,000 if you’re of a Biblical Creationist bent). There are still aboriginal populations that get along just fine without shoes.

So why do I need poofy, heel-lifted and-cushioned, motion-controlled running shoes?

Still, in spite of my early interest in Vibram Fivefingers, I probably never would have actually tried running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe were it not for my experiences as an English teacher in Thailand. Then it became clear to me that shoes with a raised heel were wrecking my feet. I quit wearing them and teaching in them, and my foot aches and pains went away. I didn’t need to be a medical specialist or scientist to make the obvious conclusion: this is what worked for me.

Other people wear traditional dress shoes and don’t have problems. I did. Now that I’m experimenting with minimalist running shoes, I’m noticing that the problems I used to always have in the past when I began a running regimen – sore knees and shin splints – haven’t occurred so far.

Oh, there are other aches and pains; one can’t expect to begin a running program when overweight and out of shape without some discomfort. No pain, no gain; if it were that easy, everyone would do it. Insert your favorite athletic training cliché here. But so far it’s mostly just the been-sitting-on-my-ass-now-I’m-not kind of soreness. The good kind of pain, that actually feels kinda good, in a sensual kind of way.

Show me an athlete, and I’ll show you a closet masochist.

Anyway, this is what is working for me. It may not work for someone else. It may not work for you. Some people like coffee. Others don’t like the way it makes them jittery, and stick with tea. You don’t see coffee and tea drinkers arguing with and trolling each other online. You don’t see coffee company spokesman going off about that silly tea-drinking hipster fad.

Or maybe they do, and I just haven’t been paying attention. But assuming the former, I’m not sure why running should be any different. But then, again, ultimately I don’t really care; I’m finding what works for me.

Up On My Toes: Experimenting with a Forefoot Strike

Speaking of which, last night I tried experimenting with a forefoot strike. I decided to repeat the first week of the noob program from Runner’s World, at least for another day, while I tried this. After two days of rest I still had a mild but nagging pain in my left foot, in my arch on the anterior side. I didn’t think much of it – as noted above, pains are to be expected. But while researching more about barefoot running, minimalist shoes and form this past weekend, I became curious to try jogging with a forefoot strike.

A more or less midfoot or not-quite-heel strike seemed to be working for me; would a forefoot work as good? Better? Less? It certainly feels unnatural, but I was curious.

So last night I did 10 intervals – 1 minute jogging, 2 minutes walking. Notably, I had almost no pain in my left foot. An occasional twinge, usually during the walking interval, but that was it. And no knee pain or shin pain, either. Even my tibialis anterior didn’t check in with any complaints or otherwise crap out by the last interval, either, which really surprised me.


Today, the mild pain in the arch of my left foot is still there, but not any worse. I’ll need to be careful of this going forward, but it seems like the forefoot strike didn’t aggravate it. Of course my ankles and Achilles are plenty sore (the good kind of pain), but then that’s apparently part and parcel with learning a forefoot strike and beginning a barefoot/minimalist shoe running program. Surprisingly my calves themselves aren’t sore; I guess the last year of cycling and walking around Thailand and Viet Nam without shoes did some good.

Or maybe I just haven’t run long enough yet using a forefoot strike. We’ll see.

Take That, Hipsters: Escalating the Footwear War

Jeff Chappell's hairy legs and hobbit feet in his homemade huaraches made from an Invisible Shoe kit.I finally got a hole punch and made my minimalist sandals from the kit I ordered from Invisible Shoe. The 4mm Vibram is nice and grippy; even the relatively smooth side upon which the foot rests grips the sole of the foot pretty well. It’s surface actually consists of tiny little grooves to help. These grooves will likely be funk magnets down the road, but it’s nothing a scrubbing with a brush and some antibacterial soap wouldn’t solve (I used to have to do this with my faithful Tevas a couple times a year).

Getting the lacing dialed in so that it’s perfectly comfortable is going to take a bit of experimenting, but so far, I dig these sandals. These provide much more sensitivity than my Vibram Fivefinger KSO Treks, as this Fivefinger model sports a thin EVA midsole. These sandals are comparable in terms of sensitivity to the earlier models of Vibram Fivefingers – the KSO, the Sprint and the Classic – that only have 3.5mm of Vibram rubber and no midsole of any kind.

And unlike the Vibram Fivefingers, these sandals are not hot boxes; they are obviously much cooler in hot weather. The black Vibram sole does get warm, though, when walking in the sun, but nothing like a pair of Fivefingers.

Eventually I’ll be trying these while running, but for now it’s cool enough at night for the Fivefingers. By July, when even temperatures in the wee hours of the morning can be in the high 70s (Fahrenheit), I hope to have the lacing dialed in. But I’ll post a full review of my sandals from Invisible Shoe one day soon.

In the meantime, how long until the hipsters discover these? Will it take three years, like the Vibram Fivefingers? One wonders.

