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Running lightly on the earth in minimalist shoes, part II

A novice runner’s detailed review of Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes

There were many reviews on the internet about Vibram FF KSO shoes, but few reports from novices like me — and women. Non-runners, family, friends, old people, young people, and strangers have asked me many questions about my shoes when I wear them. Strangers stared at them. Furthermore, some relatives had never heard of these shoes and thought my shoes were a joke. Therefore, I decided to write this detailed review.

Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes

Side view

Side view

The experience:  Day one wearing Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes

When I finally acquired my new shoes from See Jane Run (where they were selling like hotcakes), I was glad to ditch the aqua shoes. Since the aqua shoes were made of neoprene, my feet sweated during my runs and the neoprene was not designed to wick the moisture from feet. (See the previous post A novice runner’s thoughts on barefoot running and minimalist shoes where I describe running in aqua shoes — to get a taste of running in minimalist footwear).

On day 16 of my running program, I switched to wearing Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes. (I alternate my running days with cross-training days, when I usually go barefoot for non-running activities.)  I ran 2.75 miles at Berkeley Marina, on flat surfaces to break them in.  I felt soreness on calves afterward — not uncomfortable, they just felt tighter and more worked out. As expected, the soles of the shoe were a vast improvement on my aqua shoes. They were denser, but still relatively thin. They allowed me to feel the texture of the ground, and roll on the balls of my foot comfortably.

They were breathable and felt great for running. Soon after the run, I changed to slip-on shoes to air out my sweaty feet and the KSOs. They are comfy for me for running, but not for lounging. Also, on a cool or cold day, my feet tend to get cold in them if I am not engaged in exercise.

A recent run

On Saturday, April 23 at dusk, I ran five miles slowly in hilly Tilden park with views overlooking San Francisco, the bay, and the sunset. It was run day 19, and day four running in new Vibram FiveFingers shoes. (Note: On a previous five-mile run in Tilden, the shoes started rubbing on the inner, middle sides  of my feet, halfway through the run. I got mild blisters.) On this April 23 run, I made the strap looser to compensate for foot swelling and felt no discomfort whatsoever. To prevent blisters on long runs, runner Barefoot Ted wore Injinji socks.

The spouse left me in dust as usual, to run to end of trail and back to meet the grazing cows. The slow run in nature was beautiful. The forest smelled fresh and earthy, and the rolling green hills made me feel peaceful. Large, dark birds of prey were out plucking small animals off the ground.  My new shoes felt great and helped me, my feet, legs feel stronger! The husband too ran in his new KSO shoes — but longer, eight miles and enjoyed them.

Soles

Benefits

I bought these shoes for my workout and because the scientific research in the aforementioned websites and articles say that the conventional running shoes, with the thick heel and technical features do not necessarily prevent injury. Plus, the shoes are versatile and can be used for other fitness activities. I also personally don’t have a history of foot problems and prefer low shoes.

This past week, I noticed improvements in my other exercises as a result, I believe, of strengthening my feet with minimalist shoes. During “balance challenge” exercises like one leg balances with weights, and the warrior three pose in Vinyasa yoga, I am able to hold a steadier position. I noticed the grip of my foot and my arch feel stronger in these positions (versus the time prior to running in minimalist shoes). The skin on the bottom of my feet became thicker, specifically on the ball area. It has felt exhilarating to run in thin shoes, free my toes for a work out, and feel more of a connection to the ground.

Other benefits from my experience:

  • My senses open up more than with other shoes
  • My feet and arches feel stronger
  • For me, it feels like riding a bike versus an SUV
  • I feel more present when I work out barefoot or minimalist shoes because it encourages consciousness about feeling the ground, not landing in a way that hurts me, and looking out for stepping in glass, pollution, etc.

My future goals

  • I hope to enter my first run this year. Since I am a slow, novice runner, I would like to enter a 5k  for fun, and perhaps to join and support my friend, colleague, and cancer survivor Tita Loreta in a race to benefit cancer research.
  • I hope to work up to barefoot running on the grass or a track.

Shopping tips

  • If you are interested in buying the FiveFingers, look at the chart on the Vibram website to determine which model is right for you and your particular sports.
  • Click on “Size and fit” at the bottom of this webpage for instructions on measuring your feet for a good fit.
  • Be sure to find the right size for your specific model shoe.  Important: not all model shoes have the same size charts! (When I went to REI to try different models on, the staff did not inform me of this.)  Consult with each model’s size chart before trying on shoes.

