Barefoot Tennis Shoes?

For the past several weeks I’ve been running in my new Vibram FiveFingers Classic shoes.  I’ve reported on the very first run I did with the shoes and even my second run in the shoes.  Since then I’ve been running more in the shoes.  I can now run up to 3 miles in the shoes at a time without too much discomfort.  I still feel a little scrunched in the pinky toe area, but the pain is at least a little more manageable now.  Bottom line is running in these shoes is just more fun than plain old running shoes (like the difference between driving a manual car and an automatic transmission car).

Anyway, this past weekend I had the bright idea to combine 2 of my favorite hobbies together: exercising in my Vibram FiveFingers Classics and playing tennis.   So instead of barefoot running shoes, turning them into barefoot tennis shoes.

I was inspired to take my barefoot running shoes and turn them into barefoot tennis shoes after I read the history of Terra Plana’s vivo barefoot shoes.  The initial concept for the shoes started out when the designer discovered that playing tennis barefoot made his chronic knee and ankle injuries disappear.  I like to play tennis and have had problems in the past with blisters and ankle injuries so I figured now that I had a pair of minimalist shoes that it was worth a try.  Check out the video below:

The Good

The biggest difference you notice between FiveFingers shoes and traditional tennis shoes is just how light they are.  You feel (and look) more like a ballerina than a tennis player since the FiveFinger’s don’t have all the padding shielding you from the court.  In addition to feeling all the textures of tennis court the rubber bottom of the Vibram’s gives you great grip on the court.  I felt very agile on the court.  Moving is not an issue in these shoes.

The Bad

While moving around the court is not a problem what ends up being a problem is sprinting to chase down balls.  Sprinting in FiveFingers is easy, what’s hard (and painful) is slowing down quickly.  Tennis is a lot of stop-and-go and spurts of speed.  When you have padded shoes you don’t really notice how much you rely on your heel to stop or brake your movement.  However, when wearing FiveFingers you feel everything and I found myself taking more time to slow down just to ease the pain of stomping on the hard surface.

Conclusion

Playing tennis in Vibram FiveFingers is definitely doable.  However, depending on how intense you play tennis it could be painful.  While I know a lot of padded shoes, especially in the running community, get a bad rap since it encourages a less healthy running style (heel strike) in some cases it’s not such a bad idea.  I found myself less fast on the court with my barefoot shoes, but it definitely was a fun experience…even if I looked ridiculous.

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Rachelle February 24, 2010, 5:48 am

    If you try minimalist tennis again, perhaps a slightly thicker heel and protective toe cap would be helpful. kigo footwear can offer those benefits…

    Reply
  • justin February 26, 2010, 10:28 am

    Nice post!

    Reply
  • Tim Brennan March 6, 2010, 1:04 am

    Great post.

    You are absolutely correct in your analysis. Barefoot = faster sprinting + longer to slow down

    I found that when you are taken out for a wide ball you are in a very good position to hit an outright winner anyway. Even in normal tennis shoes there are times when you are so far out of position that you have to go for broke, but when barefoot it happens all the time.

    I would say that barefoot tennis takes much more getting used than barefoot running. In order to cushion impact on a tennis court the ankles, knees, and hips have to be used in a way that completely different. The initial perseption by most is that barefeet handicap a tennis player. But with training, the oposite is true as it much easier to avoid injuries related to jarring that are very common. Instead of holding back, you are able to move at much greater speeds. If you couple that with good stroke making, when your oponent pulls you out of court, you get a lot of oportunities to hit clean winners.

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  • Tim Brennan March 6, 2010, 1:10 am

    I forgot to mention that running around your backhand is 10 times easier in barefoot shoes. This is down to the fact that you can move your feet with ease.

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  • Brett Bumeter March 7, 2010, 7:55 pm

    I’ve been running in vibrams for about 6 months but hadn’t tried tennis in them yet. I have noticed that running down hill in vibrams also increase the amount of impact that you might feel. Your legs can adjust that impact a bit, but it requires more muscle to do so. Its possible that you might be able to build up your muscles just a bit to rapidly gear down the speed, similar to a hard stop in padded shoes, but I doubt it will ever be fully equal.

    I suspect there might be a trade off with faster speed/ reaction time to get there in the first place.

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  • Sherese August 20, 2010, 9:02 am

    I am a advanced, competition tennis player and have been playing for over 30 years. Over that time I’ve had a myriad of problems that were either caused or exacerbated by my shoes. A couple months ago I partially tore my meniscus during a tournament. My sports ortho instructed me to bring my competition shoes with me to my first appointment. While she studied them she had me walk around the room barefoot.

    ‘Time for a new pair,’ she said, pointing to the slight wearing on the outer edges of the shoes.

    I was shocked/pissed. Except for a minor funky smell they appeared brand new. ‘I just bought those things not more than a month ago. They cost me a 100 bucks!’ I protested.

    She shrugged unswayed. ‘You know, you don’t look like you pronate nearly as much without shoes. Too bad you can’t play barefoot.’

