Monthly Archives: April 2013

Running in Sandals

Earlier this month elite ultramarathoner and vegan Scott Jurek made an appearance at Tortoise and Hare Sports in Glendale, Arizona as part of a promotional tour for his book Eat and Run. The evening began with a 5K run through the flat, mostly residential neighborhood north of the store.

I had recently started running in a pair of 6mm thick Xero Shoes sandals. Xero Shoes are a vegan-friendly modern version of the huarache sandals that the Tarahumara Indians of northwestern Mexico have been running in for thousands of years over long distances on rugged mountain trails. Part of their appeal for me is their obvious simplicity. Consisting of a very durable one-piece molded rubber sole and a single nylon/polypropylene lace, they couldn’t be more minimal. They can be purchased as a do-it-yourself kit (which is what I chose) that requires that you punch the hole between the first and second toes where the lace is anchored, and then install and tie the lace in your preferred style. While the soles (available in either 4mm or 6mm thicknesses) come in about a dozen different pre-molded sizes to fit your foot length, it may be necessary trim some excess area from the front and sides.  But if you like, for a few dollars more the Xero Shoes people will do all that work for you, starting with a simple tracing of your feet that you can fax or mail to them.

It took some experimenting with different tying styles and lace tensions before they were snug and comfortable, but by the book signing event I had figured everything out and was ready to run in them. The non-competitive run started out at an easy pace. Jurek reminded us before we started that it wasn’t a race, then joked that “if you ever wanted to beat Scott Jurek, this would be your chance.” However, some of us at the front were itching to go faster, and when someone blew past us at the halfway point and opened up a big lead, we promptly followed. That proved to be a good test of my Xero Shoes sandals, which functioned superbly through the whole distance at different paces.

Andy, who is one of my few friends who are both vegans and runners, also attended the Jurek event. She shot this short video of me in the parking lot in which I show how the sandals appear with the tying style I came up with, and then demonstrate how I run with them. I plan on making another video in the near future, showing step-by-step how I tied them.

Currently I’ve run up to 8 miles (13 km) at a time in these sandals. I don’t use them that much for walking (I actually prefer something a bit thicker with a little cushioning for walking), and they would not be my first choice for track workouts or faster and shorter races, but for the ordinary long distance running that comprises the bulk of my training, they are already my favorite choice of footwear. The very minimal design allows the toes to splay out fully, and does not otherwise restrict the natural function of the foot.

I can see Xero Shoes sales eventually overtaking Vibram FiveFingers, at least in the running category. Not only is the running experience better, but also the cost is only one-forth to one-third that of a typical pair of FiveFingers. The price advantage is even greater when factoring in their superior durability. I’m clearly excited about this product and believe it is something that the world needs to find out about.

©2013 Kenneth Hopes

You don’t Know How to Run

The April 2013 issue of Outside magazine features an article about the two different perspectives on running. On one side are the minimalists such as Mark Cucuzzella, Born to Run author Christopher McDougall, and Harvard’s Irene Davis. On the other side are the traditionalists including kinesiologist Joe Hamill, and podiatrists Simon Bartold and Kevin Kirby. As writer Andrew Tilin rather dramatically describes it, “the minimalists believe they’re poised to inherit the earth. The traditionalists have no plans to surrender.” 

Though both camps are guilty of oversimplification and stubbornness, they manage to find some common ground. I know which side I fall on, firmly believing that if not for the invention of the conventional overbuilt running shoe, many more people would be running today.

You don’t Know How to Run

By Andrew Tilin

On a summer day inside the Pentagon, Mark Cucuzzella is mobilizing the troops. “Everyone stand up. I want you to feel this,” Cucuzzella barks from the front of a big conference room. The audience is full of military officers dressed in Army or Marine Corps fatigues, Air Force blues, and Navy khakis. They’ve assembled in the Library and Conference Center, part of the Department of Defense’s massive headquarters in Arlington County, Virginia. 

The officers quickly get to their feet.

“Now pretend like you’re jumping rope,” Cucuzzella says, and the officers start to quietly pogo off the balls of their feet. Epaulets bounce. Combat boots meet carpeted floor and produce muted thuds.

“One, two, three! One, two, three!” Cucuzzella says. The officers speed up their hops to match his cadence. “Up off the ground, nice and smooth.”    Read More »

The 100-Up

In the 1870s, a teenage chemist’s apprentice and runner in England named Walter George came up with an unorthodox training method that he called the “100‑Up.” George’s apprenticeship schedule left little time for running, so instead he practiced this stationary drill that involved alternately bringing one knee up to the level of the hip while placing the foot of the other leg back down on the ground. In his written account of the drill, George describes a basic “Minor” version suited to beginners, performed while standing tall with the foot flat on the floor, and a “Major” version done while balanced on the ball of the foot, with the body tilted slightly forward, incorporating a quick springing action and counterbalancing arm movement. The drill is limited to 20 repetitions (20-Up) until it can be performed perfectly, after which one may gradually build up to 100 at a time.  Soon, with little or no actual running as part of his training, George was winning races and setting local and world records.

