Saturday, June 5, 2010

Blog<Running> Part 2

If you managed to get through part 1, you were probably wondering what my history with swimming, my recent motivation to lose weight, and my newfound interest in running have to do with each other. Well, here it is:

Why Running?

The elliptical machine is a great tool for working out. It's low impact, it has a variable resistance, it's climate controlled, it's about 15 feet from a large tank of cold water, and it's green (the one I use is powered by the cycling motion).

It's also incredibly boring. If it weren't for several podcast subscriptions, I wouldn't be able to motivate myself to workout every day for 30 minutes, let alone 60-90 minutes. It's stationary, it's the same motion minute after minute, day after day, month after month, and honestly, I started getting tired of measuring my progress with calorie counts, or watts, or cycles per minute, or even heart rate.

I wanted to do something where I wasn't just running in place. Where I could go for a while and let my body tell me how hard I was working and shut all of that other stuff out. I thought about swimming, but it's just too inconvenient. By the time you drive to the pool and get changed you've already wasted 30 minutes. Then, you have to find an open lane (or share with someone willing). Once you're done you have to take a shower, change and drive home. That's another 30 minutes gone. Swimming is something that I enjoy, but if I've learned anything from my recent weight loss it's that you have to put yourself in the best possible situation to succeed. For now, swimming just doesn't fit the bill.

So I still needed to find my convenient, low impact, cardiovascular exercise. Cycling is too much of an investment (and between you and me, traveling great distances is a recipe for getting lost). Rowing? What is rowing? How does a person even start rowing? Basketball, tennis, soccer? They all require coordination with other people, and wouldn't necessarily let me go at my own pace. And they are also not very "low impact". So, what's left?

Well, for a couple of months now, I've been reading various articles about the evolution of the human foot, and about how modern shoes make our feet weak and more prone to injury. Then I started seeing people post about their Vibram FiveFingers on facebook and twitter.

My interest was officially piqued, but I have always had problems with running. Also, how the hell does using less cushioning translate to a lower impact?

Running Form

This is the first piece of advice I normally receive when I ask how to be a better runner: get proper running shoes, with a big padded heel and a stiff high arch for your flat feet. In the past, I would try to follow this advice. I would get the shoes and start running, and for the first 3 or 4 runs I would be fine. Then I would start developing shin splints, or I would roll my ankle (even with the rigid support of the shoes). Then, after a couple more painful runs, I would stop altogether. After a few rounds of trying and failing, I eventually gave up for good.

But recently, I started seeing all of these articles about people running pain free, either barefoot or in their Vibrams. Even people like me who have flat feet and suffer from chronic shin splints and weak ankles.

I went on a research bender. I found a bunch of websites and blogs with information about minimal or barefoot running. I read the research on impact of heel strikes versus forefoot/midfoot strikes. I discovered how running can be "low impact".

The gist of it is that your foot has more nerve endings in it than any other place in your body (well, technically there is a place where they are more concentrated, but it's probably not as big as your feet). These nerves are there to tell your brain what you are stepping on, so that your brain can tell your feet how to keep moving safely. Your primary contact with the outside world is through your feet, so having that connection is important. It's an extremely sensitive feedback loop that has been honed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

When you wrap your feet in a big padded shoe, you are cutting off this feedback loop. The problem is that your feet still want to "feel" what they are running on. Add more padding, and you have a tendency to pound your foot down on the ground. Your brain is trying to push your foot through all that rubber, or gel, or air cushioning so that it can figure out the safest/most efficient way to move. Well, now, you are literally stomping the ground with every step, so it's no wonder that running is so high impact.

Now take off your shoes and run. Pounding the ground for even 100 steps will be incredibly painful. You will naturally become more careful about how you land because you want to minimize the impact that you feel. You will also begin to realize that landing on the front of your foot is easier than the heel. This is because all of the force of the impact will be handled by the soft tissue in your feet and legs (tendons and muscles), instead of the hard tissue (bone and cartilage). Your soft tissue has this miraculous ability to stretch and store energy. So instead of just absorbing the impact in your joints, you're compressing and storing the energy in the natural springs in your feet and legs. Energy that will be released when you follow through with your stride.

