Experiment on Self: Setback

by Carl Strang

Running is part of my identity. It saved me from couch potato chubbiness in Junior High, and it hurt emotionally when joint problems forced me to switch to bicycling as my main exercise several years ago. In two previous posts I described my recent return to running, made possible by trying a different, low-impact running technique that combines shorter strides with landing on the forefoot rather than the heel. As part of that process I have been experimenting with shoes designed for this “barefoot” technique. I slowly transitioned to the most extreme of these shoes, the Vibram FiveFingers.

I also bought a pair of Newton running shoes, designed for the barefoot technique but with slightly more heel elevation that does not demand quite so much from the plantar fascia-Achilles tendon-calf muscle axis, and I used these for longer and faster runs.

All was going well until two weeks ago. I decided to tack on an extra half-mile to the 4-mile distance that had become my standard in the FiveFingers. About a quarter-mile into the addition I felt a sharp pain in the center of my right calf muscle. I’d pulled something, and as I read my sports medicine references I became concerned that it might be serious. However, as I applied ice treatments, rested, compressed the muscle with an elastic bandage and elevated it whenever possible, I found recovery happening quickly. After a couple of days I could do bike trainer workouts without pain, and after a couple more I tried a 4-mile jog in my clunky old shoes and got through it fine, though at 500 miles I knew those shoes were at the end of their service. I tried the Newtons, but there was still a little pain. I decided to go back to the store and get yet another pair of shoes, the newly modified Asics gel-DS trainer 16’s.

Though a little heavier than the Newtons, and not specifically designed for the forefoot plant, these shoes didn’t stretch the calf painfully even when I used the barefoot technique. So I am back on track, literally as well as figuratively. I hope to get back into the Newtons in another week or so. Eventually when I have strengthened my calves enough I expect to try the FiveFingers again. I enjoyed their feel once I got used to it, and they are extremely light. If I were younger (I’ll be 60 in a couple months), or if I had realized I needed to build my calf strength even more, I probably would have had no problem. After all, I had run 100 miles in them altogether before getting that little muscle pull. It feels good, though, to have a range of shoes to draw on as my training resumes. In fact, recent runs have been so strong that I am thinking I may be able to do something I would not have thought possible a year ago: run a half-marathon before the end of this year.

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