You might have noticed that I’ve been quiet around here over the past week or so.
No, it’s not that I’ve fallen into groupie-dom on the Backstreet Boys / New Kids on the Block tour, despite any Facebook rumors you may have heard.
The real reason is that I’ve been busting my tail to put together some really good free stuff for you that’ll finally be available this week.
Tomorrow I’ll be publishing a 16-page special PDF report that’s all about the crucial mistakes people make when they try to train for their first half marathon, mistakes that often leave them injured, discouraged or both.
And of course, the report explains what you need to do to avoid those missteps. It’s something you’ll find extremely useful if you’re just starting to think about a half marathon and wondering about what it might take for you to do it, or if you’ve tried in the past but struggled with it.
But that’s for tomorrow. Today it’s Memorial Day, so since the audience is probably a little thin, I’ve got something different than usual. A little story, if you will. It’s the answer to the question — which I get ALL the time — “Matt, how come you don’t run in Vibram Five Fingers anymore?”
It all started as a Boston-qualifying present.
Like so many other runners, maybe even you, I was led to Vibram Five Fingers when I read Born to Run. I had been curious about the shoes-with-toes for a while, but in a show of restraint that was completely uncharacteristic, I delayed buying a pair until my marathon was finished, the marathon for which I was training so hard to qualify for Boston.
“Not worth the risk,” I said.
The risk, of course, was of getting injured. Of forcing all those small muscles in my feet, which had so long been neglected in modern running shoes, to do some work. And perhaps they would not be up to the task.
But as soon as I did run that marathon (and did qualify), I bought a pair of Vibrams as my reward for qualifying.
Vibram Five Fingers
Although I enjoyed the novelty of my Five Fingers, I pretty quickly noticed three unsettling things:
- Running on roads was not very comfortable.
- I got painful blisters from a protruding seam on the instep of the shoes.
- Whether on trail or road, I still landed on my heels when I wore them.
This third point was particularly troublesome. I was under the impression that Vibrams were supposed to “automatically” correct a heelstrike by making it too painful to land on your heel, when there was no cushioning there to protect it. And yet I still did heelstrike without much pain. If I were to continue landing on my heel without the protection offered by big, cushion-y running shoes, what might happen?
I continued running in this way without problems, slowly building up my mileage in the Vibrams as I was instructed to do. I stuck to the trails, wore five-toed socks to counter the blisters, and tried to focus on midfoot-striking. But inevitably, after a few miles I would tire and revert to heelstrikes when I forgot to pay attention.
During this time, I made the thrilling discovery that I could actually run in my Five Fingers on serious, technical trails — those covered with rocks, roots, and all manner of things that should hurt like hell to step on — with almost no pain. I loved this. The feeling of running in the woods, receiving feedback through your feet from the mostly-soft trail, punctuated by sharp rocks or roots and your foot’s instantaneous and infinitesimal adjustments to distribute the load without much pain, make up about as sensual an experience as running can become.
And then one day, after a particularly fast and tough eight-mile trail run, my heel started hurting.
The pain caused me to compensate, finally landing on my midfoot like I was supposed to. I believe it was this sudden change that caused the top of my foot to start hurting, and then the ball of my foot to start hurting. And the pain didn’t go away.
Looking back, I think it was wearing my Vibrams to the track that did most of the damage. I had heard about some track team, I think Stanford, practicing in bare feet, so that seemed an ideal place to wear them. In hindsight, I realize that was some of the hardest heelstriking I did, and is probably more to blame than trail running or even easy running on the roads for the injury.
I put the Vibrams away, in search of something a little less extreme.
Brooks Green Silence
From the first steps I took in the Brooks Green Silence at the Marine Corps Marathon expo, I noticed something remarkable. Although not advertised as a feature, the Green Silence did what the Vibrams did not — they made me land on my midfoot instead of my heel.
I wore them for that marathon and fell in love with them. The Green Silence became my everyday running shoe, striking a compromise by providing some cushioning like a traditional shoe, but remaining extremely lightweight, without pronation control, without much of a heel-toe drop, and without much support in the upper. The eco-friendliness only sealed the deal.
