Vibram FiveFingers : Revolutionary toe shoes or “Barefoot Shoes”

The history of the world’s first toe shoes — Vibram FiveFingers. From whence they came, why barefoot shoes/toe shoes make sense, and how they are revolutionizing the traditional paradigms around footwear.

The origins of “toe shoes” — the original “barefoot shoe”

Five Fingers were the brainchild of Italian designer Robert Fliri. Fliri first had the concept of a foot glove with articulated toes — what are now colloquially referred to as “barefoot shoes,” “minimalist shoes,” or “toe shoes” — back in 1999. Fliri had been spending a good deal of time outdoors in the mountains of Italy, periodically taking off his shoes. It was from these experiences that he conceptualized toe shoes, remarking that, “We have five toes: when they can move and grasp the ground independently, and when you can really sense the surface under your feet, your body is able to do what it is designed for by nature. That is a powerful feeling.”

Fliri was making a simple case: if feet evolved to experience the world “naked,” why are we strapping heavily cushioned, “high-heeled” marshmallow shoes like Nikes onto our feet in order to walk around “safely” or without hurting ourselves? Did [Mother Nature | God | Evolution | insert your higher power here] churn out a foot that was broken by design? Surely not!

Despite the almost obvious power of toe shoes — foot gloves that let feet function and feel similarly to how they would barefoot, Robert Fliri’s toe shoe concept languished until a fortuitous meeting with Marco Bramani, the grandson of Vitale Bramani. Vitale Bramani is the founder of the Italian company Vibram (pronounced “Vee-brum”). As the legend goes, Bramani believed that “Five Fingers” (So named because the Italian word for “fingers” is the same as that for “toes”) might make a novel choice of footwear for use on sailboats or in other activities that required greater ground-feel. Sometime in the early 2000s (perhaps 2004?), Bramani brought Fliri into his grandfather’s company to develop the world’s first toe shoes.

Just how did Vibram, a company that had only ever made rubber soles for over 70 years for other shoe manufacturers, blow up the traditional paradigm of footwear design? A little bit of help and just a little five-toed rubber sole . . .

Vibram FiveFingers start taking off

In 2006, when Vibram FiveFingers were just starting to make waves as a novel, but incredibly strange (“Cool! But who would wear those? Not me!”) approach to footwear, “Barefoot” Ted McDonald contacted Vibram USA. He requested to try out the Classic Five Fingers for running.

Tony Post, the ex-Rockport Boston Marathon runner turned Vibram USA CEO, spoke to McDonald and agreed to have him run the Boston Marathon in Vibram FiveFingers.

Vibram FiveFingers piqued the curiosity of anyone who saw them, slowly growing in popularity among fitness enthusiasts wanting a more “barefoot feel.” (Arnold Schwarzenegger famously lifted weights barefoot.) It continued to win the attention of barefoot runners like Barefoot Ted, Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, and others too.

A desire path toward was forming, cut by pioneers in the barefoot and minimalist space.

Runners began taking serious note in 2009 thanks to Christopher McDougall’s riveting Born to Run (Go here for a full review). In a nutshell, Born to Run takes a serious look at ultra long-distance runners and races; an indigenous long-distance running tribe, the Tarahumara Indians, living in the Copper Canyons of Mexico; and the high-incidence of running-related injuries — all cast against the past few decades of high-tech, ever-more engineered running shoes. McDougall weaves these stories together in an artful, can’t-put-the-book down story with simple question at it’s core: why are running shoes that are designed to prevent or reduce injuries not working?

Back to Barefoot Ted: he’s one of the main characters of Born to Run, seen running barefoot but also racing along the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico in Vibram FiveFingers. If the wily Barefoot Ted (“El Mono” or the “monkey”) could run an ultramarathon close to barefoot in some of the harshest terrain on the planet, what was stopping any of us from doing the same? Readers of Born to Run were left inspired to ditch their Nikes and try barefoot running — or pick up some toe shoes! Not too surprisingly, it wasn’t long before Vibram FiveFingers as a barefoot running shoe really started going mainstream.

Why are Vibram FiveFingers good for running, anyway?

How could a shoe with no arch support and no cushioning be good for running? Wouldn’t that hurt? You barefoot running people must be crazy!

These are common questions for Five Fingers-shod or barefoot runners. It’s a given in our modern culture that you must wear running shoes, trainers, or sneakers to safely move around outside. It’s assumed that asphalt is hard and dangerous to run on without lots of cushioning. It’s even assumed that heel-striking is natural.

Like so many mainstream ideas, these preconceived notions about running are very likely false. For example, it seems that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of cushioning in your shoes and just how hard you’re willing to strike the ground. This really isn’t surprising when you think about it: imagine runnning barefoot on a hard surface. You would land as gingerly and gently as you possibly could.