And Thus Running (almost) Barefoot

My hairy legs and hobbit feet, encased in Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks.So after most of the last year or so of not wearing shoes – teaching English sans shoes, doing a lot of walking and hiking in flipflops, Vibram Fivefingers or actually barefoot, etc. – I decided it was time to try barefoot running in the Fivefingers.

I’m no stranger to running, but we’ve been estranged, running and I, for some time; I haven’t run regularly (i.e., at all) since 2004. That summer after having completed AIDS/Lifecycle 3, I decided to supplement my 200+ miles a week on the bike with running (not having run regularly since college). I had it in the back of my mind back then that I wanted to try and do an Olympic-distance triathalon the following year. That never happened; too many distractions, such as moving across the country and training to be a whitewater rafting guide.

I kept up my cycling through all that, but the running tapered back off; eventually everything tapered off (except the spread of my gut) when my pusher got me hooked on World of Warcraft. Anyway, now that I’ve been getting back into cycling again, having used a bicycle to get around Bien Hoa, Viet Nam and Sai Gon, I thought what the hell, might as well start hoofing it again as well. I lost a lot of weight in my year abroad without even trying; not too keen on gaining it back now that I’ve returned to the land of cheese and saturated fat.

I’m pretty much starting from scratch though, even though I’ve logged a lot of miles on my feet over the past year. While I can’t claim to be in great shape by even the fattest (heh) stretch of the definition, I’m not a complete blob at the moment. So it’s been a happy surprise that after a week of very basic training, I’m a lot less sore than I expected to be. As I type this, my ankles are indeed pretty sore and my knees let me know about it when I walk up or down stairs, but it’s the good kind of sore: the-lactic-acid-buildup-because-you’ve-been-kicking-ass kind of sore, not the you-went-too-hard-because-you’re-a-noob-and-hurt-yourself kind of sore.

I know, I know, it’s actually not the lactic acid that causes the muscle soreness, but you know what I mean.

No Pain, No Gain: Tough it Out, Walk it Off

Ah, I can hear the echoes of athletic coaches past.

Of course ankle soreness is to be expected with new barefoot (or nearly barefoot) runners. The range of motion one experiences in the ankles is reportedly much greater barefoot than when shod in poofy-soled running shoes, so those little muscles and ligaments are relatively weak. After a few days of jogging on them – let’s be honest kids, I’ve been jogging, not running, to begin with – those little muscles and ligaments are, as the kids say, “all like – ‘Dude WTF?'”

While I anticipated this, I also expected the usual aches and pains that one experiences when one starts running after a long sedentary period of ass-sitting-upon (having been through this several times before). But having run three days this past week, the next day other than some lactic-acid-type soreness in the lower quads, the only soreness has been in my ankles.

Where’s the really sore knees and achy patellas? Where’s the shin splints? So far they’ve been non-existent. It’s all the more amazing to me because I’ve been jogging on pavement wearing my Vibram Fivefingers (the relatively non-stinky leather ones, fortunately). Granted I’ve been going really light – 10 sets of intervals of one minute of running with two minutes of walking, but still – no shin splints? I always get shin splints when I start running. I was all prepared with bags of frozen peas in the freezer, but so far – knocks on wood – I haven’t needed them.

The tibialis anterior, aka the meh muscle in my left leg that is always slacking. I would have thought my heels would be sore as well – I haven’t been running on the balls of my feet, but just trying to jog with a natural stride, landing somewhere between a heel and a mid-foot strike and rolling forward onto the balls of the feet and pushing off. I’ve found the best way is to not think too much about it, and let the foot do what Mother Nature designed it to do. I do try and make sure my knew is slightly bent though when my foot strikes the ground; this seems to be make a big difference.

I do still have problems with tightness and weakness in the long, skinny muscle that runs along the outside front of my lower left leg, but I’ve always had that problem. At the moment it’s as sore as my ankles. And shall we get technical for a moment? You know we are kids; nerdy is as nerdy does: I refer to the tibialis anterior muscle, which dorkiflexes dorsiflexes the foot.

Even when I was a young man back in high school, whenever I would start running in the summer in anticipation of football season, tightness in this muscle would bother me. I have to spend extra time warming it up before I run, even when I’m in shape and conditioned to it. Not sure why; I’ve never had a problem with this muscle in the other leg. No amount of conditioning ever seems to get this little ‘meh’-scle up to par with his peers. Meh.

Upon Further Re-dork-iflexion

Anyway, in light of this remarkably pain-free (re)start to running, I think whatever tiny, lingering doubts about running barefoot/pseudo barefoot I may have still harbored are hereby officially dispelled.

Of course, the trick is, now, not to get over excited and go out and blow the doors off one day because I feel good, and consequently injure myself or develop the aforementioned shin splints. In any event, I think I’m going to keep recording my progress here, just for self motivational purposes.

