Rolling around the hairpin at the state championships.
When I first joined the cross country team in high school, I showed up to practice with some beat up K-Swiss shoes. Of course, these were unacceptable because they had no cushioning or control, so I was sent to a local shoe store where they threw me on a treadmill, concluded that I had a severe case of over-pronation, and put me in the most beefy motion control shoes they could find - Mizuno Wave Renegades. They were heavy, the cushioning was thick, and the medial post was humongous. My feet felt like they were enclosed in tanks.
Soon, the problems started. Shin splints flared up after every run to the point that merely tapping them elicited excruciating pain. Solution? Custom-made $500 orthotics. Then came patellar tendinitis. And illiotibial band tendinitis. Solution? Adjust the orthotics to give more extreme motion control. When that didn't work? Go to another shoe, the Brooks Trance, which afforded more cushioning.
Keep in mind that throughout this I was visiting a physical therapy clinic that treated professional sports athletes. These people were the cream of the crop but they could not solve my problems. At this point, I was often spending more time cross training than actually running. My coach and I joked about it, that I was one of the few people who managed to improve their 5K times through almost pure cross training. I iced, I wrapped, I wore braces, I even had cold laser therapy done, all to no avail.
These tie-dyed flats struck fear into the hearts of my competitors.
I didn't wear those beefy shoes during races. I had a pair of cross country flats that I still own to this day, though my feet are now too wide to fit in them comfortably. They had no motion-control or cushioning, and I couldn't fit orthotics in them, so I raced in minimalist shoes. It always seemed odd to me that my legs didn't hurt much during a race, but I chalked that up to the adrenaline and the excitement.
Fast-forward to just over a year ago. It's the start of summer after my junior year in college and I still have these chronic pains. By chance, I stumble upon an article about some goofy-looking toed shoes and how runners all over the country are shedding their old tanks for minimalist footwear - and finding relief from their running injuries. I was desperate so I ordered a pair of Vibram KSO's. When they arrived I decided to take them out for a test run around the block. It turned into an 8 miler. I dumped the shoes for good and immediately started wearing the Vibrams for all of my runs at my then weekly mileage of 60 miles per week.
For the first month, I was greeted with growing pains as my feet adapted to their new environment. The thin fat pads that had lived a life of luxury in thick shoes were now protected by less than 4mm of rubber. Metatarsal heads became sore after every run until those pads had thickened. My nerves were jolted by pain as I ran over once innocuous gravel (though now my brain has retrained itself to recognize those signals as ground information, not 'pain'). Ligaments and tendons in my foot spasmed after runs. And my legs...after living in shoes with huge heel-to-toe drops, my calf muscles and Achilles' tendons had to lengthen. It was painful for a month, but it was worth it. My feet are now quite muscular and durable.
I finished the White River 50 in KSO Treks just one year after making the transition. I sustained no injuries aside from the anticipated soft tissue fatigue. It is a testament to how ass backwards the shoe industry and many physical therapists and podiatrists are when they have us spend literally thousands upon thousands of dollars trying to fix my feet with all sorts of implements, when the best solution was to stick me in the most minimal shoes possible. I should have kept wearing that pair of K-Swiss shoes.
My legs and feet were not defective. They didn't need cushioning, motion control, orthotics, braces, or laser therapy. They needed to be allowed the opportunity to strengthen rather than be allowed to atrophy inside of a brick encasement. The foot evolved to run without any of those things. The arch is a marvel of shock absorption, the fat pads are excellent cushions, and strong foot and lateral stabilizing muscles prevent chronic injuries caused by poor foot strike and gait common to shod runners. And the human foot is not supposed to heel strike while running - period. Take your shoes off and try heel striking on concrete at a good clip.
I'm diggin' the electric blue. My feet barely fit into the over-sized compartment.
Which brings me to the Inov8 Flite 230's. These are the first running "shoes" I will be wearing since my transition. Many ultramarathons and most of my long runs are not run on nice, single-track dirt trails with minimal rock debris. If I want to make it down a hill with a lot of rock and other debris as fast as I possibly can, I do feel that I need more than a pair of Vibrams. However, I still want shoes with minimal heel-to-toe drop (ideally none), no cushioning, no motion control, etc. The Flite's are perfect. A lot of runners who wear Vibrams swear by these for running on especially nasty terrain.
Let me make it clear that I will continue to train in the Vibrams, and as I do so I'm sure my fat pads will continue to thicken and my ability to maneuver around rocks and other debris will continue to improve. However, at this point I know that my feet in a pair of Vibrams aren't in the condition to get me through a 100 miler as fast as the rest of my body is able to.
After a long run at cross country camp on Whidbey Island. This is too rich not to post. Everyone is trying to look studly, flexing their abs and giving their best Blue Steel pose - except Max. Max didn't need to prove anything to the camera because he won almost every 5K race by well over thirty seconds, sometimes by minutes.
I have fond memories of growing up in Chanhassen, Minnesota in a neighborhood filled with other elementary school-age kids. During the long, hot summers we would run around and play barefoot - shoes got in the way most of the time. Remember when you were a kid? You ran everywhere, all the time, and when you ran you didn't plod along and stomp the ground, you effortlessly bounded and glided over it. You didn't over think it, you didn't even think about why you did it, you just did it.
And it was fun.
Running should be fun.
So don't force yourself to run. Don't over think your foot strike or your gait. Be fluid, not tense. Don't just run on city streets or paved walks. Find a trail and escape into nature. Don't fight the switchbacks, the rocks, and the roots, let them guide you.