Comparatively, add a bunch of foam underneath your foot and everything changes. It suddenly doesn’t matter so much how you land when running on hard surfaces because the foam helps absorb the impact on your foot and mutes the sensations of a varied, non-uniform ground. Consequently, people running in cushioned shoes tend to take longer strides, strike the ground hard, and strike the ground at their heel. The shockwave spawned by this striking then shoots up your ankle and leg. Further complicating the matter is that adding thick heels to your shoes changes your natural running gait from midfoot/forefoot to a heel-strike.

It’s not that you can’t run gently in modern running shoes, it’s that you both don’t have to and many find they simply can’t (due to the forced heel-strike and the resulting shockwave).

Running barefoot or without much protection/cushioning as with minimalist footwear works so well at encouraging gentle, natural running because the lack of cushioning and support forces you to run lightly, with less impact. and, in turn, with less or no injury (More on How to Run here). That’s how the theory goes, anyway, and the science is finally starting to bear that theory out.

So if barefoot is best, how do Vibram FiveFingers “fit” into this?

A pile of the open-topped Classic Vibram FiveFingers, the original "barefoot shoe" from Vibram and the most minimal, outdoor-use VFFs available.

Vibram FiveFingers are so great less because of what they are and more because what they are not. They are just a thin bit of rubber strapped to your foot, complete with individual toe slots. They’re just toe shoes. No arch support. No cushioning. This minimalist design puts your foot very close to being in it’s natural, barefoot state mostly because it draws it’s structure and function from the foot. What a concept! As a result, FiveFingers allow your foot to express itself dynamically — meaning toes can move independently and the foot can flex, bend, and twist, engaging all the muscles and tendons of the foot similarly to how the foot would function barefoot. The thin layer of rubber in Five Fingers also allows a good deal (though not all) of ground feedback through to the foot while still affording some rubbery protection.

Vibram FiveFingers are not perfect — both muting ground feedback and being a “one-size-fits-most,” mass-produced foot glove make them imperfect (barefoot and “shod” will never be equivalents!). FiveFingers specifically, and toe shoes generally, simply protect the foot a bit while getting out of the way of natural foot functionality.

Oh how toe shoes — and “barefoot,” minimalist footwear are growing!

Fast forward to today, and Vibram’s FiveFingers shoes have revolutionized the sports shoe market by shifting the paradigm around what it means to have healthy shoes for running, playing, walking or whatever — our feet don’t need lots of cushionioning, arch support, elevated heels, or motion control to provide for safe movement. As is the case with Vibram FiveFingers, a minimal sole (as little as 5 – 10mm thick) that is flexible and moves with your foot (thanks to the toe separation) can make for an incredibly versatile shoe — one used for running marathons, walking, hiking, weight-lifting, travelling, casual wear, or really just about anything you can imagine. In fact, one of the core tenets of this site has been documenting just how users are using them — people are doing everything in their toe shoes—often to the amazement of people stuck in the mindset that shoes need to be built up.

In just five years, FiveFingers have grown from a simple “Classic” toe shoe, to a line of “minimalist footwear” with over 15 models — like the running-oriented FiveFingers Bikila, the trail running/hiking KSO Trek or TrekSport, the sporty/casual/fashionable Speeds, the indominatable, do-anything KSO, or the just-released sprinting/high-intensity fitness-focused KomodoSports. And there are other manufacturers are getting in on the game: you’ve got Vivo Barefoots, New Balance with their NB Minimus line, the Merrell Barefoots, Soft Star Shoes, or the latest entrant to the “toe shoes” market, the Fila Skele-toes. Or go super old school with some huaraches sandals A shoe revolution really is “a foot.”


Vibram Five Fingers have exploded the traditional footwear paradigm and are at the forefront of the minimalist footwear movement. As minimalist running has taken off, other shoe manufacturers have taken note and alternative “barefoot running shoes” or just close-to-barefoot casual shoes are starting to show up everywhere.

In short, a return to a more natural state of movement through “freeing your feet” is here to stay. As more and more people discover the “barefoot alternative” of Vibram Five Fingers, or simply the kid-like freedom of being barefoot outdoors, the traditional footwear that has dominated the sports shoe industry over the past few decades just may go away — or at least reduce in scope. Who needs over-engineered, over-hyped, over-marketed, over-cushioned foot casts on their feet anyway?

Wouldn’t you rather let your feet be free?

By Justin

Justin Owings is a deadlifting dad of three, working from Atlanta. When he's not chasing his three kids around, you'll find him trying to understand systems, risk, and human behavior.

25 replies on “Vibram FiveFingers : Revolutionary toe shoes or “Barefoot Shoes””

I truely wish I could use Five FIngers, but like you stated, they are not a custom fit, they are a cookie cutter design. I hope one day they will make a custom pair for me, haha.

I would like to point out something about this sentence, “Vibram Five Fingers have exploded the traditional footwear paradigm and are at the forefront of the minimalist footwear movement.” I agree there were and are at the forefront, but I believe the runners that thought of using them as running shoes instead of boat shoes are the ones truly responsible for the shift in the paradigm.

Thanks for your reviews, they really are awesome!

Will they make the size 48 in any other styes or colors in the future? I would like to have several different pairs.


