Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Barefoot Contestant- "Toeing the Line" Part IV

“There are many paths to the top of the mountain but the view is always the same”.
-Chinese Proverb

    I embarked upon this journey because I was seeking an end to my running pain. I had no intentions of joining a cult or of becoming some sort of running evangelist.
I have tried my best to keep an open, honest perspective, while reporting back the full range of my trials, trails and tribulations with the crazy toe shoes, known as Vibrams.

{Catch up on  Part 1Part 2 and Part 3}

Funny thing is, once I put them on my feet, people took notice.  Suddenly I was forced into a role akin to a clergy member.  Folks apparently felt free to unburden their questions and confessions upon me, a perfect stranger, regarding my feet, and in particular, my shoes. 

People would look down and ask, “Hey, are those things comfortable?”  “They look funky!”

“Yes, they are comfortable,” I would say enthusiastically, playing the role of the accidental advocate, regardless of what I was feeling about them at the moment.

It’s not like I had a choice.  What could I have said? 

“Oh, these things you see on my feet?  Pieces of crap actually, I hate them.”  I’m miserable in them and they have totally screwed up my training schedule and so on….

Of course not. 

Nor did they truly want to hear the full list of pros and cons I’d managed to tally up to this point.  The shoes merely caught their attention and they were responding to them.
“Wow those are cool shoes!  My daughter has been asking me to get her a pair, would you recommend them for a teenage girl?”

It required superhuman effort to suppress my overwhelming snark reflex at this moment.  While silently conceding my role as an involuntary Vibram promoter, I did NOT reply with the first thing that popped into my head:

“You mean, you want to know if they would serve as a fashion accessory for some ditzy, Justin Bieber fan? Why no, no I don’t recommend them at all.  Lock her in her room and let her  watch Twilight movies until she’s 21.  These are shoes for serious runners with a solemn commitment to the freedom and performance that comes from unleashing one’s more natural potential…”

Sadly, all I DID is say, was, “Uhmmm, well they come in some pretty cool colors, she would probably like them,” and walked away very quickly.

On other occasions, people would point at my feet, nudge their companions and proceed to  talk about me and my shoes, in the third person, utterly indifferent to the fact that I was standing right there, listening to every word.  

“Will you look at those things? I don’t know how she walks in them, I’d be afraid to step on something and get my toe cut off.  They can’t be good for her! I don’t know if I could wear anything with all that junk between my toes…”

It happened more than once.

More running savvy folks would ask better, more specific questions but they were all pretty much the same.

Frequently  I heard various versions of:

 “I’ve seen those shoes around and even thought about getting a pair, do you think I should? What about support?   Don’t your feet need some kind of support or cushioning or something?”

Vibram and Mr. McDougal should both be paying me commissions for my replies to these people.  I found myself explaining the entire theory behind why artificially supporting the natural structure of any arch weakens its inherent strength, both architecturally and anatomically speaking.   I’d mention the book, the research and refer them to the Vibram website, all as part of the “experiment.”  I repeated myself so many times, that I  started to feel like a broken record; while many of you reading this will not know exactly what that means, I felt that way just the same.

Despite the distractions,  I managed to increase my long run mileage up into the double digit range.  As the mileage increased, I found that I kept a constant pain or soreness in my left Achilles. It required a great deal of stretching and massage therapy to keep me on track for the Talladega Half.  I’m also quite a bit slower on the long distances. I am unsure if it is still a matter of acclimation to the shoes or if this is as good as it’s going to get for me.

 If I could meet with him, I’d like to ask McDougal  how long acclimation is supposed to take.  My calves are no longer cramping up, I can cover the distances, but after every long run, I’m still left with the same, achy soreness.  I can stretch and it eases up somewhat, but any time I sit still for any length of time, the soreness returns. I know “they say” that the Vibrams will convert me to being a toe or mid-foot runner but it still hasn’t happened.
Additionally, I have serious reservations about whether or not many runners would be willing to sacrifice the mileage from their regular training schedules and scale back to the extent that I have, merely to experiment with a new shoe.

While, philosophically, I agree with living more in accordance with our Paleolithic origins, I just don’t know that everyone’s anatomy is designed to run the exact same way.  The wear pattern on the bottom of my Vibrams still indicates I’m using my heels quite a bit.  

  There is one caveat regarding this experiment. Over 35 years ago I had a serious injury to this same left ankle.  It was badly broken in a skateboarding accident, and it required surgery to repair.  Then, several years later, I had a nasty sprain while waterskiing.  I had thought I’d recovered reasonably well from those injuries, and I’d never experienced ankle or Achilles issues from running before.  If the previous injuries constitute a part of my adjustment issues,  I’m not so sure that I’m grateful to the Vibrams for eliciting these particular muscle memories.  

I think I should also mention here that in the 5 months that I’ve owned the shoes, I have not yet washed them.  Not unusual perhaps, for a pair of running shoes, but for sock-like shoes??? They are fairly filthy at this point and yet, I’m afraid to wash them because it seems as though they’d fall apart.  Within the first month of wearing them, all the ornamental stripes and accents either came loose or fell off and the material inside the toe compartments  began to fray.  The inside sole has gotten worn and rough and sometimes it’s hard to tell if I have a rock in my shoe, or if it’s merely one of the jagged edges that is now a permanent part of the bottom of my shoe.

