Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Gear Review - Preliminary - Vibram Five Fingers KSO, and Rob's Big Barefoot Experiment

You have probably seen the 'footprints' poem somewhere in your lifetime, and perhaps the picture on the poem looked something like this:

The above picture does come from the beach, but these foot prints were not made with my bare feet, but rather with my bare feet in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers' KSO's.

Vibram has been in the footwear business for nearly 75 years, and actually has a somewhat tragic and interesting early history. Vitale Bramani, an Italian inventor, created an innovative climbing sole after six of his friends died on a trip into the Alps. He was spurred on to create a new climbing sole after it was discover that the deaths were in part due to inadequate equipment. Bramani's invention was patented and launched, backed by money provided by Leopoldo Pirelli - yes, THAT Pirelli, the tire baron.

Today, Vibram enjoys a foothold on the quality footwear sole market, and most of the leading brands of trail shoes come equipped with a Vibram sole.

The story of the Vibram Five Fingers shoe... er.... slipper.... er..... thingy.... well, I guess you can't really classify these! They are really like a bad ass injinji sock with some protection between you and the road, track and trail. They were designed with performance in mind, and they have found a great deal of functionality in different activities. In fact, some retailers classify them as 'water shoes' for activities like boating and kayaking.

So how did I get roped into purchasing a pair of Vibram Five Fingers KSOs? First, I read the book 'Born to Run' by Chris McDougall, and have, at the very least, been willing to give the barefoot running and minimalist approach a shot. I am a proponent of the 'Don't knock it, until you rock it' in most things in life, and am really open to throwing stuff on the scrap heap if it doesn't work. I also had my interest pinged by one of the folks I met at a trail race in early August, and as the conversations were had, I was intrigued by trail friend Paul's tales of barefooting on the trails. This was even before reading the book, so synchronicity must have been working it's magic!

I won't launch into a deconstruction of McDougall's book, or the alleged benefits of barefoot and minimalist running, but I will say that if you are interested in learning more, google 'Barefoot Running' or check out the blog by Barefoot Ted ( ). BFT is one of the 'characters' in McDougall's book, so it is really a nice addition to one's learning curve if they read the book and want to learn more about going barefoot.

In any event, at this point I have been recreational in my use of the KSO's, mostly because I haven't been able to train because of my various injuries that have been taking entirely too long to heal, but I have been doing a great deal of walking, and a little running, in the KSOs.

Here are a few profile shots:

(held with a strap that fastens with velcro, strap cradles the back of the foot and is adjustable via the velcro.)

(tops are VERY breathable, toes are protected with a thin layer of the Vibram sole material.)

(The sole is simple, but extremely flexible. It is great for protecting the bottom of the foot if barefooting on roads or trails, provide protection from glass or rock, but it doesn't limit the foot from learning how to work.)

(Vibrams in action, beach and rocks)

My initial thoughts about the Vibrams was that I definitely need to work harder at sharpening my form, which is exactly one of the reasons people espouse running barefoot. I have become a notorious heel striker, and it only takes couple crashes on the heel to realize you should be landing midfoot and toe. Biomechanics aside, as the video shows, I was able to rock hop and not feet too exposed. I might not recommend it for racing gnarly rock laden courses, but one certainly becomes MUCH more vigilant about where their foot is falling when their are obstacles to be negotiated. In fact, one of the instant realizations was that occasionally I have used my trail shoes as more of a battering ram in some tricky terrain. More awareness of the trail, greater concentration on form and foot fall, and quicker turnover have already been observed.

Two key elements to consider about the Vibrams are FIT and CONDITIONING:

FIT - I must have spent 30 minutes at the retailer where I bought my pair of KSOs, simply trying on different sizes. They are intended to fit like a glove, and when I initially made my purchase and tried them on in the car, I had slight buyer's remorse because they almost fit too tight. Coincidentally, the pair I tried on, and was about to buy was actually too big, and if it wasn't for a sales person coming over, sporting the Vibrams on her feet, I probably would have bought the wrong size. After about three weeks they have stretched to be comfortably snug, and I am glad I decided on the smaller size.

The bottom line is that you should resist the urge to buy online and find a retailer where you can get an accurate feel for the fit. One of my other trail friends, kZ, told me that both pairs he tried just didn't fit right for him, which is another reason why you should go brick and mortar for this piece of gear.

CONDITIONING - If you do decide to give barefooting a whirl, make sure you take it slow and train yourself. Even before I decided to try barefoot and minimalist running, I realized how most of the time if I don't need to be wearing shoes I typically don't. With that said, you can't just drop the shoes and resume normal training. Much like building a base of mileage, one needs to work on strengthening all the muscle groups in the legs that are in demand when running barefoot. I took my Vibrams out for a two mile spin the other day and really over did it, I ran faster than I have in a long time, which is amazing after being out for almost three weeks with an injury, but I also felt it the next day in my calves. I am still looking at the training plans, and HIGHLY suggest doing the same.

So this is just the first step. So far I have tried them on road and trail, and have been happy with the performance and the potential. I am a little unsure how one would run an ultra in these things, but with the economy they provide, I can see the possibilities.

I am trying to heal fast, and hopefully I'll be able to add more to this gear testing and overall experience.

Could I one day be Barefoot Rob?

Tough, considering the New England Winter is just around the corner! :-)

Here's to Naked Feet and Happy Trails!