Hiking Despite Osteoarthritis in Barefoot Shoes

Hiking Despite Osteoarthritis in Barefoot Shoes

I recently got the above photo from Ron. Ron is a 60+ guy who was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in one knee—after some 32 years of running.

What follows is his story about what the doc's had to say about how he should handle the news, and as you might guess, some FiveFingers came into the picture:

I call this my victory photo.

Last year, at age 60, and after 32 years of running, I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in the left knee. It hurt to walk, let alone, run. My general practitioner doctor suggested minimalist footwear as part of a program that included stretching and strengthening. [Meanwhile, both the] knee specialist and the physical therapist said to back off and use orthotics.

I took my general practitioner's advice.

Well, here I am a year later, relaxing at over 14,000 feet on the top of Mount Bierstadt in the Rocky Mountains. This was just one of several hikes I took during a 6-day vacation. I totalled nearly 35 miles of hiking and every step in my Vibram KSO Treks.

I proved to myself that I wasn't too old to make such a big change after 32 years of walking and running in the most expensive and most cushioned shoes. Of course, I still have osteoarthritis in the knee, but I am back at it, thanks to the therapeutic value stretching, strengthening, and minimalist footwear.

(I go barefoot alot, too!)

Ron A.

Fantastic to hear, Ron! And kudos for following your intuition and having success despite adverse conditions.

Hope you have many more successful hikes!

Reviewing the Vivo Barefoot Aqua from Terra Plana

Above, in the box, is a pair of Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas.  Nice packaging for a nice barefoot shoe alternative to Vibram Five Fingers.
Above, in the box, is a pair of Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas. Nice packaging for a nice barefoot shoe alternative to Vibram Five Fingers.

Update July 2012: The original Aquas have been discontinued. Don't dismay: Vivo Barefoot redesigned and improved the original Aqua in a re-release called the Aqua Lite that hit the market in 2012. I've reviewed those, too (as of July 2012) — here.

Original review:

The market for "barefoot shoes" is small. It's in this context that it doesn't take long to discover the main minimalist footwear options and manufacturers. You've got Vibram Five Fingers, but you've also got companies like FeelMax or perhaps you're hearing more about Soft Star Shoes. One of the major players in the barefoot alternative shoes industry is, of course, Terra Plana, manufacturers of the Vivo Barefoot line.

Vivo Barefoot Origins

Vivo Barefoots got their start circa 2000 / 2001 when two childhood friends, Tim Brennan and Galahad Clark, endeavored to create a shoe that fostered the benefits of being barefoot. Brennan and Clark created a prototype shoe around 2004, which eventually led to the first Vivo Barefoot, one with a zip on/off sole. The zippered sole concept didn't quite work, apparently, so Vivos quickly went "zipless."* It wasn't long before Vivo expanded the line in 2005 to include the Dharma and Aqua, two styles that continue to be popular today.

It's been almost ten years since the beginnings of Vivo Barefoot shoes. Today, there is a full line-up of men's and women's shoes, and Vivo Barefoot will soon be releasing a running specific barefoot shoe called the Vivo Barefoot Evo.

I got in touch with Terra Plana back in November wanting to get my feet into a pair of their Vivo Barefoots to test for the Five Fingers fan community here. They kindly obliged and sent me my first pair of blue suede shoes— Vivo Barefoot Aquas. My review of the Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas will cover the design and performance, barefoot feel, aesthetic/style, sizing, and price. Let's go!

A front view of the Vivo Barefoot Aquas, you can quickly get a sense that these are well constructed, downright stylish shoes — that look normal despite being built barefoot-ish.
A front view of the Vivo Barefoot Aquas, you can quickly get a sense that these are well constructed, downright stylish shoes — that look normal despite being built barefoot-ish.

Design and Performance of the Aqua — that barefoot feel

The Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas, which I'll refer to as just "Aquas," have a thin, neutral sole (meaning they lack an elevated heel) that is composed of TPU rubber, "puncture resistant" Duratex, and a removable insole. My calipers put the thickness of the sole at the heel at 5mm. Note this measurement is taken having removed the Aqua's insole. I originally tried the Aquas with the insole in place, but preferred the closer-to-barefoot feel of having it removed. If you leave it in, the insole adds another 3mm or so of thickness and cushioning (Here's a photo of the Vivo Barefoot Aqua having removed the insole, which sits to the right of the shoe).

