Vibram Five Fingers, or 'VFFs' as they're known in online running circles are the first, and most popular, of the 'barefoot' alternative footwear available. Although they have been around for more than a few years, they got a boost in popularity when Time Magazine named them one of the best inventions of 2009 (or 2008? I can find the link, sorry). They were also mentioned in the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, which came out in 2009. Without going into a full-blown review of that book, which is good, and which you should read, McDougall, a writer for Men's Health magazine, investigated human beings' relationship with running. Part of his explorations led him to a group of Native Americans living in Copper Canyon, Mexico, who are legendary long distance runners. McDougall's narrative also follows a white American with the name of Caballo Blanco who lives, and runs, with them. Caballo Blanco holds an ultra marathon and invites some of the best runners from the United States down to run it. McDougall runs it, along with a guy named Barefoot Ted, who wears the VFFs.
VFFs are like gloves for the feet, with a minimal rubber-ish layer for the soles, to protect against dirt and smaller, grittier, particles. They're light weight, and best of all they look, really, really odd, because they have individual toe sockets (Follow the link above, if you haven't seen them before). If you want to look like a ninja, these shoes are for you! They come in different colors, and styles, with full covering of the whole foot or not. I bought black 'KSOs' (Keep 'Stuff' Out) that cover the whole foot. (Cost: $85)
The argument is that the humans are natural runners, and that our feet have evolved over a million and a half years to work perfectly as they are. Since the 70s, shoe companies like Nike have manufactured a demand for shoes with bells and whistles like arch support and cushioning that actually weaken our feet. For example: if you put your arm in a sling, it would feel ok, it would even make things 'easier,' but in the long run (excuse the pun) you'd have muscle-less flab on bones.
Still, even though people like the idea of actually using their feet, they don't feel comfortable going purely barefoot, for fear of broken glass, stray Lego pieces, fecal matter (human, canine or other), and/or just plain old dirt. Germs! VFFs offer the basic protection from small pokey things, and keep the feet clean, without giving any 'support' or cushion at all. Despite that, or maybe because, they feel really, really comfortable. In fact, I've seen more people just out walking around in them than actually running. No arch support, no raised heel, no hard sole, and the toe sockets insure that the toes are spread properly. No scrunching like in some women's shoes.
My history with VFFs
I bought my VFFs at the same time that I started to run barefoot. I had been plagued by plantar fasciitus and notable to run at all for about a year and a half (see my previous posts for the full story). Once I found I could run barefoot, and that my plantar fasciitus basically went away, my body wanted to run all the time. The problem was, the soles of my feet weren't exactly toughened up yet. The VFFs allowed me to keep running, even when my soles felt a little raw. Some people, like Barefoot Ken Bob, don't recommend this, saying that we should only run as much as our feet will allow, in order to get them used to going barefoot. Makes sense, except that, psychologically, I needed to run. Getting back out and running a lot was good for my mental health.
All summer I alternated between running full on barefoot with my VFFs, reserving the VFFs for trails and/or when my foot soles just felt too raw. By the end of the summer, I had signed up for a half-marathon, which I'd planned to run barefoot, but on checking out the course, I realized it was mostly dirt road, which is the roughest, nastiest, surface a barefoot runner can find. So, I put on the VFFs. And once I did that, my goal went from just finishing, to going fast. And, even though one section of road was so bad that I had to go down to a fast walk, I did well, running an eight minute mile, and freaking out a lot of people in the process.
Once I had started toughening up my feet running barefoot, I found myself leaving my VFFs at home more and more, except for trails and dirt roads, though now I even like running barefoot on most trails (see my “Pinkney Trail Marathon” post in April 2010). I found that, after being barefoot, running in the VFFs was like running in, well, gloves for the feet. That is, though I could breeze over smaller, grittier, terrain that would otherwise force me to walk, I was also losing my sensitivity, and therefore running a little harder, and paying a little bit less attention. I was fine through the first summer, up through that Half Marathon. In the Fall, though, with the colder weather, when I experimented with running more in the VFFs, I found my left foot aching a bit. I know this was partly my fault, ie my stubbornness and impatience, but my feet just felt more 'hammered' after runs. I eventually went back to running barefoot (See my previous post on Winter barefoot running in April 2010).
For someone switching to VFFs from shoes, I would recommend, just as I would for barefoot running, easing into it. With shoes, runners tend to have a longer stride, and to hit, hard, with their heels. Running barefoot, this just isn't possible, but VFFs are just shoe-like enough to deceive a person into thinking they can keep the same long, hard, stride. If you do this in VFFs, you will will hurt yourself (though in the long run, if you do this in shoes, you're increasing your chance of injury anyways). Go slow. Trot. Take small strides. I do not recommend switching back and forth between VFFs and shoes. Your body won't be able to get used to the new posture required and you might injure yourself. Give the VFFs three weeks, all in, before you decide. Unless you're a competitive runner, you have nothing to lose anyways.
