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MINIMALIST FOOTWEAR I:  2010 HIKING In VIBRAM 5 FINGERS & BAREFEET

 

How It Began

Quite unexpectedly while hiking in the Austrian Alps late in the summer of 2009, we removed our sturdy "boots", our Chaco sandals with Vibram soles, and took a spin barefoot on the sod trail. Some months earlier I'd read an online excerpt from a book entitled "Barefoot Hiking" and liked the idealized concept for my feet but wasn't keen on squishing around on slugs in the US's Pacific Northwest muck or discovering prickly plants on the forest floor.

But it was different in Obergurgl, Austria. High above tree line on dirt paths cut by cows in the tundra-like turf, there were no trees to generate splinters; no bees; probably no hidden snakes; and none of the other usual hazards back home. And here we could see the rocks poking up through the mix of lichens and low tufty grasses. We were instantly hooked on the amazing array of sensations on our soles and by the hidden talents of our feet. Our search for light protection for our feet on gravel trails lead us to Vibram 5 Fingers, with which we also experimented during our 2010 overseas hiking season.

 


The KSO Treks are a better bet in the snow.

Vibram 5 Fingers

KSOs vs KSO Treks

Speed

My husband, Bill, had a pair of each though I only had the original KSOs as the KSO Treks were not yet made in smaller sizes when we left for Europe early in 2010. Our conclusions after his initial testing of both styles over the course of about 3 weeks were that the original KSOs were superior for conditioning the feet, especially in preparation for barefooting, but that the Treks were preferable for novices such as us on longer hikes (more than 2 hours), or on rocky or unpredictable terrain. That initial conclusion held as the weeks turned into a couple of months of almost daily hiking, either barefoot or in 5 Fingers. 

The additional sole protection of the heftier Treks allowed Bill to maintain his tempo on broken rock descents or on gravel roads whereas I would have to slow in my KSOs to avoid battering the balls of my feet, especially in the first weeks. If hiking with a group of people shod in regular foot wear, we'd definitely wear the Treks so as to keep up over a wider range of surface conditions.

Snow

The smoother sole of the KSO's ("keep stuff out") were also less reliable in traversing patches of snow:  my feet slid until hitting the end of a larger foot print whereas Bill felt relatively secure in his Treks on one snow field; another time we were about equally secure in the summer snow fields.

Scree

Several years ago an Italian Dolomite's hiking guide taught us how to quickly descend steep slopes of scree by running down the fall line; forcefully heel planting; and riding the resulting mini-rock slide. We were wearing the required boots at the time but discovered later that the technic worked just fine in our Chaco sandals and not surprisingly, worked while wearing either the original or Trek KSOs also. The KSO feature of a mesh top to "keep stuff out" was surely an asset. Bill picked up a few rocks in his Treks during our short trial while I didn't collect any rocks in my originals. I was wearing toe pocket socks whereas he was not, which may have helped shrink the gaps around the ankle bones where his rocks filtered in, but my KSOs are so tight-fitting that I need a shoe horn to slip my feet in. Gaiters designed for trail running shoes might keep more rocks out if wadding sock tops into the KSO top opening didn't do the job.

Mud

Mud, which is generally rare in the Italian Dolomites where we do most of our hiking, also highlighted the deficiencies of the original KSOs. We unexpectedly descended about 500m (about 1600') on a muddy service road that we estimated was a 30% grade in many places. Ever so slowly we planned each foot step to prevent sliding until after about 40 minutes we came across an incredibly slick stretch of mud. Bill went down after skidding for 18" and landed on his rear end. Disappointingly, a minute later I too was sliding and thumped down even though I had fair warning. I landed hard, irritating a shoulder that I dislocated 16 months earlier.


The mud-test challenge: KSOs vs Treks.

While I did damage assessment on my jammed shoulder joint, Bill pulled out 1 of the KSO Treks he had in his back pack and retraced his steps up to the slickest area to meticulously compare the original KSOs with the KSO Treks.  Alternating so as to plant each shoe in precisely the same patch of mud, the Trek consistently outperformed the original KSOs grip. Had we been wearing Treks through this extremely slick section of mud, we would have been able to stay upright, which would have spared us a lot of dirty laundry that night and prevented changing our plans because of my new shoulder injury.