Hey everyone I’m 14 and I am now on my second pair of five fingers (Bikila) my previous were KSO’s. They are amazing shoes and my mile has gone from a 6:45 to a 5:50 by wearing these shoes. More support please!

On 6/9 I brought my first pair of Bikilas as of 6/19 I own three pair of Bikilas one pair of komodosports one pair of speeds cant wait for the new line to come out

i am a Clydesdale [220] who has run for close to 35 years now, most if it in what are now called minimal [i call neutral or racing flats] because they work best for me, so i thought this fad may have given me more choice in shoes suitable to my running style.
in a word – nope.
as an expert, may i ask you why a ‘minimalist’ shoe now costs north of 150 bucks in many cases, yet a tri or racing flat is in the 60-90$ range
just curious

Just back from the joggling world championships in Rochester, MN. Took Gold in the Masters 5K (I’m 55 yrs old), 4×100 masters relay, and 4×400 masters relay. Also, third in 100 meters – masters. Wore my FiveFingers of course. My time was 27:18 for the 5K, much better than I expected in the extreme heat. You can go to the IJA – International Jugglers Ass’n website to see all the results as well as my times.

Three years ago I bought my first pair of Vibram Five Fingers after seeing them on a woman in REI. She said that she had back trouble and they cured it.
I’m now 68 years old and since that time I have developed Parkinson’s Disease with foot Dystonia… that makes your toes curl under very tightly your arch go up and your foot turn in. Five FIngers have literally kept me on my feet. They are about the only shoe I can walk in. They give me excellent stability because I can feel the floor or ground beneath me. Everytime I try to wear my old “normal” shoes they not only hurt my feet, but they exacerbate my condition. I am writing this for all those people who have a movement disorder like Parkinson’s or dystonia. And all of you “normal” people who know someone with a condition like this, spread the word. Today, my neurologist wrote a prescription for my 3rd pair of FIve FIngers. And by the way, the Vibram website is where I bought both pairs…they consistently had the lowest prices!

I purchased my first pair of Five fingers one year ago. I put them on first thing every morning, work in my plant nursery 6-8 hours just about everyday. Before discovering these shoes my back and hip pain was unbearable by noon or one oclock. With the tire tread sole I am able to feel the ground and be more stable. My second pair were a substitute for the actual style I wanted but still again I can wear them longer than with “regular” shoes. Now I’m back for my third outdoor pair and a pair of only indoor pair of performas. I love these shoes and just about everyone I run into wants the info on the brand of shoes.

I really appreciate all the great info on naked running and VFF. Just a comment that I hope will improve the site and I hope you won’t take the wrong way — the contracted form of the word “it’s” means “it is”. When you want to use the possessive form of “it” you leave out the apostrophe (like “being in its natural state”).

Keep up the great work!


Could you kindly advice me please? I want to buy a pair of KSO and i can’t find the right fit. The ladies size 40 is fitting in terms of length but the ankle part is tight and i can’t fully secure the velcro (too short). As for the men’s size 40 which i was told is the smallest available, the ankle part is comfortable but there’s a bit of space in front of my toes. I tried walking in the men’s size inside the store and it’s pretty all right but i’m not sure if running in them will be comfortable.

Should i go for the men’s size 40? Thanks! 🙂

My Vibrams have started to smell and I have washed them in Bicarb and non phosphorus laundry detergent but the smell is still there. Does anyone have any ideas?

Not sure how this works exactly…but my husband is obsessed with this site! I would like to order him a t-shirt and car sticker for his birthday…but it’s on THURSDAY 1/19/12!!! YIKES! Any chance you could have it to me by then? I went to put the t-shirt in the cart…and it was out of stock! Can you keep me posted so I know what is going on? Thanks!


I can’t wear 5-finger shoes (webbed toes) and I am scared to go barefoot (I trail run). What is the most “minimalist” trail shoe I can use that will still give me traction on slippery slopes and some protection from sharp rocks?

mine stink too , and I have 6 pairs! I use regular detergent but i sprinkle Gold Bond Foot Powder in before each wearing. really helps alot.

Love my five fingers, I can’t imagine running with anything else anymore. I went straight into five fingers and experienced no problems until I ran two halves (two weeks apart) now, the bottom of my feet hurt all the time – three weeks later! I guess I should have increased my mileage SLOWLY?!?!

HELP!!! My vibrams cut the outside of my big toe right at the widest part of the MTP joint. It’s happened on two pairs now and I just don’t know what to do. I can’t run more than 8k without having a cut for the next two weeks. I got the socks, but I don’t like wearing them.


I have the same problem in my KSOs on hot days once my feet are sweaty. Socks solved the problem for the few times that I run in KSOs in hot weather. I’ve worn VFFs for 2 years and they are my favorite play/recreation shoes, but for my every other day running habit, I prefer in-the-flesh barefoot running.

I really love the look of these shoes. However I have large feet, size 15 US 48 Eur I believe. It appears that you don’t make those sizes, is this something you may do in the future?

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