I HAVE ABOUT TRIED EVERYTHING over the past few years of running in an effort to eliminate or at least reduce the persistent calf, hamstring, and quadriceps strains I invariably experience when I attempt serious training:
- Modified my training regimen to fewer, shorter runs at an easier pace;
- Drunk more fluids before, during, and after runs;
- Taken vitamins and other supplements;
- Been fitted for orthotics;
- Tried different running surfaces—pavement, off-road, treadmill, track;
- Done cross training (bicycle, swim, gardening, hiking);
- Gone to physical therapy;
- Taken yoga and massage (and used a massage stick)—wonderful, healing activities that nevertheless have not cured what ails me when I train;
Nothing seems to work, or work for long. Although there are many runners older than me who have put on more miles, it may simply be that my competitive running days are over. If that is the case, I cannot complain. This hard-on-the-body sport has been good to me, and taught me a lot.
I have enjoyed hundreds of pleasurable runs, alone and in company, and raced competitively for several decades in distances from 5K to the marathon. I have had success coaching men and women at the collegiate level, and organized several community road races like the Hatfield Harvest 5K. Even today, many of the lessons I learned under the stressful conditions of running find expression and meaning in other areas of my life. Running, the great metaphor. If my fate now is to be a casual athlete, so be it.
Yet I do miss the experience of going out and hammering a five-mile run, or running literally for hours, covering ground and observing my landscape at a unique speed, faster than a walk, slower than a bicycle. So I periodically respond to the urge, not to recapture my youth, but to feel fast and fit in ways that only running provides. My latest try is a pair of Five Fingers.
Those of you unfamiliar with the term can be forgiven for not realizing that they are running shoes, not gloves. It seems perverse to me to call something for your foot “fingers”; if the marketers were intent on alliteration, why not call them simply “Ten Toes?” Be that as they may, they are the latest development in running shoes, brought famously to attention in the 2009 best-selling book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall.
Born to Run is a quick and fun read, a fast-paced story about ultra-long distance running (we are talking 100 miles or more here, often in extreme temperatures over rough terrain), and the reclusive Tarahumara Indians who excel at it, without the conventional training and equipment American runners have come to depend on.
This includes the running shoe. McDougall questions the wisdom of the ultra-padded modern running shoe, arguing that these brightly colored shoes negate the foot’s natural strength and can lead to, rather than prevent, injury, more concerned with fashion than safety. Naturally, the book has been controversial in running circles and, while I found a lot of what McDougall wrote made sense, I was not ready to run right out and buy a pair of the new Five Finger shoes. The idea of using the best of technology to approximate the way humans ran before the invention of shoes intrigued me, though; the Five Fingers are like thin rubber gloves, with Vibram soles and individual toes, designed to enable the foot to strike and recover more naturally than a heavily padded shoe.
As a coach for nearly a decade at Amherst and Mount Holyoke colleges, I was often baffled by the frequency and severity of running injuries young runners seem susceptible to today compared to when I was in high school and college. In those unsophisticated days, we trained as hard as today’s athletes, but with less supervision and medical support. We rarely stretched and only changed shoes when the soles were well worn.
Yet it seemed like the main injury my teammates and I suffered from were occasional bouts of shin splints, a painful but relatively minor stress of the lower leg that can usually be cured by rest. Given the bevy of more severe ailments my runners and those on other teams were prone to, from plantar fascitis to Iliotibial Band Syndrome, Achilles tendinitis and even stress fractures—not to mention my own experiences with muscle strains—it is hard for me to dismiss McDougall’s premise out of hand.
So having exhausted all other remedies, I recently bought a pair of Five Fingers. My older brother has had good experience with them; he took up running for the first time after reading McDougall’s book, and began with Five Fingers. He has now gone through several pairs, and it is all he has ever worn—he has never run in a conventional running shoe. While he typically runs less far and is less competitively inclined than me, he regularly races in 5Ks and trains year-round, and has only had one minor injury.
I walked in my Five Fingers for the first time yesterday, a recommended way to acclimate to them before running. I had been told that people who land on the ball of their foot, rather than their heel, are less prone to injury with Five Fingers, which encouraged me, since I am naturally a “ball” striker. But I quickly learned on my walk that just because I run on my toes does not mean that I walk on them. I had to alter my walking gait to prevent the feeling of hitting my heels hard, but otherwise they felt fine, if odd.
You do not need socks with Five Fingers (and they are machine washable), and that had appeal during this stretch of hot, humid weather. Until your foot gets shaped to them, it can be hard to align your toes properly with each opening, but after a few attempts I managed to get all ten little piggies in the right places. I walked for an hour on dirt roads, but Five Fingers are considered appropriate for both long distances and pavement (a number of runners were seen wearing them at this year’s Boston Marathon).
I gradually got used to their barefoot-like feel, and today took them out for their first run. It was light, about 30 minutes at an easy pace, along some of the same dirt roads. The shoes worked fine, although they felt radically different from my conventional Nikes. The Five Fingers look a little funny, too; staring down at them I felt a little like Donald Duck. I kept my eyes on the ground more than usual, fearing rocks, sticks, or glass, but I landed awkwardly on only one small stone, which gave me a brief jolt that disappeared quickly.
It is far too early to know if the Five Fingers will help keep my legs healthy, and I did buy a pair of my favorite Air Pegasus running shoes at the same time, in case the Five Fingers do not work out. I may alternate the two unless and until one type of shoe proves superior. In any event, I have decided to try the latest technology to take me back, close to my pre-historic roots.