Prehensility or Podiatry Senility: Vibram Five Fingers The Official Shoe Of ReWilding? Part 2

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Staying adaptable; a change of plan

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I had intended to make part 2 — this part — of my article on Vibram Five Fingers about what I love and don’t love about this iconic five-toed footwear, having now lived in them for the better part of 5 years (is that one year per toe?).  I also wanted to share what I've learned about getting the most out of them, and what you can realistically expect to get out of them in terms of performance and lifespan.  Once I saw your comments and emails, I realized that part 2 would need to take a different turn, and that I could return to my original intentions for part 3.

Let's tackle a few of the questions I received, and following that I'd like to divulge the source of my feverish five finger fervor.  Read on.

What about sandals, flip-flops, and other “Barefooting shoes?  Do you really think I should wear those hideous things?

After publishing part one of this article, I received several comments and emails from people asking about everything from women’s flats and boat shoes, to sandals and flip flops.  Also, there are many of you out there that are having great experiences with other “barefoot” shoes that have a more traditional toe box, i.e. sans toes.

Let me take each of these on, one by one.

Flats and boat shoes: What's 'less bad' (that's like saying good, only not) about these types of shoes is that there is very little rise from toe to heel, which places the foot in a more natural position when compared against shoes or boots with a "high" heel.  They still do, however, restrict the metatarsal bones of the foot, which are the long bones that run from the ankle (tarsals) down to the first knuckle of the toe.  These bones are bound together by the shoe, even if slightly.  They also restrict, and force to a point, the phalanges of the foot, which are the small bones of the toes.  It reminds me a bit of wearing a snow-suit when I was a wee tot.  I could still walk, but my normal movements were most definitely restricted.

Sandals and flip-flops:Sandals typically restrict the metatarsal bones in nearly the same way that shoes do, utilizing straps or laces to bind the bones of the foot together.  Often, even though the sandal is well-ventilated, the phalanges are tightly bound to one another.  Also, many women’s sandals have unnaturally high heels which we discussed in the previous installment of this article.

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For the purposes discussed here, flip flops are far superior to most shoes in several ways, however my personal experience has demonstrated that they are best used like a lounge slipper or when we plan to be going primarily barefoot and need to cover the sole of the foot to negotiate short sections of rough terrain or if we are planning on entering into foot un-friendly establishments.

What I love about the flip-flop is that the metatarsals and phalanxes of the foot can fully open and relax.  Because they do not contain an arch-prosthesis (also known as "arch support"), the foot is allowed to assume is normal resting state.  The near complete open air ventilation is, of course, also part of their obvious appeal.

There are however a few significant detractors to the flip flop design, not the least of which is the incessant “flipping and flopping” sounds that usher forth with each step forward.

In truth - and of course I own flip flops and do utilize them for what they do best in my lifestyle - there is just one issue that I take with the flip flop, and that has to do with the subtle but significant way that they change the way we walk.

Imagine - or better still, actually go out and test this - walking up a steep hill in the sort of "standard-issue" thong flip flop.  You will note, either mentally if you are imagining, or kinesthetically if you are real-world testing, that with each step up the incline the flip flop's tread surface tractions to the ground, while the plantar surface of the foot - the sole -tends to slip rearward out of and away from the thong harness of the flop itself.  The next thing you may notice is the natural tendency to grip the sandal with the toes in order to keep the foot aligned over the sole of the flop.

If you attempt to walk even the most mildly contoured or technical surface, you may note that your foot occasionally slides to one side or the other, slipping off and over the edge of the flop's sole.  Again, you may notice the tendency to grip the flop with your foot in an attempt to keep your foot aligned over this constantly shifting and rather unstable platform.

This constant gripping of the flip flop means that the foot receives our body weight in what is often a contracted, toe squeezed position.  What is the short term result?  For me it is the frequent tearing away of the skin at the tip of my toes, as my down-turned big toe tip skids over the front lip of the flop and scrapes across the substrate - that's a really nerdy way of describing a surface material - I'm walking on.  "Give blood, hike in flip flops"!  What are the long term results of this?  I am unsure, but I suspect it takes us further from our goal.

The summation is that the flop does not move with our bodies, but rather hangs (or "flops") tenuously off of our bodies.  In other words, it does not integrate well with our anatomy or bio-mechanics.   Should we choose to engage an "unconventional environment - which is to say, do just about anything outside of simple across-asphalt-ambulations - there is simply too much work involved here and too little reward.  It is difficult to jump from surface to surface, as in crossing a stream strewn with stones, or to hike up a hill, particularly one of loose gravel or one blanketed with dry leaf litter.  It can be done well, but you'll work for it.

I prefer to use my flip flops in hotel rooms (barefoot here is just gross!), short easy walks, or anytime I am primarily barefoot and need to move quickly from unshod to shod, (as in barefoot on the beach, then heading into a shop) etc.

Other Barefooting Shoes: There is most assuredly a revolution underway in the athletic shoe world, and it marches under the banner of - rather ironically -  "bare footing" (if you haven't read or listened to the book "Born to Run" I highly recommend it!).  In response to the demands of the barefoot running market, and of course to compete with the Vibram Five Finger, many companies are developing, or are already marketing their “barefoot" designs.  These are typically flat and flexibly soled shoes with very wide toe-boxes and minimal uppers (some shoemakers, like Adidas have released their own digited designs).

These shoes represent a huge leap forward in footwear technology, allow for space between the bones of the toes and feet, and don't rise from toe to heel.  Many allow some sensation of the texture of the substrate you are standing on as well, due to their thin soles.  And yet, there is still one reason why I haven’t embraced these designs the way that I have taken to my Vibram Five Fingers.  These shoes still restrict one specific motion of the foot, and this may be the most important of all.  It can be summed up with just one strange but vital word...

