Experiment on Self: A Year Later

by Carl Strang

Here I am about halfway through the race.

A year ago I returned to distance running as my primary exercise after about 7 years of bicycling. I saw in the barefoot running technique the potential for a lower impact running style that would eliminate the joint problems that plagued me in my early 50’s. Hence, the experiment on self. Last spring I gave my most recent update, as injuries unrelated to running forced me back onto the bike for an indefinite period. That hiatus lasted 8 weeks, which had me close to starting over with running. I learned that my sciatic problem was the result of a deteriorating disk that had my vertebrae pinching the nerve root on my right side. Physical therapy has practically eliminated that obstacle, thanks to daily stretching and core strengthening exercises. The foot problem turned out to be two things: an arthritic toe joint, plus a neuroma (swollen nerve pinched between two foot bones). Physical therapy, in the form of ultrasound plus electrical stimulation, caused the neuroma to shrink most of the way back to normal. The arthritis mainly means I must keep that joint as straight as possible, and I have gone to stiffer soled shoes.

One of the two podiatrists I have seen during the course of this process, Dr. Brown, the one who filled the final piece of the puzzle by diagnosing the arthritis, proves to have a famous father, sadly deceased earlier in the year: Thomas Eisner. This turned up when she asked my occupation to get an idea of how I work my foot, and “naturalist” led to her revelation. Eisner was one of the world’s most distinguished entomologists, and his work touched significantly on a wide range of evolutionary and other topics.

When I started running again, I had only 8 weeks to prepare for a race I was determined to run. In the spring I had paid $60 to enter a half-marathon, and I’m frugal enough that I intended to try it no matter what. I altered my experimental running technique a little, switching to a midfoot plant instead of the barefoot technique’s forefoot plant. I still got most of the reduced impact, while minimizing the aggravation of that toe joint. By September 18, the day of the race, I had gotten my training mileage back up to 22 miles per week, about 2/3 of where it had been when I was forced to stop in the spring.

It had been years since I last raced, and the support provided in this event was eye-opening: many aid stations manned by an army of volunteers, three races run at once (my half-marathon was the shortest distance; this race is called the Fox Valley Marathon because that is the longest choice), more than 2000 runners altogether. We were given chips to put on our shoes, which are read and automatically entered into computers along the way.

Here is the chip, tied onto one of my new, stiffer soled Brooks running shoes.

I ran conservatively, and was able to finish in an hour and 55 minutes, under my target pace of 9 minutes per mile (pathetic compared to what I could do in my 20’s, but under the circumstances I’ll take it). Another nice thing about these high end races is that every finisher gets a commemorative medal. I was surprised and a little chagrined (considering the marginal training I was able to get in before race day) to find that I had placed second in my 60-64 age group. Best of all, despite the race being run almost entirely on macadam, my foot felt fine at the end. With the adjustments I’ve had to make, I have to call my experiment a qualified success. I am a runner again, though I have had to back off from the barefoot technique.

Experiment on Self: Time Out

by Carl Strang

From time to time I have been describing my progress in a physiological experiment: using a low-impact style of long-distance running to see if I can return to the sport years after joint problems forced me to give it up. There has been continued progress, but it hasn’t been without challenges. One of these has been an injury to the joint between my left second toe and its metatarsal bone.

Note how the second toe sticks up on the left foot, relative to the right.

I don’t think this injury was from running. I help teach Eskimo roll at a swimming pool kayak class in winter, and wasn’t quick enough to dodge a student’s flailing paddle in February. Months later, the joint still hasn’t healed, and in fact began to get worse when I reached my target weekly mileage.

Here are the feet entire. Not works of art, but they carried me miles at a time. Though I use the barefoot technique, I wear shoes when running.

After moving outside, I gradually increased my regular run length to 6 miles (4 of these per week), and my long runs to 10, with up to 2 days cross-training on the bicycle. A year ago I would not have thought this possible. I still was not fast, but where I was running 2 miles at 9 minutes each when I started last September, I’ve been running around 8.5 minutes per mile even on the long ones. So, progress was encouraging. A few weeks ago I developed an inflamed right sciatic nerve with occasional local numbness. Fortunately this did not prevent me from running, but the pain has been a distraction (you may have noticed that many recent blog posts have been brief; I’m minimizing sitting at the computer). It’s great to feel like a runner again, and I have to credit the barefoot running technique.

However, I have decided to stop running and go back to the bicycle until the foot heals. My physician has referred me to a podiatrist for the foot, and physical therapy for a possible pinched nerve; I’m awaiting x-ray results. I enjoy bicycling, but running is part of my identity and I am hopeful
the respite won’t last long.

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.

Experiment on Self: Progress Report

by Carl Strang

Last fall I outlined the debate in distance running circles about the growing minority of runners who are running barefoot or using minimal shoes that approach the barefoot condition. At that point I had bought but not yet tried a pair of the most extreme shoes on the market for the barefoot style of running.

The Vibram Fivefingers running shoe is the most extreme of those that have been designed for the barefoot running technique.