In my testing, I found the Aqua to do a solid job of conveying ground textures to my foot. Pebbles, bumps, gradation, rugs, whatever. It's not as much feel as you get with the VFF Moc or Soft Star Grippy Roo moccasin, but the sole of the Aqua is sturdier than both and after three months shows no sign of wear. Regardless, the Aqua finds a balance betweeen the benefits of barefootedness while still being stylistically shoe-like (I'll get into this more below).

That the Aqua is a shoe means that it has a fairly robust structure above its minimal sole. This upper is comprised of leather (for durability and style) and mesh (to add flexibility and make the Aquas breathable). Though the mesh placement helps the Aqua to flex, overall, the structure makes the Aqua more rigid than what you'll find with VFFs. That said, it's still easy to bend with one hand:

Here I bend the Aqua to demonstrate its flexibility.
Here I bend the Aqua to demonstrate its flexibility.

The lack of heel enabled a natural walking gait, typically landing midfoot (forefoot and heel striking at effectively the same time). I'd put the overall walking feel as similar to the Vibram Five Fingers KSO Trek, meaning that I'm less likely to walk with a forefoot gait as I might with Classic Five Fingers, but the heel isn't catching the ground unintentionally, as it would with your typical raised heel shoes which effectively force a natural gait into a pronounced heel strike.

The Vivo Barefoot Aquas have a stout, comfortably wide toe box within which my toes felt free to roam, not confined or cramped. This is a welcome feature compared to your run-of-the-mill, non-barefoot shoes. There are neutral, thin-soled shoes out there, but many of them have painfully narrow toe boxes. Not the Aqua:

A welcome feature of the Vivo Barefoot Aquas is a wide and open toe box.  Compared to the typically narrow toe boxes you find on most shoes, this is a welcome feature of the Aqua.
A welcome feature of the Vivo Barefoot Aquas is a wide and open toe box. Compared to the typically narrow toe boxes you find on most shoes, this is a welcome feature of the Aqua.

One drawback to the simple, hexagon speckled sole of the Vivo Barefoot Aqua is that I found it a bit slippery on wet surfaces. This is a bit unfortunate as one of the most common times I found myself wearing the Aquas was when it was raining (and VFFs just wouldn't cut it).

The only other design issue I had with the Aquas is that the tongue of the Aqua is a stretchy, thick fabric that starts at the sole, goes up and over the instep, and then attaches on the other side of your foot back into the sole (photo).

The upside to this design is that it makes for a comfortable, naturally snug fit once your foot is inside the Aqua. It means you don't really have to tighten the laces of the Aqua much to make it feel attached to your foot. That said, I found it a bit more work than I'd have liked to put the Aquas on — humorous in that I can actually put on Five Finger KSOs faster than Aquas! And incidentally, just like the KSOs, I found the best way to get my foot seated into the Aqua was to push the heel down, stick my foot into the shoe, and then pull the heel of the Aqua up and around my heel.

Aesthetic and Style — How the Aquas look

The Vivo Barefoot Aquas — blue suede with red laces and a yellow stripe at the sole — simply look fantastic. I got many compliments on the Aquas from my wife and her girlfriends, as well as *most* of my guy friends. It's hard not to like the colored suede, the clearly well constructed quality of the Aqua, and the attention to detail. Sure, they're a bit eye-catching in blue, but not in a "Oh my, what are you wearing?!" sorta way as you come to expect with Vibram Five Fingers, but in a "Oh those are unusual -- and I like them!" sorta way.

I found myself able to sport the Aquas to dressy casual events with khaki or brown pants, but also kick back in them in jeans. Either way, they always attracted the right kind of attention. Major points on this front.

Sizing

The Vivo Barefoot sizing can be a bit intimidating to some as the shoes size in European sizes. The reality is that Vivo Barefoot suggests you go a full size up. I'm a 10 1/2 shoe size last time I checked, and Vivo Barefoots run in whole sizes. So that put me between a 10 / 43 and a 11 / 44. I got the 44s and they are perfect for me. For what it's worth, I'm in between on VFFs, too — 43 in Classics, but also 43 in KSOs and my feet are both 10.875" long (People ask these things!).

Compared to the Five Fingers sizing gymnastics you might be used to, simply "sizing up" with Vivo Barefoots is a barefoot walk in the park.

Price

At a retail price of $150, the Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas can be a tough pill to swallow for many would-be buyers — that is a chunk of change. Having said that, astute shoppers often find good sales, and I've heard of some folks finding extraordinary deals on Vivo Barefoots. If you're interested in taking the plunge on a pair of Aquas, you can buy them up directly from VivoBarefoot here.

