We evolved from monkeys. We are designed to use our toes for climbing, walking, and perhaps even for holding things such as tools. Our feet and toes can be dextrous like our hands and fingers, if we give them a chance. And yet virtually all of us cram our feet into a shoe that simply binds the whole foot into one lump. So we train our feet, from an early age, to grow into crushed, sweaty, useless clubs that simply bear our weight.
Shoes just don’t feel right. This becomes obvious when you feel how nice it is to walk in bare feet and feel stuff like sand, earth, or grass under your toes. Feels good doesn’t it! Feels great to take shoes off! No doubt we are designed to sense the earth under our feet, just as we feel and sense objects by holding them in our hands.
A few years ago I starting running in normal trainers. But my knees began to hurt from the pounding they were getting. So I went to a physiotherapist, did knee exercises, and bought a new pair of trainers that would supposedly support my instep better. But then I Googled knee problems and running, and found lots of articles arguing that running is inherently bad for your knees. It basically goes like this:
– We have evolved from monkeys, so we are not designed to run on two legs. Being a biped is a recent adaptation – hence back and knee problems
– We have created hard surfaces everywhere we walk and run. Concrete, tarmac, wood, metal, plastic etc. Unlike earth, grass, or sand, the hard surfaces of our modern world don’t have much ‘give’ or flex.
– Normal shoes and trainers have thick and spongy heels. This design means that you heel-strike as you walk or run, rather than running on your toes – as you would in bare feet. Heel-striking is much harder on your knees than running on your toes, because the heel absorbs far less of the impact.
So after weighing up the benefits of running in bare feet, I did what was probably the next best thing. I bought a pair of Vibram Fivefinger toes shoes, and went running again. I ran a stretch of canal path, my usual 4 mile run. Running in the Fivefingers was hard work, because running on your toes is hard on hamstrings. So my hamstrings got sore. But my knees were OK. And a few days later I ran again, and my hamstrings and calves gradually got used to running on my toes. And my knees were still OK. After a couple of months of running every two or three days, I was fine with running in Fivefingers. It was still harder work than running in normal trainers, perhaps because heel-striking in normal trainers is just a more efficient process. But running in Fivefingers was more fun and natural somehow. Very enjoyable to run on soft surfaces like grass! Lovely to run across fields, through earth and mud, through forests and woodlands! Exciting and natural to turn on my toes and run backwards, or to suddenly sprint – my big toe digging into the grass!
I now lucky to live near a place, Shipley Glen, where there are huge boulders, great for climbing on.
And although I bought my Fivefingers for running, they are great for clambering around on rocks. The soles are very thin (much thinner than normal trainers or shoes), so you can actually feel the shapes and surfaces of the rock under your feet. You can feel the little curves, lumps, and grippy bits on the rock. You can wrap your feet around the holds a little, and feel out potential holds with your toes. And the shoes are so light, small, and thin, that you can fit your feet into small spaces, and it’s just very very easy to place your feet. Placing your feet is almost intuitive, like it would be to place your bare foot on a rock.
Fivefingers are not great for serious climbing, because unlike climbing shoes they are not extremely grippy. But they are fun and feel lovely, and allow me to place my big toe into little cracks and holds, like so:
I have been meaning to write this blog piece for quite a while. I bought my first Fivefingers four years ago, and felt a bit self conscious about wearing them. They look ‘strange’, so by wearing them you have to expect that people will mention them and ask you questions. People often take offense to anything new and ‘strange’. And after wearing them for a while, when running and at the gym, and having got used to explaining them to people, I came across a WordPress piece that was very critical Fivefingers and their wearers.
It’s a highly confrontational piece (to me, at least), describing Fivefingers as ‘ridiculous footwear’, ‘all the rage with the workout set’, giving the wearer a ‘strange simian appearance’. The writer even describes his confrontation with a Fivefingers wearer that went sour, unsuprisingly, ending with the wearer walking away from him like an ‘ape’:
…they seemed to force him to walk flat-footed and slightly forward with ape-like gait, almost like a waddle. All he needed to do was drag his knuckles on the ground, let his body hair grow out, and pick bugs off himself or someone else and the transformation from man to ape would be nearly complete.
And the comments underneath (e.g. ‘Amen’), pretty much bear out support for this invective, agreeing that there is something essentially ridiculous about Fivefingers wearers, as if we have been duped by marketing.
So rather than engage with this piece on its own terms, by taking issue with all of its points, I just though I’d tell my own story instead, as a counter to all the bad vibes.
(P.S. I’d just like to add that I do not work for Vibram FiveFingers in any way, and I am not being paid to write this piece. I am just someone who likes to run, climb, take photographs, and write blogs.)