Vibram FiveFingers KSO Review

I’ve always liked to feel the earth underfoot. As a kid, I stomped barefoot through puddles, especially the gooky ones, to feel mud squish up between my toes. I walked with no shoes in sand boxes so much when I was little that, the first time I met sand dunes as an adult, I ran around on them unshod until blisters stopped me in my tracks.

My penchant for sticking my toes into real, live earth wasn’t what first drew me to the Vibram FiveFingers KSO last year, though. Over the previous nine months, I had won a battle over plantar fasciitis through rest and physician-administered anti-inflammation treatments. Though my wound had healed, the weird strength imbalances in my hips and lower legs that caused the injury were still present. I was engaged in physical therapy to address those biomechanical deviations (and to further restore healthy plantar fascia tissue), but I had heard through the runner’s grapevine that FiveFingers walking and running might also help with my body’s rehabilitation by “forcing” perfect movement.

The first time I shoved my ten toes into those FiveFingers to do some chores around my house, I felt akin to a monkey. My toes spread out so much that I half expected my big toes to shift into a position of opposition against the rest of my toes. That evening, I did dishes, took the dog outside, folded laundry, and, in general, took a dainty approach to wearing this new kind of shoe. Though I didn’t awake the next day with opposable, tree-climbing toes, I did stand up to ten tired piggies! Without the confines of a shoe’s toe box, my toes splayed wide into positions little experienced since my childhood days of mud splooshing and sand romping. I gave the toes a few days of rest inside traditional shoes, then did it all again.

After several weeks, my toes felt strong enough to FiveFingers walk on my local rails-to-trails railroad bed trail. For about twenty minutes of walking with a few one-minute bouts of running, I felt the earth and all of its intricacies underfoot. Upon footfall, my toes curled around rounded river stones. I felt plugs of grass compact under my body weight. I felt my wide-lying toes become a stabilizing platform. This close contact with the ground appealed to what must have been my residual early hominid genes, because I felt wild, primitive, and playful!

The author running in her KSOs in Joshua Tree NP. Photo by Leslie Gerein.

That is, until I woke up the next morning to distinct discomfort in my calves and hip muscles. Traditional running shoes purvey the opportunity to off-load the impact of movement on cushioned soles. FiveFingers and their thin rubber soles require your body to absorb almost all of movement’s impact. My calves and hips seared for a couple of days, so much that I had to take time off from my traditionally shod running routine. I held tight, returned to these same trail, distance, and pre-human-like meanderings once per week for the next few weeks, and hoped that the products of this pain would be stronger calves and hips, and a resulting, improved running form.

I would be remiss if I didn’t pitch in a few words of caution. Running around almost barefoot, unless you pretty much already live shoeless, should be approached with a degree of moderation unknown by most distance runners. The ability to ignore common sense and fatigue to run silly distances and terrain, the precise qualities that make us ultrarunners, will cause nasty injury with FiveFingers.

Avoid kicking cacti in your KSOs. Photo by Leslie Gerein.

In short, do much, much, much less movement in them than you think you should. I can speak from experience, twice. After increasing my time running in FiveFingers too quickly, I experienced minor inflammation in one Achilles tendon because of overworked accompanying calf muscles. As I increased my time running in FiveFingers, I also got excited about trying to run faster in them. While running down a road at a pace too fast for me to modify my footfalls on the varying terrain, I stepped on rock and bruised the bottom of my big toe. The first incident precluded careful training modifications for about a week to recover, and the second one was an uncomfortable nuisance. I’ve, knock-on-wood, escaped my early FiveFingers use with little issue. And, I’ve learned my lesson!

I have a minor complaint about the construction of the Vibram FiveFingers KSO. The inside of the toe holders have significant amounts of rough edging from stitching fabric and rubber together. I’ve run only moderate distances in this model so, though I can feel the seams, I haven’t experienced any chafing. I do wonder, however, how those seams would perform during a long run.

At present, I remain an immense Vibram FiveFingers fan, and I now run about once per week for an hour in them. While I can’t say that my form is perfect, I know it to be improved because my plantar fasciitis hasn’t returned. I have faith that my calf and hip muscles have at least adapted to these improved biomechanics because they no longer get sore after these runs. Finally, I can also say that my weekly FiveFingers runs have re-impassioned my running with a reminder of why I do what I do out there. With the FiveFingers, I feel the wild earth as I press my toes into it, just like the mud puddle and sand box days of my childhood.

