“You gonna run this whole race in those?” -A concerned fellow runner at the starting line of the Chilly Half Marathon
I do not run in conventional running shoes. My shoe of choice is the Vibram Five Finger, currently the KSO (stands for Keep Stuff Out). I have been running in the Vibrams (sometimes called VFF’s) exclusively now for almost five months. My old Asics and New Balance running shoes have been relegated to the back of the closet, pulled out only when I have to do yard work, which my wife will attest is not that often. Why do I choose to run in these funny little excuses of shoes? These “foot gloves”?
Back in March when I was still running in regular running shoes, I was just finishing up a treadmill run when I decided to end with an uphill climb. I pushed the elevation up to about 5 or 6 degrees and within about 5 seconds I felt a pop and a sharp pain behind my right knee. I immediately lowered the incline back to zero and tried to continue running. I lasted about 5 or 6 steps and was forced to stop. It was my first real running injury. I had read that every runner eventually suffers a setback, but I had convinced myself that it wasn’t going to happen to me. I tried to shake it off and run the next day, but I couldn’t get more than 100 feet. I thought about running through the pain, but I knew that this wasn’t one of those injuries. I had run through some foot and ankle pain early on in my rediscovery of running, but I knew that pain was merely my body acclimating itself to the idea of running. This was different. Something had popped. I took about 10 days off but was back at it in relatively short order. I didn’t want to take too much time off because I was training to run the Run To Remember Half Marathon on Memorial Day Weekend. Still, every time I’d hit close to 35-40 miles in a week, my knee would ache to the point of causing me to limp noticeably. Something wasn’t right.
I went to the doctor who asked my why I was running. I thought that was kind of a funny question coming from a doctor, but I went on to list the various health benefits of running, both physical and mental. I also mentioned that I was training for a half marathon. She looked at me with a funny look and then said, “you know, we’re not made to run like that.” I nodded and said nothing. “Your gonna run this thing anyway aren’t you?” Again, I nodded and said nothing. She decided to send me to a specialist to figure out what was wrong with the knee and get me back on track. One specialist, an MRI and a lot of poking and prodding later, I was told to switch to rowing. When I said I had signed up for road races not rowing races he told me to stretch three times a day every day and if anything happened while I was running the race to stop.
I paid how much for that advice?
I cut down on my miles in the weeks leading up to the race to avoid the soreness and the race came and went. I was pretty happy with my time (1:40:47).
It was around this time that I set my eyes on the marathon. I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I could qualify for the Boston Marathon. My time in the half was nowhere near good enough, but quite honestly I hadn’t followed any kind of training program. If I stuck to a schedule I was pretty sure that I could get it done. I poked around online looking for various programs. Every one I looked at made me groan. They all gradually built to at least 35-40 miles a week. It was also around this time that my good friend Mike told me about some funny shoes he was wearing every once in a while when he went running. He told me their name. The Vibram Five Finger shoe. Sounded almost dirty. I looked at them online thinking he was crazy.
A couple of weeks later he suggested that I read a new book that had recently come out called Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. I used to be a reader. But with the arrival of kids and the variety of things that kept me busy, I had stopped reading books for what seemed like ages. But this book was about running, my new found passion. We were going away on a short vacation soon and I would need something to read by the pool. I started reading it a few days before we left and couldn’t put it down. By the time I plopped myself down by the pool I was nearly done with it. The story itself was fascinating, but it was one particular character and a section on the science of why we run that grabbed my attention.
According to McDougall, the science behind why we run is that we evolved that way. Boiled down to its simplest terms, early man did not have the strength, speed or natural weapons to be able to kill its meal. What he developed was endurance. He would essentially run his prey to death. Running in a pack, he would jog after his target, which would sprint away and rest. He and the rest of the runners would simply keep jogging after it. The cycle would continue over several hours (about the time it takes us to run a marathon) until the prey would collapse from exhaustion. At that point, he would jog up to the collapsed animal and kill it with ease. This way of tracking and eventually killing an animal is called persistence hunting. The hunts could last 20, 30, 40 miles, but inevitably, man would get his prey (and therefore a well deserved dinner). There were no running shoes back in the day. These early humans ran on the shoes nature had given them…their feet. Which brings me to Barefoot Ted.
Barefoot Ted was one of the more entertaining characters in Born To Run. The short story is that after years of running in pain and spending more and more money on more and more expensive shoes (I think his last pair had springs on the bottom), he finally got so fed up that in the middle of a run, he took his shoes off in disgust and ran home barefoot. Halfway through his run home he realized something. He was no longer running with pain. He has essentially run barefoot ever since. Occasionally when the terrain gets rough, he will slip on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.
