Joe Maller.com

Simple, Simpler

This is the Simple Gumshoe from Simple Shoes. It’s a pretty good shoe, very minimal, highly flexible, thin, flat and cheap. The only problem is that it’s full of padding. So I gutted them.

This was a substantial improvement. It took maybe 15 minutes total, using a matte knife and pliers. There is a strange molded ridge under the toes, but it can be carefully removed with a razor blade in a few minutes.


From Asics Kayanos to Nike Frees to Vibram FiveFingers and beyond

Shortly after I started running regularly back in 2007 I was “diagnosed” as suffering from serious over-pronation. My visit to the sports medicine doctor had been prompted by significant, painful plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee, IT band pain and an occasional soreness in my hip–all classic running maladies. I had also long suffered from painful foot cramps in which my arch would tighten and my big toe would splay awkwardly and painfully inwards. The doctor sent me to a running store for motion-control shoes and to a physical therapist. I was instructed to stretch more, take several days off between runs and ice my knees afterwards. (I never bothered with the recommended orthotics or night boots)

For the next couple years, I believed this to be normal. But having since switched to a more natural stride, forefoot landings and minimal footwear, every single one of those problems is gone.

Summer of 2009, I bought a pair of Nike Free 5.0s (precursor to the Nike Free Run+) to wear as everyday shoes, having fully swallowed Nike’s marketing video:

Stronger feet? That couldn’t hurt.

At first I was indifferent. While I liked how they looked and felt, I wasn’t sure the Nike Frees were anything more than expensive Crocs. But after a few weeks, I noticed my feet were cramping less and rarely hurt in the mornings.

Still, I never tried running in them. I was too invested in my diagnosis and convinced my foot and knee pain would be even worse without my doctor-prescribed, running-store-recommended, $130 motion-control running shoes. I mean, the store analyzed video of me on a treadmill, was that all BS?

Yes.

After reading Born to Run in Spring of 2010, I finally felt brave enough to try a short run in the Nikes. “Short” turned into a very pleasant 10k. The next day the tops of my feet and the muscles running up the outside of my shins were sore. (Turned out those are a single muscle group, the Extensor digitorum longus.) But sore isn’t pain, and my knees didn’t hurt. A few days later I went out again in my Asics–for what would be the last time.

My original plan had been to alternate between shoes, but that last 8 mile Asics run left my knees hurting for days. I also noticed I was hearing my footfalls through my earbuds. My landings in the Frees were much gentler and nearly silent.

One more run in the Frees and I knew I was done with the Kayanos. The next night I ran 15 miles, my longest run up to that point (by half), and felt absolutely fantastic afterwards–and only mildly sore the next day. All my previous attempts at running anywhere close to 10 miles had ended with IT band tightness, limping and days of residual knee pain.

Something was working, and it was not all in my head.

It’s gotta be the shoes!

No Mars.

In Barefoot Ted’s Google Talk (at about 35:15), he spoke about the idea of products as solutions:

“I realized there was no way in hell that this barefoot running was ever going to become a fad or a hit in the United States unless there was a product… We are so trained, we purchase a solution. We’ve got to have a purchasable solution.”

He’s right, we’re conditioned to believe in the power of products. While I do blame my old motion-control clunkers for inhibiting my form and contributing to knee pain, my success with the Nike Frees was because the shoes got out of my way and let me run more naturally. They helped by not helping.

The Nike Free is a revolutionary product, and a gateway shoe to no shoes at all. After a few months and several hundred miles run in Nike Free 5.0s, including my first ever half-marathon, I stepped down to the flatter, more minimal Nike Free 3.0 and started to mix in some near-barefoot runs in Vibram FiveFingers.

Learning to run near-barefoot was a slow process of rebuilding long-forgotten muscles. For fully 6 months, my calves would be rigid knots for days after a few miles in the FiveFingers. Having spent most of my life in shoes, the muscles and tendons in my feet and lower legs needed quite a bit of time to stretch out and build back up.

While in the middle of this transition, it’s comforting to remember that muscle soreness gets replaced by strength. My aching calves were a promise that someday soon my legs would be even stronger. The encouragement of finding an entire unused muscle group was incentive to keep at it.

With the Nike Free, I became aware of how important shoe flexibility is to foot health. Whenever people asked me about them I’d take one off and curl it up to show how flexible it was. (I did realize how silly this looked) But running in VFFs showed me that a totally-flat, zero-drop heel is every bit as important as sole flexibility, maybe even more so. I’ve since become obsessed with wearing the flattest, most flexible footwear I can find.

Going all the way: Running barefoot

Towards the end of Summer in 2010 I finally took the last step and lost the shoes completely.

