New Yorkers Divided on Vibram Five Fingers

By Luca Jordan • Aug 22nd, 2011 • Category: Features, Lead Story

By Luca Jordan

Initially designed for running, swimming and other outdoor sports, Vibram Five Finger shoes are becoming, for some, everyday walking-around shoes. Are these gloves for the feet actually functional, or are people simply following the latest trend?

Daniel Coleman, 23, was born and raised in Manhattan and recently purchased his first pair of Vibram Five Fingers. “I got them because they were different–not something you’d usually see in the city, but now everyone wears them,” Coleman says. “I’m from the projects and you don’t want to walk around in the pools and beaches out here without shoes,” he adds.

Coleman explains that he doesn’t wear Five Finger shoes around New York City unless he plans on going to a beach or a pool: “They make good water shoes—your feet move better than [they do] in those regular water shoes that keep all your toes together.” In regards to Five Fingers shoes’ functionality in an urban environment such as New York City, Colman says, “I don’t think it’s a city thing. I guess it could be a kind of hipster thing or something, but [if] most people I know saw you with them, they’d make fun of you.”

David Miner has worked as a sales associate in the shoe department of Eastern Mountain Sports in SoHo for approximately nine months. According to Miner, Eastern Mountain Sports has been carrying Vibram Five Finger shoes for several years. “The popularity has really exploded lately—I mean even over the winter, we were selling them,” says Miner. “People wear socks with them. They have toe socks made just for them and people wear them all winter long.”

In regards to their purpose, Miner explains that most people will use Vibram Five Fingers in the gym for yoga, martial arts, and other exercises. “People do wear them on the sidewalks, though; you see it all the time,” he adds. Miner further explains that the shoes are designed to make people take shorter strides and move primarily on the balls of their feet instead of heel striking. He says that “our ancestors walked and ran more on the balls of their foot; they took shorter, quicker strides. But once we started paving everything over, then we needed more cushioning for our feet.” Therefore, Miner finds that Vibram Five Fingers encourage a more natural way of walking and running.

Some experienced, competitive runners like David Alm, however, believe this trend may dangerous, leading to unnecessary injuries in people who aren’t efficient or light enough to wear such minimal shoes. “People wear these Vibrams because they’ve been convinced through the hype and through the media and the advertising campaigns that these types of shoes are the more natural way to run… but they’re deluding themselves. They’re actually going to get hurt running in these shoes because they’re designed in a way to make you run as if you were running barefoot,” Alm says. He continues to explain that this way of running can be dangerous: “When you run barefoot you naturally tend to run on the balls of your feet but that, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, isn’t good for you.”

Miner argues that running on the balls of your feet is one of the benefits of wearing Vibram Five Fingers: “You don’t impede your forward momentum as much because you are more on the balls of your feet and there’s less shock transmitted up through your whole system with each foot step,” he says. “A lot of people that have foot problems of one sort or another will switch over to Five Fingers and find that they are much more injury free—runners especially.”

Alm says that the principles behind Five Fingers are counterproductive. Alm’s coach, a former Olympic marathoner and who now coaches several elite runners, informed him that he should not run on the balls of his feet. “What I found was that running on the balls of my feet was actually causing injuries,” Alm says. “I never used to develop pains in my feet from running at all until I started running that way.” He adds that when he returned to running more on the heel to mid-foot, and rolling forward, his foot pain subsided.

Running between seven and twelve miles every day, Alm naturally develops the occasional hip, knee and foot pains, but they usually subside within a day. “The kind of pain I had when I was running on the balls of my feet was more chronic,” he says. “It really wasn’t going away and it was more severe, it was an acute pain, whereas what I have now are simple aches and pains.”

While Miner owns a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, he doesn’t use them for running. “I use them basically for leisure and as my camp shoes,” he says. Miner also alludes to Five Fingers’ functionality as water shoes when he talks about his regular camping trips near a lake in the Berkshires. “When I’m camping or hiking, when I stop at the end of the day I’ll take off my hiking boots and put on my five fingers and just hang out in those,” he explains.

Natalia Giraud,  a cross-fit instructor, wears Vibram Five Fingers regularly and suggests the shoes to all of her clients. “I do a lot of running and heavy weight lifting. Its good to feel the ground below you when you’re lifting weights and the shoes are very light, which is good for springing.” She explains that the shoes are best for people who are into more extreme exercise, not just occasional workouts.

Giraud wears her Vibram Five Fingers around New York City because they require a lot of getting used to. “You must walk in them and allow yourself to adjust to them before using them for exercise,” she says. Since the shoes are rather pricy, Giraud tries to use them primarily for workouts. However, she says that if she owned a second pair, she would “wear them everywhere.”

Free runner Cameron Weissensee initially became interested in Vibram Five Fingers through his research of the Paleo diet. “Its main principles coincide with the idea behind the Vibram Five Fingers,” says Weissensee, referring to the diet trend that emphasizes foods from the hunter-gatherer days, like meat and nuts. “That harkening back to a more basic approach that’s been around for longer than present-day technology is how humans can reach optimal health,” he says. “In the case of free running, it’s about how shorter strides and striking mid-sole is what we’ve always done as a species.”

Alm, however, has noticed that the shoes seem most popular among less-experienced runners. “I’m at the front of every race that I run and I never see anyone up there at the beginning of a race, at the head of the pack, wearing Vibrams,” he says. “The only people I ever see wearing Vibrams are 10-minute mile, 11-minute mile, 12-minute mile runners, who aren’t necessarily in great shape [and] who don’t have great form. You can tell they’re not serious runners.”

Weissensee agrees that longer strides and heel-landings can be beneficial for running as a sport, but “for workout purposes, [Five Fingers] are far superior. The mobility and response I feel while working out, along with the lack of weight, is unparalleled.” He specifies, “If you’re doing anything like plyometrics, you feel like you’re continuously hitting your heel when doing lateral movements.”
Weissensee bought the shoes about two years ago and claims to wear them almost daily, whenever he trains. He only uses Five Fingers for workout purposes, not casual wear.

“I still like to walk around in regular running shoes, as I do find it more comfortable over the course of a long day to have that cushion on my heels,” Weissensee says. “And I don’t get stared at.”

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