In the running world, one of the most polarizing topics of conversation these days is minimal footwear. For most runners, shoes are intensely personal and are blamed for as many injuries as they’re lauded for preventing. Likewise, my experiences with minimal footwear is personal, and the lessons I’ve learned might be useful to other runners who are simply trying to enjoy their sport more.
Minimalism is something that I naturally gravitated toward about 10 years ago, during the brief running phase I had in high school. In search of inexpensive shoes, I found that a catalogue company called Eastbay had very lightweight racing flats available for around $30. Where Nike and adidas shoes were anywhere from two to three times more expensive, the inexpensive Sauconys and Asics I eventually ended up had numerous benefits for me. While price was a motivating factor, the fact that they were so lightweight transformed my enjoyment of running. In what we’ve begun to recognize as modern running shoes, with their cushioning under heel, running seemed difficult and cumbersome at times. But I felt a fleet-feetedness in the lightweight shoes that made a lot of sense to me. Additionally, the racing flats gave me a greater sense of stability, since I was lower to the ground, without the artificial lift. Ladies, I don’t know how on Earth you do high heels. While I am often prone to ankle rolls in traditional running shoes, I found that this was less of a problem in flatter shoes.
For awhile, I transitioned into walking around in flats that were made for the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do. These were super lightweight shoes, and I did a very light amount of running in them, but these particular shoes were terrible for traction and were in fact made to be more indoor shoes. Nevertheless, the idea of going back to heavy, cushioned shoes was not at all appealing.
Fast forward about ten years, when I started running again on a consistent basis. Following the recommendation of a local running shoe store that prides itself on matching runners and shoes based on gait analysis, I ended up in a pair of Asics 2130s that were huge. My feet were flapping around in the toe box, slapping the bottom with each foot strike. As I ran more and paid close attention to my feet, it was clear that these were not at all dialed in, size wise. Several pairs of running shoes later, and I had settled on some New Balance 768/9 series and their 1223s in appropriate sizes, which were available at a great price from the local outlet.
And while I live in a concrete jungle in which road shoes definitely seem appropriate, I love the trails and continually have a need to have at least one pair of trail specific shoes on hand. Typically, trail shoes are heavier than their road counterparts, all things considered, though certainly exceptions exist. And after being dissatisfied with the overly heavy options available with large heels that seemed to increase my chances of turning my ankle on trails, it reminded me to search once again for more minimal footwear.
For me, the key word is balance. There’s a balance in finding a shoe that fits and is comfortable and performs over long miles of trail or road. Immediately on seeing the Vibram FiveFingers (VFFs), I was attracted to the idea of barefoot running (BFR). Around nine months ago, I decided to purchase a pair of VFFs called KSOs (short for Keep Stuff Out), and I’ve had some interesting experiences in my experiment with N of 1.
Shortly thereafter, I stumbled upon the book Born To Run in a local bookstore and, like all good running geeks, almost immediately read it cover to cover. It’s a fantastic adventure story with wonderful characters and excellent narration. What author Christopher McDougall seems to have learned is that there are compelling arguments to be made for the naturalness of BFR. Apparently there has been a small cult of urban barefoot runners for a long time, and they’re now getting a great deal of attention from curious outsiders (those of us whose feet have not seen the light) who wonder if there’s anything to this. For every proponent of the core ideas of BFR, there is a traditionalist, who thinks that nothing good can come from it.
Let’s get something out of the way: few if anyone is claiming that BFR instantly cures the myriad of running related injuries suffered by nearly all runners at some point. It is simply not for everyone, and for those who are curious, there are a number of caveats to be heeded in exploring this further. I’m personally in favor of a middle ground, and I’m not interested in evangelizing the merits of one position or the other or extrapolating my experience to fit someone else. But there are aspects of both that are very compelling to me.
One common complaint about completely unshod BFR is that in urban environments, there is the chance for glass and screws and all kinds of bizarre things on the sidewalks and streets where many of us run. Yes, I’ve seen needles on the ground, but it’s mostly rusted out nails and broken beer bottles that mark my path. Some people say it’s completely reasonable to try and avoid these obstacles, but there’s a pretty simple solution that almost completely solves this problem: wear shoes. The question for me now becomes, how much shoe does one wear?
For the many reasons I’ve outlined, I’ve shied away from “modern” running shoes. The weight of shoes is not trivial. Consider the motion of one’s legs, going back and forth during a stride. Now consider attaching ankle weights, and continuing to swing the legs in the same way. It will now require more energy to swing each leg. This is a pretty simple physical principle, and it’s easily demonstrated by the differences in running in lighter footwear. Additionally, the profile of modern running shoes is such that the heel is lifted almost 1-1.5 inches off of the ground. My original complaint with this design was in the observation that I tended to be more prone to ankle rolls especially on the more uneven single track trails, and the additional heel height has always seemed unnatural to me.