That's the theory anyway. There's actually not a lot of scientific research in this area. Just anecdotal evidence, and that common sense light bulb in your head blinking "no shit".

Running: First Attempt

So, using this knowledge, I finally decided to go out for a run in my old New Balance cross trainers (the closest thing I have to a shoe that I could reasonably exercise in), focusing on landing with a forefoot strike instead of a heel strike. I ran/walked for about 2 miles until my calves were on fire and I couldn't go any further. I didn't feel any shin pain though, so a couple days later I went for another run. This time, I was able to go a little further, but I started to feel the familiar pain of shin splints coming on.

Not wanting to give up, I did more research. I found that shin splints have many causes, one of them being flat feet. When your foot has a weak arch (or low arch) it tends to roll inward more than usual when you land on it. This pulls and stretches one of the muscles that attaches to the inside part of your shin bone. This constant stretching causes the muscle to start tearing away from the bone, which is what causes the pain in some types of shin splints. It also just happens to be the same part of my shin that hurts after running.

Okay, so all I need to do is fix my flat feet.

Running: Second Attempt

More research. Again, there is no scientific evidence to prove (or disprove) what I'm about to say, but the ideas resonate with that same "no shit" feeling. Shoes and orthotics with high, rigid arches (made for people with flat feet) cause your feet to weaken. If you rely on some external structure to fix your arch, then your foot's muscles start to atrophy. Eventually, you will completely rely on the arch support. When you take off your shoes and stand upright, your feet roll inward because you are not used to standing without the external support. The shoes actually make your flat feet worse.

So, the "solution" is to train your foot to support itself again. Time to lose the rigid shoes and go natural.

Well, almost. Since I wasn't ready to take the plunge into barefoot running, I went out and bought a pair of Vibram Sprints. They feel like you aren't wearing anything. You have full range of motion of the entire foot (including toes), and there is absolutely no arch support. The only thing between your foot and the ground is about 5 mm of flexible rubber. You feel every twig, pebble, and crack in the sidewalk. Interestingly, you start avoiding the dangerous things you would normally step on while wearing shoes.

So last Saturday, I went for a jog in the Vibrams. I'd been told to not go more than half a mile for the first run, and that was good advice. It was over in about 5 minutes. Just long enough to start falling in love with the "shoes", and not so long that I was in pain. The freedom I felt in the Vibrams was amazing. It reminded me of what it felt like to run around barefoot in the grass as a kid. In that brief half mile, running was fun. On top of all that, I didn't feel any more pain in my shins.

After my first experience with the Vibrams, I bought and read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Upon reading it, if you are like me, you will immediately want to go out and run a 100 mile race through the mountains. So, I impatiently went out and ran 2 more half miles in the next 3 days. That was a mistake. I ended up aggravating my shin splints from my first (shod) running attempt from the previous week, and I started feeling pain in my knees. The thought of miraculously becoming a runner made me go out way too fast and way too hard.

I got a much-needed reality check.


After my ill-fated attempt to run for the past 2 weeks, I decided to take it slower. I gave myself 3 and a half days off from running and threw some tried and true recovery techniques at my shin splint problem: ice, stretching, massage, shin muscle exercises, and Motrin. While waiting for my knees and shins to recover, I still went to the gym to lift weights and run on the elliptical machine. I didn't want to have to sit out for too long and lose any momentum (or endurance), so the elliptical machine's ultra-low impact motion is nothing short of a godsend.

In addition to the cure for shin splints, I started working on some preventative measures. Over the past week, I focused on improving my arch strength. At work, I loosened my shoes a little, and tried not to let their arch supports do the heavy lifting. At the gym I wore the Vibrams, and when I got home, I walked around the house barefoot.

