Back in February I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) shoes. If you haven't heard of them, this is them:http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/indexNA.cfm
I first heard about them from strength coach Dan John who mentioned them in an article he had written, extolling their benefits on helping him heal a back ache. Dan is a successful strength coach and entertaining writer who's opinion I generally appreciate, but more or less paid no attention to these funny looking shoes he was talking about. A few weeks later, an author, blogger, and self professed "lifestyle hacker" that I enjoy reading Timothy Ferris mentioned them on his widely read 4hourblog.com. http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2009/05/07/vibram-five-fingers-shoes/
No point in letting lightning hit a third time… so I went to their site, it peaked my interest, then in further search realized that these shoes had an insanely zealous cult following. There are people wearing these "foot gloves" for everything. One blog is devoted to a guy wearing them everyday for a year, no other footwear than Virbram Five Fingers for 365 days!
The shoes have found popularity with readers of the book "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. In it he discusses the merits of barefoot running based on science, philosophy, anthropology, along with some good story telling. His book has become the Tipping Point for a growing number of barefoot runners. However, many barefoot runners have found that Vibram Five Fingers offer the perfect barefoot alternative.
The Vibram sole is unique. You may have a pair of work or hiking boots, or even regular sneakers or running shoes with a Vibram sole. Northface, Merrell, and other shoe companies regularly incorporate Vibram soles into their shoe designs. The sole is thin, relatively featureless, yet, even in wet conditions, I have not slipped yet, even in slushy ice and snow. It is felxible, allows you to feel every pebble, but your skin is completely protected.
I part with fellow VFF enthusiasts on their enthusiasm to run in them. I believe running in them is a perfectly acceptable if not preferential alternative to running in traditional running shoes, that frankly have only been around in their present state for just a bit more than the last quarter century. However, for health and cardiovascular benefits there are superior methods than traditional aerobic activities such as running.
I believe the best benefit offered by wearing VFFs is for everyday day activities. There are not many outdoor activities that they aren't well adapted for. However, the activity I was hoping and then pleasantly surprised to find suited VFFs well was lifting weights. It's largely like training barefoot. They allow much more proprioception during movement, and require much more muscular motor unit recruitment of the lower leg and foot.
Power Lifters for years have dead lifted in socks, ballet slippers, and other thin soled shoes in order to limit the range of motion during competition as much as possible in an attempt to improve their totals in competition. I would recommend these to all Power Lifters specifically to be used for dead lifting in competition.
Eric Cressey, Strength Coach and owner of Cressey Performance in Boston known for his ability to rehab shoulders and hip/pelvic dysfunctions recommends them as a prevention to common hip/pelvic issues such as muscle imbalances, improper length tension relationships, etc. that often start in the hip and pelvic region but manifest themselves in back or knee pain.
Strength Coaches Charles Poliquin of Poliquin Performance and Art McDermott in their excellent book on Strong Man Training, "Applied Strong Man Training for Sport" recommend performing variations of the Farmer's Walk barefoot for hockey, speed skaters, and figure skaters as a way to strengthen the muscles of the lower leg that grow weaker during their respective seasons due to the supportive nature of ice skates. In addition, performing barefoot is useful in strengthening the musculature that acts upon the ankles after injury.
One benefit of training in the VFFs is greater and less restricted range of motion, another is increased proprioceptive demand. Proprioception in a nutshell is where your brain thinks your body is in space. Clumsy and uncoordinated people have poor proprioception.
Most wearers of VFFs noticed increase size and strength in the lower leg after wearing them regardless of activity. Due to the factors mentioned, they force your feet and lower leg musculature to work harder.
I'm not one to give two $#^*! about other's opinion, therefore I'm not particularly self conscious about wearing them, however other than looking a bit odd and not really being made for cold or wet conditions, there are few draw backs to the shoes. They are machine washable, dry quickly, more durable than you will imagine, and provide more support that you may think.
Do a Google search and read some blogs on them and you will find testimonies of back and knee pains being healed, foot problems being fixed, and everything else short of getting one into Heaven. I have read exactly one negative comment on the shoes that wasn't merely a critique of their looks, and it appeared the person just didn't like the idea as his "arguments" against them were pretty weak.
One caution, if you choose to get some there are a few blogs with tips for sizing them, as they must fit "like a glove!" just search VFF Sizing. The first pair I received were too big, but the return was no hassle.
All in all, it's a great product that I highly recommend.