I am at the 4-and-a-half-month point in this physiological experiment. So far things are progressing well, and I have reached my initial mileage volume goal of running 4 miles 3 days in a row, then taking a cross-training day on the bike trainer. Most of those runs now are in the Fivefingers shoes, and I continue to become stronger in them. Even though I had prepared for a couple of months by using the barefoot technique in conventional running shoes, I went slowly with the Fivefingers. The absence of all heel lift makes a surprising difference in the calf muscle’s involvement, and it is taking a while to gradually build my calf strength. I went ahead and bought a less radical pair of shoes which nevertheless are designed for the barefoot technique, and for a while ran in them on days when my feet or calves were a little more sore than usual.

Newton running shoes also are intended for the barefoot technique. The extended sole elements under the ball of the foot are part of the design.

At this point I am beginning to incorporate occasional longer runs (a recent 6-mile run was my farthest in 18 years), as well as some faster pace and interval work, and I am using the Newtons for those workouts.  My pace, though slow, continues to improve. Where at first I was less than comfortable at 9 minutes per mile, now I can cruise at 8:15, and can do an occasional mile in less than 8 minutes without undue strain. I repeat the caution I read about often when first researching the barefoot method. Go slowly, don’t be impatient to build the speed and mileage. So far, so good.

Experiment on Self

by Carl Strang

On a warm day in late September I noticed some footprints in the dust of the trail that skirts May’s Lake. There were mallard tracks.

I also saw plenty of human footprints, including a set left by someone who had gone barefoot.

This brought a smile, as it reminded me of an experiment I have begun on myself. For most of my life, running has been my primary exercise. I began to experience joint problems in my late 20’s that first ended my marathoning and, progressively, made my workout runs shorter and less regular. Finally, 5 or 6 years ago, I switched over to bicycling. I enjoy riding the bike, and the range it has given me has contributed data to my singing insects study. At heart I am a runner, however, and in winter my exercise regime has been dominated by boring indoor workouts on the bike trainer with a precious 3-mile run on the indoor track every third day.

One day this summer, on one of my many drives home from Indiana, I heard a radio interview that I hope will prove a turning point. One of the panel members was athletics author Christopher McDougall, who was arguing with born-again fervor for the benefits of running barefoot. The hour-long program intrigued me enough to find McDougall’s book, Born to Run, at the local library. It’s a very entertaining read about very interesting people that I think even non-runners would enjoy.

It turns out that there is an ongoing argument in the running community and associated sports medicine community about the pros and cons of barefoot running. I have found a lot of passionate absolutism on both sides of this debate. The center of the notion of barefoot running is not, in my view, going barefoot per se, but rather a different style of running. The conventional view, which suited me fine when I was young, is to run with long powerful strides, landing on the heel and pushing off with the ball of the foot or the toe. Running shoes have the role of cushioning the impact of footfalls and of keeping the feet in proper alignment with the ground and the direction of travel. Barefoot running proponents point out that landing on the heel sends a jarring shock through the body and has a braking effect in each stride. This makes sense, I think, and I suspect that this indeed was a major source of my trouble.

Barefoot running technique calls for shorter, quicker strides in a smoother, more flowing style. The critical point, and the source of the debate, is the feature of landing on the ball of the foot and not coming down hard on the heel at all. Barefoot running proponents say this takes advantage of the innate elasticity of the arch of the foot, the Achilles tendon, calf and other leg muscles to absorb the lighter landing and propel the next step without the braking effect of the heel landing. Barefoot running opponents say this puts undue, injury-causing stress on the Achilles tendon and arch of the foot. Extreme proponents say everyone should go barefoot. Extreme opponents say no one should. Hence my experiment-on-self.

This is a pair of Vibram Five Fingers running shoes. They are cursed by barefoot running opponents, but praised by proponents as the closest thing to true barefoot running one can have while still wearing a protective sole. I bought them in part because I plan to try running in them when I move to the indoor track, and in part because I just think they’re cool. They are like socks, with separate pockets for each toe, and a thin but tough sole.

I accept that barefoot running probably isn’t for everyone, but that it is the best way to go for some. I have reason to believe that I might fall into the latter category. Ever since my brief martial arts study and the classes I took at the Tom Brown school  I have gone barefoot around the house and, often, out in the yard (my taking out the trash barefoot in snow has raised neighbors’ eyebrows). Even in shoes I have been placing my weight and my footfalls in the balls of my feet for decades, now. In a sense I have been preparing myself for a try at extending this to running.

Starting in September I have resumed running, using the barefoot technique and very gradually increasing distance and frequency of runs. I have been wearing my standard running shoes, but thanks to my long experience in placing my weight in the balls of my feet I think I am coming close enough to the barefoot technique for now. It is clear that, at least at the low 2-to-3-mile distances I have been running, my recovery time is much quicker than it was when I ran conventionally. It is in fact comparable to the overnight recovery from bicycling. At this point I am running 4 days per week for a total of 8-9 miles. By November 7, when the time change and concomitant darkness nudges me indoors, I plan to be running 2 out of 3 days with a weekly total of 14 miles. At that point I’ll try parts of the indoor runs in the new shoes. If all goes well I hope by winter’s end to be running 3 out of 4 days with 21 miles per week. This is pathetic by my old standards, but an enormous improvement over recent years. Bicycling at that point will be valued cross training. From there, if I succeed in reaching that point, we’ll see how it goes.

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