Are Ugly Barefoot Shoes a Good Buy?

Posted on 27. Jun, 2012 by in Lifestyle, Product Reviews

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look down at my Vibram Five Fingers and notice how weird they look on my feet.  It has been 2 months now since my girlfriend bought me these barefoot shoes for my birthday, and I still can’t get used to how ugly they are. They are by far the most hideous pair of “shoes” that I have ever worn. It’s okay though.  I am allowed to talk shit about my Vibrams because ultimately, I love them.

They are easily the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned, and I am sold for life on the benefits of going barefoot. It took me a while to make the switch though.  Like most of you guys, I had been seeing these shoes pop up everywhere the last few years.  My uncle and cousins all had a pair.  I had seen runners, gym-goers, and CrossFitters all raving about the benefits of going barefoot.  And I even ran into the occasional weirdo who thought they went well with a collared shirt and jeans. (They don’t. And you all have permission to punch me in the face if you ever see me wearing mine out to a nice restaurant.) But 6 months of nagging back pain had me wondering if my shoes were contributing to the problem.

I had ran across several articles about the problems with modern shoes, and it made sense to me that my high-heeled, soft-soled Nike’s could be throwing off the alignment of my knees, hips, and ultimately my back. There was also the issue of the metal plate that I permanently have attached to my ankle.  A 2009 Thanksgiving flag football injury (which we won’t talk about) left me with a permanently reconstructed right ankle that has its fair share of good days and bad days.  Some days I wake up and it feels great, and other days just aren’t so good.  Shoes seemed to exacerbate the bad days, and I always got some relief from being able to kick off my shoes and go barefoot.

So after years of making fun of other people for their lizard feet, I was ready to make the switch myself.  If these shoes could help with my back pain and improve the mobility of my ankle, I would be a believer.

Go Barefoot?

I could go into detail about all the studies that promote the safety of barefoot running and walking (like this one), but most studies have their biases, and you can pretty much find a study to support any point of view.  I would much rather take an evolutionary approach to barefoot running and walking, just as we do with nutrition and the Paleo diet. Similar to the onset of agriculture, our first physical evidence of shoes appears to occur about 10,000 years ago.

These shoes were nowhere near like the shoes that we see today, and were basically just foot bags to protect the feet from rocks and sharp objects.  There is some evidence that shoes may have appeared earlier than this, about 20,000 years prior, since physical anthropologist Erik Trinkaus noticed that shorter, thinner toes that appeared during this time could be a sign of the presence of foot protection.  This draws some parallels to the nutritional side of things, where decreases in height and dental health resulted from the agricultural revolution of grains and legumes. When we are talking about modern shoes though, they really don’t come about until the 1950’s with advances in plastic, rubber, and adhesives.  Keeping the nutrition comparisons alive, modern shoes are like the processed foods and vegetable oils of the modern diet; they are something our bodies have experienced for less than 100 years.

When you look at the mechanics of the foot, it becomes pretty clear that this is an apparatus that is designed to do a lot of work.  As Vibram states on their website, “Your feet contain 52 bones, 66 joints, 40 muscles, and hundreds of sensory receptors, tendons, and ligaments—collectively forming two of the body’s most beautifully efficient mechanisms.”  This doesn’t sound like an object that needs to be cooped up in a fancy running shoe to perform its job correctly, it sounds like our feet have spent millions of years doing their job pretty well on their own.

The American Chiropractic Association estimates that 70-85% of all American will have back pain at some point in their lives.  I am sure a lot of this pain comes from sitting too much and other factors like diet, but I would also assume that a lot of it is due to the shoes that we wear.  Most shoes today have a raised heel that sits higher than the toes.  Naturally our feet are meant to sit level so a higher heel means that the ankles, knees, and hips all have to function differently to compensate for the change in angle.

For some people, they will experience problems in those lower joints.  But for most people, those issues will manifest upwards into back pain.  I would be willing to bet that a lot of my back pain was due to the shoes I was wearing.  Our feet are the foundation for the rest of the body, so it makes sense that keeping them healthy and functioning properly would be integral to our overall health.

