Those of you that have read my blogs https://bubstersdaddy.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/instant-kormas-gonna-get-you-pineapple-turmeric-and-other-things-that-have-helped-me-run-again/ and https://bubstersdaddy.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/things-can-never-be-the-same-again/, will know that not all has been well over the last year or so with The Knees of Lynch™. It’s times like these you learn to live again (so said Dave Grohl) and look at, in my case, what might be the only option available to me to continue running. That is, adopt a new style of running that will significantly reduce the stress through my arthritic knees.
Much has been written about barefoot, or minimalist running, not least in Christopher McDougall’s excellent book Born to Run, and here in Edinburgh we have our very own Mr Magorium’s Barefoot Emporium at Footworks, where Colin McPhail manfully carries the minimalist running message.
It’s fair to say that the move to try minimalist running has been borne out of necessity, and like any distress purchase, there is an element of ‘through gritted teeth’ about it. However, the science (and common sense) behind it all hadn’t escaped me upon reading the aforementioned book, but I was naturally more of the bouncy shoe type of guy. I had bought a really good pair of ASICS Cumulus Gels that had carried me through the 2012 Virgin London Marathon, and upon embarking upon the dark world of Ultra running, I had gravitated towards a pair of Hoka Mafates and thought they were the dog’s doodahs and ran them into ground, putting in 1,500 miles on them.
It was my physio who actually tipped the balance. As I lay on my front in her clinic, strapped to an ultrasound machine she said: “Have you thought about minimalist running? I’ve started it and it makes a heck of a difference to the stress through my knees.” I admitted I hadn’t but coming the day after I traipsed out of the surgeon’s office being told to ‘forget running’ I was willing to consider whatever it took to prolong my running retirement.
So I got on the phone to Barefoot Colin, as he shall be hereafter known <his tiny shorts mean he’s usually known as Bare-arsed Colin> and explained my desire to give myself over to the minimalist mantra and he suggested I come into the shop, have a gait analysis done and be hard sold to for an hour or so, so I agreed. *
* Joking aside, Colin gave his advice, information and encouragement without recompense, and I salute him for that. His style of doing things isn’t for everyone (and probably not me until I had to listen), but his passion for the barefoot movement is to be admired and we should be thankful Edinburgh is his home.
Prior to actually going to the shop for said analysis I borrowed a pair of Saucony Hattoris from Jim Hardie, who is known as the Imelda Marcos of Harrison Park for his extensive collection of gutties (and appalling human rights record). These things are a sight to behold. They are, literally, slippers with a velcro strap. They have virtually no cushioning whatsoever. When I quizzed Jim on why he went for something quite so, well, flimsy, he told me (I should have guessed) that ‘they’re great for tucking into your bag when you need a mud-free shoe for the pub’. Anyway, armed with these I took the opportunity while staying over in Glasgow at a trade show to nip out for a 5K test run in them. I should add, prior to this, that I had tried a minimalist-style of running using my regular ASICS road shoes. While it certainly seemed to take the pressure off my knees, I had to stop regularly to massage my calves and stretch my achilles as my lower legs got used to the whole thing. With the Hattoris though, it didn’t feel like so much of a strain (at this point I still didn’t realise that, with the correct shoes, you shouldn’t have to adjust your running style at all), you could feel the road but it felt pretty good, not as strange as it might and I quite enjoyed the first outing. Jim had told me to wear thicker trail socks with them and I did, but the next run was not so good, the shoes were probably too thin, overall, and the balls of my feet started to hurt, but it was a useful introduction to minimalist shoes.
So I got myself down to Footworks and Colin quizzed me on my general malady and desire to try barefoot. His preference (understandably) is to work with those who want to go as minimalist as possible (as, to him, there is no going back) and with those who are looking to manage their mileage to a ‘sensible’ level. Anyway first things were first and I had a go on the treadmill at 12.5 kph wearing the shoes I had come in with, my Salomon Speedcross 3s. Now I had probably chosen the worst possible shoe in my, albeit, limited collection to come in with, because when I ran on the treadmill and then watched the playback on the video it looked clumsy and awful:
I knew that I supinated, but I didn’t realise how extreme it was until I watched the video. With the Speedcross you have a shoe with large rise from ball to heel and this made the adjustment I had to make as I landed look like terribly hard work. I almost looked like I was going to go over on my ankle.
I then ran barefoot and you could see how different things looked. The foot was landing square and the adjustment each time just wasn’t there. It felt like a harder impact, of course, but the force was through the feet more, not the knees (the mechanics behind barefoot running are that the feet act as springs, not levers, as we often use them as).
