Ever since I got my VFFs, people have been asking me whether I ran in them
and I'd always give the same answer: I haven't been brave enough. After
I ran into Phil Stark, though, who does ultras in his huaraches, I figured
I'd give it a try.
Rather than slowly transition, I decided to just switch over to
Vibrams completely (this was Phil's advice and I had injured my
shoulder, so couldn't do too much mileage anyway). That was about
6 weeks ago and I'm now at the point where I can comfortably go up to 7-8 miles, either
on trails or road, and I feel like I have a long enough baseline
to report back.
It wasn't that hard for me to transition. I started with really short,
with a mile or so, and then worked my way up over the course of a
month or so. If you're a foot striker you need to completely alter
your stride so you land either mid or forefoot (this is pretty much
the point of going barefoot). I started out mostly on asphalt, which
you would think would be pretty hard without any cushioning, but it
really forces you to concentrate on your stride: one or two
(incredibly unpleasant) heel landings on asphalt with no cushioning
teaches you real fast to adjust your stride. Anyway, once your
stride adjusts and you learn to land softly, I at least didn't
find that there was much trauma to my foot. At around week
3 or 4, I started to get some pain in the metatarsals of my
right foot, but that mostly went away after a few more weeks.
Instead of the foot, the primary adjustment was in the calf.
Because you land on the forefoot, and seem to push off more
by extending your foot, it seems like you put a lot more
stress on your gastrocnemius. For the first month or so my
calf and achilles tendon would be sore after each run, and
at least once I had my right calf completely lock up and
I was limping for a few days. This has mostly gone away
by now, however, and I feel pretty comfortable up to
Surface and Terrain
I've now run in VFFs on a whole bunch of different surfaces. Dirt
trails are the best, then grass, then asphalt, and then
gravel. Basically this is an issue of cushioning: with VFFs you're
much more sensitive to how hard the surface is and grass and dirt are
just nicely comfortable and springy. (Note: I prefer dirt even with a
real shoe). Asphalt gives you a harder landing and so is less
comfortable, but basically fine as long as you are actually landing
OK. The problem with gravel is that as the size of the rocks starts
to get bigger you start to have to really watch your landing: coming
down hard on a sharp rock the size of a golf ball can be quite painful.
Climbing hills is good: you would naturally tend to land on the ball
of your foot anyway, so it doesn't require much of an adjustment in
your stride. By contrast, going down is bad because you would
naturally tend to heel strike so you need to really overcompensate to
avoid that. And of course since you tend to strike relatively hard
going downhill anyway, this is doubly bad. Even now I tend to come
down harder than I would like.
The biggest problem with running in VFFs as opposed to shoes isn't
the routine pounding but rather pebbles, rocks, acorns, etc.
The soles are just too thin and flexible to protect you
from this kind of impact.
You can't always avoid stepping on rocks, but when you're running on a
basically flat surface you can mostly see them in advance
and when you do accidentally step on one, you usually notice before
you've put your full weight on it and can just pull your foot
back before you've done any real damage. I've only really
managed to hurt myself twice: a week ago when I stepped on a
small pinecone but landed on the side of my foot rather than
the ball and wasn't able to correct. Then yesterday I want running
on the baylands trail and there were just so many rocks
that I couldn't avoid all of them and so landed pretty hard
on a few.
Even in those two cases, I didn't do any permanent damage, just
hurt a lot immediately and then ached for the next 5-10 minutes.
It feels fine now, though and I don't see any bruising.
People often ask me about running with shoes with so little support:
I have incredibly flat feet and I've never really found that
having a lot of support did much for me; I find it more comfortable to
just let my feet pronate completely the way they want to, even in
normal running shoes.
I don't know what VFFs would be like for someone with normal arches.
While I wear socks with regular shoes, I don't
wear them with VFFs (you can wear Injinjis), and this hasn't been
a problem for me.
I have one friend who tends to get a lot of blisters with VFFs, but
this hasn't been a problem for me at all (and I have gotten blisters
with other shoes, so it's not like my feet are especially tough).
I suspect this is primarily an issue of fit. For longer runs,
it seems like I might be getting a few hotspots and I've been
trying to slather on some Hydropel as a precaution.
You need to be a bit careful about stubbing your toe. There's not much
protection and if you scrape the top of your toe, you can tear through
the thin nylon at the top or peel the rubber sole away. I've got a small
tear above my big toe. So far it's not expanding but I've ordered a new
pair just in case.
I suspect I'd be able to run much longer in VFFs (and I'll try a 10
this weekend), but given how much trouble I had when I ran on
grave of the wrong size, I'm not sure I would want to do something like
an ultra, where I couldn't turn around and didn't know that
the surface would be good. In view of that, I'll probably start
mixing it up more to make sure I still can run in shoes if I want