Although I like the 'freak out effect' of the toe sockets, I'm not convinced they add much. They do keep the toes spread, or 'splayed,' out which feels good, but the positioning of the toes seems, or feels, arbitrary to me, since my little pinky toe doesn't even touch its corresponding socket. Plus, the toes seem susceptible to getting caught on roots or rocks, and I've stubbed my toes, badly, more than a few times.
The rubber soles section, including the toe sockets, is pretty tough, but I have heard about the top material, and the Velcro strap running over the top of the foot, can be easily torn. This happened to a friend of mine, and Vibram was fine with replacing them, but it took a few weeks (he lives in Arizona but bought them in Michigan; the retailer where I bought mine said they would replace mine no questions asked though. So far I haven't had any problems.)
Note: VFFs do NOT offer much protection from the cold, besides the rubber bottom. The covering in the KSO models does not hold heat at all (see my post on my First Barefoot Marathon in April 2010). I did buy a pair of custom socks (with toes) during this time, and they helped some. The socks aren't cotton, so they hold heat even they get wet, which will happen if you run in the snow. If you're a wimp in the cold, you might need to find something a little warmer for the Winter months.
There are other barefoot alternative types of running-wear out there. I only have experience with two, though there are also RunAmocs, which seem the most shoe-like, endorsed by Barefoot Ted. Nike (gag) has also reissued their original shoe from the 70s, back before they introduced arch support and super gel cushion and all those horrible things. I wouldn't recommend anything by Nike just on general principle, though I'd try the RunAmocs. But in either case, I'd be careful: Runners are so conditioned to being able to pound their feet hard because of all the bells and whistles on shoes today that doing the same with either of these alternatives seems like an invitation for injury. If you try these, go slow! Get used to them.
One alternative is the traditional moccasin. I have two pairs from the Minnetonka company, one more a dressier version, and the other with a double layered leather sole. These slip on easy, are very comfortable, and give good protection from the cold. I wear them all the time in cold weather for just walking around town. I did experiment briefly with running in them in the Fall, with about the same feel as the VFFs, only warmer (Note: you can wear regular old socks with them), but, like with the VFFs, my feet ended up aching a bit, like I was hitting harder because they desensitized my feet. Drawbacks would be that, if running on mostly pavement, I don't think the leather would last very long. But I've seen some people on Ken Bob's Running Barefoot Yahoo! Group that say they like them. For Michigan terrain, dirt/mud/sand/forest/grass, especially in the colder months, these seem like the a good option if one were concerned about the cold or getting one's feet dirty. The Chippewa and Huron natives used them! Cost: about $60.
Another alternative I've recently been experimenting with is huaraches, a type of sandal worn by native tribes down in Mexico, discussed in McDougall's Born To Run. Barefoot Ted makes an americanized version (ie with customized rubber rather than old car tires) that he sells through his website. Basically they're just a slab of rubber with one long leather lace wrapping over and around the foot and ankle holding it in place. Learning how to properly lace the things is key, so I practiced just walking around town in them for a few weeks. They provide about the same protection as VFFs, but I find that since they're a 'sandal' and don't cover the feet, that they don't feel 'shoe-like' like the VFFs, and therefore I'm less inclined to feel invulnerable when running, though I'm still in the experimental stages. If I were to recommend a barefoot alternative for warm weather, I'd say these would be the way to go. I have yet to run barefoot down in the Southwest, but based on when I've lived there before, especially Phoenix, there seems to be killer thorns everywhere. Cyclists have to buy super-extra-duty tires in order not to get a flat like every time they ride, so I've wondered if I would be forced to seek some kind of protection. If so, I would use huaraches. The drawbacks with them are that they don't work very well when wet. The rubber gets to slippery, and the leather laces loosen up faster. Cost: About $60 from Barefoot Ted, though he'll sell you a 'kit' for half that, with directions on how to make them yourself.
VFFs might actually be better for other activities than running. I know people that like just wearing them when walking around town. Climbers may like the toes. They would also be good for kayaking and having to get in and out of boats around rocky shores, and swimming in VFFs would be easier than Tevas. Also keep in mind that VFFs were originally designed for good traction on boats and yachts. I found them to be great footwear for backpacking. I recently did a backcountry camping trip in The Great Smokey Mountains. Some of the hike in I went barefoot, but with a 40 pound backpack on, it's hard to be light on my feet. My VFFs gave me protection when my feet started feeling a little raw, while still allowing me to feel light and elf-like. Also, they seem perfect for skateboarding.
I still recommend running barefoot, but I know that no matter how much I, or others, argue for going 'all natural,' some people don't like the thought of getting their feet dirty. In that case, then yes, I do, tentatively, recommend VFFs or one of the other barefoot alternatives. If you try them, give yourself at least three weeks. Your calves will be a little sore the first week or so, because you're using different muscles. Don't try and mix and match between VFFs and your shoes, I've know a couple people to screw themselves up that way. Three weeks. Go slow. Trot. Small strides. Keep in mind that Barefoot Ted mostly runs barefoot, and uses his VFFs on ultra-marathons. You might find your VFFs to be like training wheels, something you eventually take off, but either way, your feet will love you.