(Admin note: I originally intended to write a brief introductory lead-in to my review of the Vibram FiveFingers I’ve been wearing, but the introduction soon took on a life of its own. I tend to ramble when I get excited, and I haven’t been this fired up about a product review in a very long time.
Consequently, I’m making this a two-episode affair: an overview of the company and the product concept today, and a specific review of the model I’m testing in the next post. It was either that, or make you sift through my amateur business lessons, history tidbits, and dime store philosophy while trying to find specific details about the product. Believe me, I did you a favor. With that, let’s get things started … )
“Let me be now, let me because -
I want to be free now, free to see, yeah well –
I want to walk away, let me feel my feet –
Let me be free … “
- Xavier Rudd, “Let Me Be” (video after post)
It’s only fitting that a song by one of the most distinctive, uniquely entertaining musicians of the decade should introduce one of the most distinctive, uniquely enjoyable products I’ve had the pleasure to review.
Every so often, a product comes along that is so innovative, it doesn’t just distinguish itself from the rest of the field – it creates an entirely new category all its own. The Vibram FiveFingers is one such product, and without a doubt the single most prominent factor in the ongoing barefoot running revolution.
Vibram didn’t exactly take the running world by storm, however; it’s been more than two full years since the FiveFingers was named on Time Magazine’s list of top inventions of 2007. Rather, it has been at the forefront of a steadily building groundswell from runners who want to experience natural running, but prefer an ounce of caution with their abundant sense of adventure.
The funny part is, Vibram didn’t set out to revolutionize the running industry. In fact, it’s a textbook example of what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls the theory of disruptive innovation. He describes how an emerging product can have values that are not initially recognized by the mainstream market, because the market is accustomed to different performance attributes (for example, super-cushiony or overly supportive athletic shoes). However, when small segments of the marketplace begin utilizing the product for needs not initially recognized - neither by the manufacturer nor by mainstream consumers – those same features that were once thought substandard enable the product to overlap and eventually overtake the mainstream market.
(Sorry … can you tell I’ve been reading some business articles lately? I won’t throw any more macroeconomics at you, I promise.)
In this case, Vibram developed a product that was mainly designed as a deck shoe to improve traction for yacht sailing. The fortunate accident was when its unique functionality was hijacked by numerous other athletic communities for their own previously unconsidered purposes. Hikers, climbers, kayakers, yoga and Pilates enthusiasts, martial artists, traceurs (practitioners of parkour - see video below) – they’ve all seized the FiveFingers as an essential part of their activity.
(To their immense credit, the Vibram company welcomes and encourages this kind of user innovation; on their website and in their brochures, they invite customers to contact them with new uses for their footwear. They then go one step further and sponsor many of these offshoot activities - such as this parkour festival – further solidifying their standing as a disruptive innovator. See? Economics can be fun!)
All of which brings us to the running community.
For all the recent buzz about running barefoot, it’s not exactly breaking news; coaches, scientists, and runners of all abilities have long known about the benefits of natural running. The trouble has always been the impractical and potentially dangerous aspect of actually removing your shoes in modern society. Our ancestors might have been born to run barefoot, but they probably didn’t have to worry about broken beer bottles, stray shards of metal, rugged chip and seal asphalt, or countless other hazards that might ultimately require antibiotics and a tetanus shot.
Into that breach steps the FiveFingers, embraced by the running community as the perfect combination of freedom and security. Running in FiveFingers (or VFFs, as most users refer to them) basically provides you all of the biomechanical and musculoskeletal benefits of running barefoot, with none of the discomfort or concern about sharp objects puncturing your soles.
From a design standpoint, the FiveFingers is very minimalistic: it’s little more than a thin mesh upper attached to a rubber 3.5-mm outsole contoured to the anatomy of your foot. It’s also a great illustration of a company playing to its strength.
