Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Minimalist Shoe Dilemma

So you were "born to run", like the "idea of minimalism", want to "run free"...the way mother nature intended us to, or maybe you just had to have those minimalist running shoes because they came in that awesome color combination, etc.

If you say..."yup, that's me" (yes there are many of us out there), there's a good chance you've noticed an increase in aches and pains, probably an increase in injuries, maybe you've even given up on minimalist running shoes or even running all together. Maybe you haven't taken the plunge into this "brave new world" of running, but are interested in trying.

Regardless of where you shake out on the topic there are a few important pieces of information we should all know before we start in order to be successful. Here's the 500 lb gorilla standing there in the corner is this...The IDEA of running in minimalist shoes is more pleasing then the REALITY you may be left with if not transitioned to properly. And even then its not for everybody.

I'll begin the "what should I know" with a small piece of my own journey. I have watched the explosion of the "minimalist" movement over the last 2 years and have heard the passionate testimony of folks falling on both sides of the aisle (minimalist is the way to go OR it's for the birds). The debate continues, however that debate has given rise to some very good new research on running mechanics and injury.

Up until very recently, I myself have continued running in the same old shoes I have run in for years. For me (this is my opinion, but know it is strongly supported by lots of research), drum roll comes the big secret, it's not about the shoes! It's about developing proper mechanics which is done through proper practice and by building the necessary tissue strength (stability), flexibility and endurance along with a whole host of other factors. Most of us know this, but most of us are also too impatient to take the time to do it properly.

So before we can begin to understand how we need to adapt our bodies to a minimal shoe we need to first understand what a minimal shoe really is. A minimalist shoe 1)has less cushioning and therefore lower to the ground as compared to traditional shoes, 2)has a smaller heel-to-forefoot differential a.k.a. "drop" (i'll explain this a little more soon). 3) and tend to be much lighter.

These are a few of my current running shoes NB 769, NB 904, NB 101(all New Balance - not meant to be an endorsement, just what I gravitate towards), non of which are by definition a true minimalist shoe. I am still working on the transition to a true minimal shoe like the New Balance Minimus Trail or Road.

Beyond minimal shoes like the New Balance Road and Trail there are the ultra minimal shoes, like the Altra Running Adam shoe pictured here.

Here's how these shoes compare:

Alright, so let's see why the considerations of cushioning and drop are particularly important.

Typically running shoes have a great big sole of soft cushy material that allows the end user to slam the heel of the foot into the ground during heel strike which sends shock waves up the leg into the spine with forces typically peaking around 4-6 times body weight (for a 175 lb man we're talking about 1,050 lbs of force). If the same form was maintained in a shoe with less cushioning I think we all know we wouldn't be running very much longer. On the opposite end of the spectrum, during toe-off, all that cushioning actually inhibits toe extension. Over time this can result in limitations in toe flexibility. When transitioning to a minimal shoe many of us realize that we must give up our old heel strike for a more friendly mid-foot striking pattern however fail to realize how much stress will be placed on the toes during toe-off as the toes are now forced to fully extend. This can often lead metatarsalgia (toe pain) and stress fracture just to name a few. The toes can be conditioned to withstand this stress, but it takes proper instruction along with some time and patience.

Drop, the simple way to say "heel-to-forefoot differential" is just a way to describe the difference in height between the heel and forefoot of the shoe. A greater drop means the ankle is positioned into more plantar flexion (point the toes down) while less drop translates to a more dorsiflexed ankle (pull the toes toward the shin). What does this mean functionally? In traditional running shoes our ankles are positioned in plantar flexion with the achillies placed in a shortened position. When transitioning to a shoe with a decreased drop too quickly achillies tendonitis is a common outcome. Here's an example of what various drop distances (measured in millimeters) can look like:

The picture above demonstrates the differences between how a foot would be positioned in a 0 millimeter (mm) drop shoe, 10 mm drop shoe and finally a 16 mm drop shoe. In the the 16 mm drop shoe the ankle is positioned in about 10 degrees of plantar flexion vs about 5 degrees in the 10mm drop shoe vs 0 degrees in the 0mm drop shoe.