It’s difficult to explain how wonderful running barefoot felt, like trying to describe a completely new color or flavor. The quantity of sensory feedback is astonishing and the permanent silly grin can’t be helped. There really is a profound, near-spiritual experience of both human freedom and connection to the Earth.

The promise of extra leg strength proved out. Once my legs adjusted I found myself running further and slightly faster without significant fatigue. My form also improved, the VFFs were masking a lot of skidding and over-reliance on my toes which was immediately apparently–and corrected–barefoot. Despite one significant shoe-related setback (I did too much), I’ve been amazed at how durable and adaptable our feet are. Only two barefoot runs had to be cut short, both of those were because previous, shoe-caused blisters failed and needed covering.

I used to think all that needed to run was a decent pair of shoes. But all I really ever needed was to go outside and just start running.


A brief history of barefoot running research

The indictment of contemporary running shoes in Born to Run is contributing to a radical transformation of the running world and athletic shoe industry. Chris McDougall’s book deserves credit for bringing barefoot running out of the shadows and into the mainstream, but challenging the conventional wisdom about athletic shoes is not a new idea.

While never explicitly arguing against shoes, Dr. Daniel Lieberman’s 2010 paper, “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners” has been frequently cited as evidence that our shoes are hurting us. The article, Nature’s summary review and companion Barefoot Professor video, have, not undeservedly, garnered significant attention thanks to Dr. Lieberman’s role in Born to Run.

The Foot Strike paper focuses primarily on impact force generated by different foot-strikes, and also measures the incidence of various landings in several small sample running populations. These strike-plate graphs showing barefoot vs. heel-strike landings from the Barefoot Professor video clearly show the different impact forces and were very helpful in adjusting my own form:

Dr. Lieberman’s team at the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab have also put together a companion Barefoot Running website which presents numerous videos and additional research describing the biomechanics of foot strike.

Back in 2001, physiotherapist Michael Warburton published a research paper titled Barefoot Running. His introductory paragraph lays out the entire case against shoes:

Well-known international athletes have successfully competed barefoot, most notably Zola Budd-Pieterse from South Africa and the late Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia. Running in bare feet in long distance events is evidently not a barrier to performance at the highest levels. Indeed, in this review I will show that wearing running shoes probably reduces performance and increases the risk of injury.

Warburton’s paper cited Robbins and Gouw’s 1991 study, “Athletic Footwear: Unsafe Due to Perceptual Illusions” published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. This frequently referenced study appears to be among the first to clinically link the hyper-sensitive densely-packed nerve-endings in our feet with our body’s ability to properly accommodate impact stresses. The abstract goes so far as to close with this:

“…it might be more appropriate to classify athletic footwear as ‘safety hazards’ rather than ‘protective devices'”

Dr. Benno Nigg, professor of biomechanics and founder of the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab has been researching and publishing papers about kinetics of the lower leg for 40 years. (The man is a science-publishing machine.) Dr. Nigg published a number of papers starting in 2000 which examine plantar sensory input, impact forces and kinematics related to running barefoot and in shoes. Unfortunately, the papers I most wanted to read were only freely available as abstracts.

Dr. Nigg’s work on muscle tuning has proposed a connection between the reaction of nerves in our feet and muscle pre-activation, to reduce impact force and “soft-tissue vibration” while traversing various surfaces. This 2008 Science of Sport article discusses the detrimental biomechanical effect of motion control shoes and orthotics based on Dr. Nigg’s theories.

On his Science of Running site, Steve Magness recently summarized Dr. Nigg’s muscle tuning theory as relates to running:

An example of [muscle tuning] can be seen with barefoot running, the diminished proprioception (sensory feedback) of wearing a shoe negates the cushioning of the shoe. Studies using minimal shoes/barefoot have shown that the body seems to adapt the impact forces/landing based on feedback and feedforward data. When running or landing from a jump, the body takes in all the sensory info, plus prior experiences, and adjusts to protect itself/land optimally.

Years prior to Dr. Lieberman’s research, Dr. Nigg’s studies or Warburton’s paper, in the mid-1980s at the latest, Olympic runner Gordon Pirie’s book “Running Fast and Injury Free” unflinchingly blamed “overstuffed, wedge-heeled” running shoes for the high rate of running injuries.

Pirie described cushioned running shoes as “orthopedic running boots.”

“The human foot is the result of millions of years of evolution.” to again quote Mr. Pirie. One quarter of the bones in our bodies are in our feet, that level of complexity doesn’t happen without a reason. Running shoes as we’ve come to know them have only existed for a few decades. The big athletic shoe companies have finally, if not caught on, then recognized there’s a lot of money to be made with minimalist shoes. Either way, our feet win.