And in case anybody is wondering, I’m using the noob beginner’s program at Runner’s World to get back into the run of things. There is also a program over there for people who want to begin barefoot running, but I figure after the past year my feet are as conditioned as they are going to get by walking and hiking around; it’s time to hit the pavement, so to speak.

Maybe some day I’ll actually even condition the soles of my feet to run truly barefoot, and dispense completely with the Fivefingers or any other sort of foot cover. Maybe I’ll grow a shaggy beard then too.

In the meantime, to avoid the hotboxes that are Vibram Fivefingers when the Middle American summer truly sets in – I figure I’ve got about three more weeks before even running at night will prove too hot to wear them – I’ve invested in a pair of of self-made running sandals. I could have gathered the materials myself, but I’m lazy, so I ordered a kit from Invisible Shoe; it arrived earlier this week.

Once I get these made and log some miles in them, look for a review.

Hipper Than You in my Vibram Fivefingers

A Review of Vibram Fivefingers from Someone Who Wore Them before They Were Hipster Chic

My Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks: over a year old and going strong.

I got my first pair of Vibram FiveFingers back in 2009, as I was interested in barefoot walking and running. They were a pair of gray KSOs. While I was interested in the concept of minimalist shoes, I wasn’t ready to hit the trailhead in nothing but the skin I was born in from the ankle down.

Wearing them casually out and about town invariably drew stares and comments. I was not unused to this sort of thing, as someone that used to sport a fare amount of metal in his face; piercings still draw stares here in the Midwest, even now. And it was good practice for living abroad in Southeast Asia this past year. There Caucasian expats inevitable draw stares, once one gets outside the cosmopolitan centers of cities like Bangkok or Sai Gon – but that’s another subject altogether.

I’ve since returned to the United States only to find that Vibram Fivefingers are actually trendy. I really didn’t believe this at first. I didn’t believe because it meant that I was, for once and probably the only time in my life, a fashion template. I was fashion alpha dog; I was ahead of the fashion curve.

This simply doesn’t happen to Jeff Chappell. One is more likely to witness Bigfoot – riding the Loch Ness Monster.

It couldn’t happen … until now.

Before last Friday I had been told by friends that there had been other recent sightings of Vibram Fivefingers. One acquaintance, a long time participant in the fitness industry who frequents the same local coffee shop I do, recently assured me that he returned from a fitness expo this past winter and all sorts of people were wearing them. “It was the first time I had seen anyone but you wearing them,” he said.

I still didn’t really believe it. But then last Friday, while sitting in the aforementioned coffee shop, I saw a hipster kid, skinny-leg emo jeans and all, iPad, the whole nine yards, wearing a pair of Vibram KSOs. I happened to be wearing my Vibram KSO Treks at the time.

No way, I thought to myself. It was the actually the first time I had seen anyone else wearing Vibram Fivefingers. I guess I’m going to have to get an iPhone, iPad or iSomething now.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The terms Vibram Fivefingers drive a lot of traffic to this site. So I guess it’s time for the official Gecko’s Bark review of the, er, shoe.

Going Barefoot or Pseudo Barefoot: Not for the Faint of Feet

Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks: stylish and comfy in kangaroo skin.First off, if you’re not serious about barefoot walking, running, hiking, etc. – if you think you absolutely need ankle support, arch support, springy soles, etc. (and I’m not necessarily saying you don’t) – then Vibram Fivefingers aren’t for you. Even if you’re a fashion whore, a slave to what’s hip – they are not for you. In truth, they look goofy, in spite of their apparent ascendancy to hipsterism. They feel goofy, too (although you quickly get used to it). They’re hot – hot as in temperature. And they can stink like only synthetic material can stink (which is why I like my leather KSO Treks).

But it’s more than that. If you’ve worn shoes all your life, and then suddenly go out and walk around all day or go for a run in Vibram Fivefingers, you’re probably going to be in some discomfort, if not outright pain. You might even injure yourself. The muscles in your feet are not used to going shoeless – it’s like riding a bike 200 miles a week for months on end and then deciding to go run 10 miles. Yeah, both use your quadriceps, but in different ways, and it’s not the same (I know this for a fact, heh).

Of course, this is the same sort of caveat you’ll find on any barefoot running Website. So, having said all that, I can say this: I love my Vibram Fivefingers. I love being barefoot, or some reasonable facsimile thereof; as you can read in the previous post, teaching English in Thailand showed me that shoes are bullshit. Your feet aren’t meant to be covered in a half inch of foam rubber with your heel suspended higher than your toes.

You may not be convinced, but I know it in my heart of hearts, brain of brains, and, er. foot of feet? Feet of feet? It is true and truth – for me.

