Its not the shoes

I bought a pair of minimalist running shoes after reading “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. Yes, I was that guy.

In my defence, I’d had problems with my legs and feet for years. I’d torn the cartilage of the right toe joint and it still pained me. After repeated abuse from soccer the joint was visibly bigger than the left and the toe was beginning to turn in. I thought I’d try them. What was the harm? I figured they’d strengthen the muscles in my feet and maybe help straighten out my toes.

Well I loved them from the moment I wiggled them on. I liked the way the hugged my feet and toes. I loved the feeling of lightness and freedom they gave me. I felt more agile and connected to the trail. I loved them, that is right up until I scuffed my toe against a root and came to an abrupt, hopping stop. Muttering a few choice words I walked it off and began a slow jog.

After a kilometre I became aware of a nagging ache in my calf. A dull feeling in the belly of the muscle gradually became an insistent ache. Reluctantly I retraced my steps home. Dallas my dalmatian, and a barefoot enthusiast effortlessly trotted ahead. A couple of days later I set out again only for the pain to return, an ache my calf which threatened serious consequences if I didn’t stop. Naturally I was feeling a little discouraged. I loved running in these new shoes, but constantly flirting with injury had little appeal.

Figuring out what was wrong took time. Honestly, I’m still figuring this stuff out. I’d read the book and thought it was plausible that the human foot had evolved from the hunting practises of our ancestors. Maybe quarter of a million years ago humans could have run after animals until the creature collapsed from heat exhaustion, (aka persistence hunting).

That sort of made sense. On summer days I’d have to carry water in a little collapsible cloth dog bowl so Dallas could take a drink. Generally he easily out lasted me, but it was clear running in the summer was much harder on him. Had the economy of human running, superior breathing and cooling mechanisms allowed us to wear down much faster animals? If humans had once ran many hours over rough terrain, why couldn’t I? In these new shoes I couldn’t go more than a few kilometres without breaking. I was pretty sure my ancestors hadn’t run down a gazelle in Nikes.

The flyer I’d received with the Vibram’s had cautioned me to build up my tolerance. I’d dutifully run shuttles and jogged around the block for almost two weeks before heading out on my first trail run. It had felt like enough, I’d practiced pain free. However, just wearing the shoes clearly wasn’t going to help me run like my ancestors.

Although I’d built up tolerance to the shoes, my running style hadn’t completely adjusted to minimal footwear. There was a lot more to good running form than simply strapping on a pair of ‘toe shoes’. Children naturally develop their running style over many years . It made sense that shoes or no shoes would be a factor.

Some experienced runners’ have such a well developed running style that it is unaffected by wearing modern training shoes. In his book McDougall draws a parallel between the similar running gaits of an elite American ultra-runner in modern shoes with a Mexican runner in sandals. If I was going wear minimal shoes, I needed to figure out how to run properly in them.

My form and the ‘100up’
Its important, really important that the foot connects with the ground correctly. In my old shoes my heal would hit first. Apparently, this isn’t how humans evolved to run.

Put very simply, the middle of the foot should contact the ground under the body. This is quite different to the ‘heal strike’ I did in modern shoes.
The 100up drill…

The 100up drill was invented by W.G. George, an 19 century runner and is a drill to help you place the foot.  I think its a bit like ‘running on the spot’. I focus upon placing my foot under my body while using my arms for coordination and balance.

Here is Christopher McDougall’s explanation of the ‘100up’ technique.

Now I focus on my form as I run. It felt a little strange to run so upright at first and it’s easy to slip back to older learning as I get tired. Occasionally I’ll stop and do a few of these drills if I feel I’m slumping (Find a private spot since its bad enough when they’re just pointing at the shoes). Its sill not perfect but it seems to be working.

My pace:

I think I was running too fast.
From years of training I ran with my heart rate around 75% of my maximum, give or take. Recently I’d begun running at a slower pace to teach my body to use fat as a fuel as opposed to carbohydrate. This ‘Zone two‘ training is a lower intensity aerobic exercise, between 60-69% of a your maximum heart rate.

(There are five zones which covers heart rates from resting to maximum. Check out Phil Maffetone’s website if you are curious or thinking of trying this).
After a couple of slower 7 to 10 km runs it occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced any discomfort, either during running or in the days after a run. My heart rate monitor had vibrated whenever I exceed 123 beats per minute and I’d begun to walk. In the gym on a treadmill it’s straightforward task and I could trot along just below 123 bpm. It’s something of a challenge however, to keep it so low outdoors on an undulating trail though the woods. Trail running is fun and I’d frequently need to suppress the urge to tear ahead.

After some practice I began to recognize when I was about to go over 123 beats a minute. On occasion I’d slow down before my monitor vibrated. I suspect there is a bit of a lag between my lungs and my heart.

So there you have it. It probably wasn’t the shoes causing me problems but the bad habits I’d developed from running in ‘regular’ shoes.  It would seem that for me, safe and healthy running is influenced more by effective form than my choice of footwear.
Let me know what you think or if you’ve had a similar experience. Regardless of what you’re doing to your feet, I hope you’re having fun.



My thoughts, observations and conclusions may inspire you to change or adjust your life, or impose them on the unsuspecting. Please remember I do not pretend these are absolute medical truths. Rather, they are a snapshot of my growing wisdom. I’m not a doctor nor a nutritionist. I do not claim to possess insights into the internals of the human body beyond these easily available facts, and information gleaned during a few unfortunate accidents. Before you begin any physical or nutritional lifestyle change, consult with a registered medical practitioner and make sure you are healthy. Remember, the goal is to enjoy the journey and avoid the road to disaster, which is littered with pitfalls and paved with good intentions. 


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