Making the Switch -- Stephen's Perspective

>> Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I'm currently reading Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s exploration of the life and running habits of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, who are arguably the world's greatest distance runners. And I find myself questioning one of the fundamental principles I’ve come to believe as a long distance runner: the foot must be well protected and cushioned in order to run efficiently and economically.

As a high school cross-country runner, my weekly mileage rarely topped thirty-five, and my weekly long run never strayed beyond ten. Believing in quality over quantity, my coaches made every mile count. I went through pair after pair of Asics DS Trainer X, a fast, neutral training shoe.

Now I'm a twenty-something marathoner, and I’ve increased my weekly mileage from 35 to 55 and my long run max from 10 to 20. Likewise, I’ve increased the cushioning in my shoe and upgraded to the Asics Gel Nimbus, the "Cadillac" of all cushioning shoes. Pockets of pillow-y gel in the heel and alongside the mid made my feet feel safe, comfortable, and protected.

But I’ve wondered: Is wearing pillows of gel on my feet the only way for my body to train for a marathon? How have the Tarahumara Indians and elite Kenyan runners been able to compete and complete such long distances wearing only the soles on their feet?

I’m not saying I want to complete my next marathon barefoot -- at least not yet. However, I am interested in weaning myself off the plush cushioning I’ve relied on and investigating a more natural approach to running.

Enter the ProGrid Kinvara, Saucony’s lightweight, minimalist shoe to help runners ease into barefoot-style running. I write "ease" because the Kinvara isn’t as drastic of a change as the Nike Free series or the Vibram FiveFingers lineup, which allow the foot to flex its full range of motion.

Instead, the Kinvara strips away the hard plastic and gel found in many running shoes and relies solely on spongy foam. What I like most about it, besides its weight -- a light 7.7 ounces -- is the heel height, which is lower relative to the forefoot than a traditional running shoe. This translates to a more articulated mid-forefoot strike, which is arguably more efficient and natural.

After covering over fifty miles in the Kinvara, I’ve felt a significant change in how my body responds to each stride. A pronounced mid-forefoot strike coupled with minimal cushioning means that the force and weight of each stride is absorbed less in the lower leg muscles and more in the body’s best shock absorber, the arch of the foot.

In other words, for the first two weeks, my feet have felt tender and sore since they have been absorbing the extra weight, and my calves have felt tight because of my foot’s increased flexibility and range of motion. Beginning week three, I find my body adapting well and feeling more refreshed and efficient.

Once I run this pair into the ground, I hope to continue my journey of scaling down and enjoying a minimalistic style of running. Who knows, maybe this time next year I’ll be logging long distances in Vibrams!!! But more realistically, I think I’ll make the switch to Nike Free+ this fall. After all, the body is a delicate tool that responds best by making minor adjustments, not sudden jolts.

And my adventure is only beginning . . .

What is your experience with barefoot running? Or maybe not experience . . . but opinion? Seems like another way of running naked to us -- which also seems to be a good thing. We've been enjoying posts like Ashley's series on the Vibrams. But let us know -- what's your take? Just leave a comment or email us at neverhomemaker [at] gmail [dot] com.

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