Barefoot Running on Steriods: Vibrams
Barefooting it rough
As you may know if you read my other hubs, I've recently experimented with barefoot running.
In Australia I ran either completely barefooted, or in socks on a grass cricket pitch. In reality, the city parks in the near suburbs of Melbourne are not the most interesting running courses, but they are the only soft surfaces. There are some lovely trails in Melbourne, but they are concrete or asphalt for a long way out, and I did not wish to burn petrol to get to a place out in the bush where the trails turn to dirt, and it also would be difficult to get emergency services that far out if something should happen. The human foot may have evolved to run barefoot, but my common sense tells me that running on hard surfaces, even in cushy shoes, is hard on the joints and doing it in bare feet would be a recipe for disaster.
Once back home in Oregon, I lost no time pursuing a pair of Vibrams. I had heard good things about them. At home I typically run on forest service roads about six miles out of town. These roads typically have a gravel road bed, have mobile coverage, and are accessible by emergency vehicles, but some sections are covered with pine needles (the absolute BEST surface, in my opinion.) They have their bumps and lumps, but they are not an unyielding concrete surface. I was looking for the KSO model (KSO stands for Keep Stuff Out) and I wanted black so as to not call any more attention than necessary to my weird looking footwear. The KSO model covers the whole top of the foot, as opposed to the other styles which have a Mary Jane style strap. I was unable to actually get any by going to the REI store in Portland, because they had
no women's sizes. So I had to order on the internet. I would have preferred to try them on first, but I followed the instructions on their fitting guide. They are quite explicit.
My long awaited pair of Vibram KSO's finally arrived at the Portland OR REI store a few days ago. At first I thought the KSO could live up to its name more than I really wanted. It seemed that either they were too small, or they had been diabolically engineered to keep even my feet out. They are certainly the hardest to get on of all the styles. However with a bit of persistence and tugging, they went on. They felt awesome. My first impression was that they are a perfect fit and I have not changed that assessment.
I first tried them just to take the dog on a walk around the block. This was fine, even though the walks are concrete. I am quite happy to run a short ways in them on concrete. Next, the dog and I went to a city park. The park was very soggy and soft. Running in vibrams through soft grass was very comfortable. The soles are pretty much everything proof, but the tops are mesh and do not keep water out. Having damp feet encased in rubber is OK for a little while, but I would not like to have a long run with damp feet because I think that is a recipe for foot rot. So my judgement was not suitable for serious long wet and/or muddy runs.
I might add as an aside, that Vibrams are typically worn without socks. You might think that plus being damp is a recipe for a smell-o-rama but apparently they are treated with something that prevents odor. My damp vibrams did not smell bad at all afterwards.
Now for the acid test. I was dying to see how these things would fare on an actual forest service road. There is no way I would attempt that terrain in my bare naked feet, so if the Vibrams can enable me to run with barefoot mechanics on it they have been a success. I am pleased to report that they pass the test, with some caveats.
As I started out I realized that I was running with much more confidence than I ever had in Australia. I thought I had been running confidently, but there was always that niggling fear of stepping on something and ripping my foot open. Was my confidence warranted? Yes and no. The tough sole of the vibram will spread the force of stepping on an ordinary rock, stick or lump. However you still need to look. An exceptionally large stick or pointy rock will hurt if you tread on it. I stepped on a few. The day after, my heels are just the tiniest bit sore, but nothing to write home about.
Other than that, it feels very freeing. I opted to run only four miles. That is more than most people start with. After I got warmed up and got into the rhythm of a slightly shortened gait I felt my hips getting into the act more and more. This is as it should be. The glutes are not engaged at all in walking--they are running muscles. I think wearing running shoes makes you overuse your leg muscles and not take advantage of the glutes. After running a while, I felt like the stride was emanating from the top of the hip, instead of where the hip joins the leg. My posture felt more flexible and responsive to the terrain under my feet. It might have looked funny but then, maybe people are just used to watching other people run in an unnatural way precipitated by the wearing of shoes.
An added bonus: Downhill running in shoes can stress your knees and toes. The toes get jammed into the front of the toebox and the knee receives more force because perhaps the elevation of the heel causes even more downward drop to the toe. Since Vibrams fit your foot like a glove, there is no play for the toes to jam forward, and since the heel is not elevated, the foot strike is more level on the downgrade. I felt much more confident to pick up speed on the downgrade. Sometimes in shoes I have to apply the brakes, because it feels like the whole thing could spiral out of control.
An additional added bonus: Since each toe is in its own little pocket, curling your toes to grab the terrain becomes much more natural. In a shoe, you can do the motion, but it seems futile, as the shoe presents itself to the surface as a monolithic object. With toe pockets your toes gain a little independence, and it feels like curling them actually does something.
Here are the caveats:
- Heavy people probably would not have as much success as I had. I weigh 52 KG. That amount of weight is not capable of the G forces that greater weights can deliver.
- I think Vibrams will work best for people like me who have feet shaped like the shoe. Big toe and second toe about the same length, straight parallel toes, rather squared-off slightly tapering foot, and not excessively long toes or feet shaped like a point.
- You need to watch where you are going more. I was not confident enough to attempt a full-out sprint in them because the ground goes by way to fast too adjust where you plant your feet. However, it was quite feasible to attain speeds that gave me a good workout.
- No good for running really hard surfaces
- Fine for a short wet slog but I would not want to run KM's and KM's with cold damp feet.
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