FiveFingers Are Good For Your Feet!

Hendrik Morkel has posted a great review of the FiveFingers. Within the comments, there was a link posted by harttj to the posting in which I mentioned that I’d injured myself as a result of wearing them on very stony ground, with a pack, when my feet were still quite weak.

I just want to be clear about my thinking about this: FiveFingers are very, very good for your feet. Apart from being the most comfortable footwear ever invented, they strengthen your feet and allow them to attain the power and flexibility that they have evolved to have. That power and flexibility is almost certainly not present if you have been wearing “normal” footwear for most of your life.

I really do find that I have far more “muscular” and flexible feet. It’s not over-stating this to say that my feet now feel like extra limbs that I’ve never previously had. I now have something that’s slightly more akin to hands on the end of my legs as opposed to things more akin to hooves which I used to clomp about on. I’m quite serious about this.

Okay, so are FiveFingers “dangerous”? Of course not! But using them for a hard walk across stony ground whilst carrying a quite heavy pack (including food, water and way too much photographic kit!) is dangerous if you do it before you are strong enough to do so.

I’d note again that my right foot was just fine and it had gone through the same conditions (of course!). And that the injury healed as I walked the 550kms+ onwards to Nice. So it wasn’t very damaged, just sore.

I had no arches before all this. I wore custom insoles and had sore arches and knee pain. I have neither now. It was visible in wet footprints on dry boards – my arches used to be in contact with the floor on both sides!

But this summer LB noticed I formed a normal footprint on both sides. And walking through soft peat in the FiveFingers clearly showed a full arch on my right and a more shallow but definitely present arch on my left.

My feet are becoming the biomechanically impressive limbs they always had the potential to be, had I not worn “good, solid, supportive” footwear all my life.

But how do you make your feet strong enough to take such a pounding?

Once we swapped to inov8 Terrocs not only I, but LB and also our regular walking and Big Walk buddy Kev found that our feet were tired in a way that indicated they were working in ways they’d just not been used to. The more “muscular” nature of my feet, I’m sure, started with the Terrocs but was mainly achieved by wearing the FiveFingers.

Will wearing inov8s/FiveFingers sort out your knee/foot problems and give you muscly feet in a couple of weeks? Of course not! That’s exactly like expecting that a couple of sessions at the gym will give you a six pack (many magazines and web sites are sold on such rubbish of course). But the advantage of wearing inov8s/FiveFingers is that it’s something that you don’t take time out to do, doesn’t take extra will-power and is actually fun (sorry, but gyms just aren’t fun to me).

So, if you don’t get along with inov8s for some reason, at least try something very, very flexible indeed to allow the feet to work harder whilst cushioning the poor, slightly atrophied things and preventing injuring them.

Several of the well known walking shoe manufacturers are bringing out “barefoot” models next season (according to Outdoor Retailer 2010 coverage by backpackinglight.com – sorry members only link). I am very, very happy that it’s catching on but I must admit to being rather concerned that many people may put on a pair and expect miraculous transformations in existing injuries and lower limb health. Whereas if they just start walking long distances with large packs, they may acquire more injuries and worse lower limb health. Which may consign the idea of “barefooting” to the list of fads that come and go. It’s all about expectations and whether people will generally understand that they need to rebuild strength in their feet slowly.

On a related note; not only does wearing the FiveFingers strengthen your feet, it changes your gait. I had no pain at all from my knees on the Corsica trip until I started to descend on an easy track (as we joined the Mare-Mare Sud for a diversion in fact). I realised I was was heal striking in descent because the inov8s have a soft heal. But I know for sure that in the FiveFingers I would have switched to toe-striking with smaller steps. So I consciously switched gaits (surprisingly hard to do after years of shoe wearing I can tell you!) and the pain stopped in a couple of steps. Back to heal striking and the pain returned, back to toe striking and it went. Very interesting.

We didn’t wear the FiveFingers on the GR 20 for the simple reason that we assumed the route would be very, very rocky and we weren’t sure our feet were strong enough to cope yet. We also wanted light packs so they were literally tossed out of the bag as the cab arrived to start the journey. It was a knife-edge decision.

But Russ from this year’s Big Walk crew met someone who had walked GR 20 in them. He said he had hiked in them for two years before he was strong enough to wear them for a route like the GR 20.

Bottom line: We both wear FiveFingers almost constantly when it’s not snowing. For everything. Home and hiking. They are not just comfortable, they make walking even more fun. They and the inov8s have allowed me to correct knee and foot problems. Lets face it – 3.5 million years of bipedalism can’t be wrong!

Back From GR20 – Just How Hard Was It?

The GR 20 is a truly fantastic route. Gorgeous views and lots of challenging walking and scrambling. I’d highly, highly recommend it.

We often meet some great people on the Big Walks but this year seemed particularly rich in that respect. Which was great since we ended up walking it two weeks later than this year’s Big Walk crew! Though as a bonus Russ, who was part of that trip, managed to meet us to ascend Monte Cinto, the highest peak on the island, just before he flew back.