So here's the bottom line: Having run in traditional running shoes throughout your life (raised heel with lot's of cushioning), its very likely that the muscles in your feet, ankles, knees, hips and core are not conditioned properly to wean yourself off these shoes cold turkey. If you begin running all your mileage in a minimal shoe you are likely to experience aches, pains and injury. Studies in tissue mechanics have shown it takes 6-8 weeks to see changes in strength and in some cases 10-12 weeks to see increases in flexibility. So to transition properly takes some commitment, but it can be done.

If you have questions, you have resources at your finger tips...literally. Whether you need advice on how to make the transition, need input on what exercises to perform or are coming back from an injury and need some video analysis to pick apart your current mechanics I'd be happy to play a part. Leave a comment or reach out to me directly at

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Standing On Rung One And Looking Up!

This past Saturday morning Renee, Lydia and I packed into the car and headed up to Morristown for the St. Patrick's Day 5K. It was a great morning for running, cool, clear and perfect for shorts and t-shirt.

Lydia and I pre-race (she's whispering race strategy in my ear!)

I met my goal of running between a 7:00 and 7:30/mile pace. I actually just about split it right down the middle with a official race time of 22:36, putting me at a 7:16/mile pace. Definitely not my best performance, not too long ago that was my average for a 1/2 marathon, but hey I'm on my way back (one race at a time)! Their were definitely a few hiccups and I think I could have realistically come in right around the 7:00/mile mark, but then I remind myself...hey, it was a great morning to be up and running.

Cooper River Bridge Run Course Map

So now it's time to look forward to the next rung of my ladder, the 10K. Renee, Lydia and I will be heading to South Carolina to visit my parents in a few weeks and it just so happens that while we're in town there's a pretty big 10K. The race consistently sells out their 40,000 entries well ahead of time! The Cooper River Bridge Run is a 10K which takes place in scenic Charleston, SC. The race begins in Mt. Pleasant, traverses the newly built Cooper River Bridge (my father would be upset if I failed to mention that this bridge is in fact the longest cable-stayed suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere!, this is the man who also introduced me to the worlds largest ball of twine and drove his family round-trip to Alaska amongst other great Bagley family moments!) and finishes in downtown Charleston.

A few more tid-bits about the bridge which should be of importance to participants like Renee and myself...the slope of the Bridge is 4%, the bridge is 2.5 miles long, so with a little very simple math we now know that's a decent 1.25 mile climb in the middle of the race. So in this case, although I am not a huge fan of treadmill running (nothing against treadmills, I just prefer to be outside no matter what the weather) I'll be putting in a little time on one for training specificity with mile long intervals at 4% grade.

Cooper River Bridge, Charleston, SC

Other important consideration for the 10K I have been thinking about include VO2max. If starting from scratch determining how to build this all important variable of endurance racing can be hard to grasp. But, with my 5K race time in hand I have a important piece of information to aid my training.

Most sources state that 95-100% of Vo2Max coincides with your current 3000 to 5000 meter race pace, or the fastest effort you can maintain consistently for about 8 minutes. Knowing this information allows you to set your training up effectively to work on improving your VO2Max.

So, based on my recent 5K pace of 7:16/mile I will make a few assumptions: 1. I ran this race moderately so its not reflective of all out effort. 2. I'll make an educated assumption that a more suitable pace to work with would be 6:45/mile (closer to my predicted all out effort i.e. 95-100% VO2Max). Now, we've got something we can train with.

Luckily, research has shown we don't need to sustain this pace for a long duration to see decent improvements in VO2Max. This is precisely what interval workouts are designed to do (I can hear some of you saying now..."Oh, that's what those things are for!"). The key is to sustain each interval for between 2 and 5 minutes at 95-100% VO2Max, in my case ~6:45/mile pace followed by an active rest (walking) and then repeated. A sample workout may look something like this: Ten 800 meter repeats with 1.5 minute rest interval in between.