Even though our bodies have evolved a certain way for millions of years, we have developed our own running styles in the time we’ve been on this planet. Had we been born with a pair of baby Vibrams it might be a different story.  But most of us have gotten use to running with well cushioned shoe soles that allow us to strike the ground forcefully with our heal. It’s this heal strike that  may be the root of our injury problems because of the stress it puts on our legs and back. Barefoot running shoes teach you to change your heal strike into a forefoot strike with less impact. If you don’t let your running style evolve with these shoes, then you won’t find good results and you will most likely find pain.  Use these shoes in the correct ways, and you will be very happy you got them.


The Benefits and Drawbacks of Going Barefoot

As I alluded to earlier in the post, I have had nothing but positive results with my barefoot shoes.  My back pain has completely disappeared for over a month now and I can’t remember the last time I had one of those “bad days” with my ankle.  Sure, it could be due to my impeccable diet or smart training, but most likely the shoes have had something to do with it. This doesn’t mean that barefoot shoes are all puppy dogs and rainbows though.  If you are seriously considering going barefoot then you should know a few things first.

The transition period to going barefoot is long and slow.

Like many people, I made the mistake of trying to run longer than I should have without properly working up to it.  I had already been wearing my Vibrams for several weeks when I decided to try to run just 1 mile in them.  I think the most I had run in them was a ¼ mile, but I thought I would be okay since I was spending 8-10 hours a day on my feet wearing them, and a mile just isn’t a lot for me.  Boy, was I wrong!  The run itself felt great, but immediately after, my calves began to tighten up in a way I never felt before.  My calves were more sore the next few days then they have ever been, and I could barely walk.  That’s probably why Vibram recommends starting with only 10% of your normal run and adding 10-20% distance every couple of weeks to minimize soreness and prevent injury.

You will still need your regular shoes. 

Barefoot shoes are just part of the equation.  As much as I love my barefoot shoes, I realize they have their limitations when it comes to doing things like box jumps, heavy snatches, or playing most sports.  Even the Vibram website states that “we don’t believe it is the only footwear you will ever need.”  Especially at first, keep an extra pair of shoes on hand to support activities that will require increased support or protection.

If you do change your shoe, you have to change the way you run/lift.

My friend recently brought it to my attention that Harvard just performed a study on the effectiveness of Vibrams on injury prevention as they claim in their marketing.  He is a lawyer and his firm are actually taking on complaints from clients on the basis of false advertising of the product, because it was found that the barefoot shoes can actually cause more serious injuries and lack the prevention as they claim.  While I do believe that Vibram is correct in saying their shoes will “reduce the risk of injury”, you will have to alter how you run and train to make up for the lack of cushion in your shoe, especially in the heel.


Who Should Buy Barefoot Shoes?

As much as I love my Vibrams, I don’t think they are necessarily a great investment for everyone.  If you spend most of your day in an office (where you can’t go barefoot) and you do high-intensity training (like CrossFit) as your main form of exercise, then you may not get much use out of a barefoot shoe.

Barefoot shoes are better suited for low to mid-intensity level lifting and training, and not necessarily for activities that involve high impact or quick changes of direction. At the very least though, owning a pair of barefoot shoes might motivate you to do more low level activities that you wouldn’t normally do.  Just walking through grass is a completely different sensory experience when you are doing it free from the confinement of modern shoes.

With that said, barefoot shoes are probably best suited for the person who spends several hours on their feet all day or someone who works from home.  Working 40 hours a week as a CrossFit trainer, I spend most of my day on my feet, in the gym, training other people.  These shoes are now easily my favorite choice to teach in.

While I don’t believe that going barefoot will solve all of your health and mobility problems, I do feel that it is a valuable part of the equation of living a higher quality life.  I hope this post motivates some of you to give barefoot living a try.  Which I know will inspire you to take on unfamiliar activities in your new feet.

If you have already made the leap and gone barefoot, let us know in the comments below how your experience went.

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2 Responses to “Are Ugly Barefoot Shoes a Good Buy?”

  1. Casey

    27. Jun, 2012

     question.. what was your pre “barefoot shoe” shoe?

    • Andrew Frezza

      27. Jun, 2012

      INOV-8’s.  I still use them for workouts every once in a while.  Their good for CrossFit, but I don’t like them as much for just wearing around.