There’s a militant movement that’s slowly taking over the world of running. Its committed acolytes, nearly all of whom radiate an aura of electrified righteous anger, are calling on runners to shed their high-tech thick-soled shoes and return to the purer embrace of barely-there foot gloves. The most puritanical of them even call for the complete abandonment of any artificial protection and go full monty on the feet.
I have to admit, I am somewhat of a convert. But first let’s talk about how I came to embrace this new sect in the religion of running.
I’ve always enjoyed running. The week just doesn’t feel complete without running twice or thrice around the UP campus and racking up at least 10 kilometers on each run.
Running, (like biking and climbing) is a sort of meditation for me. It allows me to dial-in a kind of focus on the task at hand and remove everything else from my mind. Once I get into the rhythmn, petty concerns fade into the back of consciousness, and then return with a clarity and order that makes them easier to ponder. But if you’re not into that quasi-Zen hoo-ha, let me just say that running makes you healthier. Trust the experts on this.
Despite its health and other benefits though, I have to admit that running can get pretty boring at times.
One way to motivate yourself to keep running is by setting a distance and time goal that you’ve never reached before. This was the reason why I joined the 21k Natgeo fun run last April 2012. 10k was nothing for me, but 21k? Seemed like a worthy challenge.
My goal was to finish the Natgeo 21k under two and a half hours. But after bagging that goal, there was little left to push me to go on.
My left knee also kept giving me trouble. The patella kept wobbling after each run, and causing an annoying pain that sometimes made me limp on the way back home.
Running a 35k seemed unlikely with this nagging pain like an arrow to the knee. A full marathon of 42k seemed even more unreachable.
It was time to try something new, which was why I got drawn to… barefoot or minimalist running. Barefoot running, as the term explies, is running with no shoes on. It’s just your feet and the ground. This sounded a bit too extreme for me.
Minimalist running meanwhile means ditching the familiar sneakers for a new class of running footwear that throws out those high tech air sole, gel, superultramega soft foam heel cushioning. Instead of making these high tech materials do the job of shock absorption and pronation correction for you, minimalist running makes you use the shock absorbers that nature evolved you with–your feet and legs.
There’s a lot of literature out on how going barefoot can minimize injuries such as joint pain and patellar pain, while at the same time boosting your speed. I was curious to find out for myself if these claims were true, or if minimalist running was simply the newest shawarma fad.
But I had high hopes. After all, I ran barefoot when I was kid growing up in a provincial town. Me and the other kids would play habulan, patintero, and agawan base on bare feet. Sure, we had slippers then (those rubber things that are now fashionably called flip flops) but we would remove them when we played running games to protect these precious slippers from getting snapped while running. Those were the days. (Insert nostalgic music here with grainy black and white videos.)
Vibram Fivefingers or VFF was one of the shoes I was thinking of trying out. However, wearing what are essentially gloves for the feet, just seemed a bit too extreme for me. They looked goofy. Since I was just about to sample this new style of running, I didn’t want to look too hardcore. I eventually settled for a more conventional Merrell Trail Glove. It was still a minimalist running shoe, but it looked sort of normal.
Running blogs warn those who want to try minimalist running to start slow and keep the mileage low, so to speak. So instead of the usual 6.6k or three rounds around the UP Oval, I only did two rounds or 4.4 kilometers on the new Merrells. I thought this was a modest goal for someone who was already a long time runner. Needless to say, this was a mistake, and the running blogs apparently advised something much, much more modest. Like 1 kilometer for instance.
An hour later, I couldn’t walk properly. My calves were cramping. My feet felt like they were run over by a steamroller. Two days later and I still couldn’t walk right.
But then again, that was also how my entire upper body felt when I first tried out wall climbing. So, no need for drama there.
And now, at least I wasn’t getting anymore knee pain. Hallejujah!
And that is how I became a true minimalist running convert. Perfecting the minimalist form of forefoot striking takes time. It takes time to unlearn years of heel-striking. It takes even more time for your foot muscles, tendons and bones to get strong enough to take on the stress of running. But in the end, it’s wll worth it.
I can’t even run in ‘normal’ running shoes anymore. Shoes with more than 4mm of heel to toe drop simply feel awkward to run in these days. I know there’s still a very big debate on whether minimalist shoes or barefoot running reduce the risk of chronic injuries, but in my case, problems with the knees have completely disappeared. I’ve completed a duathlon, a 21k trail run, a 21k uphill road run, and another 24k trail run in the minimalist running style.
My Merrell Trail Gloves have become my go-to shoes for 10-15k practice runs, and my pair of Kinvara 2s are about the only shoes you can make me wear for a road half marathon.
I’ll be gunning for my first full marathon this year, and maybe even a trail ultra. Thanks to this new “religion,” I might just make it.