Thursday, August 18, 2011

Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport LS Review: How do VFFs compare with Merrell Trail Gloves and New Balance Minimus Trails?

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For all of my chatter on this blog and to my friends about my own positive experiences with natural running, I have never actually owned a pair of the most minimal shoes out there…the grandfather of all minimalist shoes…Vibram FiveFingers. I have tried them on, tried them out for a few steps, and watched them in the market regularly as they grew from offering a few basic models like the venerable FiveFingers KSO and the popular FiveFingers TrekSport. In fact, the growth of FiveFingers brand and lineup over the past few years is nothing short of remarkable.  Recently, I bought a pair of FiveFingers Komodo Sport LS multi-sport/running shoes from Bivouac of Ann Arbor.

Why did I wait so long if I am such a devotee of natural/minimalist running? Probably a few reasons:
  • There are a million shoes out there I want to try and just haven’t gotten a chance yet.
  • They are so wildly unconventional that many of the earlier, more plainly styled varieties looked too unappealing for me.
  • They are the most flexible, most minimal shoe out there and I wasn’t sure I was ready to pound out miles in something like that.
  • They are not cheap.
  • They never quite fit my feet right…I have narrow feet and most styles have a simple stretch upper and a Velcro strap or two, so they were always too wide and insecure on my feet.

Today, however, stores can’t even keep Vibrams in stock. They are a pretty common site here in Ann Arbor (which is admittedly a college town and a little wacky). FiveFingers are now a pretty accepted and mainstream product in many corners of the fitness world.  They offer over a dozen new styles each for men and women. They have options for nearly every activity from casual wear to running…even military applications.  While the scientific jury is still out, and is likely to be for some time, there is clearly a huge percentage of the population willing to go barefoot or minimalist in their training and everyday life. There is anecdotal evidence, like my own experiences, and there are some debated findings in the far corners of academic, peer-reviewed publications, stating barefoot running and minimalist shoes (and the FiveFingers specifically) do indeed help a runner run more naturally and reduce impact load which may lead to reduced injury.

All I can say is that it works for me. I am going to say a few things about the FiveFingers Komodo Sport LS in this review, but they will be more along the lines of a new FiveFingers convert, rather than comparing and contrasting this new model specifically against its brethren in the Vibram lineup. In other words, you’ll hear feedback from me as a new FiveFingers user and some comments about this model specifically.

Given that I can’t compare the Komodo LS to other FiveFingers products, I will compare them to my other minimalist front-runners, the excellent Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove (and it’s body-double the Sonic Glove), as well as the popular New Balance Minimus Trail.

Let’s just get the toe-pocket thing out of the way first. Obviously that is the main difference between the FiveFingers and every other minimalist shoe. A few thoughts on that:
  • Yes, they do take a little while to wiggle into, but it gets easier (start with the big toe and make your way down to the pinky).
  • Yes, it does actually make a difference in forefoot flexibility and you can engage each toe separately as you would barefoot.
  • No, they don’t cause blisters (at least for me).
  • Yes, you forget about having your foot in a “glove” and before you know it you don’t even think about being in “toe shoes” as opposed to anything else.

In fact, given the soft, silky material between your toes and the hyper-flexible sole, you can move your feet naturally in any direction more fully than anything short of bare feet or simple sandals. They really are comfortable. Snug, but comfortable. The conventional minimalist shoes I listed and have used all use a traditional toebox, and vary in terms of comfort with or without socks. The FiveFingers Komodo Sport LS was a comfortable shoe right away, and my second time wearing them I ran 6 up-tempo miles on the street over a lot of little rolling Ann Arbor hills with zero discomfort.  In short…don’t be afraid of the wild looking toes. They work and you get used to them.

The interior of the shoe, as I described, is soft, wicking, and comfortable. Not must to say there except that it beats the others I described hands-down in terms of sockless comfort.  I had slight blister issues with my other favorites, the Merrell Trail Gloves. No worries, socks took care of it, but I prefer to run sockless when I can. As for weight, the FiveFingers is similar to the Merrells and Minimus, and this makes them some of the heaviest FiveFingers shoes. The “extra” weight comes from the lacing system, rugged overlay on the sole, and the fact that, unlike other FiveFingers varieties, these have a 1-2mm footbed that helps wick moisture and provides a little traction inside the shoe for lateral cuts when running or playing. From what I understand, the Komodos are the best FiveFingers for field sports, Frisbee, etc., where you need to cut back and forth laterally (the Komodo’s cousin, the Bikila, is a road-running specific model that is similar, but provides more padding and less side-to-side traction).

Compared even to the Merrell Trail Gloves, which are a little stiffer, thicker-soled, and have a thin rock plate, the FiveFingers Komodo Sport LS is far, far more flexible and offers a much greater degree of ground feel. Essentially, they are as close to barefoot I have ever experienced in a shoe of any kind. The ride is smoother than the Merrells on the road, although the Minimus Trail also excels in this category. The Komodo's flexibility is almost comical.  Imagine taking a thin nylon sock with toe pockets and gluing some 1-3 mm rubber to the bottom in a few places, and you get the idea. It still offers protection in the right areas, though, and I find them exceptionally comfortable for running. These days, the less support I wear, the more comfortable running has been.

The laces are what made me eligible for this shoe. Previously the Komodo Sport was available only as a Velcro-strap version, and my narrow feet flopped around in them. The lace version allows you to snug it right up and it fits me perfectly, making it more of a realistic option vs. the very well-fitting Minimus and Merrells. A great option, even if it adds an ounce over the original version. After all, an ounce per shoe isn’t going to make a difference to a sturdy guy like me.

As with any minimalist shoe, you need to start slowly and build up to it, this is the most minimal shoe I have ever worn, so it is no exception. Take a Good Form Running Class at Elite Feet up in Brighton if you can, or else check out their other resources online at their website. The Merrells and Minimus are great shoes, and I love them as well (and they have even more minimal variants on the way next year!).  But if you are a well-adapted natural runner and you want a durable, comfortable ultra-minimal experience, FiveFingers is the way to go right now, and in my limited experience the FiveFingers Komodo Sport LS will not leave you wanting.