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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.

Why do you run?

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So lately I have been going back and forth between my VFF Treks and my old Brooks Defyance.  It’s due to a combination of things: the weather, the cold, the long treadmill runs.  I used to hate putting on my “regular” running shoes because, well, I hated them.  They’re heavy and I can’t feel anything with my feet when I run in them.  Lately though, I’ve noticed something.  I actually feel ok when I run in them.  I’m not doing anything exotic (intervals, fartleks, etc.) with them, just long slow distances on the treadmill or my shorter, typical runs outside if the snow is fresh and deep or wet and slushy.

Last November, while I was running my local half-marathon, my buddy Mike (he seems to be popping up every where in this blog) was volunteering.  He had planned to run it but had injured himself a few weeks earlier during a 5K.  He said to me after the race that he noticed that my gait was different from when we had first run together 10 months earlier.  It really didn’t register with me, except for the fact that I was running in my VFF KSOs.

But this past month has me wondering.  I did more running in my traditional running shoes in January than I had since June of last year when I started running almost exclusively in VFFs.  It used to be that if I put in a certain number of miles in regular shoes, my right knee would start screaming for a break.  Consequently, I would have to take a week off from running and I would turn into a grumpy old man.  But this last month has been different.  When I went back to do the math I was shocked to find that I had run well over 100 miles in January in my Brooks.

Yet, the knee is peachy.

Why?

Did the VFF’s improve my form or did time?  I remember reading early on in my rediscovery of running that you can very often tell the difference between a beginner and an experienced runner by the length of their stride.  The longer you run, the shorter you stride becomes because your body learns how to be more efficient.  The shorter stride means a quicker turnover and a lesser likelihood of your limbs flailing and wasting energy.   My stride is definitely shorter than it was in November of 2008.

I also read when I first discovered Vibram Five Finger shoes that running barefoot or with a minimal shoe like the VFF forces your body back to the way we are designed to run (not on our heels), which in turn, shortens your stride.  In the VFFs you tend to land more on the flat or balls of your feet.  Has running in the VFFs for the last 7 month altered my natural footstrike so I can run that way in any shoe?  I may have to take a trip to visit my buddy Pete’s lab to find out.

In the meantime, I ponder: was it the shoes or time that has made me a better, more efficient runner.  The shoes or time that improved my form and now allows me to run pain free.

As has always been my way, I will take the middle path and say that it is probably the result of both.

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The Vibram Five Finger KSO (Keep Stuff Out)

“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!

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I need YOUR contributions to a project that I’m working on. Interested?

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.

Thanks!

Luau

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