I decided after the treacherous time on the steep, muddy road to always carry my set of mini-crampons when on a KSO hike. In the past we had used them on our Chaco sandals if we encountered a stretch of snow on our summer hikes and it seemed that they would work as well to give my KSOs more grip in either snow or mud (see below "Accessories".)

A few days later I tried the mini-crampons on my KSOs and they worked as well as expected for an extreme-conditions solution. Bill was impressed enough with their performance that he began carrying his crampons even when wearing his Treks.

After logging about 120 hours in my KSOs over the course of 2 months, I was again skidding and then falling in intermittent stretches of mud on steep, rainy-day descents in the Austrian Alps. Not wanting to wear the mini-crampons for over an hour for the occasional patch of treacherous mud, I reverted to using both of our trekking poles to maintain my speed and stability and they were a life-saver. Bill was surefooted in his Treks so I could use both of our poles. I extended them so as to be a little longer than usual to maintain a very upright but forward-leaning posture and kept the poles close to my body. I was able to descend faster than I usually do on steep slopes by using short, quick steps and relying on the planted poles to halt the occasional skid.

 

Sizing, Blisters, & Socks

Sizing

Bill bought his KSOs and KSO Treks in the same size. The Treks were a looser fit from the beginning and stretched more rapidly than the KSOs. He found no disadvantage in having his Treks become loose-fitting.

However, Vibram is emphatic: a snug fit is key to your success with 5 Fingers. But when you develop blisters, the remedy from the retailers is to wear socks with toe pockets, which of course won't squeeze inside new KSOs if you fit them properly snug.

In addition to the trade-offs required between sizing your 5 Fingers KSOs so you can wear socks or not, there are other considerations. The time it took for me to get my snug-fitting KSO's on was a deterrent to taking them off when hiking  alone or with others. When we hit an unknown length of sod trail after almost an hour in rocks, my husband slipped off his Treks to do some barefooting. I hesitated and decided not to join him because of the 5 minutes I would need to get my KSOs on again. If I'd known that we'd be able to barefoot for 10 or more minutes, I would have done it. But I would have been kicking myself if we were back in rocks that were challenging even in my KSOs in a couple of minutes. Snug fitting KSOs decreased the spontaneity of taking them on and off in respond to changes in the trail or to inspect my feet if I thought a blister might be forming.

Blisters

We were overseas when I developed a blister with my first long wearing of my KSOs. I quickly did the math and calculated that using 1 Compress Blister pad per day to protect the blister prone area would have had me forking out enough cash every 6 weeks to pay for new pair of KSOs.  But unfortunately, none of the several different brands of blister pads and a couple of types of sport tape I tried would stay on my 'bunion bone' blister area for more than 2 hours and that was if I avoided getting my feet wet in puddles or streams. And keeping my blister protection materials out of water took away some of the fun of minimalist footwear.

Many online commentators promised that well-managed abuse of the skin would eventually result in generating protective calluses to prevent blisters, but I had my doubts. My annual 6-8 week intense hiking season meant starting over again each year with the process of callus building and I wasn't confident that the very thin skin over that bit of bone even had the capacity to callus. Fortunately I only developed significant blisters on my right foot bunion bone; the tiny blisters above each little toe nail could safely be ignored.

 I finally settled on the diagonal placement of a small piece of woven sport tape over the blister-prone area and wearing a sock over the tape.  Positioning the woven tape on the diagonal allowed the tape to stretch a bit with the flexion of my foot, increasing its effective lifetime. Long, steep descents or wading while crossing creeks would still dislodge the tape and the skin was reddened after each wearing, but the tape and sock combination prevented blistering.

Our experience with blisters changed over time, presumably changing with the stretching of the KSOs. At about 5 weeks, my bunion bone blister area was significantly less traumatized than usual. It was on an exceptionally long day, 7 hours of hiking on rocky terrain, and yet the skin under the tape and sock looked completely unscathed. The day before, on a much shorter outing, was when Bill developed his first blister in the same area on his right foot. (The inside seam across the bunion bone area on both of our right shoe KSOs was remarkably more raised than on the left shoe.)  We surmised that the sudden change in blister formation for both of us was due to stretching of the KSO fabric that had allowed our feet to shift more forward in the shoe. For me that meant shifting out the the blister-zone; for him it meant slipping into the blister zone.

