Don’t get me wrong – I’m very aware that Vibram’s Five Finger shoes look freaky. I nearly refused to run with a friend once who was wearing such a pair – there was no way I was going to be seen dead with someone wearing webbed-feet shoes with all their toes poking out.
But then I was passing a shop in Singapore just last week and saw the barefoot shoes on sale. “I wonder if they’re as comfortable as they say”, I said. So I sneaked in, with only the intention of trying them on. Five minutes later, I had bought a pair. I, the ultimate sceptic, had succumb to the hype of barefoot running.
So why did I hand my money over?
Well, they were just really, really snug. And if I didn’t look down at them, then I could convince myself that they were just an ordinary pair of shoes and not some monster feet. “I’ll just wear them inside the house”, I told myself, knowing that there was absolutely no way I was going to be seen dead wearing them out on the street.
But then I started reading the reviews, so many runners posting online saying why they switched permanently over to wearing Vibram Fivefingers, people with battered knees and torn Achilles and shot ankles throwing their Asics in the bin in favour of Vibram. Now I’ve had my fair share of minor injuries and these days I can’t run more than 10k without feeling a niggle somewhere. So as I get inevitably older, I wonder how I can keep running and avoid the knocked knees and dodgy hips and torn calves that end most people’s running fun.
But still I couldn’t bear the potential embarrassment of being caught outside with them on. So I hatched a cunning plan. I would get up at 6am and go for a run before anyone else was awake enough to notice what I was wearing on my feet.
As I stepped out the door this morning, I tried to act natural, pretending there was nothing strange going on in my footwear department. There were already a few people out already doing their morning exercises, so I decided to not hang around too long.
The instructions say to get used to them slowly, not to do anything too crazy first time around. So I decided to go for a 5k run, two laps around Truc Bach Lake.
I started off very tentatively, waiting for something to hurt. I ran first on the ball of my foot, but soon I found myself landing flat, none of this heel-striking malarkey. It was like I was naturally doing what I was taught during a chi-running course I once went to.
I was also worried about how sore it would be run in 3mm thick soles with obstacles like glass and stone obstacles on the road. But in fact, I only stood once on a pebble. Of course it hurt, but apart from that, the 5k was without painful incident. It was like the author of Born to Run, Christopher McDougall said in the video interview with the New York Times, “I got these special equipment I like to use – they’re called eye balls. So I see a rock, I step next to it”. But what surprised me most was how nice it was to feel the ground underneath my feet. I’m not an airy fairy one by any means, but it was nice to be ‘connected’ to what I was running on.
On the straight tarmac roads, I bounced along quite contentedly. But what was amazing was, when I turned a corner, how much grip I had when changing directions, not just from my soles but from having my toes free to steady me around the bend.
Another amazing discovery with the Vibrams was how light my feet felt. I didn’t have a few hundred grams of gel and fabric laced to my foot like when I’d be wearing my normal running shoes. Instead I felt like I a kid again running barefoot, only this time the thin soles taking away my adult fear of hurting myself underfoot.
I thought that by running barefoot I’d also be considerably slowed down. I reckoned it would make me more cautious and make me take shorter strides. However, my Garmin suggests that I ran considerably faster in them (Warning, gecky info to follow) – today I ran at 5:16 per km pace at an average heart rate of 139. Last week I ran the same run with normal shoes and, with the same heart rate, went at 5:29 per km. Go figure…
And, as for blisters, not a single one. That’s compared to my road running shoes that normally take a month to break in what with blisters on heels, instep, and toes.
After I went running with my friend last year in his Vibrams, his calves hurt considerably the following day. And after my own maiden voyage, I had the same issue. But hey, they were just a little stiff, nothing I can’t get used to with a few more Vibram running outings.
Zola Budd, the barefoot South African runner, was always my hero whilst growing up. Now that I’ve got my Vibram Fivefingers, I now have no excuse but to follow in the footsteps of my childhood icon.