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After nearly 2 years, I have finally reached a balance when it comes to my funny little running shoes. As many of you know, I have been a proponent of the Vibram Five Finger shoe for almost a year and a half now. Part of my inspiration came from reading Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, part of it came from my good friend Mike (famous for his battle with the Cat in the Hat last April). The thing is, you may have noticed that I haven’t been talking about them quite as much lately. I haven’t been pushing them, proselytizing about them.

I realized recently that I went into this minimalist shoe thing, the VFF’s in particular, all wrong. I did everything one was NOT supposed to do, and I paid for it with pain, injury and worst of all, time away from running. If transitioned to properly, I believe that the Vibrams are one of the best things you can do for yourself, your feet and your running, on many different levels.

Let’s start with why they are good:

  1. They will push you to run with proper form – the thing about running barefoot is that you can’t be a heavy-duty heel striker. Even if that is what you have become, you are forced by the lack of heel protection to change your posture. If you try to continue to run with a heel-strike while barefoot, you’ll only end up hurting yourself…badly.
  2. If used properly, you will avoid injuries to your knees and hips – because you are forced into better posture, your knees and hips don’t take the extreme pounding they would normally take while running with a heel-strike
  3. You will run faster – because you are not hitting the breaks with your heels at every footfall, your momentum doesn’t get interrupted and you are able to maintain a higher speed.
  4. You will run longer – because of the maintained momentum, you expend less energy with each step, each yard, each mile, leaving you more energy to run farther.

Sounds pretty good. Sounds like a miracle shoe. Let’s go out and get a pair and start piling on the miles!

***

***

Yeah, you know what? That’s exactly what I did. I read Born to Run and I talked to my buddy Mike and I was sold, convinced, converted. I was ready to dedicate my feet to Barefoot Ted and Vibrams. So I went out and bought a pair of the VFF Sprints, took them home, hopped on the treadmill and ran 3 miles.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

That was the sound of my feet on my treadmill as I ran my first VFF run. It was so loud! But you know what? It felt great…for about half a mile. Then my shins started to hurt a little. The burning pain grew, but I was determined to keep going.

These were Vibram Five Fingers!

They were barefoot shoes!

Evolution had programmed and designed me to run like this.

The pain would go away, right?

RIGHT?

But no, the pain didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. By the time I hit 2 miles my shins were throbbing and my calves were starting to bark.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally hit 3 miles.

MY GOD THAT WAS PAINFUL!!!

But the pain was nothing compared to what I felt the next morning.

You know that feeling you get the morning after a hard fought marathon? The kind of feeling that forces you to walk down stairs backwards? Yeah, well 3 miles in the Vibrams on the treadmill had pretty much done the same thing to me. For the next three or four days I hobbled, if you could even call it that. Walking was painful.

In all seriousness, I was ready to toss the shoes and call them an $80 mistake. I called my buddy Mike to bitch about them, but before I could say anything he asked how far I had run in them.

“3 miles,” I said.

There was a moment of silence on the other side of the line and then some mild laughter. He knew. He knew that I must have been in incredible pain.

“Dude! You shouldn’t have done more than a half a mile the first time in those things! You could really hurt yourself like that!”

“Well, you could’ve told me,” I said. He laughed and we moved on to other topics, but at that point I realized that I needed to give the Vibrams another chance. This time I would take it slowly and build up my mileage a little at a time.

And that’s what I did. Over the course of the next month or so, I built up my mileage until I was able to do 8 mile runs regularly in them.

This is where my next big mistake came. I loved these shoes so much, that I eliminated my other running shoes completely. I loved them and talked about them so much that my wife had this made for my birthday:

 

Yes, that is a Vibram Five Finger KSO Cake

The problem with that is when you wear the same shoe all of the time, you run a higher risk of repetitive motion injuries, and when you’ve spent a lifetime running in regular shoes, certain muscles and tendons have atrophied to the point where they are weak and brittle. I got away with it for a few months. I had developed a pretty decent stride, but my form still had a tendency to break down a little late in longer runs. I was able to fend off injury to my achilles’ tendon through stretching, but in the meantime, I didn’t realize what I was doing to the tendons on the top of my feet. About 5 weeks before I was to run my first marathon, I went out for a run and I got a sharp pain on the top of my right foot. This was not a “let me see if I can run through it” type of a pain. No, this was, “HOLY CRAP I HAVE GOT TO STOP RIGHT NOW!!!” kind of a pain. Being the intelligent person that I am I decided to try another 10 yards and nearly collapsed to the ground on the second stride.

Something was dreadfully wrong.

After much testing and worrying, I was relieved to know I had not broken anything. I had a severe case of tendinitis however and the doctor ordered me to lay off the running for six weeks.

Hmmm…6 week, eh, Doc? I don’t think I can do that.

Why not, Luau?

Well, you see, I’ve got this marathon coming up in 5 weeks.

No, no you don’t have a marathon coming in 5 weeks. You aren’t going to run. Why would you want to run a marathon anyway?

I sighed after that comment, knowing that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with her. She realized that I was going to run one way or the other.

Ok, she said, I think you’re crazy for doing it in the first place, but if you are going to run it, you need to take the next 3-4 weeks off and then take it easy leading up to the marathon. The moment you feel pain in the race, you stop!

The moment I feel pain? I thought The marathon is about ignoring pain!

I nodded my head and said I would.

The truth is though, I did need to take time off. I could barely walk on my foot, much less run on it. Even swimming, which I did during those 4 weeks, was initially painful to do because of the tendinitis. All of this pain, because I jumped headlong, eyes closed into the minimalist shoe movement without taking into consideration that maybe my legs and feet needed some time to adjust.

So what’s my point? When I started wearing Vibrams, they were the fringe of the fringe. Most odd-balls looked at me like I was crazy. Now, almost 2 years later, the Five Finger shoe line has gained a foothold in the running shoe market. More and more people are willing to try them out. This increased use by an uninformed public has led to some injuries that are being reported by an uninformed press. The Boston Globe, among others, recently published an article about the dangers of wearing the Five Finger shoe. They only get the story half right. Yes, the VFF’s can lead to injury if the wearer doesn’t go about transitioning to them the right way. However, with a little patience, something that is lost in this age of immediate gratification, one can avoid injury all together.

If you are considering a move to Vibram Five Fingers or any other extreme minimalist shoe, I would suggest three things:

  1. Take your time – start slowly and with as few miles as you can possibly take. In fact, if you are using VFF’s for the first time, try a quarter or half mile and call it a day. You can finish your run in your traditional shoes, but don’t be fooled by the initial “it feels so good” feeling. It can only lead to trouble.
  2. Consider a transition shoe. Something that has a bit of a minimalist feel that still has some of the support and cushioning of a traditional shoe. Personally, I highly recommend the Saucony Kinvara. It is low to the ground, relatively flat, light as a feather, but still soft underfoot.
  3. Don’t go exclusively with one shoe. Try rotating your shoes. It doesn’t have to be a 50-50 split. You simply want to make sure that you are not putting the same stresses on the same spots every time you run. This will help you avoid repetitive stress injuries like I suffered right before my first marathon.

If you’re still here, hopefully it means you are still interested in going minimalist. I highly recommend it. It will make you faster and allow you to run longer. Just don’t go making the same mistakes I made.

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Today’s post is part of a Minimalist Running Blog Carnival. You can link to the round-up at http://www.strengthrunning.com/2011/02/minimalist-blog-carnival/ where you will find several links to other bloggers writing about different aspects of minimalist running. I hope you will click over and check them out.

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