Socks

After a couple of weeks of almost daily use, my KSOs had stretched enough that I could literally shoe-horn them on in 4 minutes, down from a starting time of 8 minutes. A few wearings of 1-3 hours duration later, I was able to squeeze into my KSOs while wearing Injinji toe-pocket socks, though just barely, and I still required the help of a shoe horn.


Toe socks L to R: Novelty acrylic & cotton; Injinji sport grade.

Comfortable they were not, but the socks were tolerable, especially once the stimulation of a rocky trail overwhelmed the crowded feeling in the toe pockets. The socks alone were almost, but not quite, enough protection for my blister-prone bunion bone and provided more reliable coverage than using blister patches or tape that often rubbed off on the trail.   

After 6 weeks of heavy use of my KSOs, I was able to stop covering my blister prone area with tape and only use the socks for protection. At 7 weeks, I was fine after a 2+ hour hike of about 1600' elevation gain without the use of socks or tape.  I will however continue to carry socks and other blister-intervention supplies as it seems impossible to predict when they might occur.

 

Toe Webbing Distress

It was my left foot that protested loudly because of the pain from the KSO digging into the webbing between the base of the little and the adjacent toe. The left shoe was assembled with a little bit of a twist in the fabric of the toe pockets that wasn't evident on the right shoe, which may have been the cause of the problem. The base of the toe area was mildly uncomfortable upon putting on the KSO but it wasn't until I hit the downhill slopes that it became nearly intolerable discomfort. Socks did nothing to alleviate this agony and the bulk of the socks may have made it worse.

What did relieve the webbing pain was tearing a cotton ball into 4 pieces and stuffing a chunk into the end of each of 4 toes, selecting the piece that was closest to the size needed to fill the empty space in the toe pockets (I have short toes). I could feel the relief as soon as I slipped the KSO on my foot as the pressure on the toe webbing area was gone.

I was lucky: the amount of cotton I stuffed into each pocket was good enough on the first try but it could be tricky for some to fill the toe pocket sufficiently so that the toes spare the webbing from all the pressure of the shoe on the down hills without shifting all of the distress to the toe tips. Lambs wool that ballerinas use in their toe shoes might be a more durable choice. Even though the cotton balls compressed with use, they were reusable for multiple wearings.

After 33 hours of wearing my KSOs with portions of a cotton ball stuffed in each toe pocket (a total of approximately 75 hours in KSOs), I no longer needed to use them to prevent webbing distress. Presumably the shoe had stretched enough in the right places to increase my comfort. The inside edge of my little toe nails were however tired of the battering they received and I fashioned cotton ball and tape hoods for them.

 


Mini-crampons on my KSOs.

Accessories

The first couple of months of outings with my KSOs I carried with me:  a small shoe horn to get them on; tape and blister pads; several cotton balls; and back-up footwear in case there was a serious problem. The cotton balls were useful for 2 situations. As mentioned above, stuffing a bit of cotton into each toe pocket on my left KSO relieved the toe-webbing distress from my foot sliding too far forward because of my short toes. And when Bill sheared off a chunk of skin with his first bunion-bone blister, a tiny piece of cotton on  the raw tissue protected the skin from further damage when he used protective tape over the area the next day. We were convinced that Band-Aids wouldn't stay put, but knew that the tape would so he effectively made his own Band-Aid with sport tape and a portion of a cotton ball, like I had done for my little toe hoods.

After slip-sliding around in mud and snow in my KSOs, I decided to always pack my mini-crampons to get me through a dicey bit of terrain. Our latest pairs of "Slide Stopper Quick Clip Cleats" were purchased from Liberty Mountain:  www.greatoutdoorsdepot.com.  Previously we purchased the same item from a different company that called them "Ice Walkers."  A pair of telescoping walking sticks are also very helpful in slippery mud.

 

Back-Up Footwear

After wearing KSOs almost daily for a month, I revisited my need to carry back-up footwear on hikes. My revised criteria for packing back-up footwear had more to do with the remoteness of the walk than the difficulty of the trail surface or the distance traveled.


Too remote for me to be without back-up footwear.