But the ball of my foot kept on hurting. Not badly, and not getting any worse, but it was there. I noticed it for the first few minutes of every single run.
Even after a month of very little running when I took a break after the doing the Vermont 50-miler and Marine Corps Marathon within five weeks of each other, the pain was still there when I came back. Stubbornly refusing to return to traditional shoes, I figured I’d just have to live with the pain.
New Balance 890
And then, like a gift from above, a pair of New Balance 890’s showed up at my doorstep for me to try out and review. I didn’t expect to like them much, given that they were more traditional, “neutral cushioning” shoes, but because they were extremely lightweight for the category, I agreed to give them a chance.
When I first put the 890’s on, it felt like I was walking around on a platform — it had been over a year since I had worn a shoe with a sole this big, and I couldn’t imagine actually running in these huge things. But then a strange thing happened: I rediscovered why cushioned shoes got so popular in the first place.
I ran Boston in them. They felt great. And then I started doing track workouts in them. They still felt great. And so, I realized, did the ball of my foot.
Within just a few weeks of wearing the 890’s on all of my runs (which were mostly track workouts), the dull pain that had bothered me for seven or eight months was gone. Giving cushioning another chance was all it took, and I hope that if you take one thing from this long post, it’s that: Don’t be stubborn. If minimalist shoes aren’t working for you, there’s no shame in going back to cushioned ones.
New Balance Minimus
Just this weekend, I’ve started wearing the Minimus, a minimalist-style trail shoe that New Balance sent me to try. (The Minimus comes in a road version too, but for now, I have no plans to get any more minimal on my road runs than the Green Silence.) The Minimus is equipped with a sturdy Vibram sole, but it looks like a normal shoe, only with a very low profile, and lots of room in the toe box.
I’ve only worn the Minimus on trails, and I have no plans to try it on any other surface. But so far, I really like it. The inside is seamless and padded enough that you can wear it without socks, and sole is just thin enough that you feel what you’re stepping on.
A full review is to come, but only after I’ve put in some more miles in these shoes and on more technical trails. It’ll take me a little while to get my mileage up in them, though, since I’ll be proceeding with caution after my experiences of the past year. (The Minimus even come with a “Caution” tag that warns about overuse, and recommends running only about 10% of your mileage in them initially. Very cool of you, New Balance.)
A shoe for every purpose
Something tells me that I’m on the right track. I’m wearing my cushy 890’s for speed workouts, and I even think they help me get a better workout than the Green Silence or Vibrams did on the track, by allowing for a longer stride. (The others acted as a sort of built-in governor the prevented me from going at full speed on 200 and 400 meter bursts.)
This longer stride, of course, is what many barefooters blame for the injuries caused by traditional shoes, but I’ve found that my time in minimalist shoes has now made the midfoot strike natural for me, even in cushioned shoes like the 890’s, so I’m not overly concerned about this.
For my tempo runs, which are somewhat slower and usually on roads or non-technical trails, I’m wearing the Green Silence and loving them just as much as ever. Only now the ball of my foot has stopped hurting in them, having had a chance to heal in the 890’s.
And for technical, “real” trails, I’m in a combination of the Minimus and my standard trail shoe (the Adidas AdiZero). I tend to think that on the trails, a lower-profile shoe is far easier to adjust to than on the roads or the track, since the nature of trail running lends itself to quick, short strides and a variety of movements anyway, rather than allowing one to break into the long, uncontrolled and supposedly dangerous stride that comes from cushioned shoes.
So I’m feeling great right now. But it’s only been a few weeks, so time will tell if this truly is a happy medium.
Whew! That was a lot.
If you hung in there, I hope maybe this has helped you make a little bit of sense out of these different types of shoes, especially if you’re on the fence about minimalist running and not sure where to start.
Thanks for reading, enjoy your Memorial Day, and don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the half-marathon mistakes PDF report and a few other surprises in store for this week!