Call for Comments and Questions
We here at iRunFar would love to hear about your experience with Vibram FiveFinger KSOs, any other FiveFingers model, or barefoot running in general. As always, we’ll do our best to answer any questions you might have about the shoe.

iRunFar's Runner-in-Chief in Vibram FiveFingers KSOs.

[Disclaimer: The Amazon link in this post is part of an affiliate program that helps support iRunFar.com. In addition, Vibram provided the KSOs reviewed in this article.]

Meghan Hicks: is the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.

View Comments (55)

  • I've been running in various models of Fivefingers for about a year and a half and have really enjoyed it. I've run three marathons and countless shorter races in them. One issue I have as a long-distance runner is that while they do me well for marathons and shorter, I don't feel they'll do the trick for an upcoming 50-miler that's entirely on asphalt. Foot fatigue and the potential for a stress fracture have made me decide to run ultras in either a Nike Free or Inov-8 model, depending upon the terrain.

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  • I also turned to the VFFs for relief from my plantar fasciitis. And after reading Born to Run like so many other people. So far so good. I got into them slowly, and I still don't do more than 20-25% of my training in them. I can't report a miracle cure as so many have, but my PF has slowly gone away. I didn't run much in them over the winter. I don't enjoy miles of cold toes, and you would never know it with traditional shoes but a treadmill belt gets really hot. I eased into running trails in the VFFs pretty slowly. All in takes is landing hard on one rock on your heel and your run is over. But with time, my feet have toughened up so I'm running around 4-5 miles on a gravelly trail. I also run in the NB100s, which to my feet makes running rough trails feel like running smooth road in the VFFs. One thing I have noticed is that when I put on my traditional running shoes, my feet feel really constrained. I obviously took all the support from my shoes for granted. Think about it, we train every other part of our bodies to adapt to more and more mileage and stress. But somehow our feet are the only part that we don't believe can adapt?

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  • Nice review!

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  • Great review, and pretty timely for me. I'm somewhat at a point of frustration with my VFF running as I'm still getting sore calves after my runs, though they certainly are less so then when I first began. I started out my first week a bit high with 2 2 mile runs at a quick pace. I simply was enjoying myself so much I didn't want to slow down or stop. I liken the running to being a barefoot kid at the pool, running (against life guards' orders) around the concrete deck; short quick (playful almost) strides.

    This review gives me hope I've just got to give it a bit longer. As I said in a comment on the NB MT100 review, my ultimate goal is to strengthen my feet and legs and increase my running efficiency to where I can run trail ultras in the MT100's or a similar ultralight shoe. I'm using the VFF's and the La Sportiva Crosslights as transitional tools in working my way into the minimalist shoes.

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  • The long-term goal should be: you and Bryon will have to run every stage of MdS in Five Fingers in 2011!

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    • Trail Clown, some guy at MdS this year had FiveFingers with him. I never saw him out on course, but I heard reports that he wore them, at least in part, during the race. I find this remarkable because the Sahara is approximately the most rocky place on earth. That said, Bryon and I will strive for this goal! :) Thanks!

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  • Great review. I just want to second your advice to take it slow. I got a pair about three months ago and went out for a run in them and immediately pulled a calf muscle (in fairness, the muscle had been on the edge for a little while before that). After that incident, I did a lot of walking around in them to build up strength and finally only recently started running in them. I'll run an out and back run and clip these to my pack (they're really light). When I get to close to turning around, I'll drop my regular shoes and switch to the VFFs. I'll then run to the turn around and back to my regular shoes and change back. I do this once a week and try to slowly push up the distance I'm running in them. I think having my muscles warm helps and this seems to be working pretty well for me to build up slowly without hurting myself.

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    • Dan, thank you for the great advice! I love the idea of doing a run half in VFFs, and half in regular shoes. I haven't tried that, but I will in some of my summer Sierra Nevada explorations.

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  • I love my five fingers KSO, except in winter. Snow in between my toes = near frostbite, but as soon as spring hit they came out again.

    I turned to them to help solve some knee problems, it worked. I ran in them every day last summer, slow and long. Did some research about correct running form. My stride and subsequent knee problems are fixed. I use the Vasque Transistor and NB MT100 for most runs now. The Five Fingers I use once a week to keep my stride honest and feet/ankles/knees strong.

    Also use them for hiking, rock climbing approach shoes, and ultimate frisby!