Here are a few more photos, a couple close-up shots to show quality (Note the double-stitching, for example), and a look at accompanying literature on the Aquas from Vivo Barefoot:

Overall thoughts on the Vivo Barefoot Aqua

Let's face it, as much as you may want to be barefoot or in your favorite five toed footwear all the time, there will inevitably come times when you've got to put on regular shoes. Thankfully, with the Aquas, the sacrifice you make wearing "real shoes" is almost welcome: you can simultaneously free your feet and impress friends with a bit of style. It's nice to go out in public and have my wife not cringing about my VFFs! You can't go wrong.

Also, though I didn't do run in the Aquas, I did burst into the occasional short run in them. They felt great — no binding of my toes and a welcome barefoot-ish, natural running feel.

If you want to pick up a pair of Vivo Barefoot Aquas, the bad news is that they have been discontinued. The good news is that Vivo Barefoot redesigned (and improved!) the Aqua in a re-release called the Aqua Lite. I've reviewed those, too (as of July 2012) — here.

As always, if you have any questions or want me to answer specific questions, I encourage you to comment below!

* If anyone can find a working model of these original Vivos, I'd love to see some photos!

Megan starts a revolution in VFF Classics

Photo inset: Left Classic Vibram Five Fingers at Colorado Springs, Colorado (August 2009); Top right Classic VFFs at Red Rocks Amphitheater waiting on a show to start (August 2009); Bottom right Classics at Angel Fire, New Mexico (May 2009).
Photo inset: Left Classic Vibram Five Fingers at Colorado Springs, Colorado (August 2009); Top right Classic VFFs at Red Rocks Amphitheater waiting on a show to start (August 2009); Bottom right Classics at Angel Fire, New Mexico (May 2009).

Megan has been a fan of her Vibram FiveFingers for some time, grabbing her first pair of VFFs for her birthday way back in August 2007. Since then, Megan has gone on to accumulate three pairs of Classic Five Fingers for everyday use. I asked Megan to share her Five Fingers user story with birthdayshoes and here is what she had to say:

I bought my first pair in August 2007 as a birthday gift to myself. I've always been sort of hippy-ish and have walked around barefoot for years. I don't know how I found the shoes, I was cleaning out my bookmarks and stumbled across vibramfivefingers.com, and it was love at first sight. Shoes I could wear and be barefoot at the same time - what an awesome idea! I bought my second pair in September 2007 and my third pair in August of 2009. I had back problems from an injury and I have no day to day pain anymore and my posture has improved. I wear them everywhere - errands, work, park, road trips, family events (I'm the one with the weird shoes' but I don't care), pretty much everything that requires shoes).

I'm starting a revolution at my office - three co workers have bought pairs after seeing how happy I am in mine.

I walk my dogs in them often and I'm starting to research running, I've never been a runner so I've got to make sure I do it right!

Thanks, Megan! It's great to hear that using Vibram Five Fingers on a everyday wear basis has enabled you to overcome your back problems!

As for running, just ease into it slowly and expect sore calves. Since you're not a runner, you are likely to have fewer heel-striking habits to overcome. Just take short strides (and have a high cadence) and don't worry about being fast. If you're feeling frisky, you can even kick off your Classic Five Fingers, take them in hand, and try a stretch of barefoot running to maximize the ground feedback. This should help you work on your running form!

Glad you've shared the great barefoot shoe magic of Vibram Five Fingers with so many friends! Long live the revolution!

Two Five Fingers fans make friends in a bar

Making friends is easy when wearing Five Fingers to social settings - even easier when they're post running events as they make great conversation pieces.
Making friends is easy when wearing Five Fingers to social settings - even easier when they're post running events as they make great conversation pieces.

Logan relays a recent VFF experience he had in his KSO Treks:

I ran into another Vibram wearer on Saturday during the Myrtle Beach Marathon after-party. The other fellow and his wife from upstate NY have not seen the Treks up close yet. Upon touching my VFF sole they vowed to find them.

Logan

Ah yes, the fancy Trek sole always impresses at parties!

Have you happened upon other Vibram Five Fingers fans at social gatherings? Though FiveFingers are oft-cited as bringing on too much attention, they also alert other fans to your astute understanding of the power of being barefoot. It's in this awareness that they bring like minds together!

Power to the bare feet!

