Five tips for breaking in your FiveFinger shoes
August 12th, 2011
03:13 PM ET

Five tips for breaking in your FiveFinger shoes

My calves hurt. Every time I take a step the left one, which I’ve nicknamed “whiny,” begs for me to stop. And there’s a constant throbbing coming from the muscles in the arches of my feet. I didn’t even know my arches had muscles.

I owe this painful discovery to my new FiveFinger shoes. Remember toe socks? They’re like those, except designed to be used outdoors.

The salesperson at the REI store where I purchased my shoes issued a warning: Make sure to break them in slowly. A similar one is posted on the Vibram website - run no more than 10% of your typical distance for the first two to three weeks; never run two days in a row in the first month; stretch before and after each run, focusing on your calves and feet.

See where this is going?

I ignored the warnings. Mostly, I thought to myself, because if I  ran only 10% of my norm I would be running a total of … 0.3 miles. So I jumped on the treadmill and ran away, loving the feel of barefoot freedom and the slight improvement I could already sense in my posture.

Proponents say barefoot-style running creates a more natural stride – with a ball-to-heel forefront strike that builds strength in your feet and lower leg muscles, ultimately resulting in fewer injuries. It also improves balance, agility and range of motion.

Tell that to my co-workers, who are tired of hearing me say “ow” every time I stand up.

If when I go back to the gym in my FiveFinger shoes, I will remember that salesperson’s good advice. So future barefoot enthusiasts, take heed. Here are five tips for breaking in your FiveFingers properly:

1. Go to a store.

Even if you can find them cheaper online, drive to the nearest retailer first. FiveFinger shoes come in European sizes and fit differently (obviously)  from other shoes so you won’t know the right size unless you try them on. Don’t be afraid to try on men’s shoes if you’re a woman, and vice versa as there’s little difference.

Make sure to pick the right pair based on the shoe’s tread – there are different grips for different activities like water sports, yoga or running.

There are also copycat, “counterfeit” shoes out there so make sure you’re buying from an authorized dealer. Without the right support, fakes could end up hurting more than helping.

Find a store here

2. Walk before you run.

Wear them around the house, to the grocery store or to work. Take some time to feel how your posture changes and to decide whether there is any cramping or rubbing on your toes (which could signal a wrong size).

3. Buy some foot powder.

Or toe socks. Either will make it easier to put your shoes on and will prevent blisters from the combination of sweat and fabric rubbing against your bare skin. Powder will also keep your shoes smelling fresh – although if they get too stinky FiveFingers are easy to wash with soap and water.

4. Follow the guidelines.

You can adjust the length and time of your workout as you feel comfortable but don’t assume you’re special. You may have spent a lot of time running around barefoot as a child but that doesn’t mean your muscles are up to snuff. Take it slow and do only portions of your workout with the FiveFingers at first. If you’re not willing to take a break, bring along your regular sneakers during the transition.

5. Schedule yourself a bit more time at the gym.

First, because trying to get your toes into the right pockets is more difficult than it looks. Second, because you’ll spend most of the workout answering questions about your shoes. I haven’t gotten so many comments on my footwear since I wore red cowboy boots to a swim meet.

Most importantly, remember that FiveFingers are not right for everyone. For people with really flat fleet – officially called over-pronators – barefoot activities may put too much stress on muscles.

soundoff (155 Responses)
  1. Eli

    I had a broke back in 2003 and have suffered from serious back pain since. I cannot stand while shopping for longer then 30-45 minutes at a time. Since wearing Vibrams my back no longer hurts. I did suffer at first with my calves hurting slightly and thighs but it was an amazing feeling in fact I got Charlie horses. but It was worth it.

    I have been wearing my VFs for 4 months straight and put on my normal tennis shoes and thought I was going to cry as I wore these heavy clunky things and low and behold my back pain returned. VFs are the way to go.

    August 16, 2011 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. bunchofnoise

    I love my VFF KSOs. I have a connective tissue disorder and fibromyalgia and these shoes make it a lot easier to simply leave the house some days. The hammer toes on each foot have straightened, my calf muscles are better, and my butt is toned now too!

    I'm never going back to regular shoes.

    Just make sure to get yourself sized at a store, even if you end up ordering them online. Each model is cut differently, and may not work for you.

    August 16, 2011 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Lurkin

    I have my KSO's all i did was walk around in them for about 2 weeks then i ran my normal 2.5 and 5 miles evey outher day with out a problem.

    Then with going to the store! i would agree, but i was shown how to mesure your foot.

    love them will never change my running shoe!