    When it comes to me and sports I am a born fool so I started plotting how I could play a few games on clay barefoot without being banned permanently from that tennis center. But as foolish as I may be I ain’t all the way crazy so I’ll still ante up another c-note for those ‘high performance’ tennis shoes just in case I get caught before I get my feet dirty. I’ll also give Vibrams a try. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

    Reply
  • Kimberly September 3, 2010, 8:45 pm

    I have been running in vibrams over a year now and LOVE it….used to have bad achilles tendonitis after just a mile, now i can go anywhere from 3-5 with ease…well, with no tendonitis at least. I am a former tennis player just getting back into the game, and was wondering if anyone had tried these out on the courts yet. When i wear them i have always felt more agile, but was concerned about the quick stopping/direction changes in tennis. I do believe i am going to give it a go though and see how it works out.

    Reply
  • Adam September 30, 2010, 1:34 pm

    I’ve been using my Vibrams for all my fitness activities and I have to agree with this post in that it seems to be a detriment to my tennis game. I love these shoes but it really does hurt and is hard to do all those lateral cuts and quick stops with these shoes. I’ve wound up with blisters almost ever time I’ve played. Really a shame too because I wanted them to completely replace any other fitness shoe and I just don’t think that’s possible here.

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  • JP January 8, 2011, 5:33 am

    I’ve been using the vibram speed on the tennis court. First time I played for an hour and i felt slight backpain afterwards, yesterday I played for 1 and a half hours and now I really feel it clearly. It isn’t uncomfertable pain, nothing that I’d descibe as suffering but it’s there. So I wonder if playing tennis on vibrams is a good idea, maybe it’s just a temporary thing and my body still has to learn to absorb the impact better. Time will tell…

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  • tron November 15, 2011, 3:47 pm

    i think unless you don’t play at a high level (requiring lots more movement, and better footwork) vibrams are probably fine. With the high amount of stop-start movements as well as lateral movements, vibrams are no good for serious players.

    also, did you guys mark up your tennis courts with the vibrams usually it’s common courtesy to wear non marking soles on tennis courts (even public courts)

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  • moises December 7, 2011, 12:55 pm

    I used the FiveFingers for tennis. They were great to play in. I had good mobility and they felt right. But I was totally unprepared for the fact that I wore holes in the toes after only two weekends of play. These things have lasted 1,000 miles for some runners. I know they weren’t designed for tennis, but I figured they would last me a month, at least. (By the way, they did not leave marks on the court.)

    So, my current tennis shoe is the minimalist VivoBarefoot Neo. I tried the VivoBarefoot Evo, but the heel cup was too high and stiff and dug hard into my Achilles tendon. I had to cut off the heel cup of the Evos, and then they were adequate. Once I wore them out, I bought the Neos. They are softer and I have no problem with the heel cup. I have worn out a couple of them already.

    The Neos (and Evos) come with an EVA removable foam insole. I remove it. Even with the insole removed, they do not have the groundfeel that I got from the FiveFingers. The sole is rather stiff. But I love playing tennis and I will only wear minimalist shoes, and I have yet to find anything better than the Neo.

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  • LIV February 16, 2012, 5:49 am

    I am an avid user and fan of the Vibram’s. I played tennis the other day and as stated you do a lot of sprint/stop and within 20 miniutes both my heels were in PAIN and 2 days later im still limping and icing! From my experience I would NOT recommend Vibram’s for Tennis but for all my other daily running errands and hitting the trails, they are my number 1 go-to.

    Reply
  • emmy July 10, 2012, 12:55 am

    Hi!
    Tron, no we don’t mark up the courts wearing vibram’s because we tread lightly. I’ve played on clay court, gray and red clay, as well as hard court. Its easier on clay because we can slide. Hard court, i discovered, will require some getting used to. I think if we turn our foot instead of using the side of our foot to change directions, then we can avoid injury and recover to the center quickly.

    I didn’t consider that the lighter weight of the vibram’s makes footwork easier, but come to think of it, it truly does! I am bouncing and leaping around the ball much easier (as long as i think to move my feet :)

    Any vibram user will attest to the importance of starting slowly. A lot of muscle must first be built so we don’t feel pain! I made the mistake of going for a long, intense run on concrete the second time i wore them after a long, intense and gratifying run through the forest. On concrete (and going down hills and over gravel) my ankles were sore for a week!

    Overall it makes my body stronger. Tennis is a very imbalancing sport with one side getting stronger than the other and leading to injury, but the vibrams might help balance it out for some reason… We have to move our bodies MUCH more consciously than if we were wearing conventional tennis shoes.

    I still need more muscle in my legs and lower back to get myself back to where i was 5 years ago (when i quit the tennis team at w&m) but i think vibram’s are totally realistic for competitive, intense, all-out tennis playing :) I’m looking forward to it!

    Reply
  • Vince September 6, 2012, 9:12 am

    As a self employed private sector strength coach, I get to wear whatever I want. I wear my sprints ALL day on concrete from 5am to 7 pm 5 days a week and have for years. Tennis courts are too taxing though. I believe we are meant to be close to barefoot but I am also pretty sure cavemen never had a surface like a hard court that they ran around on for hours. I am going to try an indoor soccer shoe. They tend to be light and have a low profile. After all, the movements are the same. I will let you know how it turns out. I would recommend NOT wearing VFFs to play on a hard court. You will have sore feet. The deceleration is way too taxing.

    Reply
  • David Graham March 6, 2013, 12:30 pm

    I was playing pickleball in Bikilas until, like Moises above, I wore a hole in the toe. Pickleball is probably a better fit for minimalist shoes than tennis, since there’s not quite as much running. You definitely have to adjust your game, but the benefits outweigh the losses.

    Does anybody make a minimalist shoe for court sports?

    Reply

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