It sounds kind of ridiculous, but after focusing on letting my own feet support my arches for a week, they already feel stronger. Maybe that's just me being optimistic, but there are muscles in my feet that I wouldn't have known about, if it weren't for the fact that they are now sore.

By this morning, I was completely shin pain free, so I went for another run. I focused on keeping my arches from flattening, and on trying to eliminate a lot of up and down movement. My theory was that by preventing the shin muscle from stretching too much I would also prevent the shin pain. So far, I'm happy to say that it was a success. I ran 0.6 miles today before I started feeling my foot muscles lose the strength to maintain their arch shape. I stopped to prevent injury. I might not be going very far yet, but that extra tenth of a mile is still progress.

The Future

My experience over the past 2 weeks has taught me that it's going to take a long time to get where I want to be. The difference between previous attempts and this one is that I'm now armed with the knowledge to get better, and the motivation to get stronger and go further. The difference is that I used to want to become a runner, and now I am one.

My eventual goal is to just be able to run pain-free until I'm tired. To get out of the gym and into the real world. Expect plenty of (much shorter) progress updates along the way.


  1. A research bender - love it.

    This all makes a lot of sense. If I ever give running another try, I might have to invest in some Vibrams.

  2. If you do ever take up running again, and you decide to get some Vibrams, my advice is to start out slow.

    It's been frustrating to only go for half a mile at a time. I barely even start sweating by the time I'm done for the day. But, since I want to stick with it, I'm trying really hard to not injure myself before I ever get started.

    Last week, I realized that I don't have to rely on running to keep up my cardiovascular endurance. I've been using the elliptical machine for the past 5 months, and it doesn't cause me any pain to keep using it (other than the boredom). No reason to over-train while getting used to the newness of running.

    If I had started running 5 months ago, without any other physical outlet, I would have given it up.

  3. Yeah, I think if I started running today, I'd be done before the end of the week. I don't even think I could swim very hard right now. But I remember how it felt to run every morning back when I was actually doing it. It was pretty nice after a little while. Plus, running is the only activity that Rory can do with me. Even though Josh and I are going to the gym every day, we walk her sporadically at best.

  4. Kyle, this is great information and anatomically, as well as intuitively, makes so much sense. I have always said "follow your gut." Your body will tell you when something is wrong if you listen.

    And man are you listening!

    I am loving reading your blog posts. Makes me feel like I am right there with you.

    It even is making me curious about getting out there myself. I have had problems with my hips when I run. I was thinking it most likely had to do with my posture, but could very well be the effect of my shoes!

  5. Well, aside from the extra impact that is absorbed by your joints when you heel strike, there is another interesting "feature" of thick-heeled running shoes (almost all shoes really). Since the heel is thicker than the toe, it causes you to lean forward at the ankles.

    This shifts your center of mass forward, and so you have to lean backwards to compensate. Which puts tension on different muscles than the ones mother nature intended for you to use. I don't how much this affects posture, but it certainly can't be helping.

  6. One more thing that I started to realize during this process is that I never really payed attention to my running form before. I followed the general rules of "keep a straight up and down posture", "relax your upper body and arms", "look straight and minimize head movement".

    But I never really thought about how those help you to run more efficiently. And I certainly didn't pay attention when I got tired and let my form start slipping. I would just run through it, oblivious to what my body was telling me. I'm pretty sure that's how I always ended up injured.

    My new outlook is to take it slow, pay attention to my form and eventually the distance/endurance will come. If I only improve by a tenth of a mile each week, that means that by this time next year I'll be able to run 5 miles. And that's a really cool thought.

  7. I have a feeling that once you get into the groove, knowing that you are running efficiently, you will be running longer and longer distances. It is pretty awesome to go out for a "long run" and realize when you get back that you have just surpassed your wildest imagination!