My experience with the Vibrams has led me to believe that, while Born to Run is a wonderful book and motivating story, I am not fully convinced that it qualifies as the ultimate, running “gospel.”  McDougal also made a few hopeful leaps; a bit of theorizing that didn’t exactly fit with some the science he was attempting to explain, but I will let that slide, if only because he at least got us all thinking about the subject.  I also refuse to become a convert to the belief that Vibrams are THE definitive running shoe for all people, in all situations, at all times.  They aren’t.   Since I’d like to remain true to the original product testing spirit that gave rise to this series of articles, here are the pros and cons as I see them:
1.     Great for sprinting, track events and short road race distances-- (in dry weather only!)-- I will probably continue to wear them for 5k’s, maybe 10k’s depending on the terrain.  For the future, I will consider them a training tool and perhaps use them for speed work while training for half and full marathons. However, I will probably not be wearing them on any trail or long distance runs.

2.     Great for any sport that requires agility and lateral stability-- I will definitely continue to wear them for plyometrics and agility training.  When it comes to box jumps and ladder drills, the extra control imparted from the flexibility of the shoe and individual toe compartments is very reassuring.

While I have not personally tried indoor or outdoor court sports such as tennis and racquetball, I suspect that the Vibrams would be good for those types of activities as well.   

1.     Need to avoid any situation with water--Puddles, mud and river crossings are not your friends with Vibrams unless you like pruned toes.  Many paddlers will also find them unsuitable for use on the water for the same reasons.

2.     Trail running--I’m sure Vibram makes a trail specific shoe, but as for me and my feet, I want more protection than any “toe shoe” can offer.

3.     They may not be suitable for all foot types--This includes people with Morton’s foot, ( a common anatomical variant where the second metatarsal is elongated and creates a situation where the second toe is significantly longer than the first toe) or people with range of motion issues dues to scar tissue or previous injuries.

4.     Not for triathlons…I’ve seen other folks wearing them at tri’s, so maybe I’m just a klutz, but it still takes me a while to get my feet in them.  I’m much better these days, after 5 months of practice, but I would end up cursing and fumbling around the transition area if I was in a hurry to get them on.

As with any philosophy, there will be varying degrees of orthodoxy.  I’ll buy into the theory that a low, or zero-drop, shoe is more natural for our feet.  I will concur with the concept than the constant flexion of our Achilles tendon, caused by shoes angled like jacked up muscle cars, be they running shoes or women’s high heels, is not healthy.    I’m not, however, sold on the idea that a little padding on our soles, or protection for our toes, is such a bad thing. And as far as being more “in touch with our Paleolithic origins,” I have yet to see any cave paintings depicting the virtues of compartmentalized shoes.

Addendum: Written after 9/16/12-Race Day!

My Talladega Half Marathon results were nothing to complain about.  In fact, my time was 1:49:32   Good enough for first place in the 45-49 age group!!!  I also got to give Bill Rogers a hug and had him sign my race result printout, thus making it “official”.
I was ecstatic about the race results but I attribute my recent improvement not so much to the Vibrams, but to my strength and agility workouts. In fact, I think I did well in spite of the Vibrams rather than because of them.  On the course, there was one stretch of a gravel road that I had to pick my way through carefully.  The small gravel was not an issue, but there were fist sized chunks that I knew I did not want to step on.  My ankles and Achilles were sore afterwards, as they typically were, during my long training runs.  Additionally, while this never happened in training, I not only “blistered up the track” with my new found, blazing speed, but I “blistered up on the track”.  Maybe it was because I raced faster than I trained, but I had to gut out the last 2 miles with some nasty blisters that formed in odd spots.  The undersides of both big toes, at the first joint.  In other words, the soft spot, in the bend of the toe, that would never normally even contact a shoe, was rubbed raw, in the Vibrams.  All the more reason for me to reiterate the fact that I will no longer be attempting any long distances in them.   

It’s been a great run and an interesting experiment for me.  I’ve learned a great deal about the shoes, but mostly about myself.  Thank you for following along with me on the journey.

Along the way I was frequently asked if I would recommend the Vibrams to others.

 My answer :
If you are enduring pain that no one can figure out how to fix, and are willing to cut back on your training, give them a try.  They may be exactly what you need.  For some people, they are a perfect fit.  We are all designed just a little bit differently, and life has taken different tolls on each of us, in different ways.

 If you aren’t in pain and you are merely seeking to improve your running performance, I would  suggest you cut down on your running and vary your workouts to include strength, agility and plyometric training.  It’s worked wonders for me; your mileage may vary.

What I do recommend for everyone is to do as Bill Rogers once suggested:

“This sport is the sport to see what you are made of, so use those expert’s advice, but be free to be your own champion runner, picking and choosing advice you enjoy and that works best for you”.

1 comment:

Kathy Stein said...

Stacey, 5-month-old shoes!? Don't let Greg hear you say that. You run a lot and he would be the first to tell you that you might need to retire those shoes. Stuff in shoes breaks down over miles and time. Again, congrats on the 1st place win in your age category. You won because you're a beast!