Friday, May 11, 2012

Flashback Friday: Minimalist Experiment

aka, the long story of how I started running in less shoe
* * * 
The journey of running in minimalist shoes began after a pair of  Brooks T6 Racers caught my attention at the 2009 Akron Marathon expo. These ultra-light racing flats would provide my first step into progressively less and less shoe.

Unlike other runners who have gone this route, it wasn't injuries that spurred my decision to cast off the bulky stability shoes. There was an early bout of shin splints that I learned to overcome with toe raises. There have been a few instances of hip pain. There was even a case of the ubiquitous Iliotibial Band Syndrome, which may have been the worst of my running pains.

For the most part, these issues were either a result of "too much, too soon" or poor form. Or both. However, except for some initial calf soreness from adapting to a flatter shoe, injuries have been absent from my running life for the past two years.

And there's no real wood around to knock on if you believe in such jinxes, which I don't.

Since switching to the Brooks T6 Racers, which were retired after 728 miles, my running shoe arsenal has undergone rapid turnover in search of the ideal, bare bones shoe. All the while, I've been running barefoot increasingly more each year.

After the Brooks came my first foray into running sandals (aka huaraches or "hippy shoes"), a pair of homemade contraptions that first opened my eyes to the benefits of technological advancement in the shoe industry. Just so you know, industrial rubber sheeting is much heavier than you might think.

Then I succumbed to the siren call of the Vibram FiveFingers, an experiment that didn't even last as long as human gestation, with only 127 miles logged. I've considered trying to sell my KSOs on eBay, but haven't built up enough motivation to do so. If any of you would like to try a pair, let me know and we can work something out.

That Christmas came the New Balance MT101s, the predecessor to the Minimus line that was introduced last year. These too suffered a short lifespan, due to a narrow toebox and more favorable options. These are now my yard work shoes.

Last summer I got my first solicitation for a review in exchange for free product in the form of Invisible Shoes. The commercially made huaraches were the inspiration for my homemade pair, but the lighter weight, high-tech sole material quickly became cause to supplant my little craft project. I still enjoy running in the sandals on occasion, but more for novelty's sake. I was just thinking the other day that it's been a while since I've run in them.

Then in the fall, I thought I finally found the game-changer, the "one true shoe." The Altra Adams were as thin as Vibrams but without the individual toe sockets. That's what I have been looking for, I thought. They arrived from the manufacturer just in time for the Akron Marathon, where I learned that there was one fatal flaw to these shoes: the poorly placed straps. Oh how I wished they'd make a pair with laces ...

Lo and behold, my wish was granted! And on top of such good fortune, the Altra Samsons became my second shoes-for-review transaction. While these shoes are my current choice for road running purposes, they just don't cry out, "These are it!"

Finally, the very same week I got the Samsons, I went out and bought the New Balance Minimus Zero trail shoes. On trails, these are it.

While I think I've found the best shoes for me on the trail, I still haven't found what I'm looking for on the road. Perhaps, my road "shoe" are my bare feet. The early warm weather this year has already allowed me to log some shoeless mileage, but the more recent cool spell put an end to that trend.

The combination of minimalist shoes and barefoot running has improved my overall leg strength. My calves have more defined muscle than they ever have, even back when I played varsity ice hockey where pushing off with your toes generates critical skate speed.

Furthermore, injuries don't plague me like they do other runners I know. It seems Martini is always between injuries. Mrs. Viper has struggled with arch pain. So many bloggers write incessantly of their recent aches and pains. It's always runners' knee this, patellofemoral that, and don't forget the matatarsals. Ligaments and tendons and blisters -- oh my!

I won't go so far as to say I haven't suffered any running injuries since I've gone wholeheartedly minimalist, but nothing aside from a marathon has forced me to stop running for a significant period of time.

The reason for my durability? Better running form, which came as a result of reducing the cushioning underfoot and increasing the amount of ground feel I experience. My feet are freer to adjust to the terrain, and my limbs are strong enough to handle increased loads from such adjustments. Or so, that's my theory.

When I went in to buy my New Balance Minimus Zeros, I asked to try on the shoes I bought and the Merrell Trail Gloves. One of the clerks at the running store told the one helping me that "I want him to try the Brooks Pure Connect."

While I loved my Brooks racing flats, the company has done nothing but pay the slightest of lip service to the demands of the whole Minimalism Movement. The Pure Project shoes are very light and fairly flexible -- for a cushioned shoe. I put the shoe on for a second and immediately removed it.

For someone who came in asking for two very specific shoes, the experience was akin to a car salesman showing you a Chevy Suburban when you came in asking about a Toyota Prius or a Nissan Leaf.

I know the man was just doing what he thought was right, but I struggled with the thought that he had some anti-minimalist agenda or was some shill for the Brooks brand. I had done my homework and knew exactly what I was looking for and what my body could handle, whereas he may have had customers asking about the trendy Minimus shoes with their amusing ad campaign only to go out and run too much, too soon after wearing bulky shoes that weaken your running bio-infrastructure.

Mrs. Viper recently bought a pair of the Pure Connects and likes them so far. She purchased them from the same store where I got the New Balance, and it sounds like the guy who helped her was the one who recommended I try the Brooks. Again, I worried that he had some arrangement with Brooks, but then I remembered that running is a personal journey. The shoes that work for me, may not work for her.

My experiment with barefoot running and minimalist shoes has led to quantifiable improvements, as well as perceived improvements. Not only have I logged new PRs, I've increased training distances, felt more relaxed at faster paces, recovered faster from difficult runs, and felt and overall improvement in how I feel when I run. Best of all, my journey isn't over yet.

Back Talk
Wherein we say the obvious

Jamoosh noticed my increasing supply of minimalist shoes: "You are turning in to the Minimalist Shoe Guy!"

Answer: I know, right? And it spawned this ironically maximal post.

Happy Hour is nearly upon us, teammates! Have a finely brewed weekend. Run well and drink well. Oh, and happy Mothers Day to mine and yours and those of you who qualify. Cheers!


Nitmos said...

I'm still waiting for my first "real" injury in maximalist shoes. Maybe that's why I'm not in to alternate solutions.

Could you being injured less be part and parcel of generally running less (or so it seems) or generally running slower (or so it seems)? Have you gone the same mileage/pace as your maximalists? That would be the true test.

Anonymous said...

Oddly, the siren call of the Five Fingers reached out to me as well. Oddly (again), they have all been retired to the back of the closet, possibly to be never worn again.

BrianFlash said...

My Vivobarefoot Ultras are pretty darn good. When I bought them, we had one dealer in the St. Louis area and they didn't carry the Ultras. So I got them on-line totally untested and am pretty happy with them overall.

My first barefoot race is Sunday. I can't run as fast bare as shod but it will be a nice little test to see how quick I can turn over a 5K on the pavement...