There wasn’t a sharp crack, one that we often associate with smashing a wrist or breaking a leg. In fact, I was amazed at just how unnoticeable my first stress fracture was. I had woken up early that morning to enjoy a brisk jog along the beach at Santa Monica; it was your typical scene out of a cheesy Hollywood surfing movie with the shining sun, sounds of kids playing, men and women riding bikes, rollerblading, running in the shadow of the Pacific. Unlike those people, I thought of myself as an “elitist runner”, someone who knew better than the masses what was right for my feet, and just how best to push them to take me to seven marathons on seven continents. Apparently, even the high and mighty can fall.
Nothing too obvious at first, just a slight pain a little above the arch of my left foot. I mean, I was running on sand! Who thinks of getting a stress fracture on the beach?? When the pain kept building, and it soon became obvious it was almost unbearable to walk, I knew something had gone terrible wrong with my plan to break a 2:30 marathon.
Why did this happen? I wasn’t an ignorant runner, having started cross country races in 7th grade, finishing two marathons – Austin and Boston – in good time, and knowing full well the 10% weekly mileage rule. After reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, I thought I had stumbled upon a more natural form that better suited me, and so I began training (SLOWLY) in Vibram FiveFingers. The implications of the book seemed to hold true:
- Your feet need a good pounding.
- Running barefoot means shorter strides, and burning more fat than carbs.
- Natural motion, hitting the front of the foot first as opposed to the heel, makes for better performance over longer distances.
I started out on grassy fields, soft trails – any natural surface I could find, and only doing a few miles a week. I had not gotten my hands on any barefoot running book yet, so I had to create my own training plan. When the time came for me to move abroad, I continued my training in the New Zealand countryside, finding a nice 8-mile loop in the hills south of Auckland. Eventually, I just assumed my legs were ready for the added pressure, and started going full time on concrete and asphalt. It wasn’t particularly painful… just a change from my usual running style, one I thought I had adapted to over six months.
Yes, six months. Six months from the moment of beginning training “barefoot” on unnatural surfaces to not being able to walk down the street. Maybe I wasn’t using the proper form. Maybe I should have started a 5% rule for those beginning barefoot running. Maybe I just had bad genetics. In any case, something about the experience prompted an investigation. Not running for the rest of my life certainly wasn’t an option. Once it gets in your blood, no other form of exercise will quite satisfy that need.
So the search was on: now that training barefoot full time was out, which footwear to use? New Balance had just released their 100 ultralights, but the design still seemed to prompt a heel strike. Then I saw a notice outside one of my favorite running stores promoting a seminar on the physics of running and Newton shoes. Now that I was certain fate was stepping in, I set out and heard the following from the people at Newton:
- Vibram Fivefingers do indeed give you natural motion without making an effort to correct your form; however, they aren’t meant to be used on manmade surfaces.
- Newton shoes simulate natural motion if you keep your strides short; although your shoe will appear to strike almost flat on the ground, inside, your heel is coming down last.
So which is it: barefoot, FiveFingers, Newtons, some other brands…?
My personal experience has taught me to play it safe when it comes to taking care of your feet. Although some of the most seasoned ultramarathon runners succumb to stress fractures on occasion, there are those doing comparable mileage who have never known that pain.
Thus, I believe that the shoe chooses the runner, and not the other way around. The second factor is nurturing that motion from almost the moment one is able to run; clearly the Tarahumara from McDougall’s book, who have been training barefoot and in huaraches their whole lives, are less likely to develop stress fractures. Most of us have softened up our soles and joints with constant shoe wear, and tend to pronate incorrectly when we do actually run. I’m not saying there aren’t runners out there who can slip on a pair of FiveFingers and jump into their usual mileage without ill effects, but for my own part, I will be sticking with the Newtons in the city, and saving my bare feet for beach and trail runs.
What do you think about minimalist running shoes? Do you wear them or do you prefer to go completely barefoot?