Barefoot/Minimalist Running

I am a minimalist runner. I have tried not to specifically focus on that fact in this blog, but all the information is there (I did talk about it at reasonable length in one post titled “New Shoes”). I have avoided having this be a blog about “barefoot running” partly because I just want this to be about running, but also because people tend to have strong opinions on it one way or the other, and I can’t say that I really do. Perhaps it’s because I am a relatively new runner and I don’t feel I have a right to advise/persuade people who have been running for years what the “correct” way to run is, or perhaps it’s because I haven’t read “Born to Run” (which, from looking around on other commentaries on the subject, seems to be a prerequisite).

So, why talk about it now? Well, for several reasons – reading other blog posts on the subject, recent conversations with friends,  and the various articles that seem to crop up almost every day. And also because I have what I would consider as my first running injury (although apparently a minor one).

Let me be clear from the start – I do not attribute my current problem to running in minimal shoes. I do, however, attribute it to “running form”, which often gets talked about when barefoot running is the topic. Late in November I injured my big toe (I burnt it pretty badly – long story that can be found on my blog if you’re intrigued enough to find it). Anyway, I bandaged up my toe pretty heavily and carried on running. I remember my right knee hurting after a fairly long run around that time, but I didn’t think much of it (denial anyone?). I continued to run until mid-December when one run ended with a sock covered in blood from said toe, and then I took a bit of a break from running to let it heal.

My toe still isn’t fully recovered, and even now it is still bandaged, but I did start to run again at the beginning of January. The knee issue was still present, but over the month it has appeared to improve even though I have still been running, and, in my mind, not doing anything different.

Then it hit me, something probably did change – the way I run. Looking back it seems clear that the injured toe caused me to change how I run (I know this was definitely true initially as I was trying to avoid that part of my foot touching the ground at all), and even though it has been improving there is probably still some residual effect – after all there’s still a bandage there which makes that part of my foot thicker than it would normally be.

None of this leads to a dramatic conclusion about barefoot running – who is to say whether things would have been any different if I had been wearing a different pair of shoes, but stick with me as my brain attempts to unravel my thoughts.

When I started wearing Vibram Fivefingers for running, in October 2010, I was still new to running. I had officially started running in June, following a 5k I took part in that May (I leaped right into a 5k based solely on my cycling fitness). At the time I was worried about taking up running and the chances of injury, which seemed pretty high from everything I had heard, so I did what I thought was the right thing and headed to a running store to get an analysis. The shoes I got were fine, and I was running quite happily in them, but I definitely recall being sore for a couple of days after my next 5k at the beginning of September.

It was around that time that a friend started posting information about barefoot running on Facebook. Everything I read made sense, and I decided it was worth a try.

I think I benefited from being a relatively new runner in this process. I was never running more than 3 or 4 miles on any run at the time, so it wasn’t too much of a problem to take it back to just running short distances in the new shoes. I also made the decision that I would only run in the Vibrams.

The key to the transition was the extremely slow and cautious approach. I can imagine that experienced runners with many miles under their belts would find this extremely difficult. I was running 3 times a week, and the first week I have recorded data for (early October) had a maximum distance of half a mile (I had started with much shorter runs, initially only a tenth of a mile). Three weeks later I had increased to 1.3 miles, but it seemed that I had done too much too soon and took the next week off because of a minor pain. I started all over again with my next run only being a third of a mile again. By the beginning of January 2011 I was running 2 miles fairly regularly but with some shorter runs still in there. By May I was running in a 5k race again, faster than my previous 5k races, and with no soreness at all.

I can imagine anyone running long distances regularly would find that a tough regime, so when I hear stories about injuries caused by transitions to minimal shoes, I can’t help but wonder if people are being too impatient.

I should point out that during my transition (actually pretty early in that transition as it was mid-November) I was starting to find my regular work shoes uncomfortable so invested in some Vivobarefoot shoes for work, and some casual shoes for every day use. I’m sure all of this helped as, from mid-to-late November, I was wearing no “regular” shoes at all.

