When new acquaintances find out I run, and especially when they find out that I have run ultra marathons, I often get asked, “Do you wear those toe shoes?”
I say no, although I do have a pair for walking around in. “I can’t wear them,” I say. “But my husband has a pair and he loves them.” I feel like I’m losing street cred by the minute. But I, like a lot of people I think, have discovered that minimalist shoes are not the shoe for me.
Here’s what happened.
I’d run one marathon and was training for the second when Vibram Five Fingers began to get popular. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall had just come out and was getting a lot of notice. The main claim McDougall makes—namely, that most common running injuries are due to modern running shoes—was perfect. It was extremely provocative, and given that the average runner has a major injury at least once per year (one study noted that 74% of runners studied experienced a moderate or severe injury during the course of the study), it was the sort of thing that would be very attractive to a lot of people looking to avoid losing running time, missing races, and the psychological pain that goes along with being a runner who can’t run. At any rate, when our local running store, Berkeley Running Company, started carrying the VFF, I got a pair and tried them out.
I forced myself to start slowly. I naturally have a pretty short gait, and I may actually have been more of a mid-foot striker anyway, so transitioning over to the shoes wasn’t an issue. There were the (inevitable?) blistering problems, of course, but if only I could work through them, I thought things would be fine. I tried socks. After the winter, I switched to the Bikila. I kept working at it, and, eventually, ran a half marathon in them.
Then, the New Balance Minimus came out, and I switched to that. With a 4 mm drop, as opposed to 0 mm on the Bikila, a slightly thicker outsole, and room for socks, it felt much more comfortable than the Vibrams ever did. I trained for my third marathon in the New Balances.
A few weeks before the race, I went out on a training run. As I was passing a pond near my house, a great blue heron flew out of it and across the street. I turned my head to track its path, and simultaneously brought my foot down on the divider between the shoulder and the road and rolled my ankle. The pain didn’t go away, and, two weeks later, the PT told me I’d subluxed my cuboid bone.
It was essentially bad luck, a freak accident, nothing more. I would run again, although I did miss my marathon. But just to be sure, the PT videotaped me running on a treadmill and played the tape back in slow motion. The conclusion? I pronate, a lot, just as I land. That means that with each step, I torque the tendons in my ankle this way and that.
At the time, I dismissed this, concluding that since I’d just done almost all the training for a marathon (including a couple of 20-mile runs) in minimalist shoes, that I was in no danger. But after a couple of successive ankle injuries lost me more marathon entry fees, I began to pay attention.
See, the thing about forefoot striking in particular is that it takes a lot of pressure off your knees, as the illustrations in this article show. This is why when people switch to minimalist shoes and a forefoot striking gait, they see knee problems resolve. But there is still an impact when you hit the ground; that isn’t eliminated, and it has to go somewhere. In my case, it turns out that, as for Achilles before me, my ankles are a bit of a weak spot, and that’s where the impact was going.
I’ve switched now to the Brooks PureGrit, because it’s a trail shoe and I feel it’s more sturdy side-to-side. It has a low drop (4 mm), which I like, and although it weighs 8.9 oz (compared to 4.8 oz for the VFF or 6.4 oz for the Minimus), it’s comfortable and has worked in lots of conditions. I’m relatively happy with it. My ankles are still not great, but I’ve started doing more ankle exercises, and maybe that will help.
In general, I try to be skeptical of arguments from an evolutionary perspective, because I think they are easy to make and difficult to prove. (I’m also a paleo diet skeptic.) If one were to argue, as McDougall seems to, that we evolved to run in a certain way, I would reply that it seems to me that even if we assume that ancient peoples had many members among them who were good runners, the whole point of living in a group is that not every member of the society has to be able to perform all tasks necessary for survival as well as every other member of the group. Any given member just has to perform some one task for the society well enough to survive to get his or her genes back into the gene pool. Thus it’s as possible that genes for bad ankles (and other biomechanical problems) got passed down as well as genes for being able to run really far barefoot.
Besides that, humanity has a long tradition of using technology to circumvent deficits. We invented javelins and bows and arrows so we could hunt at distance animals we were too slow to catch on foot; we invented stone arrowheads to compensate for having tiny teeth; we invented building fires, which compensates for not having fur coats. Wearing sturdier shoes while running is just one more way of compensating for a deficit, and I’m okay with that.
Emily Lupton is a writer living in Madison, WI. After beginning to run seriously in 2007, she has now finished races at all distances between 5km-50km, plus a few triathlon and duathlons. To read her race reports or her totally cool, not-running-related novella The Joy of Fishes, check out her blog at http://pretensesoup.com.