There were people on the route who had done some of the more interesting routes around the world too. Some we’d done, some we’d heard of and some we noted for future reference…

We actually doubled back to miss the last stage (taking the standard GR20 instead of the Alpine Variant we’d used the day before)  to allow us to turn south for a day’s walk to connect to the Mare-Mare Sud. We joined at the half-way point and walked into Porto-Vecchio, thereby saving a day of bus rides out of Conca (the actual end point of the GR 20) and giving us another extra couple of days of walking.

The Mare-Mare Sud is nice enough but suffered somewhat from the “Green Tunnel” effect that is apparently prevalent on the Appalachian Trail.  There were very occasional views as we popped out of the forest but for long stretches it was just trees. Regardless, it still beat the heck out of spending the day on two different buses!

The GR 20 has a reasonably scary reputation and is often referred to as “The hardest way-marked route in the world” (note – that’s “way-marked” route – you can make up your own routes that are harder than this of course). But it’s all very subjective, so all I can do is relay our own experience and perhaps a little of the feelings of others we met along the way.

Overall, we certainly thought it was very hard work, but never more technically challenging than an easy British Grade I scramble. What’s that? A scramble is “A walk where you need to use your hands” and on a grade one you’d not expect to need a rope (it’s rather ill defined, but from what I’ve been taught; there are three grades, grade three is essentially very easy climbing, with a rope and a very occasional bit of leader-placed protection – attachment to the rock).

If you’re used to scrambling, nothing on the route poses a problem. There are a few sections that feel exposed, but there isn’t much that has the potential to really mess you up badly. And any parts that do have that potential are protected with chains and cables to hold on to.

But the point is, the GR 20 is damned hard work!

To give you some idea, we walked most of the route with a great couple of Scottish lasses, one of which has been a full time walking and skiing guide for around twenty-five years and she found the route hard work (she’d done it before so she knew what was coming). But note, that’s hard work, not hard technically. As we agreed one evening over some local Corsican red wine, it’s the sustained nature of the broken terrain. On some days you rarely get into a regular stride. It’s small step, large step, larger step, small step etc. For sections, it doesn’t let up for hours.

That being said, we met people carrying fairly “impressive” (large!) pack weights who’d never, ever done any walking with a pack before and they were coping. More of an endurance exercise in their case perhaps and personally I’d have chosen something that wasn’t so punishing for my first GR, like a section of the GR5. Of course there were more experienced walkers with lighter packs that were doubling stages. They said it wasn’t at all easy, but it was clearly doable.

We also met people that were accomplished long distance walkers who were finding it very tough because they’d not scrambled before and they had thought the days mentioned in the guide book looked too short: they are not! One guy had walked the Appalachian Trail, among other long distance paths, and had decided to double-up sections of the GR 20 – and said he was regretting it! The sections are short in distance because they’re simply very tough walking.

It’s probably worth saying that many people had the impression that the second section is easier than the first. Well, to us it wasn’t very much easier at all. There are still sustained sections of broken terrain. And there are also very many beautiful sections in the south. As Russ put it “There wasn’t a day I thought I could have happily missed out”. For instance, the Alpine Variant on the penultimate day, ending at Bavella (the picture above), was one of the absolute highlights.

There are several accessible peaks just off route that are well worth doing as part of the days (though Monte Cinto really requires a clear extra day). We did Monte Cinto, Monte Ritondu, Monte d’Oro and Tower III (which is tiny, but a great scramble). But we missed Paglia Orba and Monte Renosu due to the fact the routes have a reputation for being tricky to find and the weather wasn’t good on those days. The scrambling on the side peaks is often a little harder than the main route (with Paglia Orba being particularly tricky apparently). The route marking for the peaks (usually yellow blazes) is rather sketchy at times to say the least but the red/white blazes of the GR were excellent throughout.

One mistake, that’s hard not to make, is to leave too little time. There really are 15 stages and travelling on Corsica can take a long, long time. Check online and be aware that timetables become even more sparse on Sundays and after the end of September, and that strikes are not unknown!

If possible you’d ideally have 15 days’ walking, plus 1 day for Monte Cinto and 1 day’s rest somewhere. Then at least one day each side for travelling between home and each end of the route (probably more). It can be done in less time of course but it’s a harder proposition and can make the final stages far less relaxing than they could be. If you have to double up, I’d avoid doing so for the first few stages to allow your stamina to build.

Also, the inov8 Roclites coped absolutely fine, including the extra peaks, and have plenty of mileage left in them. I would hate to try this route in restrictive, heavy “clod-hopping” traditional boots. They’d make it way harder and increase the injury risk. But that’s really another posting…

Overall, if you can cope with having to put your hands down on the rock to negotiate some of the trickier lumps, you can cope with this walk. Just don’t underestimate the stamina needed to walk it. But above all, don’t miss it!