Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Monkey Feet

No need for a detailed scientific analysis on the Vibram toed shoes or barefoot / minimalist running.  You can find that by googling Vibram Five Fingers or barefoot running or minimalist running.  Or better yet read Born To Run by Chris McDougall.  All I want to do is run down my brief experience with the shoes and maybe a new insight on the construction.

After a lot of research, I decided to try to VFF KSO Trek in the rich luxurious brown leatherway.  I figured it was Fall, and I would be using these on the local hiking trails.  So this model was a good fit.  I tried on a pair at my local REI and was impressed with how warm they felt indoors.  I figured I could use to hike through the sunny days of winter.
 Note how stylish they look with khakis.  I wanted to rock them on my next consulting business trip.
 A few things I need to explain about the construction of this model compared to the other VFFs, so you can make an informed decision.  This model is the least running oriented of the line up.  So they have the smoothest interior of all the models I tried, which included the Sprint, the standard KSO, and the KSO TrekSport.  I don't mean smooth in the R&B sense of the word.  I mean the Trek (not TrekSports mind you) interior has a minimum of stitching and support built into the heal.  it seamed like the other models had a lot of seems on the inside that were really noticeable and kind of irritating just walking around the store.  The TrekSport and basic KSO models also felt like they had some extra material sewn into the arch area, possibly to provide support.  Even if this arch 'support' didn't hit my foot's arch all wrong, I would have dismissed these models on principle because any extra arch material goes against the basic philosophy of these shoes.  I thought the Treks just felt the best, and most minimalist, on my feet, and the leather interior was real nice.  I read no mention of interior stitching on other reviews so I feel compelled to share this knowledge with other VFF shoppers.
Out on the trail, the hiking sole was excellent.  Traction was great on rocks, loose dirt, and gravel surfaces.  And it does a great job of taking the edge off sharp rocks without loosing the feel of the trail.  Vibram really sorted out the design of tread.  I will say that the leathers are really warm on the trail.  This model has small mesh cutouts on the forefoot and between the toes.  And Vibram claims the leather is naturally cool and breathable.  But I think feet will be hot on the trail if it's any warmer than about 55 degrees.

The one item about the construction that was ultimately the reason for returning the shoes is the padding inside the sole.  Shortly into the hike I felt a sharp pain under the base of my toes.  It thought it was just my toes getting used to the feeling of barefoot hiking.  But it never went away.  It just got worse.  When I got home I felt inside the shoes to see if I could figure it out.  Turns out there was a ridge in the sole right at the base of the toes.  After some investigation on the Vibram site I figured out that the models with the hiking soles have an extra 2 mm of EVA foam under the foot but not under the toes, so the footbed drops off into the toe pouches creating the ridge I felt on the trail.  Maybe I just have weak sensitive toes but I didn't think this was worth trying to get used to.

When I returned the Treks to REI I felt inside the other models and confirmed that this ridge is only in the Treks and TRekSports.  It might be inside the Bikila model as well since it's designed for road running.  Word to Vibram: get rid of this potential pressure point and make the entire insole flat and level from heel toenail.  The extra foam is more trouble than it's worth.  The hiking sole protects the feet just fine and the extra foam only reduces the feel of the surfaces, which is why someone would would buy these in the first place.

Bottom Line: This design flaw and resulting discomfort aside, I thought hiking and running through the woods in almost bare feet was a wonderful and enjoyable experience.  It feels great on the feet to let them bend around rocks and flex like they were designed to.  After just a couple of walks I could feel everything from my feet to my lower back getting stronger.  If you can deal with, or just don't care about, the construction details I mentioned, I recommend trying some VFFs or similar barefooted product.  I will definitely look for an alternative to the VFFs, and drop a post about it.

As always, big props to REI for their customer service.

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