But there’s another reason why this might not be beneficial, and it’s not clear to me if there has been enough scientific inquiry to adequately address the anecdotal observation that runners who have run primarily with modern shoes tend to strike their heel to the ground first. In contrast, unshod runners tend to strike on the forefoot or midfoot first. The mechanics of this are very different, and at least one group of human evolutionary biologists, including Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman, has evidence that the force of impacts is different depending on this motion. Specifically, heel strikers exhibit a transient impact force that is not observed in midfoot strikers. While this does not at all conclusively address skeletal stress or injury rates, it does exhibit a difference that exists between the running biomechanics, and to me (and the editors at Nature), this is a fascinating demonstration.
I started out very slowly in the VFFs, putting in short miles after real runs in my other shoes. For the short runs, I had no discernible problems with my feet or any part of my body. Admittedly, I felt like I was pounding on pavement and that my feet were not used to the lack of cushioning, but that was expected. After one particularly good run, there was no indication that I should be holding back anymore, and I decided to proceed out for a longer run the in VFFs. I ended up running 8 miles at a fast-for-me pace of 8:10 min/mi, with the unfortunate consequence of chafing blisters that had developed in the last two miles. It appears that there is a seam on the medial aspect of the VFFs just posterior to the ball of the foot that does not agree with my pedal anatomy. This continues to be a persistent problem that is solved most easily by Injinji toe socks or Body Glide.
Additionally, my first pair of VFF KSOs developed a tear in the seam that qualified me for a replacement pair from the retailer. Since that time, however, I’ve been less enthusiastic about continuing my running in them, and I had a race coming up that deterred me from further experiments, especially ones that were causing chaffing. In fact, a more serious problem was beginning to manifest itself while running in the VFFs: I was developing the sharp pangs of plantar fasciitis in the middle of my left foot, a feeling that only appeared about 4 miles into any given run with the VFFs and was frustratingly difficult to alleviate. I tried several different solutions that worked to varying degrees of success. At first I tried to alter my foot strike by landing on the lateral (outside) aspect of my left midfoot. This help significantly though not completely but appears to be unnatural for my feet/legs, and I started to develop some pain in outer ankle tendons that never did subside. I tried tightening and loosening the shoes to no avail. Wearing Injinji toe socks inside the VFFs definitely helped but also greatly dulled the response of my feet to the ground beneath, one of the primary benefits of such minimal footwear. I also noticed that walking for a few minutes or so after the initial pain appeared sometimes allowed me to continue running on them very close to pain-free. But stopping for a walk four miles into a run is not a sustainable solution, and I had all but given up my VFF experiment.
In the meanwhile, I transitioned into a pair of New Balance cross country racing flats that weighed 156 grams each. To date, these are my favorite pair of running shoes ever. They cost me $37, and at the moment, I’ve clocked 518 miles on them, far outlasting even the most liberal estimates for what these shoes are supposed to handle. There’s really no reason to believe that these shoes won’t last another 500 miles, as far as I can tell, and I’ve run in them without any serious injuries, though I have accumulated a fair share of smaller injuries, as usual.
At the Boston Athletic Association’s annual expo, I had a chance to talk with both Vibram and a clinical sports orthopedic specialist about my curious and frustrating issue with the VFFs. The orthopedic specialist, specifically, told me a lot about my feet that I had never known before. Apparently, my ankles and feet are very flexible, but this is in part a compensation for having incredibly weak feet. This sounds counterintuitive for a runner to have weak feet! They are apparently flat and in rather poor form, and the specialist seems to think that this might be the reason why I’m developing fascia problems in my left foot over longer distances. Armed with this new revelation that it’s not the VFFs but my feet that could be the problem, I decided to give the VFFs another try. On my runs this week in them, as soon as the pain reared its ugly head, I stopped and walked for a tenth or a quarter of a mile in order to allow the fascia to rest and stretch out a little bit. As previously reported, this helped me continue the remainder of my run almost completely pain free. But something happened just this morning on an 8 miler — there was no more pain. It’s unclear whether or not this was a one-time fluke, but it’s a promising result for the future of my minimal footwear journey.
One more concern I have is the use of these on trails, where I feel most in love with this sport. There’s absolutely nothing in the world to me quite like running through the hills in the woods (at night!). Unfortunately, the VFFs that I have are difficult on trails, because each sharp stone is felt underfoot, and it’s admittedly unpleasant. While I agree to some extent that my underfoot needs to be better acclimated to such conditions, I also think that the KSO Treks might be a perfect balance between a BFR-inspired solution and a trail-worthy shoe. It’s my hope, in fact, that the KSO Treks are durable and foot-friendly enough to last me during my next race, the Vermont 100 Miler.
In truth, I love the feeling of light feet. It’s very liberating, in a sense, and I no longer feel as if I’m plodding along with heavy footsteps. Instead, running feels more like gliding along or skating — even at my slow speeds. For the greater running community, time will tell if minimalistic running is merely a fad or has some actual staying power. As for me, there’s no doubt that minimalistic running has simply increased my enjoyment of the sport.