Friday, November 18, 2011

A Torrid Love(/Hate) Affair

I'm a married man and I have a confession to make: I've been engaged in a hot, steamy, torrid love affair for the last 9 months.  We're talking sweaty, leather-bound, high euphoric stuff.  But it's one of those love/hate things that's hot and passionate one week and yelling, cursing and shoe-throwing the next.  

And it's not with the babe to the left about the heel strike and send impact forces of 4x her body weight up through her ankle, knee and hip joints.  I'm talking about my Vibram Five Fingers.

Why I Love my Five Fingers
VFF's are easy to love once you get accustomed to wearing them.  Here are my reasons:
My ratty Bikilas - after a weekly wash
  • they are light (make me faster)
  • better range of motion through the foot (over conventional running shoes)
  • easily releases water (muddy trails feared no more)
  • calls attention to bad running form (heel strike - dislike!)
Not a bad list I'd say.  Other reasons might include cult-ishness, attention getting, unconventional, conversation starter, uniqueness.  But these don't contribute to running benefit.

Why I Hate my Five Fingers
In a word - injury.

From very early on in my 9 month affair, I began Googling for VFF leg pain, foot pain, etc., and what I can do about it.  I've even blogged about it prior to this (Lower Leg Pain and Minimalist Shoes) and made mention in some other posts.  To date far more people have read my blog than I ever imagined (and I am truly humbled by this) but I'm disappointed that these are the top 2 search terms to get them here:

1.  minimalist running shoes calf pain
2.  minimalist shoes and leg pain

Clearly there is something going on here.  For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about how bad conventional shoes are for you, who are all these minimalist shoe wearers secretly searching out pain remedies brought on by their minimalist shoes?

I gave up running in VFF's during marathon training season this past summer - I just couldn't risk a critical injury occurring.  Instead I went to Nike Free Run's, which were OK.  I still could not eliminate my Top of Foot Pain (TOFP) but avoiding the VFF's kept it manageable.  If there was a remedy to try, believe me I tried it.  

VFF Pain, Barefoot and Going Forward
I thoroughly enjoy looking over my Garmin stats and noting the speeds at which I clock my VFF runs.  It's no fluke - I run faster in those suckers.  BUT!  I run just as fast barefoot (in fact, I have to slow myself down for fear of cooking my pads.)  And here's the thing--barefoot doesn't cause any more calf pain than VFF's, and I notice less TOFP.  I wear my Bikila's with the strap loose now with no difference.  

What I do notice when wearing VFF's (as compared to Nike Free's) is I THINK (and starting to BELIEVE) I have less toe splay on foot plant.  Also, in VFF's I can (and often do) overstride and force a forefoot landing.  This causes my toes to slip forward (1-2 millimeters?) in the VFF, knocking the front of the toe pocket and causing stress on the metatarsals and extensors where I get TOFP.

However, running barefoot I have a totally natural toe splay, cannot overstride and feel I'm in a much more natural running position (to equalize pressure across foot impact areas).  These are my unscientific but brutally honest observations about my own experience (no matter how much I love the VFF's).  There's not a barefooter out there that wouldn't agree.

Skeptical?  Do this test:  sit on a chair/couch barefoot with your feet up.  Wiggle your toes around, and to the extent that you can- splay them, crunch them, move them independently, broaden your foot by fanning your toes.  Even try picking up a golf ball with your foot.  Now put on your VFFs and try the same thing.  YOU CAN'T DO IT.  It takes way more strength to do what you did barefoot and you'll have far less range of motion.  All that material between your toes is getting in the way, and you've got rubber pads under the toes, balls of the foot, etc.  There is nothing natural about it.  As you crunch your toes down you are also using strength to pull the VFF material which will stress the top of the foot muscles, ligaments, tendons and metatarsals (the foot structure is complex and I've had to study the Gray's Anatomy to try and isolate what might be causing me pain).  In a conventional shoe you simply don't have the option of doing this, the foot is cocooned but everything hangs together in the shoe in a "natural" position (as compared to VFF's with material stuffed between the toes).

I'm a minimalist shoe advocate, but still a VFF skeptic.

Anyway, I am going to abandon my VFF's for a while (helluva time of the year to do it though - winter) and alternate between a minimalist running shoe with a wide toe-box and barefoot.  My goal is to measure foot pain progression or improvement without VFFs.   My TOFP at the end of my marathon was manageable, and that was 4 months of just Nike Free Runs.  6 weeks later (and a return to VFFs in the last 4) it's not.  Clearly something is going on, and my weekly mileage is way down from pre-marathon levels.

Stay tuned, this will be interesting....

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