I was quite comfortable going on a 4 hour roundtrip hike to Passo Gardena in the Dolomites without backup footwear because  the trail was never far from the road. If I smashed up a foot, I knew I could hobble-out to the road to catch the rare bus or hitch a ride back to the B&B without too much difficulty. On the other hand, I decided that no matter how proficient I became in my KSOs, I would always carry back-up footwear on remote climbs in which the only option for getting out if I couldn't walk well would be by rescue helicopter. (My back-up footwear is Chaco sandals--I never wear boots.)

About 6 weeks into our near-daily barefooting/KSO wearing, I suffered an injury that was a perfect example as to when back-up footwear would be helpful. Towards the end of an all day hike, I tripped and slid sideways a bit. I was most aware of dinging my little toe on my right foot but a little over an hour later after taking a short bus ride back to town, I could hardly walk on my left foot. I seemed that it was the swelling in the ball of my foot was so great that the tight fit of the KSO was intensifying the pain. The next morning I could see that I bruised the upper ball of the foot area. Had the injury occurred earlier in the day, I can believe that switching into my loose-fitting Chaco sandal would have relieved enough pressure on the joint that I could have walked out in reasonable comfort.

Additionally, I will always carry my Chaco's, heavy socks, and Gore-tex waterproof socks on a high mountain hikes when there is a risk of a sudden drop in the temperature, especially if accompanied by rain or snow.

 

Cold Weather

We are still exploring the use of KSOs in cold weather. Our current hypothesis is that KSOs will only be suitable in cold weather if the terrain is forgiving enough that we can sustain a body-warming pace the entire time.  On steep up hills, keeping the feet warm isn't an issue but could be when it is time to turn around and pick our way down at a much lower level of exertion.

A cold day without rain is likely more workable than a cold day with rain. So far, we've been comfortable in temperatures in the high 50's F in light rain.

Our feet do get chilled when we stop for a picnic lunch in the mountains on a cool day, especially if the shoes and/or socks are still damp. However they warm-up nicely after about 10 minutes back in action, even on a descent.

 

2011 KSO Update

In January of 2011 I effortlessly put on a new pair of KSOs in the same size as pair #1 and no shoehorn was required, even on the first wearing. Hiking for over 2 hour on a mud, rock, and dirt trail resulted in absolutely no skin damage or irritation to my feet. No blisters, no torn skin, no reddened tissue at all. This was a vastly different experience from my first pair of KSO's that required constant fiddling to make them wearable. I am encouraged but clueless as how to shop for an easy-to-wear pair the next time.

 

Barefooting

The Goal

For us, as for many minimalist footwear fans, barefooting is the ultimate, but difficult to achieve, goal.  It can be too hard for novices to find good ground for barefoot hiking to let it be an 'all or nothing' affair, hence the 5 Fingers serve as an intermediate solution. The 5 Fingers allow us to achieve more conditioning for our feet in a year and to increase our CV workouts when hiking than if we only barefooted . We barefoot hike when we can to get the full benefit for our feet and bodies of unblunted contact with the ground.

 

Organic Hazards

Ants

Ants were an unexpected problem when barefooting one day as I picked up 2 in a matter of minutes that each bit the top of my foot. I realized that the only difference between that day and prior barefooting days in the same area was that I hadn't buttoned the cuff of my long pants to narrow the width of the leg opening. As soon as I narrowed the diameter of the pant at my ankle, I stopped getting bit.

It seemed that while walking the ants would climb on to my foot and quietly and quickly find their way off again as long as I didn't annoy them. My guess was that the brushing motion of the pant edge against the top of my foot put them under siege and they responded by biting to hang on.


Our latest barefooting skill: spotting ant hills from afar.

Barefooting also sharpened my eye for spotting ant hills that could be as much as 3 feet high in the Italian Dolomites region. Occasionally they would be right on the edge of a forest trail. Best to give a wide berth to any symmetrical mound near the base of a conifer when in the forests.

Bees

Bees have yet to be a problem. I keep an eye out for them in clover fields but I haven't been stung.  I do pay extra attention when going through mud as it can attract wasps that are quick to sting.