Now, why would you go through all of this? Well, maybe you wouldn’t, and maybe you shouldn’t. If there is nothing wrong with how you are running now – it’s comfortable, you aren’t suffering from injuries, etc. – it wouldn’t make sense to try to make such a huge change. If you are a new runner, I would say it’s worth considering; if you are constantly injured, or have recently been injured enough to take you out of running for a while, I would certainly say go for it.

My first long trail run

I’ve not really run more than a couple of miles on a trail before – Rutgers Ecological Preserve is near home so I have ventured in a couple of times, but it’s pretty small and following the marked trails soon dump you out on a nearby road.

Today I took the day off work to run. I did something similar last month (and you can read about it here). I have ended up with quite a few days to take off this year after I carried over quite a few last year, so I’m going to take off a day every month or two just to run.

My destination of choice for today was Watchung Reservation. When I started getting ready I checked the weather to decide what to wear but I knew it was going to be cold.

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I decided to wear the tights I had bought when I was cycling – at the time I had researched to find the best clothing for cold weather and the tights from Col d’Lizard do the job. I also wore my Icebreaker long sleeve half zip, a thicker merino wool cycling jacket, Icebreaker gloves, and a balaclava. I threw some extras into the car in case I needed them.

When I got there, the weather was marginally better:

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It had been suggested I park by Seeley’s Pond in the park, and I got there and parked, but couldn’t really tell where I was supposed to go – I was looking for the white trail.

After a quick look around to see if I could spot anything, I got back in the car and drove further into the park. At the next parking area, about a mile up the road, I spotted a white marker on a tree so backup up and parked.

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I started off up the path, but wasn’t sure I had the right shoes on – something had made me think I wanted to run in a brand new pair of New Balance Minimus Road Zeros, but after a short run up and down a couple of paths I decided to go back and change into my Merrell Trail Gloves.

The first part of the trail was trickier than I expected – it didn’t help that there were patches of ice, but there were also quite a few rocky sections, and some fairly steep sections too.

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After a couple of miles the trail cut back across the road I had come in on, right near the Seeley’s Pond area. The trail seemed a bit easier after that point and I was coasting along for a while.

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After running alongside the river for a while, the trail came out in an area that included several old houses, most of which looked decrepit, but a couple looked like they were being lived in. I was going to get more photos on the way back, but my phone shut itself down for some reason right at that point. There was also some sort of historic cemetery (some information about it here if you’re interested).

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Back to the running… it didn’t really occur to me until I was running that planning to run further than I have ever run before was probably best not done on a trail. Trail running can be tough going, particularly if it’s a bit hilly. I was doing pretty well though, and only stumbled for the first time at about 7 miles.

I got to the Trailside Nature and Science Center after just over 9 miles, and decided to head back the way I had come. At this point it was almost tempting to try to find my way back to the car, partly to pick up a jacket to protect against the wind, as I was starting to feel a slight chill, but I thought if I did that I would end up cutting the run short. I knew it was going to be tough going, but I also knew that if I struggled I could cut slightly shorter by running up the road to the car when I got back to the Seeley’s Pond area (although I suspected, and was correct, that it would only cut off about a mile).

By mile 13 I was getting tired. I stumbled a couple of times, and my thighs were feeling it, so I knew I was going to need to cut off that last section. Some parts were slippery that I didn’t remember being slippery on the way out, so there were a couple of moments where I slid a bit (right by the edge of slopes). Perhaps it was just because my legs were so tired. I could tell I was tired because a few times I missed the trail markers. Luckily the trails are very well marked, so after a short while without seeing another marker I knew I had to turn back to find the correct path.

When I got back to the road I considered doing the last section briefly but then thought better of it, and set off down the road. Or, rather, that should be “up the road” – my legs were aching and it was uphill pretty much the entire last mile up to the car.

