Every time I find myself looking over this series, I wonder if we should rename it to something like “minimalist” transition, but instead, we keep this name because there are many notable things that differentiate FiveFingers from the rest of the minimalist shoe lines. So, I wanted to bring some attention to the differences between 5-toed shoes and single toe pocket shoes. In this post, I’ll explain the pros and cons of a shoe with individual toe pockets relative to a single toe pocket shoe design.
The Vibram FiveFingers brand prides itself on its unique design, quality materials, and its ability to encourage a natural stride. It does this by providing a very thin sole and a 0mm heel to toe drop; but what is the deal with the toes? Vibram argues that by providing individual toe pockets, your toes are able to work individually, the way they were originally intended to. But, if that’s the case, why are there so many companies touting the single toe box design? Most other minimalist shoe companies provide an extra wide toe box which also allows the toes to splay out their natural way. The question is, who is right?
- Enhanced control - By having individual toe pockets, Vibram provides the wearer with a shoe that conforms closely to your foot, giving it an almost sock-like feel and making it one of the few shoes that feels very similar to running completely barefoot (rivaled only by the likes of Invisible Shoes & Sockwa). Having control over each individual toe can be amazing for both running and cross-training. It enhances stability, balance, and traction when taking corners and running on gravel. It is a favorite for cross-trainers who are doing exercises like calisthenics, lifting, yoga, and lunges, because it keeps you in control of every inch of your foot. This also allows for a more natural movement for each individual toe.
- Flexibility – One of the best features FiveFingers have is the extremely flexible sole. With individual toe pockets, Vibram has been able to keep a very minimal structure to the vamp eliminating nearly all of the structure of the shoe and depending strictly on the natural structure of the foot.
- Less blisters – FiveFingers also help eliminate some common hot spots associated with running. Keeping the toes separated reduces rubbing between them, and since the shoes wrap so snugly around your foot, they are also able to reduce drag.
- Sizing - Sizing can be difficult in FiveFingers, but in some cases, it is actually impossible. When you have a single toe box you only have one size to worry about, but when you have 5 individual toe pockets, the margin of error grows significantly. Consider the fact that there are multiple toe alignments. The three major alignments being Greek (where the second toe is the longest), Roman (where the big toe, second toe, and third toe are of similar lengths), and Egyptian (where every toe is smaller than the last, forming an almost 45 degree angle), which can make finding a Vibram that fits correctly very difficult.
- Temperature (Lontra review coming soon) – Sure, for the summer, a FiveFinger shoes will do just fine but consider the colder/wetter seasons for a moment. First off, you should be aware that most Vibrams get soaked by just walking over wet pavement. Second, wearing toe-socks in a pair of FFS doesn’t work for everyone (especially those with a Greek toe alignment similar to myself) because by adding another layer, the shoes that were meant to fit your bare foot suddenly feel cramped and uncomfortable. Lastly, consider the analogy of mittens vs gloves. In gloves, your fingers can’t share their natural body heat to stay warm but in mittens they are free to share the heat. There is a similar distinction between FiveFingers and single toe pocket shoes.
- Smell – I’m happy to say that neither Meagan nor myself have encountered this problem, but I’ve seen my fair share of stories on how to keep these bad boys clean and stop the stink. A single toe pocket shoe leaves more room for socks, which helps to curtail the build-up of sweat and smelliness from your bare feet that can happen in a pair of FiveFingers.
- Natural toe separation vs emulated natural toe separation? Vibram swears by its natural feel and similarities to running barefoot, but the argument has been made by many runners that by spreading your toes into an emulated natural barefoot spread, you could actually be forcing the opposite effect. Single toe pocket styles with wide toe boxes and running sandals allow your toes to splay out in their own fashion, and do not overextend the spread of your toes when you are new to minimalist running, which some people have suggested is the case with FiveFingers.
- Aesthetics – The design/look of FiveFingers has been under criticism since they emerged. Some people love them, but there are just as many people (if not more) who hate the way they look. One case where Vibrams have come under scrutiny is in the U.S. Military. The U.S. Army has actually banned the use of FiveFingers during training and other official activities. In the army, or a setting like an office, they are considered a distraction from the professional image they are attempting to uphold.
I find myself stuck somewhere in the middle of the argument. On one hand, I love the ultra-minimalist feel and stability a FiveFinger provides, but on the other hand, I am of the Greek toe alignment and have had a ton of trouble getting my size right. I float somewhere between a 44 and a 45, depending on the style. I would also argue that Vibrams do help my toes spread out and I’ve seen a ton of change in my feet since the beginning of our Vibram transition. However, as I’ve mentioned before, I have very long toes that tend to be longer than the FiveFinger toe pockets, so I am concerned that when my toes are free from a shoe, or in a shoe with a single, wide toe box, they may spread out very differently then they do in a FiveFinger. In the end, of course, whether it’s a FiveFinger or single toe box style, adding a shoe to your foot is going to make small changes in the way your foot interacts with the ground relative to being barefoot. The key is finding what works best for you!