…when it comes to speed. What is fast for some is slow for others and visa-versa. Still, the one standard you can compare yourself to is, well, yourself. Part of the reason many of us enter footraces is to see just how fast we are. Once we have finished one, we use each subsequent race to measure how our speed has waxed or waned. Much of our change in speed can be attributed to diet, hydration, training, weather and quality of sleep & recovery.
But what about Mars Blackmon’s eternal question, “Is it the shoes?”
Can what you wear on your feet make a significant impact on how you perform on the streets? Nike, along with Blackmon (Spike Lee) and Michael Jordan, tried to sell us on that idea way back in the early 1990’s. “It’s gotta be the shoes” was everywhere.
Runners today have a myriad of shoes to choose from when they enter a running store. Every shoe has it’s selling point, whether it’s support or cushioning, firmness or flexibility. And of course, we all have different feet, so the range of choice is a good thing, right? But what if you are simply looking to increase your speed. You feel you are close to whatever goal it is you have set for yourself, but you have fallen just a little bit short. Is there a shoe for that?
People are constantly asking me, “Can you run fast in those, uh, things?” They point at my Vibram Bikilas or Treks, not sure what to make of them.
Commercial hype and celebrity endorsements aside (Joe Montana – it is so sad to see you pitching those Skechers Shape Ups), let’s do a simple thought experiment. Let’s pit twin brothers against each other in a long distance race. Each has had the exact same training, eaten the exact same foods, and received the exact same amount of sleep. They are wearing the exact same outfits and weigh exactly the same. They also both incorporate the same running style. Which one would you bet on to win this race? You can’t, because any bet you make would be a complete guess.
Now, let’s take one of the twins out of his traditional shoes and put him in a pair that weigh half as much (12oz to 6oz each). This is now the only difference between the twins. One is literally carrying 3/4 of a pound less than the other. Now you may wonder, what difference can 3/4lb make in a footrace? Well, based on certain calculators out there on the internet, for a 175lb man like me, it can mean 9 seconds in a 10K, 22 seconds in a half-marathon and as much as 45 seconds in a full marathon. For a 150lb runner, the time difference is even greater. What’s 9 seconds? Well, it can mean the difference between placing in your age group or not (I’ve missed placing in my age group twice 5 seconds or less). It can also mean the difference between qualifying for Boston or not. I still have over 9 minutes to make up, but if I ran in traditional shoes and clocked a 3:21:40, I’d be pretty ticked off!
So what am I getting at? Vibram Fivefingers are my racing shoe. They literally are half the weight of my old Brooks trainers and I am convinced that they have helped me reached times that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Between the forcing me to run in a more efficient manner and allowing me to carry less weight, my speed has picked up. At the age 40 and with only a little over a year of consistent running under my belt, I was able to record a sub-40 in just my second 10K. I was not a runner before November 2008. Was it solely because of the shoes? No way! But I don’t doubt that they had a huge part in my race that day (of course, I still missed the podium by a few seconds).
If you are a dyed-in-the-wool heel striker with no desire to change your stride, then the minimalist shoe is probably not for you. But if you are naturally a mid- to fore-foot striker, or are like me, a partially reformed heel-striker, and you are looking for ways to cut down your times, the Vibrams, and more specifically the Bikilas or Treks, may be the shoe for you. I’ve heard people say that as heel-strikers they cannot possibly run in the Vibrams. I would have to disagree. I have always been a heel-striker and although I’ve tried to alter my mechanics, using a cross between chi-running and barefoot techniques, I will still land just ever so slightly on my heel.
That said, my heels have been fine. I am a faster, stronger and more efficient runner than I ever was.
Taken to extremes, you may ask, well why not toss out the shoes altogether? Go barefoot! That’s another 45 seconds right there! The problem with that for me is I don’t have natural tread on the bottom of my feet. Both the Treks and the Bikilas have enough tread so you can run hard and still maintain traction with the ground. If I tried that barefoot, I think I’d rip the skin right off the bottoms of my feet.
I’ve put well over 1000 miles in VFF’s over the last 12 month, with close to 400 in either Treks or Bikilas, interspersed with some runs in my traditional Brooks. I know my comfortable pace in my VFF’s is about 20 seconds faster than my Brooks.
Based on my personal experience therefore, I have to agree with Mars. “It’s gotta be the shoes!”