Splinters

When walking under conifers close to their trunks I often picked up a dozen or more tiny splinters, some of which became infected before I otherwise noticed them. My guess is that it was the sloughing bark that formed the splinter material, not the needles. If I stayed out at the foliage edge, the drip line of the tree, I didn't seem to accumulate splinters.

 

Accessories

As an overseas bike traveler, I don't have ready access to every aid that I might want. But if barefooting is on the itinerary, I am always sure to pack:

A walking stick is invaluable for first barefoot steps on mountain trails. We both tended to arch backwards when striking a sharp rock with a naked foot, a gesture that could have knocked us over if we hadn't had the 'third leg' provided by a trekking pole. Do be aware though that you don't want to become overly dependent on the walking stick as it diminishes the subtle refinement in your balance that barefooting offers.

 

For more first-timer experiences, look for the link to our 2009 piece on Hiking Barefoot on the Homepage.

 

Re-Learning To Walk Naturally

The Quest

I became a student of walking technic over 10 years ago after realizing that I had acquired a nasty habit of shifting so much weight on to my heels that I was slipping backwards with increasing frequency.  Dislocating a shoulder in the spring of 2009 after slipping backwards while walking downhill on a steep, rain slickened street in a remote Montenegrin town made it even more compelling to change my walking posture so as to keep my feet under me. Despite my quest for guidance and information, I made discouragingly little progress in improving my walking stance until I tried barefooting. 


We quickly took-on the challenge of barefooting in rocks.

We spontaneously began barefoot hiking in the Austrian Alps on tundra-like grasses and shale-like rock at the end of the summer in 2009. With that experience, a whole new level of understanding about foot placement, gait, and posture came into our bodies as the minutes and then hours of barefoot hiking accumulated over an exciting week. The rain and cold weather of fall in the high mountains brought an abrupt end to the intense field studies, which I continued to apply as best I could to urban walking in Chaco sandals.

Our brief barefooting experience in 2009 had been preceded by seeing a few high-mountain trail runners in the Italian Alps that could jog down steep, rock-strewn trails that had the rest of us carefully picking our way with the aid of trekking poles. It was clear from watching them that we had a lot to learn about walking well and the subsequent barefoot hiking promised to teach us some of the secrets of these exceptionally fast and confident hikers.

 

The Breakthrough

A little online research revealed that the cornerstone of the mountain runners technic was the same as that of barefooters, which was shifting to forefoot striking instead of heel striking with every step. However the real breakthrough for me came from reading a single online comment this summer, which was that some lifetime barefoot African runners point their toes before striking the ground with their forefoot. Within minutes after experimenting with toe pointing on a fairly steep descent, I could feel that it was the missing element in my emphasis on shifting from heel striking to forefoot striking. Trying this strategy when walking on a narrow, raised stone curb that I used as a mini-balance beam highlighted that the image of pointing my toes also dramatically improved my balance.

As we refined our foot placement technic in our Vibram 5 Fingers KSOs, I became convinced that the forefoot striking and toe pointing I was doing wasn't enough: I also needed think about strongly ramming my toe pads into the trail surface as best I could on descents; let the toes spread apart to slow any skidding; and then forcefully lower the very forward leading edge of the ball of the foot to the ground to further root my foot. Usually the forefoot arch, the mid-foot arch, and the tiny lateral arch of my foot bowed or tilted as needed to avoid painful contact with the rocks underfoot. 


We inadvertently picked flowers while refining our skills.

As we accumulated more hours of aggressive toe/forefoot planting on wickedly steep, loose-rock descents, we became convinced that this was indeed the way our feet were designed to work as the lack of pain and increased stability were stunning. And much to our surprise, the toes didn't complain a bit. The technic did require allowing time for both the flexibility and strength of our feet to increase. 

We also quickly discovered that the bulky, stiff soles of our Chaco sandals interfered with the magic--it was much more difficult to get into the optimal forefoot striking zone with my former-favorite footwear than when wearing KSOs.

Everything seemed right with this new pointy-toe gait as all of the cues that had been hard to sustain suddenly were effortless: the sense of controlled falling when walking; having relaxed hips that rolled in response to the movement of the foot; maintaining the dignified, upright stance of the mountain runners; and a forefoot strike instead of heel striking. Within a few weeks of introducing the aggressive toe action style, we completely stopped using our trekking poles on treacherous, steep descents as we were suddenly surefooted and confident on our feet--amazing!