Good Foot Covers, But Not a Vibram-Covered Panacea

As for the Vibram Fivefingers, they are the next best thing to being barefoot. Think gloves for your feet. You can wear them in places that require you to wear shoes – but they are not shoes. They provide protection for the bottom of your foot and your toes, but let your foot work like Mother Nature and natural selection – or God in His infinite wisdom, if you’re of that bent – intended. They are comfortable – with some caveats – once you get used to having something between your toes. This does take a bit of getting used to.

Fivefinger KSO toes: a year and no delamination to speak of. One caveat is that they are hot boxes. If it is warm out, your feet will be hot. Granted, they aren’t really any more hot than most athletic shoes or hiking boots, to be sure. But they aren’t as cool as one might think; for me summer days are too hot for Vibram Fivefingers, except perhaps for hikes in the woods when I need more protection than sandals provide. But spring and autumn? Perfect for sporting the Fivefingers.

Another caveat: with the exception of the KSO Treks, which are kangaroo leather uppers, Vibram Fivefingers are all man-made materials: Vibram rubber soles and nylon uppers. Good news for hardcore vegans, yes. But as anyone who has ever worn polyester- or nylon-based technical clothing knows – bike shorts, jerseys, Duofold t-shirts, polypro undies, etc. – man-made materials tend to be funk magnets when you sweat (which is why wool socks and cycling jerseys kick ass).

But, you can toss the Vibram Fivefingers (with the exception of the leather KSO Treks) in the washer and they dry quickly. I used to scrub the inside of my KSO’s and my Flow’s with some anti-bacterial soap and a toothbrush before tossing them in the wash, just to make sure the stinky bacteria would be removed. You could also do what raft guides and kayakers do to sometimes get rid of river funk: soak ’em in something to kill the funk. There are commercial preparations, but I used to use a little white vinegar and water in a bucket sometimes, rather than throwing the Fivefingers in the washing machine.

All three pairs I’ve had held up well; I’ve had no issues with workmanship or manufacturing quality. In fact I wore my original KSOs so much the rubber began to get smooth on the heal and ball of the foot, but the rest of them were still holding strong.

But How Are They Out On the Trail?

Most of the Vibram Fivefingers models have siped Vibram rubber of varying thicknesses; the originals have 3.5mm of TC1 Vibram. Siped means they have a bunch of tiny grooves cut into the rubber to make them more grippy; if you flex the sole of the Fivefingers, you can see these individual grooves.

My hairy legs and hobbit feet, encased in Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks.Some of the other models have slightly thicker soles – 4mm – with little lugs on them. My KSO Treks, for example, as well as the Treksport. These two models also sport an EVA midsole to provide you with a bit more protection for the bottom of the foot from sharp rocks and whatnot.

As noted above, I’ve been the proud owner of three models of the Vibram Fivefingers since 2009, the KSOs, the Flow, and now the KSO Treks. The KSO has that original siped sole; the Flow – the black ones, which is what I had – have a siped rubber as well, but something Vibram calls Idogrip. The KSO Treks, as mentioned, and as you can see here, have lugs that almost look like a hiking boot sole. I’ve hiked on local trails in all three pairs, in spring, summer, and autumn, in dry and muddy conditions.

The siped rubber soles of both the KSOs and the Flow grip better than would think, even on wet slickrock. On wet grass or a muddy trail, they are slippery – about what you’d expect. But then in really muddy, slippery conditions, even heavy, lugged hiking boots are going to slip and slide, so you better have the trek poles handy, or at least a good walking stick. The lugged KSO Treks do provide a bit more grip in slippery conditions; the difference is most noticeable when climbing moderately wet ground – not quite muddy but still moist and potentially slippery; those little lugs actually do help.

Of course the best thing about barefoot hiking is that you can actually use your toes for stability; when you are going downhill a pair of Vibram Fivefingers shine for this very reason. On a moderately wet trail I’d say you even have more control in a pair of Fivefingers than you do even with heavily lugged boots because your can actually spread your toes the way Mother Nature intended and grip the ground.

As for protecting the feet, it’s true that barefooting or wearing something like the Fivefingers, you have to be more aware of where you are placing your feet. They are not the steel-toed, lugged, Goretexed tanks that you may be used to hiking in. But then you should be more aware of where you put your feet anyway, to my mind.

And assuming that you’ve conditioned your feet and ankles to handle barefoot hiking, then Vibram Fivefingers provide adequate protection; the models with an EVA midsole even more so. Occasionally you might find a sharp rock or root underfoot, but again, this is why you have to be a bit more aware of where you are putting your feet.

On the other hand, I feel like there is little chance of my twisting an ankle – less so than in thick-soled hiking boots or athletic sandals – because I’m so aware of the ground (not to mention closer to it) when I hike in my Vibram Fivefingers. Even in my KSO Treks, with the lugs and the EVA midsoles, my feet flex naturally – I can grip with my toes – and I can feel what’s underneath them.

Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks: lugged soles for your hiking pleasure. If you’re worried about protecting your shins and ankles from brambles and whatnot, or bugs for that matter, of course you can always wear gaters with your Fivefingers. Now some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, but I need the support of ankle-hugging hiking boots to lug around my backpack and a week’s worth of gear.” Well, if you subscribe to that line of thinking, then no, barefoot hiking isn’t for you. To my mind, if you are carrying around so much weight that you can’t adequately carry it without extra support, then you shouldn’t be lugging around that much weight; you’re asking to injure yourself. But that’s my own personal, humble opinion; to each his own.

Along those lines, if you’re a minimalist weight weenie who counts every gram, the Fivefingers are obviously very light – to find anything lighter you’d have to wear a pair of huaraches, or just go truly barefoot. Furthermore, while the Fivefingers are hot boxes – but then show me a pair of hiking boots that aren’t – you can just walk through a stream or creak and cool off your tootsies, and you don’t even have to take them off. Unlike your heavy-duty hiking boots, Fivefingers dry quickly.

Another bonus for bird and wildlife watchers and photographers: you can be much more quiet slinking through the underbrush than you can with hiking boots. On a hard surface you can even be ninja quiet.

But What About Running?

I confess I’m not much of a runner. Cycling and hiking are much more my things. Every so often I get running bug up my butt and get earnest about cross training and running, but I never seem to stick with it. What little running I’ve done in Fivefingers has been trail running, and pretty much what I’ve said about hiking in them holds true for running.

Of course, if you’ve worn shoes all your life, you shouldn’t just go out one day and try and do your usual five miler barefoot or in minimalist shoes like Fivefingers. There’s a lot more info out there on the actual technique of barefoot running and training.

But I will offer one personal observation. I have walked a lot in my Vibram Fivefingers, and one thing I’ve noticed, either walking or running on a flat surface, is that I still tend to heel strike, but it’s not the pronounced heel strike that I tended to employ when wearing typical athletic shoes. In fact it’s almost a midsole strike, rolling through the midsole onto the balls of my feet, before pushing off with my toes. Barefoot running enthusiasts will tell you too that you should keep your knee bent slightly when your foot strikes; this helps absorb shock. It seems that this came naturally to me, but honestly I can’t say whether it was truly instinctive and natural or I started doing this consciously because I read about it. Either way, *now* it’s a matter of instinct.

If you’re converting to barefoot running, there will be a time when you forget yourself and stomp down on your heel as if you were still wearing your Nikes or New Balance running shoes. It will hurt. You’ll only do this once. I promise.

But What About Socks?

Injinji toe socks. If you must wear your Fivefingers with socks ... Well, what about them? Some people wear toe socks with their Vibram Fivefingers. But then they are designed to fit snug, like a glove. For me, it’s hard to imagine wearing toe socks, no matter how thin, and squeezing my toes into my Fivefingers. I suppose you could get them a half size big, if socks were important to you. And they would reduce the funk factor in warm weather. Myself, I’ve always worn them au naturel. And my leather KSO Treks remain relatively funk free, as leather shoes tend to be.

Socks with Fivefingers would be nice in cold weather I suppose. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found that anything beyond 50 degrees Fahrenheit – 10 degrees Celsius – starts getting too chilly for Fivefingers, even the Fivefingers Flow with their neoprene uppers. However concrete and pavement tends to feel colder than earth; there were a few times I sported my Flows for a late autumn afternoon day hike, and they were comfortable once I got out on the trail. But walking to the coffee shop from my house would get chilly quickly, after a block or two, in the same temperature.

A Fivefinger Postscript

Okay, there you go. Everything I have to say in 2,000-some words. I challenge you to find a much more comprehensive, personal review of Vibram Fivefingers. You’ve had the long of it, here’s the short of it.

Assuming you like barefoot/minimalist shoe walking/hiking/running and are conditioned for it: Vibram Fivefingers are good three seasons out of the year, although they are hot boxes (and funk boxes) in warm weather. They provide adequate protection for the bottoms of your feet and your precious piggies (toes) while still letting your foot perform naturally – as if you were barefoot. They are comfortable though, once you get used to having fabric between your toes; the leather KSO Treks feel downright awesome. They hold up well and are easy to clean/de funkify.

They also look funky; most models sport some questionable if not butt-ugly color combos. Get used to stares and being the subject of conversation. But then if you’re interested in barefoot hiking or running, being unconventional obviously doesn’t worry you too much – so go ahead and take the plunge and get yourself a pair of Vibram Fivefingers.


One last thing – these foot covers won’t fit everyone; even Vibram admits this on their site. According to other reviews I’ve read, folks who have a long middle toe – the one next to the big toe – have problems getting a comfortable fit.

Myself, I’ve got a good quarter inch gap between my big toe and the next toe, and my feet tend to be kind of wide compared to their length, if buying normal shoes is any indication. I’ve also busted my pinky toes on both feet so many times, there is no third joint in them; they are basically blobs of bone. Yet my Vibram Fivefingers fit well enough and are comfy. Even now they can take a moment or two to get them on, but once on, they feel great.

