I know many folks out there on the fence about whether to get on the road to minimalist/barefoot running or stick with traditional running shoes. What I’ll do here is give you a timeline of how I transitioned and the factors that lead me in this direction. It’s a bit long but I didn’t want to leave out any details as all of them affected my decisions along the way. If you have any questions or need clarification please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply.
In the beginning…
“Set the WABAC machine Sherman to 2009...”
My road starts back in May 2009 when I clocked a 1:35 at the Delaware Half Marathon and I knew I had a real shot at qualifying for Boston in the fall. That was a great race, but I knew I didn’t have the stamina yet for a marathon. Since I was turning 45 that year and needed a 3:30 to qualify, I looked on my calendar for a good fall marathon to qualify. The Philly marathon was 30 minutes away from home but it was in late November and I wasn’t really keen on running my first masters marathon in cold conditions. The Baltimore marathon though was on October 10th, it was within driving distance and seemed like a good fit (except for the hill profile, yikes!). So I got my training plan together and got started training about 18 weeks out for Baltimore.
From my marathon experiences in my 20’s I remembered that I really needed to get my weekly mileage in the high 40’s consistently. For my first marathon in 1985 I was running around 30 to 35 miles per week but I wound up hitting the wall during like Wile E. Coyote around mile 17. I didn’t want a repeat of that so I planned accordingly.
Nine miles to go...
The more mileage, the better. Right?
My monthly mileage totals went from about 140 in the spring to over 200 in July and August. Looking back that was a pretty big jump, I was bound to have some issues and in September I started to get some bizarre cramps in the back of my knee. About three or four times in September it would hit me right as I started running, as if I had a ligament or tendon that was saying “Nope, not today Rob”. It happened 5 days before Baltimore which scared the pants off me. I was able to run and barely squeak out a BQ. About six weeks later in November, after my recovery, I started doing some lunges and stair-steppers to strengthen my knees. I found out later that this just fed into the problem and now I had Patella Tendinitis. In March of 2010, the day after a hard 10 miler, I felt my left knee buckle a bit. With Boston coming in about a month I got really concerned. I always realized I was a bit of a heel striker but with all the additional mileage I was heel striking even more so during my easy runs and long runs (which were about 70% of my mileage). This was due to over-striding with a slow cadence.
Heel Striking...HEEL STRIKING!!!!
I decided to make some major changes to my running and training routine. During the next year I focused on getting my form right and landing on my mid-foot/forefoot area. I went from static stretching prior to my runs to doing dynamic warm-ups. I performed moderate flexibility stretches but only after my workouts. My chiropractor recommended a great supplement Runovia and starting with the first week of using it, my patella tendonitis was practically non-existent. Runovia contains hyaluronan which is present in our joint fluid and is necessary for healthy joint function. I highly recommend it to anyone having issues with their joints.
My move away from traditional running shoes came in the fall of 2010 when Mizuno made some major changes to my go-to training shoe the Wave Rider. The shoe went from a neutral design to more of a stability/support shoe and I hated the feel. It felt heavy and stiff. By coincidence in the early spring of 2011 I started working with a Physical Therapist on some strengthening exercises while I was researching minimal running shoes. He was really a big help and being a runner and Boston finisher himself he was able to confirm a lot about what I read about the benefits of barefoot training and running in minimalist shoes.
Since I seem to be in continual training mode, I needed my transition to be gradual to avoid injury. I had to get in the hard workouts but not compromise my time goals in doing so. In my research I read about possible achilles issues if you move too quickly to shoes with a zero heel drop (i.e. no raised heel). I also read about some runners getting metatarsal fractures from doing too much too soon in Vibrams. In June 2011 I decided to start with the Saucony Kinvara for my first minimal shoe. Its pretty light weight (which I loved) and only has a 4mm heel raise compared to the traditional 12mm. I mixed those in my training with my old Wave Riders and I only did a few runs in the Kinvaras for the first week or two. I eventually went to about a 50/50 split between the Wave Riders and Kinvaras.
One small step for man…
Altra Instinct: Batman's got nothin' on this shoe, POW!
During those first weeks in the Kinvaras I did feel a little soreness in my achilles but it was manageable and nothing alarming. I kept the mileage mix at 50/50 until September of 2011 when I got my first pair of Altra Instincts. I can’t say enough about this shoe, it’s amazing. It’s a ZeroDrop shoe so your foot is parallel with the ground (as God intended). The toe box is huge, plenty of room for your toes to spread out. I feel primal when I’m wearing them. When I went for my first run in them I was struck by how much my feet were gripping the road, like my feet were clawing at the ground. I’ll caution you that they feel firmer that those squishy/cushioned shoes but you’ll have a better feel for the road, and that’s the point. A great review was done by Zak Branigan over at AverageGuyHitsTheRoad so check it out for more info.
I went 50/50 between the Kinvaras and the Instincts leading up to the Philly Marathon in 2011. I still had a some Achilles soreness but not much. I also bought a pair of Bikila LS Vibram Five Fingers for my Birthday in October but I only wore them around the house and out on a few errands. I wanted to start getting use to them before taking them out on the road and risk an injury before Philly.
I don’t want to work against my training by wearing heavy heeled shoes to work so once the marathon was over I went completely minimal in both my running and casual shoes. I bought a pair of Kigo Drives for the office which are really light. They have a very thin sole so you can get that surface feedback in your foot. I’m looking at also getting a pair of Vivo Barefoot Aquas or Merrill Barefoot Life Tough Gloves but right now they are a bit out of my price range. For running, the Instincts are my high mileage shoe so I wear those almost exclusively for training runs. I’m past my recovery phase from Philly so I’ve also been wearing the Vibrams for a mile or two during the cool down for each training run as well.
Since I’ve been adding miles in the Vibrams, I’m starting to feel a positive change to my gait and foot strike. This is even after working a good 18 months on my form. As a side note I’ve been practically injury free for well over a year. Your mileage may vary but going minimal has been one of my better training decisions.
Big Picture Timeline Summary:
- July/Aug 2009: Increased mileage over 40% in 4 month time-span.
- Sept 2009: First signs of knee problems.
- Nov 2009: Self diagnosis and conditioning exacerbates the problem.
- Spring 2010: Begin to focus on form and reducing heel striking. Started using Runovia.
- Spring 2011: Physical Therapy accurately identifies the problem, confirms benefits of minimalist shoes and natural running form.
- June 2011: Added Saucony Kinvara to training routine.
- Sept 2011: Added Altra Instinct to training routine.
- Nov 2011: Now wearing only minimalist shoes for training and casual wear. Integrating Vibrams into training program.
My form has improved but I’m still easily distracted...
To be continued…