Running in Vibrams: A Beginner’s Perspective

Every time I go out on a run, at least half a dozen people ask me about my shoes. So I figured I’d tell you about my shoes.

VibramBikila

(Photo from www.vibramfivefingers.com)

[DISCLAIMER: I have no idea what I’m talking about. I am a novice, amateur runner. I have never had a coach. Everything I know is from reading books and watching YouTube videos. This post should in no way serve as authoritative on anything. You have been disclaimed.]

When I was recovering from the birth of my third baby (a cute little 9-pound 2-ounce button), I read the book Born to Run. My husband had just finished it and was all geeked up about running again, so I read it and I got all geeked up about running again. I had run off and on, particularly in college, but I never got very good at it because I always had injuries, particularly knee and heel problems and wicked shin splints. Born to Run convinced me that the problems I had with running could, perhaps, be avoided if I altered my footwear and my form. I was convinced that barefoot running won the debate.

Enter Minimalist Running

I’ll spare you the details, but it took many months before I was sufficiently recovered from delivering my 9 pound 2 ounce bouncing baby in order to pick up running again. And since this one happened to be my third  in about five years, I was… pretty out of shape. Ok, I was a blob. Thanks to the glories of nursing I had dropped most of the baby weight, but not being overweight did not equal health on any level. I was just plain out of shape.

If you read anything anywhere about Vibrams (or switching to minimalist footwear in general), you will always see one common caution: transition slowly. But I figured since I would be starting slowly, it would be fine to just start out in Vibrams – no transition necessary.

Enter More Injuries

I think this would have worked if I had been smart about it, but I got impatient and didn’t do enough research or planning. A couple days after starting out slowly in my Vibrams (I was running in Classics at the time), I thought it might give my feet a little break to run in the grass instead of on pavement, and I pretty much immediately turned my ankle. (If I had done my research, I would have known that the last thing my weak beginner ankles could take was navigating an uneven, bumpy, hole-ridden surface like grass.)

Six weeks off.

So I started up slowly again, six weeks later. A couple of weeks after starting out slowly, I was feeling pretty good and decided to push my speed a little, which wrecked my form because I was basically the opposite of strong, and I pulled/strained something in the top of my foot. (If I had been smart, I would have been more patient, focusing on the “light” and “easy” aspect of my form, not my speed).

Six weeks off.

So I started up slowly again, felt great, stayed slow, controlled my miles, focused a LOT on my form, built up my miles a little, and out of nowhere for no particular reason in the middle of a fabulous five-mile run, pulled a muscle in my inner thigh. Immediately limped home. (This one might not have actually been my fault, but it’s hard to tell. Sometimes stuff just happens).

Eight weeks off.

Getting It Right

I was ready to give up on running all together at that point, but then a friend of mine had the audacity to tell me she was starting training for a half marathon. This might have been enough to goad my admittedly over-competitive self back into running all on its own, but my friend at the time had birthed a child only three months before. I had to support her in this superwoman feat.

Near the end of my previous good streak, before my thigh muscle mutinied, I was starting to feel some tightness and hot spots on the top of my foot right where the end of my Classics was sitting. I thought it was caused by the pressure of that edge seem pushing into my foot as I lifted it off the ground, so I switched to the new Bikilas for this bout of running. (Side note: The Bikilas are definitely more comfortable than the Classics for running, but I haven’t tried the KSOs, so if you run in KSOs and are trying to decide if it is worth upgrading to the Bikilas, I don’t have a great answer for you. My husband runs in KSOs, and I have to say that if I had started in KSOs instead of classics, I probably would not have switched to the Bikilas. Thus ends the side note.)

S L O W

I started slow. Real slow. My first run was 1.3 miles and it took at least 15 minutes. But as long as I focused on my form and not my speed, I was able to build up my time and miles at a pretty good pace. I didn’t track my distance for the first four weeks or so, because I was doing almost all walking in my Vibrams, with a little jogging thrown in here and there. But this is how it went when I started doing all running:

Week 1: 2.8 miles
Week 4: 15 miles
Week 8: 24 miles

I plan to be averaging 30 to 35 miles a week leading up to the half marathon at the end of October.

Form Is Key

I have since watched a slew of videos on barefoot form and incorporated some drills into my warmups in order to correctly set up my form before I head out. I also pay attention to my energy level, because I find that when I’m fatigued, my form is the first thing to go. And when good form goes, injuries follow. I certainly believe you have to push yourself a little bit in order to improve, but you have to be smart about it.

Also, not only can good form reduce the risk of injury, I think it can actually make running easier. In my opinion, running is hard (I don’t think I’m what you’d call a “natural”). However, the way you run can make running harder or a little less hard. If good form is helping you to use your energy more efficiently, then you’ll go farther or faster with the same effort. I’ll take the “less hard” route, please.

Get Strong

Another thing I’m doing this time that I didn’t with the previous injury-laden attempts is focusing on strength. One of the ideas behind minimalist running is that the shoes we wear, particularly “running” shoes, are robbing our feet and ankles of their ability to support us because they provide so much artificial support that our natural support system gets lazy and out of shape. So when you switch to barefoot or minimalist running, your feet, toes, and ankles are weak, and therefore prone to injury if you take away their artificial support structure cold turkey and don’t do them the favor of strengthening them. So I’ve been doing a lot of barefoot exercises in addition to running and I think it has really helped – even something as simple as standing on one foot while standing in line can start to strengthen your ankles!

Don’t Be A Barefoot Snob

If you’re transitioning from “normal” athletic shoes to minimalist shoes, I think it is important to accept that your athletic shoes (even if you think them traitors) are going to have to stick around for a while. Slowly phase in the minimalist shoes, alternating with your old shoes, focus on form, strengthen your feet and ankles, and slowly phase out the old shoes. Even after you have intellectually decided that your old athletic shoes are a crutch, you’re going to have to rely on them as you strengthen your feet, and eventually you will have the satisfaction of chucking them a river (or recycle them – whatever).

And that’s my journey thus far as a beginner minimalist runner. Although I had injuries in my Vibrams, they were mostly preventable, and if you’ll learn from the results of my impatience, I think you can transition to minimalist running injury-free. It took more than a year all told, but I now run 100% of my miles in my Vibrams and I have not had any “stress” or “overuse” injuries in my knees, heels or shins like I used to get with any amount of running. My distance run today was 8.5 miles and I felt great. The most amazing part to me is that I actually ran 8.5 miles and it didn’t kill me! This is the first time in my life that I have been able to run regularly without injury, and therefore the first time in my life that I have actually improved at running. It’s quite remarkable, and I believe I have minimalist running – and the change of running form and stride that accompanies it – to thank for it.

If you’re interested but not convinced, here is a pretty decent article on the “hype” surrounding minimalist running: Much Ado About Minimalism

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s