Although the FiveFingers is Vibram’s first venture into footwear, they have been perfecting the production of outsoles for more than 70 years – and chances are that you’ve used their products several times already. Company founder Vitale Bramani (whose first and last names, mashed together, give you “Vibram” – get it?) started making soles for mountaineering boots in the 1930s, after several of his friends perished in a mountaineering disaster blamed in part on substandard footwear. Over the following decades, his company set the standard for high-performance outsoles, and expanded to all varieties of footwear. Today, Vibram products are used by literally hundreds of shoe manufacturers; name a company, and they probably use Vibram outsoles.
(Incidentally, Vibram has an interesting racing heritage as well: the inventive process that led to Bramani’s development of vulcanized rubber was financially supported by his friend Leopoldo Pirelli – better known as the founder of Pirelli racing tires. So think of that Vibram outsole on yur foot as your own little piece of a Formula 1 racer. Thus concludes your free history lesson for the day.)
So you’ve got your outsole – but obviously, that’s not the most noticable aspect of the FiveFingers. Rather, it’s the separate toe compartments that give this footwear its distinctive look and contribute to a uniquely natural feeling while wearing them.
The net effect of the thin outsole and independent toe compartments is complete freedom of movement while wearing FiveFingers. It enables you to sense and respond to the ground underneath you in a way that no conventional footwear is capable of. There’s a holistic feeling to them, like you’re actively interacting with the world around you instead of merely passing through it. And they’re just plain fun to wear, even if you’re just walking around the block.
For runners, of course, they offer a complete paradigm shift away from traditional (and flawed, according to many) running mechanics. It takes some getting used to – just about everybody recommends that you build up your time and distance in FiveFingers gradually, alternating with shod running – but once your running form begins to adapt, and you get accustomed to the feeling of the Earth beneath your toes, it’s hard to go back to normal footwear again.
Ultimately, the FiveFingers represents an intersection of two separate categories of runners. The first group is barefoot purists who never wear conventional running shoes, but will use FiveFingers on occasion for trail ultras or other especially daunting conditions like icy roads or extremely sharp, rocky terrain. The other, much larger group is comprised of traditional shoe-wearers who want to experience the feeling of barefoot running from time to time, or who occasionally want to give their legs and feet an extra shot of dexterity and strengthening during their training regimen. For a simple product to bring two disparate groups together like that, it must be pretty remarkable.
Currently, Vibram offers four models of FiveFingers footwear …
1. Classic: the simplest version, like a ballet slipper on top. These retail for $75 on the Vibram website.
2. Sprint: adds a forefoot strap across the top of the upper for a more secure fit. Retails for $80.
3. KSO (short for “Keep Stuff Out”): adds a thin mesh covering for the top of the foot, with a strap adjustment like the Sprint. Retails for $85.
4. Flow: like the KSO, except the upper is made of neoprene for increased warmth and/or water resistance. Retails for $90.
One note about the pricing: it varies a bit from multiple online vendors, but usually not by more than about 10%. At first glance, it’s hard to understand paying a similar price as you would for a pair of regular shoes – but the life span of the FiveFingers is typically much longer than regular running shoes, and therefore is a much better value.
Think of it this way: shoe life is usually dictated by the breakdown of the midsole, and the amount of support it provides. Since there’s no midsole to the FiveFingers, standard guidelines don’t apply. A single pair will last you as long as the outsole holds up, which has been demonstrated to be 18 months or more by several high-volume users. Consider it a well-spent investment on your spirit of adventure.
Over the next several months, Vibram will release two new models targeted specifically at runners: the Trek for trail running (in Fall 2009), and the Bikila for road running (spring 2010). There will be some minor outsole and upper differences to distinguish each of these models, and they should prove to be very interesting additions to the product line. This summer, I’ve been reviewing the KSO model, which will be the topic of its own post very soon.
(*updated: the KSO review is here.)
In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy my field testing while running on the trail, feeling my feet beneath me, while Vibram’s FiveFingers let me be free.
Xavier Rudd, "Let Me Be" (click to play):
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