I should note though that the thick neoprene of my Flows meant that my blobby pinky toes never quite got comfortable, even after I had worn them a few months.

I would suggest trying several different pairs of Vibram Fivefingers on in a store before you buy. Even different models can vary slightly; my KSO Treks I got in a size smaller than my KSOs. Despite being leather, they haven’t really stretched out noticeably.

Teaching Barefoot: Shoes are Bunkum

These foot bones were not meant to be covered in a half inch of foam rubber bullshit. One of the things I learned while living abroad is that shoes are bullshit; gods/goddess(es), God, Mother Nature, etc. didn’t intend for us to walk around with a half inch of rubber and foam on our feet, but rather, barefoot – or some reasonable facsimile thereof.

I had suspected that this might be the case some time ago; I began flirting with barefoot walking, running and Vibram Fivefingers back in 2009 (before every other hipster began sporting them, dammit). But my experience in Thailand convinced me once and for all of the baldfaced – er, rather, barefoot truth of this. But then, this didn’t really have so much to do with living in Southeast Asia as it did with the fact that I had decided to pursue teaching as a career – a career that involves being on one’s feet for hours at a time. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am not cut out for a career in teaching English as a second language, but it did lead me to this inexorable conclusion: shoes = bullshit.

This barefoot eureka moment might not have occurred, however, if I had not traveled to Southeast Asia to pursue said teaching. In Thailand it is perfectly acceptable for a teacher in a public school to remove one’s shoes. It’s not typical, but acceptable. Students are expected to remove their shoes before they enter the classroom, and of course one removes one’s shoes before entering someone’s home anywhere in Southeast Asia; it’s considered extremely rude otherwise. This is often the case with temples too, so bear that in mind if you’re Wat-hopping around Southeast Asia. It’s one of the customs that we would do well to adopt here in the West; regardless of spiritual beliefs, it does keep one’s floor cleaner.

But teachers in a Thai public school are not expected/asked to remove their shoes in the classroom. In fact none of the other Thai teachers that I observed at Anuban Suphanburi removed their shoes when teaching. When I began teaching in May of last year, I wore dress shoes that I had brought with me from the States.

Harry S. Truman's haberdashery. Before he was a politician, he was a haberdasher. And no, I didn't buy my shoes here.These were shoes that I had originally bought back when I was a full-time journalist and had to occasionally don a corporate monkey suit. A haberdasher assured me that he sold these shoes to many who were often on their feet frequently in the course of their occupations and needed comfortable shoes. In fact he had sold a pair to a police detective who came back in a week later to buy another pair because they were so comfortable, reportedly for “chasing down perps.” Right …

By the end of a week of teaching, my feet were a mess, full of aches and pains, metatarsals groaning under duress. It would take a good twenty-four hours for them to recover. After a month or so of this, there came a day when, during lunch, I took of my shoes to massage my barking howling dogs.

Barefoot Epiphany in Suphanburi: Ditching the Dress Shoes

When it came time to put them back on for an afternoon class, I just didn’t have the heart to put my shoes back on. I asked my Thai teacher if it were acceptable for me not to wear shoes in the classroom, since the students didn’t – it took a few minutes to explain that I understood that as a teacher I wasn’t expected to remove my shoes, but that I, in point of fact, wanted to remove my shoes. Once this point was conveyed, she assured me that it was perfectly acceptable for me to remove my shoes before entering the classroom – once again emphasizing that I didn’t have to.

So I taught my sixth grade English class in my stocking feet, as my mother would have called it (to this day if I venture outside wearing socks and no shoes, I hear her voice in my head: “What are you doing walking around outside in your stocking feet!?” Miss you still, Mom). It was a physical and mental epiphany. My feet were still tired and sore – I had been on my feet for three straight hours that morning with my first grade class, clad in those leather pied-a-iron maidens sold to me by Men’s Wearhouse. But they felt so much better being clad only microfiber dress socks (one of the good things sold to me by the Men’s Wearhouse haberdasher).

In fact, by the end of that hour, much of the soreness in my feet was gone, even though I had been standing or walking on them on a hardwood floor that entire time. I quickly resolved to get some “dress slippers” that I had seen a few government functionaries wearing at various offices where they house the various hoops that one must jump through as a foreigner to get a work permit. These are basically patent-leather sandals: flat soles, open heel, with a bit of leather over the toe.

Leather Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks: too hot for Southeast Asia; just right for early spring in the American MidWest.I began wearing these to work, and removing them outside the classroom whenever I set foot inside one. I had thought about wearing my Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks (pictured here on my actual right and left foot Sunday afternoon); their suede leather makes the dressy enough, and as for their goofy appearance, well, us farang look and act extremely goofy as it is, the locals probably wouldn’t take much notice of Fivefingers aside from the fact that I was a farang. Besides, even these leather Fivefingers are hot boxes – much too hot for Southeast Asia.