    August 16, 2011 at 15:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. LBD

    I have been wearing VFFs for the last 2 1/2 years. I've never experienced any pain wearing these shoes during the break-in period or at any other time. I've used them for everything from 10 mile hikes in the Rockies to strength training in the gym. Never a problem. My daughter used to have terrible ankle and knee pain with a variety of expensive running shoes – she runs 3-5 miles per day. Since she started wearing VFFs 2 years ago, all pain is gone. She's worn through 3 pairs so far. I think some people might have trouble adjusting if they are used to wearing shoes all of the time, even in their houses. I always go barefoot in my house and in my yard in summer, so I think my calves were well-adjusted to the lower heel set.

    August 16, 2011 at 15:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Patty

    My boyfriend and I recently bought our first Vibrams, and have worn no other shoe since. My boyfriend is very flat footed. He has special supports in his shoes to help with that. But since getting his Vibrams, he no longer complains of sore feet on the weekends (when he's not wearing his "normal" shoes around the house). We have also noticed that he is beginning to develop an arch in his feet. He walked through some water, then across the deck and his footprint was like a normal footprint, arch and all. I joked saying "Are you sure those aren't my footprints?" Sure enough he walked through the water and back across the deck, just to prove that they were his. I will testify that these are the best shoes I have ever owned. I have no more backaches (did for the first week or so, I think from adjusting to the shoes), and I notice my posture is much better. We have also noticed that our toes are no longer scrunched up. We have definite space between our toes, which I think is neat. We use them on an everyday basis, but plan to get more for running, hiking, etc.

    August 16, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Peggy

    If you want to see how great Barefoot running can be but don't want to plunk down the $70-150 for VFF's, grab some $8 water shoes at Walmart and go for a short run. It's very similar, especially if you take out the insoles. For those of you who are intrigued by barefoot(ish) running but don't want the freaky-looking VFF's, check out Soft Star Shoes (like Robeez baby shoes, but in all sizes, even adults) or ZEM gear (like a wet suit bootie for running). I have no connection to any of these companies, beyond being a big fan.

    August 16, 2011 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kevin

      I wear Soft Star RunAmocs on those occasions when the gorilla feet look of my Vibrams is inappropriate. Now those are minimalist shoes, and the comfort can't be beat. However, the price tag is in the range of the Vibrams. But you're paying for a product that is handmade in the U.S. So they're not an alternative for people who need something cheaper. Still, they're a great alternative when you don't want to show your toes.

      August 16, 2011 at 18:36 | Report abuse |
    • Cathy W

      Every pair of watershoes I've ever tried on were too narrow, and wouldn't allow my toes to spread as I run. Personally, I'm liking my running huaraches a lot – they aren't as cheap as water shoes, but are quite a bit less than VFF (which I also like).

      August 23, 2011 at 13:48 | Report abuse |
  7. Joseph Kelly

    Great post agree 100% I have been running with fivefingers for over a year. Finally being able to withstand them for a marathon Lake Placid, June 2011. Now that's all I wear, I have a pair for running, hiking/biking and kayaking!

    August 16, 2011 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. P.

    I find myself amused by all the comments I read on here from the ignorant, the misinformed, the insecure, and the just outright clueless. Things from how stupid people who wear VFFs look, to how it's all a gimmick, to being duped by marketing, to being less of a "man" in the gym, never being caught dead in them, and so on.

    Oh, how you all make me smile. Why? It's simple – while we might be mocked and laughed and at (it's happened to me in public while wearing my VFFs), I know that my feet hurt less. I can run longer, faster, and not strain as much. Since I started wearing them I have not had one – NOT ONE – ankle, knee, shin, or other injury. My posture is better. I feel more comfortable walking. I can FEEL it when I walk. My work on the squat rack is more stable at the gym. My legs have less flab (a purely aesthetic argument, true, but an argument nonetheless). I could go on... but you get the idea.

    August 16, 2011 at 15:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mike

      I can second your opinion. I do get smirks and smiles from people. I have never had a more comfortable pair of shoes though. I wear my VFF's most everywhere and I don't really care about other people's insecurities. All I know is I have finally found a shoe that I am willing to spend more than $100 on. I cannot say that for any 'normal' shoe. Those that choose to mock before they even try are just ignorant fools.

      August 16, 2011 at 19:28 | Report abuse |
    • jb

      I really kind of like the idea of very thin soled "barefoot" shoes, both for running and ordinary walking, and I'd like to see the idea catch on. My problem with VFFs is that I think they are actually slowing down the acceptance of this idea, simply because they look so utterly stupid.

