Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My New Favorite Shoes

I’ve been dabbling for the last six months or so with barefoot running and “minimalist footwear” running. I’m no groundbreaker here… depending on your point of view, there’s a movement going on among runners that’s somewhere between passing fad and an outright footwear revolution. Regardless, there’s some pretty strong evidence around that barefoot and/or minimalist running does, at the very least, provide training benefits in improving foot and lower leg strength and flexibility and improved running form.

My first attempt at barefoot running consisted of running across a soccer field and getting my foot stung by a bee.

My 2nd attempt started better. I ran a mile or so, on a paved path. I was feeling pretty smug and anti-establishment as I passed an attractive pair of female runners; at which point I stubbed my right big toe and bled all over the nice paved path.

Eventually I successfully ran multiple, consecutive runs without bee stings or male pattern shame events, and began to enjoy myself. Then it got cold outside, and I got bored of flat, paved trails, so I mostly shelved barefoot running. Then Jasmine bought me a pair of Vibram 5-finger “shoes”, which, in theory, enable some of the same benefits of barefoot running while offering some protection from running surfaces that are cold or fully of sharp pointy things like rocks. So again, I added a mile or two here and there during the week of “minimalist shoe” running.
Then my friend Larkin, of local Corvallis company Soft Star Shoes (http://www.softstarshoes.com/), asked if I’d be interested in testing a pair of minimalist running shoes that they were planning on introducing. She invited me in to their shoe shop, showed me what they’d been working on, measured my foot, took my input, and custom made me a pair of “shoes”. Basically they’re moccasins, with a thin, flat rubber sole, a thin leather insole, and no midsole (i.e. no arch support, no raised heel, no stiffness in the sole). My foot has a lot of room to play inside the shoe.

I have to admit I was skeptical at first. I figured the shoes would fall right off, or would slide around so bad inside that It’d blister, etc. But I was wrong. They’re a hoot to run in. I’ve gradually moved to using them on a treadmill, to flat trail, to hilly trail, to the hilliest, muddiest, steepest trails in town; and I have to say it’s an absolute blast to run in these. It took some getting used to, learning to trust that the shoe, weighing next to nothing and fitting loosely, would be under my foot with each step (so far, so good); but the more I run in it, the more fun I’m having. I can feel the terrain with my feet, which sounds dumb and simple, but until I experienced it, I wouldn’t have expected how cool this is. The thin soles are just enough to spread out the force from sharp rocks, roots, etc. But they’re thin enough that, going up steep, muddy trail, for example, my toes can curl up to “grip” the surface, which is also pretty cool and, at first, completely weird.

I’m still pretty new to minimalist shoe running, so I need to be careful not to add too many miles too fast. My foot muscles and lower leg muscles need time to adapt, and I can certainly feel the fatigue and soreness in these after a good run (the “good” kind of sore, that you’d feel after working out a neglected muscle group). On super technical terrain, my longest run has been about 4 miles, and on easier terrain, not a whole lot longer. But I hope to continue to add mileage, slowly, over time, to augment and maybe even displace some of my “regular” shod training miles. I might even have to find a cool trail 10k or something to race in these.

On the larger running front, things are mostly going well. I can't say my calf is 100%, but it's been mostly OK lately. I've done quite a few runs in the 15-25 mile range in the last couple months, and have been pretty happy. Occasionally it seems to have a setback, but overall there seems to be more progress than not, and I still feel like I'm on pace to run the Mac 50k in May (I ran most of the course last month) and the 100 miler this September. Slowly. More than anything, I'm just really happy to be able to do the long runs on the weekend, and look forward to them all week. If I'm not feeling 100%, I'm still able comfortably do 3+ hours at a casual pace. When I've felt good, I've done 5 hours at a pretty reasonable pace. Keeps me happy. :-)

And do please check out Soft Star shoes. They're a great little local company, and your feet (or your kids feet) will benefit from some foot muscle use!