“The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.”
—Leonardo Da Vinci
“OK, dude, what’s up with the goofy shoes?”
It was the second day of Pavel’s RKC kettlebell course, and I’d seen more than a few people wearing what appeared to be gecko feet. The sheer goofiness compelled me to ask Rudy Tapalla, a CrossFit instructor from Chicago, why on earth he would put these ridiculous gloves on his toes. He seemed to have good mojo — he was shorter than me but had a vertical jump to match Michael Jordan — so I figured he might have good reasons.
He did, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
I remained a skeptic but tested them a month later. Now, I have three pairs and find it hard to wear other shoes. Vibram Five Fingers shoes (“VFFs” to the die-hard fans) are worth a closer look.
After two weeks of wearing them, the lower-back pain I’d had for more than 10 years disappeared and hasn’t returned since I started experimentation about 8 weeks ago.
Sound ridiculously implausible?
It doesn’t once we look at how feet and posture adapt…
Nasty Pictures and Maladapted Feet
Each human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles and tendons. It’s a surprisingly malleable structure.
Most people, including doctors, have never seen a natural foot, unaltered by footwear. The following images of habitually bare feet are taken from a study performed almost 100 years ago, published 1905 in the American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery, which examined the feet of native barefoot populations in the Philippines and Central Africa. A line can be drawn that runs through the heel, ball, and big toe of a habitually bare foot. The little toes spread naturally and fan out to provide a wide, stable base for walking or standing.
How do our shod feet compare? The following more common image, also taken from the 1905 study, demonstrates feet that are shaped like the owner’s shoes. No such line can be drawn, and the little toes crowd to a point—a comparatively unstable, narrow base for walking or standing.
The Simple Biomechanics of Bad Posture
Postural compensation is unavoidable while wearing shoes that elevate the heels. It’s necessary to maintain balance.
Chronic use of heels can result — and usually does — in some degree of kyphosis-lordosis and related pains in the lower back and mid-upper back.
Reversing Degeneration – Embracing the Barefoot Alternative
Laboratory studies show that the plantar arch alone returns at least 17 percent of the energy of impact. Running shoes have largely replaced our arches, but they are neither as effective nor as durable. Barefoot runners can clearly do as well as shoed runners, but it takes time to develop the strength in the foot to use our natural arch fully.
(Source: The Barefoot Route)
Ethiopian Abebe Bikila ran a world-record 2:15:17 marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
The unadorned human foot is built for running. In fact, some researchers have proposed that bipedalism is an evolved trait related to “persistence hunting”, which is common among predators like wolves. Don’t think a human can run an antelope to death? Think again.
So how do we reclaim our rightful arch strength, our stability, and undo the damage of years of unnatural posture? Not to mention rediscover the joy of feeling the terrain under our feet?
Going barefoot is one option, and one that I enjoy, but there are limits. In the concrete jungle, glass and other dangers make going Bushman a roll of the dice at best. Tetanus or a trip to the ER? I’ll pass.
The Vibram Five Fingers shoes, to differing degrees, allow you to both walk without a heel (as would wrestling shoes, Vivo Barefoot shoes, or thin flip-flops) and condition toe-spread, especially the big toe, for lateral stability.
I first tested the KSO (“keep stuff out”) model, which fits most like an aqua sock and has more padding than other models I tested.
I wear a size 9.5 men’s shoe in the US and tested EU 42 for the KSO and Classic, and an EU 43 for the Sprint.
The results, in brief:
My favorite model is, by far, the Classic. It’s easiest to get on, even with my worthless nub of a little toe, and it most closely mimics the true barefoot feel. The only downside is that, to get a snug fit and not have the heel come off the foot, you must slide the top slip-tie until it is quite tight. This will feel unusual for the first 24 hours or so. I have used the Classic to go trail running in SF and it is euphoric.
I love the KSO, but it is more of a process to get on, and far more conspicuous. At first, it’s fun to get a lot of attention with the shoes (gentlemen, you will not believe the “peacocking” effect of these puppies), but giving each person you meet a 5-minute explanation gets old fast. The Classic blends in more than the KSO or any model with straps. Black will help all models fade into the ground, but I prefer colors.
