You've undoubtedly spotted the strange footwear on the streets or at the gym -- and if you haven't, you likely soon will. The Vibram FiveFingers have been experiencing a surge in popularity in recent years and is still riding relatively high in sales for a cult phenomenon.
Vibram FiveFingers have been touted as a "healthy alternative to traditional footwear" that promise to help feet grow stronger and healthier. What makes them so appealing to barefoot runners is that they preserve the movement of barefoot running -- encouraging a more natural forefoot strike while allowing the foot to move and work in a natural way, according to the Vibram website -- but help provide grip and protection over a variety of surfaces.
You'd be hard-pressed to find even the most enthusiastic of fans defending the shoes' aesthetics. They often give the wearer an appearance of having rough, discolored, rubbery feet. But there's a definite market for the shoes: The JackRabbit Sports chain in New York City, for example, has been stocking the footwear since 2009 and saw an especially strong sales year in 2010. In some months, the men's model even ranked alongside the stores' best-selling traditional running shoes, according to Johanna Bjorken, the merchandise director for JackRabbit.
Bjorken said its customer base for Vibrams was varied: "Some are curious about the experience of running barefoot, others are hopeful that they will help solve issues with persistent running injuries," said Bjorken. "Last year, many customers were not necessarily runners and came in just because they had to have the 'toe' shoes. This year it is more of our traditional running customer, who is interested in exploring barefoot or minimalist running alongside their traditional shoes."
And while last years' customers were frequently adamant that the Vibram product was the answer to years of injury or could replace traditional running shoes, this year's customers seem more open to exploring and learning about the different ways the product could be used, said Bjorken.
Barefoot running isn't for everyone (the Vibram company does also manufacture shoes with the same barefoot philosophy for cross-training, hiking, and other fitness activities). Dr. James Sullivan, chief of podiatry at Jersey Shore University Medical Center and board member of Healthy Women, pointed out that structural abnormalities in the foot may not accommodate barefoot running for everyone.
The design of the Vibram FiveFingers may also make them difficult to wear: "The fitting of the toes in each digital slot seems to be the greatest challenge of this shoe design," said Dr. Sullivan (see more on this below). While the toes are surrounded by soft, flexible material, "I would estimate that less than five percent of the population would be able to wear the shoe comfortably, let alone run in the shoe," he said.
Still, he said he would suggest the Vibram Five Fingers for barefoot runners if they're comfortable enough.
Before You Try Them: What You Need to Know
The fitting process
"Because they fit around the toes, shoe size is a poor approximation for what size Vibram you need," said Bjorken. "We have particular shoe sizing tools that Vibram provides, and then can find the right size. Because they are meant to approximate being barefoot, they either fit or they don't."
Who should not be wearing Vibram FiveFingers
"'Barefoot' and minimalist running have piqued the curiosity of many who may have otherwise decided that 'running is not for me,' and for that reason we don’t like to dampen anyone’s curiousity," said Bjorken. "However, we do not recommend them for people who only have room for one pair of running shoes in their closet. They are best used as tools alongside traditional shoes, and recreational runners who have used them with the most success have done so by gradually incorporating them into their fitness regime.
"While there is still very scientific data available on the risks associated with barefoot running, anecdotally, sports doctors have noted an increase in the numbers of metatarsal stress fractures (tiny breaks in the bones of the foot) among some barefoot runners," said Bjorken. "These are impact injuries, and those who have bone density issues are at particular risk. Likewise, the lowered heel and additional stress on the calf muscles associated with a forefoot strike can exacerbate calf strains, achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis in runners who have particularly tight or inflexible calf muscles."
Have you run in Vibrams? What made you try them? Have they worked well for you?