Thursday, December 2, 2010

Running With FiveFingers

In the running world these days, minimalist footwear and barefoot running are all the rage. And I have to say that I am an unapologetic bandwagon-jumper. Like many, I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and bought in wholesale to its philosophical proposition: that human beings are designed to be able to run long distances very efficiently and that the bare human foot is a quite capable instrument on its own…without the aid of Nike, New Balance, Saucony, over- and under-pronation support, medial support, cushioning, and rigid orthotics, to name a few.

I was a fairly easy target to convert to the new religion of minimalism. My first marathon, run in the finest of running shoes, with more-than-ample training, left my feet and ankles crippled. A visit to the foot doctor followed and so did rigid orthotics. Add those to the finest running shoes money can buy and what do you get? In my case, three marathons later, it left me with feet that ached so badly they had to be iced after any run longer than 10 miles. Sure, the ankle problem was fixed, but my feet were still crippled after distance of any significance.

After the 2009 Chicago Marathon, I took some time away from long distance to work on my running form (assuming it to be the culprit) and then came across McDougall’s book. I was so inspired by it that I took off out the door unshod before I ever finished. My first barefoot run was on a whim. I went three miles (way too long on my tender pads) but it still stands out as one of the top three runs of my life.

I can’t express the freedom I felt barefoot.

Let me offer that, on a very fundamental level, I am not “born to run” particularly quickly or well. At only 5’11”, I tip the scales at around 220 pounds. I’m made of wet red clay. Every time I take a step, whether running or walking, gravity is not in my favor. I hit the ground hard. I have short legs. My genes are suited to tending sheep on a grassy hillside in Scotland and not to running across the plains of Kenya.

All that to say that I probably have more trouble than most avid runners in getting my feet to land under my body and provide for a smooth, non-impact-producing stride. As hard as I may try to the contrary, when I am in “regular” running shoes, my foot lands way out in front of my body, heel-first, and jars the rest of my body. I’m not sure the exact amount of impact in pounds-per-square-foot, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of “ouch, dammit, my feet hurt, fatass.”

Without shoes, however (and in the Vibram FiveFingers), my feet feel free. I run with an ease that I have never come close to finding otherwise. I have rediscovered running. I am still as slow as constipation, but I feel like a real runner. My foot lands just under my body, on the mid and forefoot, and quickly glides backwards, minimizing impact. The fact that the FiveFingers has no cushioning whatsoever is irrelevant. I don’t need it. My foot pain is gone.

On Thanksgiving morning, on a bit of whim, I decided to run a half-marathon. It would be, by far, the longest distance I’d run in the FF and I wondered how my feet would hold up. Generally speaking, I’m a big proponent of the Galloway Run-Walk-Run method – especially for long distances. But with these shoes, it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t want to stop. Save for a couple of hills toward the end of the race (when my lack of cardiovascular training caught up to me), I ran the whole distance.

For me, for now, it’s back to basics. No fancy engineering, no rejuvenating moisture-wicking socks, no fuel belts, no Gu, no heart rate GPS watch (hell, no watch at all), no fartleks, no hill repeats, no lactate threshold training, no VO2 max workouts…just running.

With some very funny looking shoes.

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