Suddenly my hamstring muscles in the back thigh were more supple when I stretched them as they were no longer pounded by my old gait. My knees that always felt stiff and tentative on steep downhills were now relaxed as they no longer absorbed the bulk of the descending shock but it was instead dampened by the forefoot and transmitted through the knee into the hips. And Bill's chronically tight calf muscles loosened up on their own, achieving a smoothness and length that had eluded sport massage therapists.

Despite the very challenging trail conditions in the rocky Dolomites, the compromise between the reduced 'road feel' and increased protection afforded by our Vibram 5 Fingers KSOs, compared with barefooting, allowed us to consolidate our learning and finally figure out how we should be walking all the time.

 

Transition Injuries & Conditioning 

Unlikely Injuries

Heed the often given advice: proceed slowly with the transition to barefooting or minimalist footwear when hiking or running. Decades of use have molded your feet to the way they are now and your entire body has adapted to the current shape of your feet and your well-practiced gait. Once you start reorganizing your feet, there is no telling what else must also change, when it will show-up, or how long the adaption will take.

I have been a full-time sandal wearer for about 20 years, starting with Birkenstocks, switching to Teva's, and settling on Chacos and I've done yoga for almost as many years. Then a year ago I did about 15 hours in one week of barefoot hiking on mountain trails. Even with a fairly long and liberal history with my feet and the resulting strong ankles, I was in for some unpleasant surprises this summer. The most painful and dramatic event was after about 2 weeks of alternating barefooting and wearing KSO's when something inside my right foot seemingly ripped.


"Icing" without ice before breakfast.

I was briefly running barefoot on a downhill slope in a wild flower pasture when there was a sudden, electric-shock pain the length of the inside arch of my right foot. I instantly stopped, expecting to find a stinging insect attached to my foot, but there was nothing. After a couple of minutes the sharp pain diminished but I knew all was not well.

Over the next 4 days I continued doing slow 2 hour walks in my Chacos but spent hours with my swollen foot elevated or submerged in snow-melt water for 20 minutes at a time, 4 times a day, to reduce the inflammation. Unexpectedly, for the brief intervals each day when the icing or elevation had reduced the swelling, it was clear that I hadn't damaged anything that mattered. I hadn't lost strength or flexibility in my foot at all, nor had I lost any function. It was only the swelling that caused the pain, especially when I walked on the foot.

We concluded that I must have shredded a segment of old scar tissue from some ancient and now unknown injury. It was probably a bit of remodeling in my foot that needed to happen for it to function properly when barefooting, but it was a very painful and initially a worrisome process. The transition I was experiencing reminded me of Alan Greenspan's phrase about business cycles, which was about the healthy but painful "creative destruction" that occurs within the business sector. The creative-destruction process in my foot continued for weeks on a much smaller scale as every few days it felt like some additional, smaller piece of tissue elsewhere in my foot tore and the mini-event would be followed by a milder episode of swelling.

As the initial swelling in my foot was diminishing over the course of a week, I had discovered the toe-pointed gait, which delighted me. But while working with the new gait that was an instant hit with my long-suffering knees, I also  royally annoyed the hip flexors, the muscles that cross from the upper front thigh to the front of the pelvis. Despite my best efforts of yogic stretching, these muscles were so, so pissed-off that on some days they refused to propel me up stairs. I had to ascend 2 steps at a time with the left leg and then drag the injured right leg up a step at a time to make it to my room each night. I could hike up steep grades but the greater flexion of the hip required on stairs was too much for those muscles. It took about 10 days for this cycle of hobbling muscle spasm to resolve.

At about 6 weeks in our training program, we both developed some discomfort on the back of the heel, below the Achilles tendon. Knowing that ruptured Achilles tendons are usually treated by putting a cast around the ankle, we were very gentle with this pain, which meant moderating the grades on our hikes, cautious stretching, and massaging any tender calf muscles. Nonetheless, Bill's pain flared a week later, causing him to severely curtail his activities to prevent a rupture.

I occasionally had a little bit of transient knee discomfort but it was far less than what I normally experience with hiking on steep slopes. And the list of other, relatively minor injuries got longer as the weeks rolled by with many of the injuries taking weeks to fully recover.