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    • Mike, I haven't yet used FiveFingers for hiking, like you're doing, but I can't wait to try it! I think that will be an awesome lower-leg strengthening experience. The most challenging aspect of running in VFFs in cold weather is the fact that cold feet are stiff. VFF running is all about relaxing the feet so as to melt around/over ground surface deviations. When my feet are cold, they don't do that and the running becomes uncomfortable. Thus, I'm definitely a warmer weather VFF wearer. Thanks for your comment!

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  • Great review! I got some KSOs a month or so ago and use them verrrrrry lightly. Walk to the grocery store, to get coffee, etc. Little stuff like that. I also walk to the park two blocks away and will run for 10 minutes in circles in the grass (about 1 mile) and then walk back home. I'm not consistent with the running in these yet. I much prefer walking around in them for now since I'm a high-arched orthotics gal and since it's an extreme change for me, I don't want to push it at all :) Thanks for posting this!

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    • Paige, thanks for your comment! Do you get funny looks walking around town in your VFFs? People still ask me ALL the time what I'm wearing when I'm out and about! It's a great way to acclimate your feet to the new experience. I hope your light experimentation achieves the results you wish!

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  • I have never looked into the 5 fingers enough to find out what they cost, so I was quite surprised when I saw the Amazon link with a $130 price tag. Does this seem high to anybody else. My general sense would have me thinking, less material, less cost.

    Can any of the five finger users out there answer some questions for me to set me at ease? Have five fingers always been this expensive? Has there been an upward price trend with the rise in demand for the product with the recent barefoot movement? What type of mileage can you get on a pair before needing to replace them?

    Thanks!

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    • Will, they aren't all the same price, I think I paid $100 for my KSOs a year and a half ago and $130 for my KSO Treks. I have found my KSOs to be very durable. I probably have 200 miles on my KSOs. No major signs of wear other than the stick I put through the top mesh while hiking. I don't wear socks with them, smell must be combated, but they wash easily.

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    • More than likely you were viewing the Treks, which are $125-$130, and are specific to trails, though I've used them for road running as well. They cost more than the other models (which start at $95) because they have a more aggressive tread and the uppers are made of kangaroo leather. Like the others they wash well in the washer and air dry in a few hours.

      As for mileage I've been getting about 700 miles per pair. Since there's no midsole to break down the biggest concern is tread life. I've just started applying Shoe Goo to some of the thinner spots to prolong them even further. I'm alternating between a pair of KSOs, Classics, and Treks. Thinking about getting a pair of new Bikilas but will wait until all the others give up the ghost.

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      • Thanks for this price tag dialogue, all! You're all right that the price isn't cheap, no matter which model you look at. I don't have enough experience in mine to yet see what kind of mileage they will endure. Mine have probably 175 miles on them, but look like they did when I first started out (with a little added mud).

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  • great review!

    I literally could not run without my FiveFingers. I had tried for a year and always got hung up with knee pains at the 1 mile mark. Thanks to FiveFingers (most importantly its' them forcing proper running form by preventing my heel strike) I've been running at gradually increases distances since August of 2009. It's the only 'shoe' I run in and I have almost 500 miles on my first pair.

    I chronicle my journey here: [Broken link to Miles Behind Me removed]

    What's important to note is that not everyone 'needs' barefoot or minimal running...some of you developed great natural running form and being shod doesn't seem to effect technique. For those who didn't develop great technique...the journey that fivefingers can take you on will teach you much about your body and your ability to be a runner. At the end of the day it's great technique that will keep people running for a lifetime!

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    • Bobby, I'm glad you found a vehicle to run again! Congratulations on your tough journey! You're right that folks bring very different running forms to their careers as a runner. That said, while I have relatively good form from years of running, including high school and collegiate competitive running where my mechanics were probably solidified, I still managed to get injured! As someone said above, we are each experiments of one! Thanks again and good luck to you!

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  • Bryon,

    Thanks for the nice and balanced review of VFF KSO. I agree with you and some of the commenters that barefoot running is an experience of one.

    It is interesting to me that most of us wear shoes at home in the U.S. Being an Asian and having grew up in a household where shoes were forbidden in the house, I do sometime miss those days where I roamed around the house, doing house chores barefooted. It was a great way to relax the feet after a day's of suffocating them in shoes.

    Maybe I ought do try that again at home....

    Thomas

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    • Thomas, thanks for your kind comment on my review. I grew up in a shoeless household, mostly, though it wasn't by cultural tradition. Let us know if you return to shoeless days at home, and if it affects your running! Thanks for the insight about your cultural background!

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  • Chad R, thanks for sharing your FiveFingers experiences! At this point, I will can't imagine wearing them for a marathon-distance run, let alone a 50 miler! What made you try the shoes in the first place, for injury recovery, for fun? Thanks for your comment!

