Monday, June 06, 2011

Hobbit Ninja Feet Revisited

In the spring of 2007 I made a decision to work more on my cardio. This was not borne out of any tragic cardio-event, but more of a realisation that as I was getting older, focusing on my cardiovascular health would be a good thing. And the obvious choice for cardio, for many reasons, was running. The equipment needed is minimal and most of us have the coordination to perform it at least passably. But there was a catch. Running to me meant agony.

Back in high school I attempted to take up running. Not being a terribly sporty child (read: no soccer, baseball, volleyball, football, et hoc genus omne), running kind of went the way of Hardy Boys mysteries and Thundercats; running was a part of my childhood that just stayed there. But I remembered fairly clearly how to do the running thing. It was just like walking, only faster.

Not far into my new routine of running I started to get horrible pains in both my knees and in my lower back. The outer front of my right knee and the back of my left knee would swell considerably whenever I ran more than about three blocks and the pain would last for days. This put a stop to my high school running plans.

Throughout the rest of my teens and 20s I sporadically attempted to pick up running. Always with the same results. The pain I endured was just too much to make running practical for anything other than escaping slow moving zombies. I gave it up as a never-to-be and jokingly told people that I only ran when chased. Fair enough.

As I marched through the lower end of the 30s and hit some milestones, including the birth of my daughter, I began to once again think that working on some sort of cardio would be good. It is not that I was sloth - I rock climb and bike and swim and do gym things like lifting weights and bending myself to keep my joints well used - but I wanted something I could do consistently, on-the-fly and would give me that cardio workout I knew I needed. I could - and do - climb the stairs at work. But, dang it, I wanted to be able to take my casual activity and participate in an organized event every now and again. And the Stair Climbers 2,000 Steps just didn't sound fun.

Upon examining all the activities available to me, I once again decided that running was a logical choice, save for the whole excruciating pain part. So I started to do research. Initially, I was hoping to find something that would correct the defect in my running. I had never been told I run funny, but I had not, like one helpful website suggested, had someone video me running so I could analyze my running style. I read further.

I am not alone in my experiences of painful running. A lot of people experience it. A lot. And there are hundreds of thousand of websites dedicated to the subject. I read. And read. And read some more.

Apparently you can buy shoes that correct whatever deficiencies you have in running. There are stores that will set you running on a treadmill, analyze your gait and stride and countless other things and then give you a magical pair of shoes that will fix problems like supination and over-pronation and untold others.

This all sounded quite complicated for an activity we have been doing for as long as we've been upright. But I read more, because if this was going to fix my knees and back and let me run with wild abandon I was all for it. And in reading more I learned that those special shoes, over time, can cause new weaknesses to develop. But you can just go in and get a new pair of fix-it shoes for that.

I didn't like that.

Reading even more, I came across another school of thought on running and the pain associated with it. Shoes are the problem.

Ok, that is an interesting thought.

"Shoes do no more for the foot than a hat does for the brain."
—Dr. Mercer Rang, orthopedic surgeon and researcher in pediatric development

So why is barefoot supposedly better?  Because running, as with any sport, is about developing good technique. Shoes can - and very frequently do - inhibit this development. That idea really opened my eyes. If I were climbing with Bob and Bob had a horrible technique that was causing him to injury himself, I would not suggest that he get a piece of equipment to cover up that failure in technique. I would tell him he needed to improve his technique.

And in doing more research I eventually found Vibram Fivefingers.

In May of 2007 I ordered a pair of Vibram Fivefinger Sprints from the Vibram Fivefinger website as they were not available in stores in New Mexico at that time. And I immediately liked them. They were the best of both worlds for me. The Vibram sole protected my feet from the stickers and rocks and even glass that inevitably litters the walkways and streets of the city, and the glove-like fit and the individual toes allowed my foot far more range of motion and allowed the 26 bones, 33 joints and 20 muscles of each foot to do the job they were designed to do.

I started running. And, much to my surprise despite it being the reason I wanted to try them out, I did not suffer the knee and back pain I had come to associate with running. Running became fun again. I started participating in 5Ks and having a great time. And I noticed performance in my other activities improve as well.

Fast forward to 2011. I still have those same Sprints. Yes, they are that durable. I'm not saying there has been no wear and tear. The soles are thinner than they were and the material between my toes has wore down, even through, in some places. But I have put them through the paces. I wear them all the time. Not just for running. I use them for trailing hiking and as approach shoes and around town and for outdoor yoga and at the water park. I still love running in them. There is a child-like joy I get and it is that, almost more than the lack of pain in my knees and back, that have kept me a fan for four years.

Vibram now makes many varieties of Fivefingers. And they even make a pair specifically for running. In May of 2011, four years after getting my first pair, I ordered a pair of Bikilas. And I love them as much as my Sprints and KSOs (my dressy, black Fivefingers).

The Bikilas are actually a bit of a step away from 'barefoot' as they have more support, more underfoot protection and a much more aggressive tread. But really this isn't about being barefoot so much as it is about learning and maintaining the proper technique.

For running, especially if you are going to do lots of trail running or running where there might be little rocks and other debris in your path, the Bikilas are great. They have more overall support. The Bikila is truly a running shoe. It is engineered as such. To great effect. Despite the more engineered feel, they still allow that foot movement that makes Fivefingers so special.

Vibram Fivefingers are not for everyone. You have to have a pretty typical foot, specifically your toes cannot be decidedly long or crooked. And some people just do not like the feel of something between the toes.The sizing can be tricky. So if you can go into a store to try them out, I highly recommend that.

If you are looking for a minimalistic shoe, one that can help you feel more connected to the ground you walk on, and maybe even one that can help alleviate the aches and pains of bad running technique, give a pair of Fivefingers a try!


SuzRocks said...

Two of cousins wear the vibram 5 fingers, they say they love them. I'm a little scared to try them, only b/c I've heard you sort of have to break them in and get used to them? I've worn Aasics for so long, they're perfect for my feet.

I'd be interested to try the five fingers and see what it's like.

Paukku said...

I did not have any 'break in' time with mine. I loved them from almost the first moment I put them on. I do know that many people do need some time to adjust to the feeling of the material between the toes. You can find a retailer in your area that sells them and just go try on a pair to see how they feel.

The sizing can be tricky, but when you get a pair that fits it is worth it.

Give 'em a try! And let me know how you like 'em!