So, expect the unexpected for weeks or months as your body remodels, layer by layer, to the changes triggered by your feet moving as they once did when you first learned to walk.  Each round of increased flexibility in your feet will need to be followed by a round of strengthening in the newly accessible areas. If we had been at home while exploring all of these new walking technics, we both would have been receiving regular sport massages to ease the integration of this transition in our bodies. As it was, we had to cope the best we could with the various aches, pains, and injuries that presented themselves.  

 

Remedies

RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation are the standard treatment for sports injuries and we were using this recipe on an almost daily basis for weeks at a time as we pushed our feet and legs to the limit in retraining them. To this regime we also added foot massages, either self applied or exchanged, and anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen as needed.

 


But stay away from Tyrolean wooden-soled shoes.

Conditioning & Preventative Care

Introductory Conditioning

If your feet are totally unprepared for this new adventure, begin gently by wearing a pair of toe pocket socks around the house. Having your toes forcibly spread apart with the sock is a forgiving way to expose your feet to one of the odd sensations of wearing Vibram 5 Fingers. 

Wearing flexible, no-heel flip flops is another preparatory strategy. Flip-flops invite you to shorten your stride, thereby lessening the impact of your heel-striking and moving you closer to mid-foot or forefoot striking. This is an incremental way to gradually introduce your feet and body to some of the necessary and beneficial changes that come from barefooting and minimalist footwear.

Special Conditioning

Should you be heading out for unknown lands in your 5 Fingers, consider giving your feet ample training time on a variety of surfaces in preparation. While in the Italian Dolomites each summer, we hike on some of the Via Ferrata trails that require some climbing skills and the use of a safety harness. Rebar and ladders are among the aids to the hiker that can be startling or painful to newly, 5 Finger-shod feet.  Narrow diameter, round-rung ladders to climb were a bit on the painful side for us and we didn't want to linger for a photo.


Not suitable for your first day out in KSOs.

Horizontally placed ladders that function as a bridge were less painful if the feet weren't draped perpendicularly over the rungs but instead were slid along the sides. Other, wider cross members on bridges were easier to take in stride. Rebar steps were also dicey--as in painful. Cable slack lines over creeks were also 'sensational' for the feet but acceptable for short distances. So, if you are hiking in unusual areas, consider doing some special conditioning for your feet well in advance, especially on narrow metal bars--just incase.

Preventative Care

After I injured the arch of my right foot, I began soaking both feet, not just the injured one, in icy-cold tap water.  Icing an injury usually means applying an ice pack but we had no access to ice so, as we've done in the past, we soaked instead. In our experience, submerging the entire foot and ankle in very cold water is superior to using an ice pack on a foot or ankle injury as one doesn't always know the extent of the damage. And since I was generating a flood of minor aches and pains from my daily foot training, I decided that soaking both feet several times a day was prudent as it was likely that there were some minor inflammation-inducing changes going on throughout both feet.

 

What's Next

We will soon be ordering 2 huarache kits from www.invisibleshoes.com to make our own minimalist sandals. We tote our Chaco sandals that weigh about 2 lbs with us on difficult hikes as back-up foot wear to our 5 Fingers. We'd love to reduce the weight and bulk in our packs but still have alternative footwear should the temperature drop; we get hit by heavy rain; we sustain an injury that triggers so much swelling that the 5 Fingers are hard to walk in; or have a 5 Fingers shoe disintegrate in route. We aren't sure that the huarache treads will be aggressive enough for back-up shoes on steep descents, but presume we can readily attach our mini-crampons for additional traction. We are also increasingly longing for around-town footwear that is lighter and more flexible than our Chaco's when we don't want to wear our 5 Fingers. I anticipate buying a pair of waterproof socks about 3 sizes larger than my usual so I can have dry feet on wet, winter days even with the flip-flop-like toe piece of the huaraches. Check-out "Minimalist Shoes II" for more about our huaraches.

