OK, so I’m about to damage the little fashion credibility I may have held and make a confession: I am fully obsessed with Vibram Five Fingers. Yup, those weird toe shoes/foot socks/barefoot running shoes that people awkwardly point out whenever they see them.
I thought they were super weird when I first saw them, too. But then I read Born to Run in 2011–on a whim, it was actually on my dad’s bookshelf when I was home and searching for a new read–and was instantly intrigued by the book’s argument that barefoot running can help improve foot strength and minimize injuries. I’ve had three knee surgeries (ACL, MCL and meniscus tears and ruptures as a result of a few bad turns while playing soccer and lacrosse); after my last surgery at 19, I quit contact sports, but still had problems with shin splints and knee pain while running. Author and Men’s Health editor Christopher McDougall draws on the history of an ancient tribe of runners to explain why modern running–with its sneakers and its arch support and its concrete–is making running harder on our bodies than ever.
If you’re at all interested in running, I highly recommend the book: he weaves the history of running and the modern-day phenomenon of ultra-marathons into a very compelling narrative.
Two points in particular stood out to me. The first is that modern-day sneakers–with their padding, arch support, gel insoles–are essentially like casts on our feet. If you’ve ever broken a bone, you know that the muscle atrophies and becomes much weaker while it’s in a cast. Western societies promote wearing shoes from a very young age, whereas Asian cultures that have a lot more barefoot time–inside the house, for example–have a much lower rate of foot, knee and hip injuries. Essentially, we’re keeping our feet in casts our whole lives and not letting those muscles develop. The other is that an arch is a structure that doesn’t need support. Just as you would never think of sticking a column up in the middle of a dome–a perfect example of modern architecture–your arches can support themselves. Even for someone like me with fallen arches–flat feet are common on one side of my family–they still don’t need to be pushed up.
So I decided to try out Vibram Five Fingers–and I was instantly sold. I run more, hike more, walk more and I don’t have any more shin or knee pain. I’ve traveled around the world with them, and I’ve been struck by how great they are for traveling.
They’re perfect for any active situation.
I wear them when I weight-train or take kickboxing classes at the gym, when I go for runs along the beach, when I take long walks. They’re particularly brilliant for hiking or trail running: because I can feel the ground beneath my feet, I’m much more agile and able to move efficiently on rocks or pebbles.
They make you stronger.
It takes some time to get used to Vibrams–I don’t recommend taking them out on an all-day hike the first time you wear them!–but you definitely work your muscles in new and unexpected ways. Your feet get stronger, your calves get stronger, your thighs get stronger. It’s super hard to go back to overly padded sneakers after you get used to your feet working so much!
They’re easy to pack–and you don’t need to pack socks.
Because Vibrams are much lighter and flatter than regular sneakers or hiking boots, they’re a cinch to pack. And because you don’t need to wear socks–well, that’s one fewer thing to fit in your bag!
The only downsides…
They start to smell (easy to clean by soaking overnight in a sink with denture cleaners) and people will point at your feet and snicker. But in my opinion, it’s definitely worth the trade!
Note: Vibram Five Fingers did not compensate me or request that I write this post. I just really like their product and wanted to share why I think they’re a great travel shoe.