Prehensile Froggy

prehensile |prēˈhensəl, -ˌsīl|

adjective; (chiefly of an animal's limb or tail) capable of grasping.

Why I "Barefoot"

In writing this article I have been searching myself for why I obsess over barefooting, either literally, or symbolically as is now the trend.  I have observed how I walk, how I run, how I jump, and how I climb.  I have watched my feet in forage, crossing streams and creeks, and barefoot on the beach. I have observed myself on slack lines and rappels, shooting on the range, driving a vehicle, and fighting in Krav Maga classes.  Climbing a 2 inch rope and sliding back down.  Jumping for height and jumping for distance, walking for stealth, or just strolling through a Whole Foods produce section.  All of these experiences have led me to one conclusion, my foot (and of course, our feet) is capable of a movement that is all but ignored by modern civilization.  That is its ability to grasp.

When I set out to describe this grasping capability of our feet, I began with a memory bank search for the word used in anatomy and physiology to describe this simple simian movement.  I had studied human musculoskeletal anatomy to a fair degree of competency at one point in my life, but couldn't seem to remember what this movement was called.  I remembered plantarflexion, the “pushing the gas peddle” movement, and its opposite, dorsiflexion.  I recalled supination, the turning or the plantar surface of the foot inward to face the midline, and its antagonistic motion known as pronation, turning the plantar surface of the foot towards the outside of the the body.

Even after consulting my texts and the all-knowing oracle at Google, the closest I could come was “metatarsophalangeal flexion” which is a way of saying the curling of the toes under the foot.  Still, this didn't satisfy.

I am left to use the term “Prehensility” which describes the ability of an appendage, like a foot or tail, to grasp.  There are a few reasons that I hesitate here - and please, if someone reading has a more loyal locution, please divulge it below!

First, the word lends itself nicely to the Darwinian idea of a hierarchy of organisms, at the top of whom resides man in all his wisdom (Homo sapiens means "Wise man").  As someone who doesn't subscribe to such nonsense - I sense a bit more equity in the natural order of things - the etymology of this word challenges my sensibilities.  The word comes from the Latin “prehendere”, or prae ‘before’ + hendere ‘to grasp’. It subtly implies a kind of primitivism, or a "not-yet-fully-formed-ness", as if to have this ability is un-evolved or resides in the domain of the lesser apes (maybe I am just a lesser ape?).

Second, when I began looking for references to human prehensility, more than anything else, I turned up articles about individuals who had lost - through accident, disease, or having been born with a specific disability -  the use of their hands.  These individuals often develop the abilities of the foot to a remarkable degree of precision and excellence, using them to perform complex tasks with an adroitness we usually associate only with fingers.

Have you seen this extraordinary video of Sabine Becker (she's extraordinary, not the video), who performs tasks with her feet that demonstrate the resplendent nimbleness of our misunderstood, underused, atrophied, and - dare I even say - abused feet.

Here’s the rub, it's as if at once this very human capability is seen as unadvanced, unevolved, or 'proto', yet this very ability clearly lies within the reach of human possibility.  Second, that because we board our feet to rigidly shanked shoes which render us incapable of grasping with the foot, we act as if it is not possible at all lest we revert, devolve, or abase to this podiatry deftness.  I will leave room here for the reader to draw their own conclusions about this.  Mine are the following:

I am weary of anything or anyone that seeks to limit my potential, eliminate my inborn abilities, or is offended by my capabilities.  While I am not insinuating that we need to develop our foot dexterity to the level that Sabine has, I do think her video is beautiful and I am as or more impressed by it than I am watching the athletes at the forefront of parkour and "human flight".

Everything within our grasp

While there are many ergonomic shoes available today, many of which fall under that strange, but now pervasive catchword "barefoot”, it is my Vibram Five Fingers alone that have allowed me to explore prehensility as an integrated part of my bodies regular movement repertoire.  This is something that I don’t have access to in sandals or flat-soled shoes, no matter the width of the toe-box or thinness of the upper.  Having access to the individual toe pockets allows for independent movement of the digits, which is essential to this most fundamental faunal movement.  After all, it is how we stay in touch with the Earth.

Tabi Boot

Bonus Paragraph!

As something of a post script, I wanted to share the shoe that I wore before the development of the Vibram Five Finger.  I think there are a couple of motivations here, one of which is to demonstrate my long commitment to natural ambulation and the unyielding search for the “ideal” shoe.  The other reason is because these shoes are ninja-chic, inexpensive, and easy to procure online.  They are called jika tabi, and come from Japan.  They have a very thin sole, an innovative clasp system that creates a customized fit on the leg, and best of all, a separate large toe (you can even wear regular single compartment socks with these by pushing the sock between your large and second toe).  While the other four toes still share a single compartment, the ability of the foot to grasp is still largely intact.  These shoes are worn by the Ninpo community, or those who study Ninjutsu, the ancient Japanese "special forces" martial art.  You can order these “Tabi Boots” here.

Part 3

Stay tuned for part 3 of this article which will focus on the specific benefits and bedeviling curses of these five toed innovations.  Socks or no socks?  Leather vs Synthetic.  And the best and worst environments for wearing them.  And the big one...  "should I wash them or let them stink?"

Thanks for taking the time to read this article.  Please share it (that is, if you do in fact want to share it), and leave some comments below.

Oh, my friend at BornToRun.com wanted me to offer you 10% off at their store, which stocks Vibram Five Fingers and everything else "barefoot".  The coupon code is SURTHRIVAL.  Enjoy!

Also, check out SurThrival.com for my product line which is designed to support your ReWilding!

That's what I am doing, how are you ReWilding?

~Daniel