New models
If you are in no hurry to buy the shoes and can afford to spend more money, you may want to wait for the new models of the shoes. According to the fan site birthdayshoes.com (see photos of the new models in different colors on this site), “Rumors put the suggested retail price at $100” for the new FiveFingers Bikila model, designed specifically for running. (When I purchased my KSOs, the retail price was $85, on sale for about $68  at the See Jane Run store, during their anniversary sale.) The new Bikila model is apparently named after the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, who ran the 1960 Summer Olympics marathon barefoot and won.

The original Bikila. "Running without shoes, Bikila, an Imperial Guardsman in Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie's court, pulls ahead in the 1960 Rome marathon." Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Via: Time.com

Vibram CEO Tony Post reviewed the Bikila.  I found product descriptions, specs, and photos of the new Bikila and new Speed models on the New Zealand Vibram site. (The new models did not appear yet on the US site at the time this article was published.) The new models were built on a “new platform,” different from the previous models. Post said the Bikila should start “hitting the first stores in late April.” However, the New Zealand site says these new models will be released in June.

New Vibram FiveFingers Bikila shoes in gray. Via: birthdayshoes.com

New Vibram FiveFingers Bikila in blue. Via: birthdayshoes.com

How to transition to Vibram FiveFingers

There are no instructions that came with my shoes on how to transition. Prior to buying the shoes, I recommend doing as many indoor and outdoor activities with bare feet. Here are some important tips on how to transition from your old shoes to the FiveFingers on the Vibram website, and from coach Michael Sandler, author of Barefoot Running, a former professional cyclist and skater, who “has coached both cycling and professional running teams.” In his article, Sandler describes “ways in which our feet are weak” and “how to get strong for FiveFingers.” (I recognized the condition of my previously wimpy feet in his descriptions– from formerly wearing traditional sport shoes.) These important articles must be read before one’s first workout with the new shoes. Enjoy!

******

Updates 

(as of 4/1/2012)

May 8, 2010
It was day 24 of my running program and day nine wearing KSOs. I ran five miles on the Nimitz trail in the Tilden park hills. (Like the previous Saturday, two-thirds into run, the toes on my left foot got tingly. The feeling went away before the finish.) I realized that this feeling happened every time I ran up two hills toward the end of the run, and started lazily dragging my left foot close to the ground. When I adjusted my use and lifted my left foot more when running up hills, the tingly-numb feeling went away. Since I have been wearing non-cushioned shoes, I found I have been able to feel when my form was bad immediately and correct it right away.

May 21, 2010
The new VFF Bikila model is available online for pre-order at See Jane Run and REI.

November 2010
My husband and I ran the half-marathon portion of the Bangkok marathon, Thailand in our VFF KSO shoes. We met and conversed with Thai runners on the course who were curious about our shoes, which they had never seen before!

April 2011
I bought a pair of silver-green Bikila VFFs to replace my KSOs, which now have holes in them from lots of wear! I use them for my Thursday morning runs on the paved and dirt trails at Cesar Chavez Park, Berkeley and track workouts.

***

Articles and books

Minimal shoe reviews, Barefoot Runner

Consider Wearing this Shoe if You Want to Run Barefoot by Dr. Michael Nirenberg

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall


Transitioning to minimalist shoes
Transitioning to Minimalism, Running Times

Switching to Fivefingers by the Vibram Biomechanics Advisory Board

How To Transition into Vibram Five Fingers, runbare.com

How to Reap the Benefits of the Barefoot/Minimalist Running Movement without Getting Hurt by Coach Jenny Hadfield


Websites
Barefoot Ted

Vibram FiveFingers footwear


Video
New FiveFingers Sprints Do Rocks 

Notes:  A look at Barefoot Ted’s form while running briskly on fist-sized rocks, a hill, and VFFs. In real time and slow motion. Notice the quick, small, light steps.

Running with Hiko and Edgar in KSO Treks – Slow Motion – Barefoot Ted
Notes:  A look at Barefoot Ted’s form while running on a flat in slow motion in VFFs.