In this video Born to Run author Christopher McDougall takes a group of runners through the 100-Up, and explains how well over a century later, it remains a valuable training tool for building good running form. The video accompanied the web version of The Once and Future Way to Run, an article McDougall wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2011 in which he describes demonstrating the 100‑Up to Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a physician, a professor of Family Medicine at West Virginia University, and runner, who has run multiple sub-2:35 marathons since turning 40. Cucuzzella, a proponent of minimalist running, was impressed. “The key to injury-free running is balance, elasticity, stability in midstance and cadence,” he said. “You’ve got all four right there.”

Transitioning to Minimalist Running

When I acquired my first pair of minimalist shoes (Vibram FiveFingers KSO’s), I knew little about proper barefoot running form. It was obvious to me that I couldn’t employ my usual heel-striking form with the thin-soled, zero-drop footwear, but I continued to over-extend my leading leg, putting extra stress on my calf muscles and feet. I was also landing too close to my toes and not letting my heel subsequently come down and lightly touch the ground. As I gradually did more of my running in the FiveFingers, the calf soreness I initially had went away. After a few months I was running exclusively in them and for a while things seemed fine.

Then one day I developed a pain on the top of one of my feet that turned out to be a metatarsal stress fracture. The metatarsals are the long bones of the foot that make up the longitudinal arch and connect the toe bones (phalanges) to the irregularly shaped tarsal bones that comprise the back of the foot. It would be about five weeks before I was able to run again.

Many months later I was again running exclusively in a pair of FiveFingers—this time in the running-specific Bikila model. I was confident that I would not get injured again because I had shortened my stride and sped up my steps-per-minute. My form had improved, but not as much as I thought. Like before, for a while my running had been going well when one morning during the later half of an eight-mile run that top-of-foot pain returned. I took a day off and then the next day ended up walking the second half of a three-mile run. The pain was just like my previous injury. An x-ray would later show a stress fracture of the distal third metatarsal in my left foot.

Discouraged, but determined to return to running, I briefly went back to heel‑striking in my conventional thick-soled running shoes following a six-week recuperation. However, heel‑striking felt awkward, and it was soon evident that I could not run that way indefinitely. At that point I was understandably reluctant to run in my FiveFingers, but instead I found that I could employ a forefoot landing in my 12 mm drop conventional shoes. I alternated running styles, gradually changing over to the midfoot-strike.

The tuning point for me was when I decided to take off my shoes in the middle of an eight-mile run, and run barefoot for several minutes on a smooth and clean stretch of concrete bike path. Instantly, my stride became quicker and my landings became softer. Barefoot running, by providing maximum sensory feedback, is an excellent training tool. If you run barefoot with incorrect form you will feel it right away. In contrast, when running even with the rather minimal protection of a FiveFingers shoe, the pain can be blocked until it’s too late; until, for example, a stress fracture occurs. Barefoot running remains a crucial training tool for me. I try to do a couple of miles each week. If my form is not quite right, a stretch of barefoot running serves to “reboot” my running form, and that effect carries over when I put my shoes back on for the rest of the run.

Another tool that has helped me improve my form and avoid another injury is a small metronome that I clip to my waistband and periodically turn on during a run. Increasing the number of steps‑per-minute makes it easier to land below the hips and avoid heel-striking. I match my foot landings to the metronome’s audible beeps for a few minutes, and then turn it off for a while. A cadence of 180 steps-per-minute is commonly recommended as a goal, but that may not work for everyone, so instead think in terms of a range of 174–185.

Particularly when transitioning both to more minimalist footwear and from heel‑striking to proper running form, a gradual approach cannot be overemphasized. Injuries often occur from transitioning faster than the body is able to adapt, not practicing proper form, or some combination of the two.

If you would like to change over to a “transitional” running shoe instead of a minimalist shoes, that is fine, but I would suggest doing little barefoot running at the beginning of your transition and every week thereafter to help sharpen your form. I would also suggest that you eventually phase in a minimalist shoe. There are no official standards, but generally a transitional shoe such as the Brooks PureFlow is somewhat lighter and less structured than a conventional running shoe. It has an overall thinner sole and a heel drop of around 4 mm versus the more typical 12 mm drop. Minimalist shoes are appreciably lighter and more flexible, have even less sole thickness, a heel drop of zero to just a few millimeters, and should allow the toes to naturally spread out.

The best running footwear will provide just enough protection for the type of surface being traversed, while interfering as little as possible with the natural functioning of the feet. Different conditions may require different kinds of footwear. When running on the very rocky trails found here in central Arizona, I appreciate the greater protection offered by my thicker‑soled PureFlows. But when running on pavement I prefer something that’s lighter, less structured, and transmits more feeling, like my FiveFinger Bikilas or my Xero Shoes sandals. On the smoothest pavement, I’m comfortable going barefoot.

If you’ve been heel-striking in thick-soled running shoes but have not been prone to injuries, you still ought to consider transitioning. While more studies need to be done in the area of running form and injury rates, the big impact spikes seen in heel-striking are a reason for concern. By the time knees and other joints become painful, significant and irreversible degenerative changes may have already occurred. Aside from the potential for injury reduction, I’ve also found that minimalist running is more enjoyable.

Transitioning will take time; much longer for some people than others. Don’t rush it, be prepared to take occasional unscheduled days off when something hurts, and most importantly, remember to have fun.

©2013 Kenneth Hopes