The Sprint model was so uncomfortable at first that I shelved them, never intending to test them again. It was the only model, and not due to size differences, that oddly pulled my little toe out, causing minor pain but great discomfort after even 10 minutes. I sent an e-mail to their US CEO, who responded back with a suggestion to “seat the heel”, particularly with the Sprint model. This means:
Slide your foot back to nestle your heel into the heel pocket. It’s important to get your heel deeply seated. Secure the instep strap BEFORE latching the heel straps. This will ensure the foot is positioned properly.
I have since been able to wear the Sprint model for 1-2 days at a time, no more than 1 hour of walking at a stretch, but the velcro strap can still bite into the skin without the KSO-like mesh below it. I find it the least comfortable of the three models.
But what about flat feet?
I had clinically-diagnosed arch problems as a child — flat feet supreme — and was prescribed not only custom orthopedic insoles but also exercises for the feet themselves, rolling up towels with the toes, etc.. For those who like random anecdotes, my mom e-mailed me this addition after I published this post:
You didn’t mention that you leapt at the orthopedist examining your feet, like Spidey to a wall.
Sounds like me. I was a little hellion. But we digress…
Needless to say, the exercises fell by the wayside, and I took to increasing levels of support through the shoes themselves. VFFs have been nothing short of spectacular for me, despite my history of flat feet.
Barefoot runners are often asked “but what do you use for arch support?”, to which they respond: “your arches”. I’ve found that my arches, and foot as a whole, feels better with less support rather than more.
Cautions and Cons
-Do not overdo it at first. Chances are that the ligaments and musculature of your feet is underdeveloped. Use them for no more than 1/2 – 1 mile in the first 24 hours, then take a day off. I suggest alternating VFFs with “normal” shoes or flat-soled shoes like Chuck Taylors for the first week. I now use VFFs for no more than three days in a row, as I’ve had some bruising on the heel with more, and such bruising is slow to heal and massively inconvenient. Asphalt is somewhat forgiving, concrete much less so (The Embarcadero in SF, for example), and marble or stone is brutal (casino floors in Las Vegas, etc.).
-Beware the sizing. There are complaints online of the VFF website sizing suggestions being inaccurate for some people. Get sized at a retail location that carries VFFs if possible. If you can’t, check the VFF return policy on their site or order through Amazon to ensure swaps are simple.
-Be prepared to wash them. VFFs are machine washable and should be air dried. There are five-toed socks like the Injinji brand, but I have found all of them to be incredibly painful between the toes, no matter which model of shoe is worn. I now only wear VFFs barefoot. One nice side-effect of the toe separation? No more athlete’s foot or foot skin issues.
To embrace barefoot living or the barefoot alternative, you will have to change how you walk and run, avoiding the heel strike we’ve all used since putting thick Nike padding under our soles. No need to obsess, though, as your gait will adapt naturally — reverting to a natural state, as it were — as you avoid the discomfort of doing otherwise.
The fastest runners have a style quite similar to that of a person running without shoes. They absorb shock by landing lightly on their forefeet rather than on their heels, and their landing leg is beneath the torso, with the leg slightly bent to absorb impact.
According to exercise physiologist and Olympic marathoner Pete Pfitzinger, the key to starting out is to go slowly. He advises walking barefoot for a few weeks to toughen up the skin on the bottom of the foot as well as the muscles in the ankles and feet. Once you are ready to run, start with a mere five minutes, increasing slowly and running barefoot every couple of days. From there, build to up to 20 minutes over a month. After a few weeks of this, the feet and ankles will be stronger, thus reducing the risk of injury. Possible places to train include sandy beaches and golf courses.
The barefoot running technique has been described as falling forward. It has also been described as gently kissing the ground with the balls of your feet.
(Source: The Barefoot Route)
For those interested in developing the most efficient and low-impact running gait, I suggest starting with the Chi Running DVD (skip the book, which gets into too much pseudo-Asian chi mumbo jumbo) and moving to the Pose Method of Running book if interested in more specific details.
Experiment with rediscovering your feet and proper biomechanics.
If a few weeks can eradicate 10+ years of lower-back pain for me, it might just do something for you.
At the very least, you get to wear some goofy shoes that encourage you to wiggle your toes.
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