Five Fingers are marketed as the closest you can get to going barefoot with shoes on your feet. I would have to say that they are correct in that respect. Keep in mind that they are shoes and there is no replacement for really going barefoot. I was attracted to these when I started my barefoot journey because my feet were very sensitive when going barefoot. The outdoor conditions when I started were very unforgiving making progress very slow. Wet weather with temperatures below 40 degrees was the norm and this proved to be extremely difficult on the soles of my feet. I was constantly battling numb feet which inevitably lead to blisters and injuries to the skin. Five Fingers seemed to be the perfect fit for what I was trying to accomplish.
I had been transitioning from a heel striking runner to a forefoot landing runner for about a month when I started looking closely at my choice in shoes. Trying to land forefoot after running incorrectly my whole life was quite an undertaking in itself, but throw in the fact that my running shoes were so high in the heel, it made it nearly impossible not to land on the heel first. My research took on a life of it’s own as I spent hours reading reviews and searching for a shoe that would be flat enough to allow me to land forefoot first and then let the heel down with proper form. The next logical step led me to exploring minimal footwear for racing more commonly called racing flats. These shoes weigh in at less than 10 ounces and have little cushion and a very flat sole. This was a great find for me and it was the next step in my transition toward barefoot running, although, I had no idea that’s where I was headed!
I’m the type of guy who always thinks that if some of a good thing is good, then more has to be a lot better. On with the research I say! This lead me to the next step so to speak, Running Barefoot.org. The information and the research presented there all made sense. I was home; I had found the answer I was searching for. There were over a thousand people who had all kicked off their shoes and were much better because of it. There was much talk of transition shoes and shoes that supposedly mimicked going barefoot. It was there I found many companies have spent countless hours chasing this ideal and most of them totally bombed in their attempt to provide the benefits of barefoot while still wearing a shoe. The problem is that the most important thing about being barefoot is the feeling of your bare feet on the ground beneath you. The feedback from the nerves on the soles of your feet communicates with your brain telling your body how to react and how to move over certain surfaces. This lets you know how to move gently, flowing like a river as you run along instead of being the bull in the china shop blasting through just waiting for an injury to slow you down.
This information was all good, but when I enthusiastically went out for my first barefoot run in 36 degree weather within the first mile my feet were numb and when I had finished my third mile the damage was done. Blisters, my feet were so numb I could not feel my soles and a bloody middle toe to top it all off! Oh well, first time out and I feel pretty good, I thought, until the heater in the car started to warm the feet back up. The pain started to creep in like warming frozen fingers under hot water from a cold winters day snow ball fight. I could barely make it out of the car and up the stairs to get some medical attention from my loving wife. My feet took a least a week to recover and that spurred me into buying my first pair of Five Finger Flows. The Flows are designed for cold temperatures and out of all of the options for barefoot styled shoes this was the best choice in my opinion. I hoped they would make the transition much better, but I had much to learn.
When I received my Flows I was so excited it almost reminded me of Christmas day as a kid. I knew that I could run barefoot now without pain and that was great, but I also had a nagging feeling that I was cheating myself of the true benefits of barefoot running. I used the flows quite a bit and one of my first runs was down the local gravel bike path and I was quite impressed with the level of protection I received from these shoes. At this point in my barefoot running I could barely withstand asphalt and I could run along in gravel with these. Most folks would say great I can get the benefits of barefoot running without the pain of really going barefoot using the Five Fingers. This is not my experience! I found that the Five Fingers will help you strengthen your ligaments, tendons and lower leg muscles to some degree, but even the very minimal design does provide support. Then there is the inevitable, the soles completely mute out the feeling of the bare soles on the ground. Don’t get me wrong, you can still feel rocks and surface irregularities, but for a new barefoot runner the muted feeling carries a price. A beginning barefoot runner needs this type of feedback to learn how to run and without this feeling it is just like my experience with numb feet. It is my opinion that Five Fingers set the stage for a new barefoot runner to run incorrectly, too hard, too fast, and too long. Believe me when I say this, I have experienced it firsthand. When I was running in my Flows I was able to still push off with my toes and not feel it. When I would then try to run barefoot I would end up with some blisters on my toes due to the improper form. The Five Fingers will allow a new barefoot runner to do things that their bare feet would not let them do without some pain or feedback. I can see why there is no real transition shoe of choice for barefoot running. There is nothing on the market that lets you feel the way your feet can feel.
Not all is lost with these shoes, I love my Five Finger Flows and my Five Finger KSO’s they are the best alternative footwear I have found. I use them now as tools to improve my barefoot experience. I have been taking my Flows with me on my cold weather barefoot hikes and climbs for when my feet go numb. I put them on when I am in a situation where to continue on would inflict damage to my soles. They are my safety net when I would like to go further than my bare feet would allow. I have also used my Flows after a long run over a very stimulating surface. The Flows fit is quite snug and the compression and sole protection feels good and seems to aid in the recovery time. I purchased some of the KSO’s because the Flows are a little clammy to wear around for everyday use. The KSO’s sole feels thinner and the material breathes very well. I carry these with me so when the situation arises when I have to wear shoes I have something that feels good and comes close to the barefoot feeling. Five Fingers are a great shoe and they have many uses if you like the barefoot lifestyle. If you are looking for a transition shoe for running barefoot you can stop looking right now! You were born with the solution; nothing can replace the experience and the feedback of your bare feet.
If you are not ready to ditch your shoes straight away and you want to transition in steps here is what I did. I started with the Chi Running book by Danny Dryer. This book taught me the basics on running bio mechanics and techniques to change the way I ran. While doing this I switched to a running flat with no motion control and ran like this for about a month. This was a complete rebuild and my mileage, speed and time spent running all declined drastically. This is a harsh side effect, but it had to be done to achieve my final goal of running pain free for life. I started my first barefoot run in very cold conditions (not recommended) and I ran way too far. A mile would have been ample. I could have ran in the Five Fingers for a month and let my foot strength build up and waited for warmer weather to transition to barefoot. It takes time to build up the feet and five fingers could aid in that with allowing more mileage, less chance of blisters, and protection against skin trauma. This comes with a price for the beginning barefoot runner and chances are when you do start running with bare feet you will be starting over again. There is no substitute for barefoot running and it takes time. How much time depends on how much you practice and how careful you are not to over train. Nothing will slow you down faster than injury due to pushing too hard, too long and too fast. Have fun running and I will see you out there.