2007 Vibram FiveFingers Sprint Test – Running & Balancing

VFF/City Sports All-Star Barefoot Running Clinic


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Running lightly on the earth in minimalist shoes, part I: A novice runner’s thoughts on barefoot running and minimalist shoes  (see more related articles here)

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Running lightly on the earth in minimalist shoes, part I

A novice runner’s thoughts on barefoot running and minimalist shoes


Over the 2009 holidays, I gained weight, and then decided like many Americans to get on a fitness program as a New Year’s resolution. I avoided eating processed foods like oil and flour, and focused on eating whole, fresh foods without labels or faces, following the advice of health educator and 75 year-old, six-time Ironman triathlete Dr. Ruth Heidrich. I also followed the health advice of physician Dr. John McDougall.

I increased the intensity and times of my cross training. (I had been exercising for many years prior to this, but according to an article in AARP magazine, not often or long enough!) My husband had already been running for years and inspired me to run. Plus, after moving out of a sick house to our new green home and modifying my diet, I no longer had my chronic, soul draining respiratory illness. I was able to breathe regularly, unassisted after ending years of dependency on medications, and finally had the strength to try running.

Re-learning how to run

On my first day running on March 6 on Nimitz Way, in hilly Tilden park, Berkeley, I started running and walking in intervals.  Though I started out slow, for the first time in my life, I was surprised to learn that I could run 1/4 mile without gasping for air and seeing stars! It was so exhilarating, like being let out of a prison for lungs.

Nimitz Trail Hill Climb by R. Georgi, via Flickr.com

I noticed a guy in the park running in”gorilla feet,” a term used by reviewers in reference to the dark-colored Vibram FiveFingers (VFF) shoes with articulated toes. I had never seen sport shoes like that before and was fascinated by them.  Later, when I met up with my husband (who talked to the runner) and he explained to me that those were minimalist shoes.

Shopping for new running shoes

Since the shoes (New Balance trail running shoes) I had were years old, I  headed to our nearest reputable store Transport for runners and also See Jane Run, a store for women. After trying on different shoes by companies such as Asics, Brooks, Nike, and New Balance suggested by the salespeople-runners, narrowing down the options, and running on treadmills in the stores in my selections, I selected $130 Nike Vomero shoes. They were the most comfortable on my feet of the ones I tried, non-binding shoes with a roomy toe box. My feet felt like they were on top of little mattresses.

I immediately regretted buying the Nikes. I wore them around the house, jogged up and down stairs. Though they were the most comfortable running shoes I tried on, I realized they were unnecessarily and excessively cushioned for my activities. My pampered feet were not getting a work out in these shoes. I returned them.

“My feet seemed to lack any connection, or kinesthetic awareness with the ground. Was it a good thing that my feet could barely feel any of the roots, ruts and rocks along the trail? Was this cushy desensitization helping or hurting me?”

Bill Katovsky, from his forthcoming new book, Return to Fitness

Research

I decided to do research about barefoot running and the park runner’s low profile Vibram VFF shoes to see if they were for me. I was surprised to find whole websites and blogs online focused on barefoot running and running in minimalist shoes. There were thorough articles in Wired, the New York Times, and National Geographic, which cited scientific studies and health benefits.

“…the promotion of high-tech shoes has led to poor running form and a rash of injuries… The scientific evidence supports the notion that humans evolved to be runners… when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal…  A study…suggests that our feet evolved for running.”

— “The Human Body Is Built for Distance,” by Tara Parker Pope, the New York Times

The most interesting writers on the subject are Barefoot Ted, a tester of the Vibram KSO shoes, and author-journalist-runner Chris McDougall.  McDougall struggled for over a year with plantar fasciitis and saw many specialists. Finally, he consulted with a barefoot running coach who advised him to run barefoot. “It was an imbalance, caused by running shoes… The second I lost the shoes, the plantar fasciitis vanished.” He tells his story in an interview on the Random House website.

After reading reviews about a bunch of minimalist shoes, I decided I was most interested in the Terra Plana Evo and Vibram FiveFingers. However, I ruled out the futuristic looking European Terra Plana Evo running shoes. They were out of my price range. I went with my husband to the REI store to try on a few Vibram FiveFingers models. (I went to REI because I had a gift card from there.) For beginners, it’s best to go to a store (other than REI) that specializes in running with: a wide range of running shoe options, an experienced sales staff who runs and can examine your feet, and a treadmill on which to try on your selections.

At REI, I tried on several models for various sports. I decided on the Vibram FiveFingers KSO model since I like running in Tilden park, which has  unpaved trails. This model was sold out and there seemed to be a lot of demand that day (my neighbor was there too with his sister and friend who were looking at the shoes). Plus, strangers stopped to ask me about the VFFs and stared at my feet while I tried them on.

