Last week I decided it was time for a new pair of kicks. My GelExcel33's were well past their prime with 550+ miles on them - I was through the soles and actually wearing into that white stuff in areas - yeah, not so great to run in when you're in the throws of marathon training. I'd been tossing around the idea of going minimal. If you're not familiar with the term, minimalist running is supposed to mimic running barefoot; minimalist shoes contain no arch support, no cushioning, and no large chunk of material under the heel. This, supposedly, promotes a good mid-foot strike instead of a heel-to-toe rolling landing/push-off; also, apparently all of the muscles in your feet and calves will become balanced as they will now all need to work in synch to keep you moving. So it sounds pretty good, right? Run better, stronger, and with less injury.
I walked into a new local running store excited to try out some minimalist shoes. The gentleman working that afternoon, who turned out to be the owner, asked me what I was looking for, and when I said I wanted to try something more minimal that what I was currently wearing, he asked me why. Having not expected this question (and therefore not prepared a carefully crafted response) and feeling a bit defensive, I offered, "Well, I just read Born to Run." This was apparently not the answer he was hoping for, a look of complete annoyance crossed his face. Great...this shopping experience was off to a fantastic start.
I was surprised, really, at this comment from the owner. My impression of Born to Run, written by Christopher McDougall, was that it was incredibly interesting and inspiring; a very well written account of the author's personal experiences with tons of factual information blended in.
The book describes a tribe living in the canyons of Mexico, separately almost completely from modern civilization. This tribe, the Tarahumara Indians, run. All the time. At all ages. For crazy long distances. Without shoes. This last bit is the key to their beautiful, injury-free running form - no shoes.There are accounts of the Tarahumara coming to the US to compete in famous ultra-marathons, sponsored by shoe companies. They would start the race in their flashy new shoes, and after several miles, remove them and finish barefoot!
While McDougall describes his experience traveling to Mexico with several US elite runners for a race with the Tarahumara, he also looks into the history of the running shoe, how and why it evolved as it did, and goes further, into the history of human beings, and how we may have evolved the way we did just so that we could be distance running machines.
Born to Run is fascinating. It's a must-read for every runner, offering a prospective on the sport that will get you thinking about your running style and keep you motivated for a long time.
So back to my shoe-buying...
Willing to oblige me, the owner brought out several pairs of shoes, each with a varying degree of minimalism, and our discussion started as he helped me into the first pair:
Point: "There are more running-related injuries today than 30 years ago."
Counter-point: "There are more runners today, the percentage of injuries is the same." I had to concede here because I couldn't remember the actual statistics - darn, I'm usually really good with numbers.
Point: "Wearing a shoe with tons of support stunts the development of muscles in your feet and legs and causes imbalance."
Counter-point: "People cannot move from a highly stabilized shoe to one without any stabilization - this will lead to injury."
And so it went on for a while and, I have to admit, I was completely impressed with the owner's knowledge, not only on subject of minimalism, but also on each shoe that he had in his shop. In the end, we agreed that minimalist running is all about progression. Moving from a highly stabilized shoe to a minimalist shoe may take years, with many intermediate steps down in stabilization. Minimalist running is about understanding your body, knowing when you are strong enough to make the next step without risk of injury. For me, I started with a pretty chunky shoe in August 2010. By Spring 2011 I wanted something lighter, and then I got rid of my arch suppport in Winter 2011.
In talking with the owner, I hadn't realized that I was running in basically the lightest version of Asics out there. I tried a very minimal Inov-8 shoe, but decided instead on the adidas Boston 3's. Making a drastic change to complete minimalism in the middle of marathon training, maybe not such a good idea; changing from cushiony Asics to the adidas with more feel is good enough for now!