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Shoes and Stones

I was camping in the mountains with my family a few weeks ago.  We were staying next to a lovely river that was full of crawfish and good for tubing so we spent a lot of time in the water.  I mainly served as kid-catcher as they came down river in their inner tubes so they wouldn't end up in the next town, so I decided I'd make good use of my time.  I did this by testing out my newish running shoes for their ability to keep me from falling down and not get weighed down with mud and water at the Tough Mudder.  This happened to me at the Warrior Dash and it was both annoying and  made running really hard.  For that reason, I decided to go with a more minimalist shoe for this Tough Mudder training and found a Vibram style shoe by Merrell that didn't have toes.  I don't like the toes, mainly cause the toes provide more surface area for stinky feet germs.  But, I digress.  I bought these shoes back in the Spring because if you're going to learn to run long distances, you should do it in the shoe you intend to run the long distances in.  Shoe type can alter your gait and in the case of a typical running shoe vs a minimalist shoe, this is very true.

These are my shoes.  
There's been a big movement in the running world to get back to running naturally and not using overly cushioned running shoes.  The general consensus is that overly padded running shoes allow you to acquire poor running form and run in a heel to toe fashion instead of utilizing an intitial mid-foot/ball-of-foot strike.  We aren't supposed to initiate our running stride on our heel and if you don't believe me, go jog through some gravel barefoot.  Your heel does not want to be the first man down.  It doesn't have a lot of kinesthetic awareness and it also has a big bone in the middle of it that can't move out of the way.  The front part of your foot is more flexible and can react and adjust to terrain much more easily.  Apparently, heel to toe running leads to a lot of runner injuries, especially in the knee.  I really don't know if there are any formal studies on this, but I've had success with it in my own practice and so I'm going with it.  Additionally, a significant number of people have reported fewer injuries when they change their stride to a more natural mid-foot strike.  They typically train this by running hills and/or running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe.  If you are not running on natural terrain, however, I would recommend that you find a shoe that is specifically for road running.  Trails may be more challenging, but they are much more forgiving on the joints (also purely speculation based entirely on personal  experience.)

If you want to read more about barefoot running, start with this article for some of the pros and cons:

Humans may have been built to run barefoot, “but we did not evolve to run barefoot with bad form.”

One of the crawfish we caught in the river.
I'm not going to defend my decision with anything other than my experience with track and field.  Watch the track runners at the Olympics and look at their shoes.  No one wears cushioned running shoes.  They have spikes and racing flats.  That's right, flats.  A sprint spike has spikes in the front to help dig into the track and no heel padding at all.  That's because track and field athletes run on the front part of their foot.  So, that's pretty much all the convincing I need. Cushiony running shoes may be okay if your joints hurt, but they can encourage bad running form.  I found that when running on asphalt, my cushiony shoes made my feet feel better, but made my hips hurt.  I have been mainly running in my minimalist shoes on trails and although my calves are certainly taking a beating, it feels pretty good.  As an aside, the bottoms of my feet are sore after running, but rolling them out on a lacrosse ball makes everything better.

And back to my shoes plus river; they worked great.  I did find that not falling was entirely dependent on my ability to place my feet in such a manner that they didn't slip out from under me.  And yes, I fell often and with great fanfare. I was also made violently aware by a pair of boulders a little too far apart that I can do the splits.  However, being wet did not make the shoes any heavier and they didn't produce any drag in the water.  They did let in some gravel and sand, but it washes right out so it won't be a problem as there will be no shortage of water to fall in on race day.  

Roundish stones, a shoe, and crawfish nets.
As it turns out, there are other advantages to falling down in the river a lot.  Mountain rivers are very clear and I could see the bottom of the river.  And guess what I found?  That's right, round stones.  I have been trying to find roundish stones for a while to practice throwing for the highland games.  The ones I've found that are heavy enough in my yard have sharp angles and are squarish or rectangularish.  Not really good for throwing.  But, here in the river, I found some good ones.  This was kind of irrelevant to the shoe/Tough Mudder subject, but an added bonus of being in a river.

So, in conclusion:

  1. Barefoot shoes can be good if they are appropriate for your terrain and you learn to run in them properly.
  2. If you are running a race that involves mud and water, a minimalist shoe may make running easier.
  3. Track and field athletes don't run with cushions on their heels.
  4. I am still tragically uncoordinated.  

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