While I waited for my shoes (back ordered online), I started running in my O’Neill Superfreak tropical weight aqua shoes. I got this great idea from several runners online. A barefoot ultra runner, author, and instructor Jason Robillard, who ran hundreds of miles in Wal-Mart Aqua shoes, suggested getting a taste of running in minimalist shoes by running in aqua shoes before spending a wad of money on new ones. Unlike the cheapo Wal-Mart aqua shoes mentioned on the site, my aqua shoes had a roomier toe area for comfort. I bought these shoes for learning how to surf in Bali in 2008. They have an articulated big toe compartment, a wide toe area, and just one layer of rubber under the feet (designed to maximize one’s foot grip on the surfboard).

O'Neill Superfreak tropical split toe boots

Thin rubber sole

The experience:  Day one wearing minimalist shoes

On March 25,  day seven of running and day one using aqua shoes, I jogged slowly for 2.25 miles at the Berkeley Marina. The marina has a flat loop trail by the bay, with views of San Francisco. I noticed that I when I started running with my old form, striking the ground first with my heel (which was usually padded thickly on previous shoes), it hurt immediately. I adjusted my landing and started falling more toward the middle/ball of my foot each time.  I ran more upright and had a pleasant, tingly feeling on my soles.

Strangely, it didn’t hurt.  Running on the gravel off the paved walkways, my feet felt like they were getting acupuncture. I felt a pleasant warmth rising up from my soles through my spine and hands, which started sweating lightly. I felt much more connected to the earth, and more aware of my surroundings — especially since I had to look out for sharp rocks and glass to avoid cutting my thin shoes. Overall, I felt more connected to my feet, body and surroundings. It felt like I was re-connecting and re-learning my sense of my body in space.

“Do you run barefoot — this direct contact with Great Mother Earth meaning that electrical equilibrium is established between you and the planet.”

— Fred Rohe, The Zen of Running

Later, I noticed red splotches on the bottoms on feet. Ok, so I didn’t follow advice to run only 1/4 mile at a time in low profile shoes to transition into them, but my feet didn’t feel painful afterward. Perhaps this is because I had taken dance classes barefoot, and also worked out at home barefoot (with cardio kick, dance and yoga exercises). I hope to “work up” to running barefoot.

“It was so simple, yet such a jolt. It was this: everything I’d been taught about running was wrong. We treat running in the modern world the same way we treat childbirth – it’s going to hurt, and requires special exercises and equipment, and the best you can hope for is to get it over with quickly with minimal damage.”

—  Chris McDougall, from an interview author of the best-selling book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”

Since I started running in my aqua shoes , I was able to run further and continuously, and truly enjoyed the workout my feet were experiencing. I worked my way up to running five miles in them and wore them on runs on nine separate days. My feet felt more alive, more energized than they had ever been in my adult life.

Coming up next:  A review of Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes


******
Related items

Articles

Running barefoot reduces stress on feet, National Geographic
Shoeless feet hit the ground differently, a new study says

The Men Who Live Forever, Men’s Health
In the hills of Mexico, a tribe of Indians carries an ancient secret: a diet and fitness regimen that has allowed them to outrun death and disease. We set out to discover how the rest of us can catch up

Barefoot running debate by Chris McDougall
Note: An article by author Christopher McDougall, “author of ‘Born to Run,’ an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.”

The Human Body is Built for Distance, New York Times

Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants, New York Times

Barefoot running easier on feet than running in shoes, Harvard Science

Barefoot running, Runner’s World

Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries?, Barefoot Runner

Much Ado About Minimalism: The science and practice of reducing your running shoes, Running Times

Growing Up Shod: The traits of good form blossom (or wilt) early, Running Times

Running and the Land: Runners and environmental leaders, a brief history, Running Times

Websites

Barefoot Ted

On Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear, a Harvard University study
“This website has been developed to provide an evidence-based resource for those interested in the biomechanics of different foot strikes in endurance running and the applications to human endurance running prior to the modern running shoe.”

Video

Barefoot Running, New York Times
“The Roving Runner strides along Central Park barefoot with Christopher McDougall, author of the best-selling book ‘Born to Run.”

Tarahumara Huarache Sandal Rocky Trail Running
Notes:  A look at Barefoot Ted’s form while running briskly  on fist-sized rocks, a hill, and sandals

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