When I read that, I thought, “maybe Mike’s on to something.” As soon as I got back from our short vacation I went out and bought a pair of the VFF Sprints. That night I hopped on the treadmill and ran three miles in them.
It was one of the most painful things I had ever done. My shins hurt. My calves hurt. My ankles hurt. All that hurt was nothing compared to the next day when I could hardly walk. I called my buddy Mike and he laughed.
“Of course you hurt! You’re using muscles, ligaments and tendons that you haven’t used since you were a kid running around barefoot! You’re not supposed to run more than a mile the first time. It’s like learning to run again.” Gee, thanks. Nobody gave me a copy of the manual. I put the VFF’s away for a couple of weeks. I kept running in my regular shoes and the knee pain persisted. Finally I tried the Vibrams again. This time I ran easy. I did about 3 or 4 miles, but I did them slowly. They felt great. Over the next couple of weeks I built up to about 6 miles per run. I realized that my knee pain was essentially gone. Now, I won’t lie to you and say my knee was completely better. Every once in a while, if I stood just so, it would hurt. But for the most part, the pain was gone. I decided to follow in the steps of our ancestors, Barefoot Ted and my buddy Mike and go barefoot style completely.
When my marathon training reached its peak, my knee was fine. It would bother me a little now and again, but never to the extent that it had before. I am convinced it is because of the shoes.
Now there was a downside to switching to the VFF’s and not giving the transition its proper due. From everything I have read since one should take several months to transition permanently to the Vibrams.
I took two weeks.
I did not give the tendons in my feet ample time to strengthen. On the morning after what was supposed to be my second to last long run (a 19 miler), I woke up with a pain on the top of my right foot. I was afraid I had suffered a stress fracture. My doctor was convinced of the same and said I needed to take 6 – 8 weeks off. No running.
“But I have a marathon in 4 weeks!”
“Uh, no, you don’t. You need to take 6 – 8 weeks off”
“I’ll give you 2.”
“You’re going to run this marathon no matter what I say aren’t you?”
I nodded. I had spent the bulk of the summer training. I didn’t want to do all that training for nothing. She called me an idiot and told me to lay off for the two weeks and then get back into it slowly. I met her halfway by finding another marathon that took place two weeks later (Manchester). I took four weeks off and then eased back into the final two weeks.
Even after the grueling run at Manchester, the pain in my right foot has not returned. I am now convinced that it was tendinitis caused by my overly rapid transition into the VFF’s. From what I understand, wearing the Vibrams allows a certain amount of toeing off that you wouldn’t be able to do barefoot. This has been known to cause some tendon pain on the top of the foot in those who don’t take the time to transition properly (like me). All that said, almost 3 weeks later, I am running pain free and I am convinced that I am going to stay that way. I don’t foresee myself ever going back to regular running shoes.
If you are thinking about switching to the Vibrams, I would strongly suggest that you do it slowly. Maybe even find a transition shoe like the new Nike Free’s or the Biom running shoes to act as a bridge. Your feet will thank you. If you still think people are crazy to be running in these shoes, I would ask you to consider this. For millions of years we have run either barefoot or with thin sandals on our feet. Even up until the 1970’s we were essentially running in shoes that offered very little support or cushion.
Our feet were strong and sensitive – able to relay information quickly to the brain and allow us to adjust our footfalls rapidly. The modern running shoe has essentially taken them out of the equation by wrapping them up in a protective cocoon. Our feet have given up their job to all the cushioning and support supplied by the cozy blanket wrapped around them. They have fallen asleep…they’ve become soft.
You want to run like you did when you were a kid? Like you didn’t care about anything other than the wind in your hair and the laughter in the air? Wake your feet up. Vibrams are the vehicle to get you back to the joy of running…just do it slowly. No one, not even your feet like to be jarred awake!
All you need to do is send me a paragraph or two telling me why you run and/ or why you think others should run. E-mail it to me at “runluaurun at gmail dot com” (written out so the bots don’t start sending me spam).
If you can, please include a picture of your favorite running shoes and tell me what kind of shoes they are. Also, please let me know how you would like to be referenced (real name, nickname, pseudonym, etc) just in case this project actually ever sees the light of day.
The more responses I get, the sooner I can put it all together, so please don’t be shy about forwarding this to your running friends and spreading the word.