All told I managed just over 17 miles, which is my longest ever run (my prior longest being 16 last month, and it follows a 14 mile run I did on Saturday this week). It took almost 3 hours, but it was definitely enjoyable.

Now, where should I run next month?

EDIT: I forgot to mention, that even though it didn’t seem that cold particularly, the water bottles I carried with me started to freeze. When I tried to take my first drink nothing would come out, so I had to take off the lid, and then had to deal with the chunks of ice that had already formed inside. It only got worse, but at least I was still able to get water out of them.

New Year, New Routine

Technically my new routine has nothing to do with it being a new year, but is actually related to the fact the gym I joined opened for business just before Christmas.

I’m still trying to settle into what this means for me, and may have to change again when/if they change the class schedule, and when the pool opens (hopefully by the end of the month).

Here’s what things look like right now:

Monday – short run after work (3 to 4 miles).

Tuesday – BodyAttack class in the evening plus run to gym and back (1 mile each way).

Wednesday – evening club run – anything from 5 to just over 7 miles depending how I feel.

Thursday – nothing.

Friday – possibly a short morning run if I can manage it, plus BodyPump class early evening (with run to/from gym).

Saturday – morning club run – trying to do 12 miles right now but want to increase that to 15 soon, followed by BodyFlow class at the gym (Pilates, Tai Chi, Yoga mix).

Sunday – if schedule allows BodyFlow class, and I want to try to get a bike ride in before that (or a run depending on weather).

BodyAttack is another class I hadn’t tried before last week. I had a bit of trouble getting the movements right, but after my second class this week I think I made a big improvement. I almost didn’t go back as I was feeling a bit lazy after dinner, and when I was waiting for the class to start I wondered what I was doing there, but I’m glad I made the effort as I’m sure that may have spelled the end of that class for me. Sometimes you just have to give some things more time before you really enjoy them – I’m sure there are plenty of people who think that about running. Stick with it and you’ll get there in the end (having said that, I think after a while you’ll know if it’s right for you or not and there’s no point continuing with something that is not making you happy – as long as you have given it a serious try).

On another running related note, I was lucky enough to get a free entry to the Cupid’s Chase, New Brunswick 5k through active.com so it looks like that’s my next race. Could this be a start of a “5k a month” challenge, and what would that do to my ability to get a long run in every weekend (and increase through the year to be able to run a marathon)?

2012 – running around like a crazy man

Last year I really went crazy with this running thing. As I’ve mentioned before I started running in June 2010 (right after I ran a 5k in May 2010 – I hadn’t run at all for years, but I was fairly fit from cycling). I was mainly running 2 to 3 miles a few times a week until July 2011 with a bit of a step back in October 2010 when I actually reduced my mileage as I started to run in Vibram Fivefingers – since the end of 2010 I have only worn “barefoot” style shoes – I even started wearing Vivobarefoot shoes for work and as general footwear. In July 2011 I started introducing the occasional run up to 5, or maybe even 6, miles. By the end of October 2011 I’d managed a few runs over 8 miles.

Sometime towards the end of January 2012 I started running between 11 and 13 miles every Saturday and this continued into my first race of 2012 – the Miles for Music 20k in March. My original goal was the Unite Rutgers Half Marathon in April, but the March race was a club sponsored run, and I thought it would be a good test for me. I knew I wasn’t really as prepared as I could be – I was finding it difficult in the last few miles whenever I was running over about 9 or 10 miles on any run, let alone in a race, and that’s exactly what happened in the race. It probably didn’t help that my first 5k was over in about 21 minutes, which, considering my fastest 5k race ever at that point was 20:08 or so, was probably a bit too fast (Click here for mapmyrun details).

By the time the half marathon came around I had also run in a (very hilly) 15k race – Indian Trails, but the work I had been doing clearly paid off because I ran much stronger than I expected and didn’t start to fade until mile 11 which really amazed me.