Anyway, within a week, all of the aches and pains disappeared from my feet; my dogs no longer howled or even barked. Over the course of the ensuring weeks, this continued to be the case. Sure, they might be a bit fatigued, especially by Friday, but there were no aches or pains – nary a growl from my now happy dogs.

Make of this what you will. Your mileage may vary; this is what has worked for me. As I say, I’ve been working toward this conclusion for some time now. This experience sealed the deal: shoes are bad for your feet; end of story.

Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

After eight long, hard years, ye olde Tevas finally gave out ... I lost an old and dear friend Saturday evening – no, more than a friend; in some ways we were more intimate than lovers.

Tevas, Tevas, Tevas … I’ve never had anyone in my life like you. You will be missed like no other. Indeed, others came and went, but you were always there for me. Even when you got stuck in the closet for an entire season while I dallied with Chacos, you didn’t complain. You merely waited patiently, seemingly knowing that in the end my fascination with the chunky sole and that stupid toe strap was just a passing fancy — that in the end, I would come back to you. We were never apart after that – unless you count the occasional wool sock.

We trod up and down mountains together; we traipsed across valleys together. The soil of more than a few nations and two continents – not to mention states in America – is ground into your soles. You’ve been with me as I traipsed through remote deserts and primeval forests; you’ve been with me as I navigated the insanity of Bangkok late at night. You have bathed in two oceans, a number of lakes and rivers, and countless streams, creeks and puddles – not to mention my blood on more than one occasion.

I still can’t believe you’re gone. One minute we’re walking along a Biên Hòa street to get some bánh xèo; the next, with a subtle, quiet ripping of fabric you are gone. It wasn’t a complete surprise; I knew your time was growing short. Your treads were worn through long ago and your Velcro has been ratty and tattered for even longer. Nevertheless I didn’t like to think about it; I looked the other way. After all, you’ve always been there for me when I wanted you, lo these past eight years; I guess I just assumed you always would be.

Alas poor Tevas, I hardly knew ye. Which isn't true, I've had them for 8 years.Okay, it’s silly to get this sentimental over a pair of sandals. But in all seriousness, my Tevas have been one of the best pieces of gear I’ve ever owned. Only my Asolo hiking boots can claim to have lasted me longer – but they were specialists, only used for snowfall and the occasional hardcore trek; they didn’t see the eight years of high mileage (except for the Chaco summer) that the Tevas endured. Not sure what I’m gonna do now for everyday footwear. I could go native and sport cheap flip flops. But the thing about my Tevas was that they could go casual for a walk down the street, or they could go hardcore for a four-day trek.

Alas poor Tevas; I hardly knew ye.

Maybe my Vibram Fivefingers will get the every-day nod, now that the cool* season is here (like I need to give people here another reason to stare, lulz). That’s the thing about replacing the Tevas with other Tevas. I’ve gradually been phasing out my shoes with thick soles and heels — i.e., flirting with barefooting, as it were — and it seems Teva has gone in the other direction, which is a shame. They are great footwear, if mine were any indication.

*not actually cool, but rather an absence of f**king hot.

“The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground”

Um, it seems that people with 30 percent body fat should still be careful while running on a treadmill, as they can still injure tiny little structures in their feet through overzealous [tag]running[/tag] on said [tag]treadmill[/tag].

Dammit. Now I’ve been forced to use the goof-ass elliptical machine along with the stationary bike for my aerobic workouts during the week. The [tag]elliptical machine[/tag] is actually great for getting a no-impact workout, but it’s just so … strange. At least with a stationary bike or a treadmill, you are using the same muscles that you would use outside, in the same way, more or less. Yes, it is easier than the real thing, but it’s in the ball park. But the elliptical machine is just … I don’t know … unique unto itself, I guess. It feels so odd, I suppose, because there is no real-world correlation, with the possible exception of bounding across the moon or some other low-gravity orb. Since I don’t have an opportunity to do that very often, I would rather use the treadmill in lieu of running outside.

But, this is what I get for making a classic mistake. I felt good, so even though I’m out of shape and overweight, I hit it hard, and here I am. I’ve done it before; I have little doubt I that will do it again in the future. At first I thought I was suffering good ole plantar fasciitis. I’m familiar with this malady from my bartending days, and the current symptoms in my left foot—the same one that suffered the fasciitis back in the day—were similar.

But the pain this time occurs in the lateral plantar fascia, just behind the balls of my little toe and the one next to it, when I walk around, as opposed to in front of the heel. Further poking and prodding revealed that the actual apparent point of injury is between the balls of my little toe and the one next to it, as opposed to the area behind them. By the way, I figured that out while massaging my foot with a golf ball—as I say, I’ve been through all this before, so I’m familiar with this lovely little trick. Even if you don’t have foot problems, it feels so freakin’ great on sore or tired feet.

