Chris McDougall has been pushing for wider understanding and adoption of minimalist running since the publication of his Born to Run book in 2010. Minimalist and barefoot running in spite of regular dismissal as joke or fad in much of the traditional running and fitness media, has gained popularity and more recognition of late, with many mainstream shoe manufacturers trying to cash in on the boom (although some seem to be doing it better than others, and with different agendas).
I admit to being someone regularly on the look out for alternative options for anything and everything, rather than just accepting the status quo I tend to gravitate towards the novel and quirky methods or products available, try them out and ardently stick with what works, particularly when it goes against the established perception that you have to regularly pay out a small fortune for equipment/software/transport/entertainment - I'm reluctant to pay over the odds for anything.
Much of what McDougall writes and says strikes a chord, follows the principles of gradual but continual progression, and adopts the KISS principle. However, no matter how simple you can make the basics of running, I have come to realise there is some quite considerably grander plan in operation that constantly points back at our evolution and how amazing our bodies are at doing the right thing given half a chance, yet crucially we don't often give our bodies a fighting chance...
My recent training for the Liverpool Marathon in October 2011 eventually resulted in plantar fasciitis and meant running the actual race (somewhat gingerly) after barely any training in the 3 week preceding the event. As this was the first time I've experienced the "vampire bite" I wasn't able to read the early warning signs and carried on with an over-zealous schedule hoping to satisfy my ego and the need to post a good time (I still managed 3:25 which I consider not too shabby for a first marathon). Post marathon recovery was slow - barely running for 2 months, only the odd 4-6km run once a week if I was lucky - and quite the opposite of running most days during the summer as I did during my Garmin-led schedule from Runners World (pretty good schedule actually - I can recommend it, but don't do too many days if you haven't build up the base milage before). I was left depleted and disheartened.
I remembered reading somewhere about Dr Robert Schleip curing his own plantar fasciitis by taking to barefoot running in the parks of Berlin, and reading the same message again in Chris McDougall's article on plantar fasciitis I thought it worthy of further research. I came across this interview with Dr Schleip which points at manipulation of the fascia being beneficial and could aid restoration of its elasticity and condition, just what I was looking for. Further reading - in particular the discovery of the extensive notes at http://heelspurs.com/_intro.html - really helped to coalesce the multitude of thoughts, discussions and potential remedies into a course of action appropriate to my situation.
I took the plunge and bought a pair of Vivobarefoot Neo's - I'm not prepared to go completely barefoot at any time of the year, and especially not during our UK winter (it's actually been quite mild so far compared to the last two years). Between running in these minimalist shoes, and trying to run over rough, but not hard ground whenever possible - trails and gravel tracks rather than concrete or tarmac, something started to work. It almost felt like I'd been given a foot massage by the time I took my shoes off after every run.
Things progressed, ...I removed the insoles, ...then did away with socks. I began to appreciate what proponents of minimalist and barefoot running where saying - my feet simply began to wake up and feel the ground, whereas previously (even in low slung racing flats) I just couldn't appreciate how my balance and control over the positioning and impact of my feet on the ground was being hampered by the lack of feel afforded by cushioned soles and socks.
As the weeks go by I'm beginning to wonder if I could ever return to the spongy soles of the Brooks Green Silence and Asics Gel Tarther that I had run in before. It's a dually a pleasing and worrying situation, I know that I've gained so much more of an awareness and understanding of my feet and can see how much further there is to progress - the potential is there, yet I'm worried that going out and running longer distances will have to wait until my feet grow strong enough again.
What traditional running shoes did for me was to hide the pain and let me run further and faster than I should have been able to in a short space of time, yet the shoes and my own ego slowly managed to break me in the process (plantar fasciitis and calf strains). I believe this is the same with many runners, we want instant improvement, something to show for the miles we put in, and want bragging rights with our running friends.
Then just the other day I found this:
How Massage Heals Sore Muscles - NYTimes.com
Putting this together with Dr Schleip's research, Chris McDougall's blog, books and presentations and my own experience in the Vivobarefoot shoes, it all starts to add up. By letting my feet feel the bumps and lumps while still stretching out the muscles and fascia in my feet as I run, as long as I tread lightly and only run every other day, I do believe I'm repairing my feet by running! Wow!
Taking the cushioned shoes off and stripping it all back to basics will hopefully let me feel where I'm going wrong, not do too much too soon and to enjoy the process of learning to run properly. This is an investment in time I'm willing to make for future pain free running and minimal time in the sick bay. A short term step back to enable a long term solution - this time I'm going to give my body it's chance to do what it needs to, a chance to tell me what I'm doing wrong so I can heed the call and learn from it.
Let's see how it all works out...
My thanks go out to Chris McDougall, Dr Robert Schleip, Dr Mark Cuccuzella, Dr Daniel Lieberman, and many others who have shown the way. Thanks for sharing.