Saturday, June 25, 2011

Transitioning to minimal running without Vibram Fivefingers

As I mentioned yesterday, the Army's recent decision to ban Vibram Fivefingers in its formations doesn't come as much of a surprise to those of us that have been "in" for longer than a day.  If there is any surprise at all, it's that the Army recognized that there are other "minimalist" footwear options out there and actually referenced the term in their ALARACT message.  So what does this mean for those hoping to go "minimal" or those who have recently purchased themselves a pair of VFFs?  Are there any alternatives to running in Vibrams?

The short answer is a resounding YES.  What's more, Vibrams are generally not the type of shoe that one should  immediately jump into anyway.  What follows is my own personal view on how to safely make the transition from a classic marshmallow heel shoe that encourages a heel strike to a minimal shoe such as the Vibrams, with special emphasis on alternatives if you happen to be one of those soldiers that are now prevented from using them in formation.

For the record, I'm not a certified anything.  I'm not a doctor, physical therapist or podiatrist.  I know what has worked for me and many of my running partners and I hope to impart some knowledge based on my own personal experience.  This also isn't meant to be comprehensive but rather a primer on just what the heck minimal running is about and why you don't necessarily need Fivefingers in order to adopt the philosophy.  There are a number of great resources out there to do some further research such as runblogger.com and the science of sport.

First of all, if it isn't broken, don't fix it.  If you are running as much as you would like to, and are doing it pain free and enjoying yourself, then I wouldn't mess with success.  As I see it there are two reasons to try to alter your running stride (which, if it hasn't occurred to you yet, is exactly what you are attempting to do if you have purchased a minimal running shoe of some kind): injury prevention / mitigation and enjoyment.  From my own perspective, I was in the latter camp.  I never had any injury issues but I absolutely hated running.  I only did the minimum required to score well on the APFT and many times I preferred to up my score in other areas so that I could skimp on my level of running fitness.

Secondly, the transition is not going to happen overnight and if you attempt to make it happen that quickly, you are going to hurt yourself, I promise you.

Conceptually speaking, the idea behind VFFs is to encourage a barefoot running stride.  The shoes themselves posses no magical powers and serve only to keep your feet from catching the odd rock or two and the blisters your virgin feet would be covered with otherwise.  When you run barefoot though, something changes.  Your stride alters itself to accommodate the new sensation of ground on flesh and will shift naturally to encourage a forefoot strike.  Put simply, slamming your heel into the ground barefoot is painful, and your body won't allow you to do it, at least not for very long.  Go ahead, take your shoes off and run across the lawn.  You'll find that smacking your foot into the ground heel first will jolt you like a yugo rolling over a speed bump and you'll actually have to work in order to do it.  After you slide on a pair of Vibrams, the foot is only slightly more armored than it was previously and thus the natural encouragement remains.

Why is a barefoot stride even worth it?  This is a question that is at the epicenter of an enormous debate right now but there is mounting evidence that indicates that the forefoot strike encouraged by barefoot running results in far less shock to the body than does heel striking.  Check out Harvard's own Dr. Lieberman for more details on this.  Less shock equals fewer injuries potentially and thus folks are making the shift.  I myself average about 40+ miles per week and have never had any injuries to speak of outside of the natural soreness one might expect.

So, how does one make this transition safely?  My answer is slowly.  I would start with three separate pairs of shoes: your current pair, a more minimal shoe such as the Saucony Kinvara or road track flat such as the Nike XC Streak, and the Vibram Fivefingers (or just plain barefoot).  The idea here is two slowly integrate the last two into your routine until you don't need the first pair anymore.  If you are a heavy heel striker currently, which many people are, you will find that your first VFF run will set your calves on fire.  The reason for this is simple; you haven't used your muscles in a while.  Your joints have taken all of the shock, but now your muscles are doing all of the work.  Here is a sample schedule for someone who normally runs about 20 miles or less per week and wants to transition their shoes "downward":

Monday: Shod run 4 miles
Tuesday: VFF or Barefoot around a track .50 miles, and 2 mile shod
Wed: Rest
Thursday: Track flat run, 2.5 miles
Friday: Shod Run, 4 miles
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Shod Run 6 miles

Let your body tell you how to adjust this schedule but don't shift downward any more than 10% per week.  For example if 6/20 of your miles are run barefoot or minimally, don't jump to 10 the following week, just add 1 more minimal mile until you feel comfortable.  As a point of perspective, I have been doing this for over a year and a half now and have only recently reached the point where every run I do is in track flats or less.  Going too fast during this process will likely result in a stress fracture (as happened to me in my first month, from being a moron and doing EVERYTHING in Vibrams) that will set you back even further.

As you can see, the loss of the Vibrams to a soldier isn't really that big of a deal when you step back and take a look at the bigger picture.  Track flats, New Balance Minimus, Saucony Kinvaras . .. these are all shoes that not only meet the standard of AR 670-1, but help to encourage that forefoot strike that you worked so hard to achieve.  They are also going to keep you out of trouble with your First Sergeant as well.

You're just going to have to leave the VFF runs for the weekend and hope that your improved PT score will be enough to turn some heads and hopefully change some minds.

By Marcus with 1 comment

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