The first few days after I did whatever it is I did to my foot on the treadmill, it was just like plantar fasciitis: it would hurt the worst in the morning, until I stretched out my foot, and I could still walk/jog on it, and once it was warmed up, it would stop hurting altogether—classic symptoms, except, as I mentioned above, the pain wasn’t at the base, or the front of, my heel, where it typically occurs in ye olde [tag]plantar fasciitis[/tag]. And the last few days I’ve noticed that it hurts the least upon waking in the morning (or this afternoon, in the case of today).

So what might it be? I don’t know. Stress fracture? Some manner of soft tissue injury? It’s not a sprain of some sort; of that I’m sure. I’m all too familiar with those symptoms as well. I suppose since I have insurance for the time being, I should see a doctor, but that would be such a pain in the butt, and the odds are I’ll be told what I already know: rest, ice, NSAIDS, etc. With the exception of the NSAIDS, which never seem to do me much good for these types of injuries, I’ll stick with the elliptical trainer and the ice, and see how it progresses. I hope in a few weeks I’ll be able to return to the treadmill, and eventually take it outside. If not, then we’ll go the professional orthopedic/podiatric route, my foot and I.

But during my research on foot injuries and running—I’m a nerd, I’m injured, and have the Internet at my disposal, gods help me—I came across some interesting data on [tag]running barefoot[/tag] as it relates to foot and ankle injuries. It struck a cord, because I’ve noticed that when I walk around the house barefoot, the pain in my foot is less, which seems counterintuitive.

But then I’ve had the same experience when I’ve torn up my ankles on various occasions; there’s less discomfort once I’m off the crutches/couch when I’m walking around barefoot (albeit with an ankle wrap or brace), as opposed to wearing athletic shoes. And I’ve always been intrigued by runners that compete barefoot—the Ethiopian distance runners, Zola Budd, the Raramuri people of Northern Mexico, etc.

I admit that the logic that barefoot runners espouse has always made sense to me, even though until now, it’s never occurred to me that perhaps I should try it. The foot, by design (we won’t get into whether it’s intelligent design or evolution, but you can perhaps guess on which side of the debate I land), is made to run on, so why not run on it? Wrapping it up in thick padding just makes it less stable. You don’t wrap up your hands in thick padding unless it is extremely cold; at most you cover them with the bare minimum necessary to provide more grip/protect the skin from sharp edges, etc. So why do that with your foot?

It seems that in populations that frequently run barefoot, there is considerably less frequency of foot, ankle and other orthopedic problems. Here in the United States and other first-world countries where we’re running with the most advanced athletic shoes that can be made, injuries and the instance of problems like plantar fasciitis remains relatively high.

Here is one scientific paper on injuries and running barefoot that piqued my interest; here is a review and bit of a counterpoint to that paper. These are just two examples; an Internet search reveals more if you find yourself interested, not to mention the usual glut of passionate-yet-biased information on barefoot running, both pro and con. Then of course, there is the living stereotype of a barefoot running proponent, Barefoot Ken Bob. Check out the YouTube video; he most assuredly kicks butt. Although I suppose he won’t be scoring a shoe sponsorship anytime soon.

I’ll be the first to admit to skepticism when it comes to tossing around statistics, scientific studies and shaggy old guys running barefoot; nevertheless, having an open mind I must also admit that there seems to have been enough real research done that I can’t help but wonder if the barefoot running people are onto something—not to mention the fact that they are regularly running marathons and whatnot these days.

Not my actual left foot.In any event, I used this to justify buying some new gear: a pair of Vibram Fivefingers. It’s going to be a while before I can actually get out on a trail and do a day-hike or run with them, even at a slow jog, thanks to my presently banged-up foot. But I like the way they felt walking around the store, as well as my front yard. It’s the next best thing to being barefoot.

It is a strange feeling to have something between all of your toes, but not unpleasant. One thing I’ve noticed already just from jogging around barefoot and in these, um, “shoes,” is that I tended to naturally correct my stride and avoid heel striking—and I’ve always been a big heel-strike runner, even when I’m in shape and running a lot. I’m not sure if it’s a biomechanical thing, or instinctive—full-on heel striking when running barefoot just seems like an obviously bad idea—or some combination of things, but it definitely makes me aware of my stride and foot strike, and that seems to keep me from getting sloppy, I suppose.

It will be interesting to see if that holds true over a distance longer than the circumference of my yard. Assuming that my foot continues to improve, I hope that in a few weeks I’ll be able to at least do some short walks around the local park in the [tag]Vibram Fivefingers[/tag], or maybe wear them out disc golfing or something. Of course a full report shall be forthcoming forthwith.

Oh, and I will be wearing these out and about in public, you can bet on it. I’ve always been fashion incompetent, why stop now?

And shouldn’t it be Vibram Fivetoes?