 

What's Next Update

As we rang in 2011, I was running around in my RunAmuc's--well, really they are called RunAmoc's, but I can't resist the word play. These are semi-custom made trail shoes I ordered from www.softstarshoes.com in Corvallis, Oregon. A 5mm slab of minimally knobby Vibram with a sheep skin sack over the top, and bingo, a minimalist running shoe. I had to stretch the shallow envelope of a toe box per the phone instructions from the staff but they readily conformed to my thick, wide feet that hate confinement. The minimalist sole makes it a snap to footfoot strike and I'm currently using them as a urban shoe for my long walks to further condition my legs to the concept. I've introduced up to 5 minutes of easy jogging to further my slowly implemented quest of quietly reviving my past as a runner. At this point the Five Finger KSO's are my preferred hiking shoe and my RunAmoc's will be my urban walking/running shoe that supports conditioning for the KSO's. The huaraches are in 3rd place: still being used but the most difficult of my current trio to make comfortable.

 

Post Script:  After 2 Months of Minimalist Footwear (120 hours in my KSOs)

Walking Sticks

An unexpected result of wearing minimalist footwear was the rapidity of the increase in our confidence on the trail--so much so that we abandoned carrying our treasured walking sticks on hikes. At the 2-month point of hiking in 5 Fingers, we decided to only take our poles on all-day hikes that were a loop. On those days the poles would give us an extra measure of safety should we encounter a dangerous stretch of trail too late in the day to turn around.

We also resolved to maintain the more upright posture of minimalists/barefooters and to keep the pole held closer to our body's should we be compelled to use them. Our pair of Leki titanium trekking sticks were relegated to their secondary functions as laundry drying poles and for fending off attacking dogs when on our bikes. We would however always carry our mini-crampons for those nasty, unpredictable steep stretches of mud.

But that policy decision was reversed a few days later when the rains picked-up and I was crashing on the steep slopes in the intermittent patches of Austrian mud. Then it was back to taking the pair of telescoping sticks with me on potential mud day and using 2 instead of 1 for guaranteed stability.

Mountain Running

Becoming a mountain runner has been something between a fantasy and a joke for me: on one hand the deck is stacked against me for ever becoming a mountain runner; on the other hand, I believe their skills are just what my body needs for hiking well.

My poor balance and slow speed when going downhill were what drove me to learn about mountain running skills (after trying walking sticks to solve the problem) but suddenly one day, I found myself sprinting uphill. I had  previously considered running up steep slopes in the mountains as totally out of reach and yet I couldn't resist the urge one day as we were finishing a hike. The rocky trail was no problem for my somewhat seasoned feet in my 5 Fingers and my increased speed with surer footing had allowed my CV fitness to improve, even at the 8,000' level.

As I sprinted ahead, I soon realized that I felt like my body was taking the form of the speed skaters I'd seen in the Olympics. I exaggerated my posture by leaning more forward like them and pushing my arms out to the sides as though in water instead of using the aligned-with-the-body arm gesture of a runner. Suddenly I felt like a kangaroo bounding up the hill with each forefoot strike and push and then seemingly propelled myself forward while in flight by mimicking a speed skater with my arms. I felt less winded than usual for the distance traveled when I started doing 1 minute intervals of running uphill on steep trails like this.


2 of the 4 holes in my KSO's.

KSO's Unraveling

The medial (inner most) seam on the top side of the big toe of my right KSO started becoming unstitched, just like Bill's had a month earlier. The repair from the outside with needle and thread is easy enough though is best done sooner than later.

It wasn't long (at about 120 hours of use) until I noticed that unraveling was the least of my problems: I had worn 2 holes through the sides of 2 toe pockets. Upon further inspection, I noticed that the same shoe had about 4 other spots on the toe pocket sides that would soon be holes. Inexplicably, all of the abrasion was occurring on the right shoe.

One hole was clearly due to a sharp blob of dried glue that had damaged the adjacent fabric; the other holes weren't as easily explained. I sent an email off to Vibram to discuss the situation with them but they never responded. On a follow-up phone call to the States from Europe resulted in them saying to call back once I was home and they'd consider making some kind of a warranty deal after I sent the shoes to them. I did just that in December and they kindly sent me a new pair of 5 Fingers. I promptly applied Seam Grip (a sports gear glue/sealant) to the sides of the toe pockets hoping to improve there friction resistance, which I'll report on once hiking season is in full swing again. 

 

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