I continued on for much of the year running 2 or 3 races a month (compared to 2 or 3 races a year in my prior years of running) and I was doing well (at least I thought so). However, my race tactic for all of these races (if you can call it a tactic) was to go out fast and then fade dramatically. By June I was starting to feel like I had peaked – it didn’t help that I got sick and late in June and into July didn’t feel as fast as I had been.

At the end of July however, I had what I suppose could be considered a “breakthrough” race – a race where I finished as strong as I started – Miles for Minds 5k (click for mapmyrun detail).

I would like to say this set the scene for the remainder of my running year – it was almost the case, but running the Newport Liberty Half Marathon on September 23rd didn’t follow that pattern (I hadn’t originally planned on doing this race, but I’d found myself caught up in the competition of the USATF NBGP and I knew I could get more points by doing this race just because of it’s size). I didn’t use my watch and felt great for the first 5 or 6 miles, then started to fade, and practically limped home (well, not really, but comparatively). (mapmyrun again). It wasn’t until afterwards I really thought about the fact I’d only run over 10 miles about 5 or 6 times since my April Half Marathon, so that’s probably not the best preparation.

For the remainder of the year I had some of my best races – not because they were my fastest (they weren’t), but they were the races I have enjoyed the most – probably because I haven’t been going out too fast and wearing myself out way too early.

2013 is going to be a continuation of that, along with increasing my distances, with the aim of completing the Philadelphia Marathon (and I promise I’m not going to care about the time – well, not too much).

All my race times can be found here: http://runninginnj.wordpress.com/past-races/.

Fastest 5k of the year!

I did something already this year that I said I wasn’t going to do – I was disappointed by my time in a race (the Resolution Run 5k) yesterday (New Year’s Day).

I shouldn’t have been bothered by it for lots of reasons – my toe is still recovering, and the last run I did (other than jogging the mile to the gym and back over the prior week) was on December 15th.

This was my surprise race (as mentioned in my last post, I completely forgot I was signed up – I’d registered in October when somebody told me it was a good race, but that it filled up early).

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My toe got wrapped up well to protect it from the pounding it was going to get.

Oh so pretty

Oh so pretty

I got there early and was just hanging around when I spotted a couple of members of RVRR, so I chased them down and joined them for a warm up – what I wasn’t expecting was the longest warm up for a race that I have ever done but I went along with it anyway. We actually ran almost the entire course (probably about 2.9 miles of it). I wonder if that made me a bit slower (or perhaps it had the opposite effect)?

At the end of the warm up run I got a little concerned as it seemed that my bandage was rubbing a bit between my toes, but I figured I could get through the race and deal with the consequences after (I wished I had brought my Injinji toe socks because that would have helped).

After the warm up I decided it was warm enough (it must have been about 39 degrees) to run in a t-shirt, shorts, long (compression) socks, liner gloves, and a headband (covering the ears), so that was how I was dressed for the race.

I’d been so unprepared for this race that I’d left my Garmin at home so had to run without. I felt really good for the whole race (although I felt my breathing was a bit heavier than usual), but I had no idea how fast I really was – they had a couple of volunteers at the 1 mile and 2 mile marks, but the first was so quiet I couldn’t tell what he said (I think it may have been about 6:15 for the first mile – I went out fast), and the one at the second mile didn’t mention the time at any point when I was within earshot.

So, as I came down towards the finish I was surprised and disappointed to see that it already said over 20 minutes, and my final finishing time was 20:21.98. Now, I really shouldn’t be disappointed with that given what has gone on with my running over the last month and a bit, and I really need to stop doing this to myself. At the end of the day I had a good run, got a nice hoody, and got 3rd in age group (even though I got the prize for second in age group because the guy who was first had already won something because he was so fast – that prize was a pretty nice bag). So, all in all, it was a good run.

When I got home I was exhausted (and a small blister had formed between my toes – it was uncomfortable to walk at the end of the race) – I think all these new classes and the race took their toll on me, and I ended up napping while my lovely wife took the kids down to the park to play with some of their friends.