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  • Steve, as another PF sufferer, I always wide-eyed blink when others report miracle cures to an injury that so fast becomes chronic. FiveFingers wearing did not cure my PF either, nor would I expect it to. I used the shoes to help restore normal function once the injury abated. I'm so glad you've found this option that lets you run! Good luck with your continued FiveFingers explorations!

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  • Kevin, I can totally empathize with where you are in your calf discomfort! Have you tried post-VFF ice baths for your calves? Where I learned to FiveFingers run was adjacent to a montain river. After an outing, I would wade knee deep into the river with its cold snow-melt water to ice down my calves. Good luck to you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts and frustrations with us!

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  • I like to joke, but I would be remiss if I didn't also say that I am a huge fan of the Five Fingers, have been for 3 years now. I don't have any hard and fast rules about them, except to have fun in them when I run and not push it too hard. In 2008 I raced a 50 miler in them and suffered big time. But I was so excited to have a shoe that didn't pull on my plantar fascia that I just never wanted to put another shoe on, ever. Now I run long in "minimalist" shoes like the Vasque Transistors, and wear the FF's for short recovery runs, strides, soft trails, hikes, washing dishes, on the beach, windsurfing, etc. I can't wait to try all the new FF models, I hope Bryon has some serious give-aways on those!

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  • I love my VFFs! I had plantar fasciitis in both feet and did extensive PT including ASTYM. I run in a pair of minimal Nikes (actually a cross training shoe -- Nike Quick Sister) and the VFFs. I tried the Nike Frees but all my old problems came back with those. One problem I had with the VFFs -- I got major blisters on the bottoms of both my big toes. It happens when I run barefoot or in my socks as well. It got better, but never figured out what my issue was. Has anyone else had this problem? Is it better if you don't wear socks? I like to wear socks when it's cold and rainy.

    One note -- be careful when running in the hills in your VFFs -- I was running downhill and not watching my form when I tripped over my dog. I landed too hard and sprained my foot. So, I'm running a half marathon this weekend in my Nikes rather than my VFFs because I need the extra cushioning and support for a little while longer.

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  • I got into VFFs (also the KSO model) in November after really bad ITBS slowed me down for the last ten miles of my last marathon (ow). Since then I've been running 4-10 miles per week in them, on the track at the gym and the treadmill mostly over the winter and now outdoors. The good news is the ITBS has not reappeared. When I did a 20-miler last week and got some bad blisters on my toes, the VFFs were also really comfortable and helped keep my toes from rubbing and aggravating the problem.

    The big drawback is in the seams you mention - I got some pretty bad blisters on the arches of my feet initially (once I got off the treadmill and found my shoes were full of blood...ugh...). Now I always wear toe socks, which prevents this. I also had a lot of calf tenderness to begin with, but now (after putting in about 100 miles), that seems to be dramatically reduced, almost not noticeable any more. Pointy rocks are still annoying.

    I made the transition relatively quickly. To be fair, I'm barefoot almost all the time that I'm at home (and sometimes at the office if no one catches me, haha), and I had done some small amount of barefoot running in karate classes over the years, though certainly nothing close to a mile. Right now any distance under 10k is pretty good, above 10k and my forefeet start to ache. Also, I did a 5k in them and finished a personal best. So I'm a fan. :)

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  • Trail Clown, you must have very strong feet to be able to RACE 50 miles and not break all the lil' tarsals in them there feet! Doesn't seem that every runner, at some point in their career, deals with PF issues? Good griefs! I, too, would love to try some of the other FF models. I can imagine myself wandering into work in a pair of them, if only for the reactions! :) Be well and run well, and thanks for commenting!

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  • Courtinoregon, it sounds like you've experienced what every FF runner at some time must experience: taking one's attention away from your foot landing zone just a bit too long. The result in a pair of FFs can be much more acute than a regular pair of shoes. I'm glad you're recovering!

    I haven't had blistering problems with my toes, but I haven't run more than 90 minutes in them. I have tested both with socks and without, but I can't tell which I enjoy more. I do think wearing socks gives you a teensy bit more padding. I'd be curious if there are any other readers out there who are getting blistered like you!

    Thanks for your comment!

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  • Em, thanks for sharing your experiences. So, it sounds like some folks really are getting a bit blistered in these things. It's cool to hear that your IT band stuff has abated, and that you became a FF wearer pretty quickly. Good luck with your continued training!

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