I then tried a couple of different pairs on (I told Colin that under NO circumstances would I wear those ridiculous Vibram FiveFingers. I told him quietly, however, because Donnie Campbell was prowling the shop in them at the time. I understand they are there to allow the natural spread of the toes, but they are strictly off limits for the meantime) and we finally settled on a pair of Merrell Vapor Gloves. The Vapor Gloves were a) a decent price, £62.50 (as I didn’t know if this whole thing was going to crash and burn) and b) they felt and looked as normal as was acceptable.
I scurried home, painfully keen to avoid cognitive dissonance with this purchase, and immediately sought out some favourable reviews of the shoes, of which there were several (and I’ve shamelessly borrowed bits from them here). The good thing was that they looked, kinda, like normal running shoes and felt comfortable in the shop and the sole seemed to offer a good amount of grip and robustness. The main thing I noticed was how light they were (5oz per shoe, or 140g, which is the same as a pack of cards, or, like mine, a unused chequebook), and how flexible they were (they could indeed be folded and tucked in a bag, Hardie-style, for that trip to the pub).
So, I guess the three key features of these are: 5.5mm stack, 0mm drop, only 5 oz per shoe of weight. From what I can see online, the only two that beat it in the thinness department are the original Xero Shoes (4mm) and the FiveFingers SeeYas (3mm). It’s notable that Merrell has made something much closer to a traditional looking running shoe while keeping the specs very near those of the lightest toe shoes out there. It now called for the acid test: running in them.
It’s worth noting here that these shoes are intended for when I run on the road, or on the smoother trails. Anything hilly or of a rough trail, or very soft description will be run in my Inov-8 X-Talon 212s. As wearers of these will know, they are minimalist by design, with very little heel and a low drop. This coupled with the front strike ascending and more of an adjustment (for me anyway) in descending, means that the barefoot concept is nearly already happening when I’m on the hills. The final step will be (when the X-Talons wear out) to go for the Inov-8 Bare-Grips, but that will have to wait for the meantime.
My first couple of runs with the Vapor Gloves were quick sprints to and from the bike shop to collect my bike. This didn’t prove very much (I ran at 6:55 min/mile pace and 7 min/mile pace, it was wet and I thought this would be a good test of the grip at a decent speed). The next two runs were to and from work, at a similar speed, over 4.5 miles each time. The grip was good and, more importantly, they were comfortable, and my feet didn’t seem to feel the impact as they did with the Hattoris. Despite the thin, almost delicate-looking construction, you need only pick these up and then try them on to immediately gain faith in the toughness of the material. These are strong, well-made shoes. I even wore them with the thinnest socks I have to give them a proper test. Good so far.
One of the reviews I read had a small quibble with the layout of the laces. The reviewer noted that the edging was piped, so the very bottom portion provides some resistance to properly tightening the laces. In his opinion if you tighten them too much it bows inward or outward, creating a slight area of friction on top of the foot. I haven’t noticed this yet.
I then decided to try them out on a longer run and on a ‘trail’ surface (the paths within the Hermitage of Braid), out of the glare of Strava in case it all went the shape of a pear. On the night I went out for a longer (8 mile) run it was cold. The uppers on the shoes are very breathable and comfortable to wear and for that reason I would question how far I would venture in these in the winter, or in wet weather unless you are wearing socks for those conditions. However running 8 miles at a more comfortable pace presented no problems, except those inherent within my knees of course! And a shorter run on a muddy trail run presented no real problems with regards to grip. While they are relatively smooth overall, the Vapor Gloves have quite deep grooves in the sole. This allows them to be just a bit more flexible, however it means picking up tiny chunks of stuff on a trail run which could turn out to be an annoyance. Also, in terms of fit, if you have wide feet, the Vapor Gloves are probably going to be too constricting. The Vapor Glove is thin enough that one can feel the shape of the ground, with the trade-off being a higher risk of bruises on the sole. One point worth highlighting again is the enhanced ‘feel’ you get from these shoes: With the Salomon Speedcross, for example, when you run on the trail you could be running on the road, for all the difference your foot feels. In the Vapors, there’s no doubt it feels like you’re on a trail.
So in terms of a summary, is it a bit too early to tell whether these are the future type of shoes for me on-road? Well I don’t know yet, but it’s about trade-offs. Running versus not running. Running relatively short runs versus the world of Ultras, or marathons. Nothing comes without a price I suppose. In the meantime I’ll carry on with the Vapor Gloves on-road and the Inov-8 X-Talons off-road. The underlying management job for me in with my knees and their arthritis, but the shoes are part of the whole package that keeps me moving. And as my (close) friends will know, I’m already no stranger to minimalist running in the right circumstances….;-)