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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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.

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