Saturday, December 13, 2008

Running Barefoot in Winter (Well sort of...)

As I continue my recovery from my knee injury, I am trying many new things. I am attempting to redevelop my technique by transitioning to more of a mid foot strike rather than heel striking which I generally have done for many years. I have explored a couple of books and videos, including Chi Running, the Pose Method, and Evolution Running.

There are many things these methods have in common as well as several important differences. One concept I am currently exploring is that the running shoes that most of us are used to are fairly heavy, overbuilt clunkers. They bring our feet up off the ground and have features that we hope protect our feet from impact, keep them from excessively pronating, and prevent injury by absorbing some of the harsh impact that running creates. This all sounds great, but if they work so well, why are so many of us hurting ourselves year after year? It could be that perhaps we'd have a whole lot more problems if we ran without shoes, but I don't know this. Clearly there are people who run barefoot and seem to do so effortlessly. Lots of kids run barefoot in the summer and don't seem to have shin splints, stress fractures, or sprained muscles. Perhaps they just aren't running far enough to develop these problems, but I think there is a better reason. By not relying on shoes, you are forced to develop a more gentle running style. Impact is minimized by the instinct of self-preservation.

Today I tried out a product called Vibram Five Fingers. The idea is that they are very minimalistic shoes that hug your feet and separate each toe from the others. I decided to give the Flow a try as these are a little bit insulated with neoprene to help with water activities or running in the cold. They are pretty odd looking, and in fact my wife thinks they are hideous. They are certainly er, ... unique. They feel more like slippers than shoes, and at first the separated toes feel a little odd. I also picked up a pair of toed socks that seem to match the shoes perfectly. Don't worry I stuck with matching black as I already look a bit like a freak with my tights and toe shoes. I need to work my way up to rainbow socks now don't I?

This morning, I went for a three mile out and back run to the high school via the bike path. I have noticed that I have two significant problems every time I run. First, my right calf always feels very tight despite stretching and seems to tighten more and more as each run progresses. Second, I have periodic knee pain where the meniscal tear occurred that reminds me to be very careful. So far, my runs have have felt OK, but it is a very fragile feeling I have compared to before the injury. I have been working on landing more on my mid foot by using many of the Chi Running principles, though I also am trying to make adjustments that seem to avoid pain in my meniscus.

With the Five Fingers shoes, I noticed several things. For starters, it is nearly impossible to heel strike with these things on. Your body just rejects that possibility outright due to the lack of cushioning. Mid foot striking seems the only possible way to land without seriously hurting your feet. As the run went along, I really liked how I could feel the ground under me. The Vibram sole definitely cushions the blow of pebbles, twigs and bumps on the pavement, but you still feel that they are there. In a word, I would describe it as feeling "connected" to the ground. I was drawn to the grass and made my own trail as much as I could because it was the softest surface, and it felt natural. But running on pavement was possible and indeed not bone-jarring. I just found myself naturally trying to land as softly as possible. I have a long way to go with my technique, but I feel like progress is possible. I think I may have felt more medial knee pain with the Five Fingers, but I am not entirely sure as I have felt that on runs in real shoes too.

So, a good first run. It felt close to being barefoot, and my feet weren't too cold though I wouldn't have made it more than another two miles before my toes would have been more numb. As it was, they were starting to get pretty cold towards the end.

Good road and trail feel
Natural feeling
Very light and sort of disappear underneath you when on the grass

Expensive way to feel more barefoot. Barefoot is way cheaper.
Kind of gimmicky
Fugly if you ask my wife

The biggest unknown: will they create or prevent injuries? I suspect that with proper attention to efficient and gentle running they could be protective. I don't think I would run every time in them but occasionally they might help with speedwork and improving running form and efficiency. Perhaps the best way to run is as if we are running barefoot while running with the protection of cushioned, more clunky shoes. That may be too great a challenge for our minds to overcome.



Michael Valliant said...

Thanks for the review, Gear Doctor ;) I remain curious and intrigued by the Five Fingers and am a subscriber to the barefoot running philosophy.

I also note that your initial run was a few miles...not a 20 mile break-in run a la Derek...:)

Anonymous said...

For the record, I had been doing some barefoot running prior to the 20 mile jaunt...
The VFF's are fugly. My kids think mine look like frog feet. But there's nothing like a nice short run in them--extremely comfortable.
While running the Turkey Trot 5K I ran past a kid (maybe 10 y.o) who was running unshod. I think he finished in about 26 minutes.