      I simply do not believe that separate toes offer any benefit over thin soled shoes in more orthodox styles! I think the toes are an affectation, a way to show off, to advertise that you are a member of an exclusive in-group that ostentatiously disregards what other people think about your appearance. (I think pants worn half way down your butt serve exactly the same function - just with a different in-group). And the thing is, the more people associate barefoot shoes with the bizarre VFFs, the more difficult it will be to get them to accept the idea of barefoot shoes in general. I think this is unfortunate, and that it would have been better for the barefoot running community in general if VFFs had never been invented.

      August 18, 2011 at 14:20 | Report abuse |
  9. Christian

    The only comment I do not agree with is the one at the end related to flat feet. As Patty stated earlier about her boyfriend, you can actually improve flat feet. The fact the you will be using all of the muscles in your foot (as opposed to shoes with arch supports) will gradually cause the arch to become strong again. The key is to ease into it, which is the basis of the article in the first place!

    August 16, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Alex

    I have to say that I was born with completely flat feet, to the point that the doctors told my mother to press up on where my arches should have been with her thumbs while cupping my feet in her hands while I was growing up. Obviously, this did not work. I would constantly get shin splints while walking down the hall, let alone running! I figured I was out of luck, and had to deal with constant shin splints and pain for the rest of my life, until I read about Vibrams! I ordered two pairs within two weeks of finding out about them, and while waiting for the back order to be filled, I bought a pair of low-heeled New Balance shoes to help me retrain myself how to walk!

    Needless to say, I've been wearing Vibrams and Merrell "barefoot" shoes (no positive heel on any of the shoes), and walking ball-to-heel (often without my heel actually hitting the ground) for two years now, and have strengthened my feet enough to actually create arches! My mother was astounded by the change! I have gone running for miles without any hint of shin splints or other pain!

    You MUST start slowly, however, because it's a ton of retraining you have to do, especially if you have "foot issues," like flat feet or such. It doesn't necessarily mean that you can't wear Vibrams (or any other type of "barefoot" shoe), it just means you have to take it even slower, and listen to your body more intently!!

    August 16, 2011 at 17:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kevin

      Great post. I too was born with flat feet, and have worn orthotics in regular shoes. But my Vibram KSO Treks are turning out to be the best things I've ever put on my feet. But, I've taken it slow. Adding a little time each day wearing and walking around in them. So far, I've avoided some of the common aches and pains experienced by people who do too much too fast, as in the article above. I'm just now ready to try a little running in them. The emphasis is on "little." Once again it will be a matter of building up slowly. I'm hoping that transition goes well, because my feet just love these non-shoes.

      August 16, 2011 at 18:27 | Report abuse |
  11. Rob

    I've been wearing VFFs for 2 years now and have not had plantar fasciitis since. Since reading "Born to Run", I ordered my first pair of KSOs and didn't heed the start slow advice and stress fractured my foot. This is good advice, and I am always getting asked the same question when I wear my Treks (or KSOs), "are they as comfortable as they say?" Yes they are, and until you get a pair you'll never know what you are missing.

    August 16, 2011 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. cleek

    yeah, start out realllly slowly: both distance and speed. i'd even recommend taking a long break from running altogether before starting in with the 5fingers. if you're any kind of heel-striker in normal shoes, running in 5fingers will be almost a completely different exercise.

    i've been running in them for almost three years now, and love them – but it took many months to get the stride down to where i wasn't literally thinking about every single step.

    August 16, 2011 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Lou Fogel

    The VFFs never fit me, so I switched to huaraches running sandals (like the ones in Born to Run). The ones I use are from Invisible Shoes. LOVe them

    August 17, 2011 at 01:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. AlwaysTri

    I'm so glad I'm not the only one that did this! I walked down the stairs backwards for a week after I wore my Vibrams for the first time. My only issue is that they get stinky really fast from running long distances in the summer.

    August 23, 2011 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. tothotspur

    We are just animals. Humans were not meant to wear shoes. It is just a Western way of capitalism. Nike, Reebok, Adidas are probably the worst things for our musculoskeletal system. 5Fingers are probably the closest thing to bare feet, but barefoot is the best way. I have been going barefoot most of the time for at least 4,5 months. IT is crazy. My feet are changing, it is helping with back pain, posture, and lower leg pain. But take it easy. I am 23, but for the older people, if you have been wearing shoes for 4,5,6 decades, the process can be lengthy. Have faith, and keep moving. The more motion, the longer and healthier we can live!

    October 29, 2011 at 16:06 | Report abuse | Reply
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