If you’re shy about talking to strangers or self-conscious when people stare at your feet and whisper to their friends, the Vibram FiveFingers line of shoes will help you overcome your fears. You will find yourself in conversations in the supermarket checkout line or with random passersby on the street. Everyone wants to know, “Are those shoes?” (Answer: Sort of.) “Are they comfortable?” (Answer: yes.)
The deal with the Vibram FiveFingers KSO Trek is that it’s designed to trick your feet into thinking they’re naked. The proponents of barefoot running claim all sorts of benefits to going sans shoes. Enhanced leg and foot strength, reduced injuries, improved posture and balance, the list is fairly extensive. The hypothesis is that our bodies were designed to be barefoot and to run around on uneven surfaces. But shoes and the flat floors we walk on have weakened our muscles and connective tissues, dulling our reactions and agility. Think of barefooting like going organic for the shoe crowd.
I’m a regular runner and believer in compound, body-weight exercises, so I was intrigued by the idea of barefoot running. But I also have soft, baby-like feet completely devoid of calluses, and the thought of running around trails barefoot filled my imagination with nightmarish visions of imbedded twigs and infected cuts.
I promise you this: The KSO Treks are unlike any other shoes you’ve ever worn. Instead of supporting your foot, they simply protect it from sharp things and let your foot move naturally. Most noticeable, they have a small pocket for each toe, like gloves for your feet, to let your toes move individually. It’s as close to being barefoot as you can get without risking your skin to the ground. The thin rubber sole provides just a bit of cushion, enough to take the jarring edge off from walking on concrete, but doesn’t feel that different from wearing regular shoes.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the FiveFingers are a little harder to put on than normal shoes. With a little practice I was able to do it in about 1 minute, but getting each toe into its little slot took a little concentration. Sizing is very important, and if your second toe is a lot longer than your big toe you might be out of luck.
Vibram recommends starting slowly since your muscles and connectors have a lifetime of atrophy to overcome. Eventually I grew confident enough to wear them on short hikes into the Colorado Rockies around Breckenridge and on dayhikes around northern Virginia. The traction from the grippy Vibram sole is superb, and I liked being able to feel what was underfoot. I really did feel more in tune with my feet while on the trail instead of mindlessly clomping along. Be cautious, though, since stubbing your toe feels pretty close to what it would be like barefoot.
The KSO Trek is the most rugged of the FiveFingers line, designed for light trail walking and running. Some of the other models have stretchy fabric uppers, the KSO Treks have kangaroo leather which is very soft and dries quickly.
You definitely won’t find me running a marathon in these, although I’m sure some people have. The heel strikes while running were too jolting, especially on pavement, for me to enjoy the experience. On hikes I didn’t feel like I had enough support to carry an overnight pack, although I did appreciate the light weight (11.5 oz. per pair) on steep dayhikes. I appreciated the KSO Treks the most during my calisthenics workouts. Jumping, lunging, sprinting and kicking all felt remarkably good, There are fierce advocates on each side of the debate, with boot and shoe companies claiming that you’re risking a broken ankle or stressed Achilles’ tendons. On the other side are the barefooters who insist that a return to nature is the solution for stronger, more resilient legs. I’m not a doctor and won’t comment on the medical benefits, but if you want to dip your toes into the barefoot movement, the KSO Treks are a great option for trying it out while keeping your feet protected.
11.4 oz. (men’s 42 on BP scales)
Available sizes: Euro 40-47