Alright, there you have it...a little hodge-podge today on a recent race result, an upcoming race and some info you may be able to put to good use in your own training.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Getting Ready For The First Rung

As I mentioned in a blog a while ago, one of my running goals is to progress systematically through the usually race distances in ascending order, beginning with the 5K. This weekend represents the first rung of the ladder as I head over to Morristown to take part in their St. Patrick's Day 5K.

My goal for the race is simple...get back on the saddle and feel good finishing a race along with completing the first step of my proverbial ladder. I'm not heading out to set a PR, instead my plan is to set, stick to and complete the race at a comfortably moderate pace. At this point, that pace is not all that fast probably between 7:00 and 7:30 minute/mile. But as I found with a little research, speed is relative...

Think about these two feats of human performance for a second:

1. Sammy Kipketer of Kenya holds the world record for the 5K road race set in 2000 at Carlsbad 5,000 where it took hip a whopping 13:00 minutes to cover the 3.1 mile course. That comes out to a 4:11/mile pace!

2. Another interesting 5K record is one set by Dustin McClure who ran a 5K in 20:06 (that's a 6:28/mile pace) while wearing a 40 lb rucksack. That's pretty impressive.

So, as I look to come in between 21:45 and 23:30 I simply feel humbled by the above performances, but more importantly I am amazed at the capacity and potential of the human body!

Let's hope I don't pull a hammy!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I'd Like A Mouse Treadmill Please!

I don't like to pick fights (I think of myself as a lover/healer...I am in the health care profession after all), but I do enjoy lively debates, especially when it comes to topics related to health and wellness. One such topic I often find myself engaged in lively discussion about relates to the general public's perception of the positive and negative health benefits of exercise, particularly endurance exercise. I would be a very rich man if I had a dime for each time I responded to the remark "I don't run because it's bad for my knees" or "isn't there a pill I could take, a procedure that could be performed, or anything someone else could do to make this (insert your preferred condition here)better for me?"

Let's pause for a minute while I step up on my soap box...Yes I believe that we have found ourself in a culture that for the most part expects/hopes/looks for someone else to improve their condition. An unfortunate state. On the other hand I do believe in the bodies amazing ability to remain healthy through the decades of life when it is taken care of properly. There is no magic here folks, it just requires a little hard work and discipline. I often say to people "what do you think would happen if you stopped changing the oil and rotating the tires of your car and drive it 100,000 miles?" Everyone looks at me like I am goofy and replies in a matter of fact way that it would surely "break down!" Well, that's what most individuals do to their bodies.

So when a study came out this past week that found "Endurance exercise may be the fountain of youth" (for mice at least)I was pretty excited! Here's a quick run down of the study findings which was conducted by researchers from McMaster University in Canada.

The investigators split mice that were genetically engineered to age faster than normal mice into two groups, an endurance exercise group and a control group (no exercise). Here's what they found...

Mice who ran on a treadmill (yes they really did build a mouse treadmill!) 3x/week for 5 months looked as young as regular mice. On the other hand, the mice in the control group who didn't exercise demonstrated socially isolated behavior, were less fertile and began graying and balding as well. The researcher's concluded that the exercise offered protection against premature aging. I can hear many individuals now asking "where's the pill for that?" Sorry to disappoint many of you, but the principle investigator, Mark Tarnopolsky, said in the paper's discussion that "Many people falsely believe that the benefits of exercise will be found in a pill." Tarnopolsky, went on to say "We have clearly shown that there is no substitute for the 'real thing' of exercise when it comes to protection from aging." The investigators even tried to treat these animals with an "'exercise pill' and have even looked at reducing their caloric intake, a strategy felt to be the most effective for slowing aging, and these were met with limited success."

So, there's a little more evidence that consistent exercise is at the roots of our health and can truly be the fountain of youth! Now, doing it properly to avoid overuse injuries and the all too frequent weekend warrior syndrome...that's another story all together.