Levi and Linz Honeymoon in Cancun. Traveling with Vibram Five Fingers

Photoed above we see Levi and Linz who were recently married and seen honeymooning in Cancun, Mexico.  Levi saw the sights while wearing his KSO Vibram Five Fingers, which brought a decent amount of attention from the locals!  Inset we see the Mayan templ
Photoed above we see Levi and Linz who were recently married and seen honeymooning in Cancun, Mexico. Levi saw the sights while wearing his KSO Vibram Five Fingers, which brought a decent amount of attention from the locals! Inset we see the Mayan temple Chichen Itza.

In the mailbag comes this Vibram Five Fingers KSO user review from Levi (forum member "Leaves") who recently got married — Congratulations! — and went on to vacation in Cancun, Mexico. Here is what Levi had to say about traveling and sight-seeing Mexico in VFFs:

The wife and I were married January 9, 2010, and left that next day for Cancun, were we stayed at the Moon Palace Resort. Everywhere I went the VFF's were a spectacle. In the market the merchants would yell, "Hey! I like your shoes!" At the resort people would quite frequently stop me to take pictures of my feet, ask about arch support and result in a brief discussion about barefoot, Vibram's and my previous stress related injuries. Notice that the wife doesn't have any on her feet ... she does now. :) We have been waiting since November on a black pair of KSO's, 42W, to come in ... no such luck, yet. So, she settled for the grey/purple, as it was the only available KSO or VFF in her size.

Glad to hear Linz has been hooked up with some VFFs! I like grey/purple KSO FiveFingers personally — tried to get my wife a pair, but she went for Classics instead.

Anyway, glad you're spreading the word about Vibram's barefoot alternative to the folks in Mexico! Thanks for sharing your VFF experience!

Going Toe to Toe in Classic and Sprint Vibram Five Fingers

Taken in Madison, Wisconsin on January 31, 2010. Picture shows my black Sprints and two of my sisters in lilac Classics. Taken outside of the store where we had just purchaed them and HAD to wear them out of the store! You can just barely see my daughter'
Taken in Madison, Wisconsin on January 31, 2010. Picture shows my black Sprints and two of my sisters in lilac Classics. Taken outside of the store where we had just purchaed them and HAD to wear them out of the store! You can just barely see my daughter'

From VFFer Stephanie comes the above photo — a meeting of the toes via new Classic Vibram Five Fingers:

Taken in Madison, Wisconsin on January 31, 2010. Picture shows my black Sprints and two of my sisters in lilac Classics. Taken outside of the store where we had just purchaed them and HAD to wear them out of the store! You can just barely see my daughter's tennis shoes—she was very bummed to discover FiveFingers don't come in her size!

I'm pretty certain that this is the first Five Fingers user story I've heard of where multiple individuals were picking up pairs of Vibrams at the same time! And it would have been four! I feel bad for your daughter, Stephanie!

Thanks for sharing!

Derik's KSO Treks at Work and Five Fingers Flows at the Gym

Top: Derik wears his Flow Five Fingers to the gym.  Bottom: Derik sports his black KSO Trek Five Fingers to work!
Top: Derik wears his Flow Five Fingers to the gym. Bottom: Derik sports his black KSO Trek Five Fingers to work!

Here's what Derik has to say about his newly acquired Vibram Five Fingers KSO Treks and Flows:

My first pair of VFF's! I received them in the mail about 3 weeks ago and was anxious to hit the gym and treadmill with them. I searched everywhere here in Omaha, Nebraska to find a place that had my style and size in stock. I even called many stores in Texas so my parents could pick them up and bring them to me when they came up to visit. Luckily I found these in Lincoln, Nebraska and had them sent up to Omaha.

I have enjoyed everything about them and will not go back to normal shoes during any of my training sessions. There is something wonderful about training in my VFF's! I enjoyed them so much that I had to look for another pair that I could use during my everyday normal activities ... including during work at the office.

I added the KSO Trek to my collection last weekend and have worn them everyday to work. This pic was taken on a casual dress day but I have worn them with my slacks and enjoy getting the weird looks and questions that follow. I have worn these barefoot but lately been going with injinji socks since its negative degrees outside here. The added traction of the trek helps a ton when going to the store or checking my mail. The flows didnt do much for walking on ice and I almost lost it a few times.

Thanks for the user review, Derik! That extra traction from the KSO Treks definitely helps on icy sidewalks and streets. Just this past weekend I had a chance to test my Flows on snow and frozen icy sidewalks; they handled fine though my toes got pretty cold!

Anyway, glad you're enjoying your FiveFingers so much, Derik! Once it warms up a bit, you may need to pick up a pair of standard KSOs or Classics! Seems you can't have too many pairs of Vibrams.