Monday, November 23, 2009

Trail Shoes: Less is more?

A year ago I was flying down Company Mill trail in Umstead and stepped on a sharp rock. It went right through my soft running shoes into the middle of the ball of my foot. It was like an electric shock, emanating from my foot through my entire body. The last time I had that sensation was when I broke my arm. I limped home.
I think I broke my third metatarsal, because it hurt for months after, even just standing or walking. I added an extra foam insert to my shoes and that seemed to help.
But even now it feels like there is a small bump there, like a bone spur or something, and when I am barefoot it hurts to walk on it.

Trail Shoes
So this past summer I went shopping for trail shoes. I tried on a pair of Brooks Cascadia, supposedly designed by trail running god Scott Jurek. On the bottom of the shoe, right around the ball of the foot was stamped "Ballistic Rock Shield". Sold! Exactly what I needed.

I took them out for a test on the rocky Company Mill trail. The thick cushioning did insulate my feet from the trail, but that didn't feel quite right. They felt unstable; with each step my foot sloshed from side to side, front to back. Leg turnover felt slower and harder because of the soft footing, kind of like running in sand. But hey, these shoes are designed for trail running. Who I am to question shoe experts? Or Scott Jurek?

Triple Lakes Trail Half Marathon
Back in October I ran the Triple Lakes half in my new Cascadias. Trying to "firm up" the feel of the shoes, I tightened the laces up very tight. So much so, that my instep felt bruised afterward.
But it didn't help, my feet still "sloshed" on top of the thick cushioning. During the race, I was following a guy who had the exact same shoes, and he suddenly stopped.
"Are you all right?", I asked.
"Have to retie my shoes. Damn things are giving me blisters on my heels!"
So somebody else was having issues too.

Later, I read a race report at Barefoot Josh's blog. Josh had run the same race, but in aqua socks (thin rubber slippers). I couldn't believe it. Here I am with my fancy $100 "Ballistic Rock Shield" high-tech trail shoes, and he's running in $6 Walmart slippers?

No Shoes?
Around the same time I read the "Born to Run" book. Like Barefoot Josh, the book advocates barefoot and minimal running. For my entire running life, I believed that the more cushioning in a shoe the better. But now I am convinced that actually the opposite is true. It seems so obvious now.
The barefoot advocates suggest that runners ditch their shoes and just jump right into barefoot running. However, I figured that I should at least be able to walk barefoot before I try to run, and because of my injury from last year that has been progressing slowly.

Red Shoes
I also have a pair of bright red "Brooks Launch" shoes. These are advertised as lightweight trainers/racing shoes. I bought them to run 5K road races in because I thought they would make me faster. They didn't (see the "Red Shoe Theory"). While the shoes are light, they are not comfortable and feel like running on big Styrofoam bricks.

So a few weeks ago I thought I would try the less is more approach. I removed the "sock liner" inserts, which are a half inch of thick foam. I then tried them on, and they felt thin, flat and hard; not good at all. But when I took them out for a run on the single track trail, I was amazed. With the Cascadias, I run over the trail, suspended precariously on thick unstable soles. But with these thin red shoes, I run on the trail, making firm contact, and able to move my feet much faster.

What about the rock?
What about the rock that broke my foot last year? Don't I need the "Ballistic Rock Shield"?
As Barefoot Josh explains, the rock doesn't hurt you if you don't put all your weight on it.
I had to change the way I run. Instead of leaping down the trail in long strides, I now take a lot of quick, little steps. Each step is tentative, and non-committal. If I step on a rock, trip on a root, or roll my ankle, I don't commit, and don't put my weight on it. I relax the leg, and bend at the knee and wait until the other foot comes down. At least that's my theory, and it kind of sounds like a lot of bullshit.

So I decided to put the "less is more" theory to the test, and wear my cushion-less Red Shoes in the Raven Rock Rumble. Will it work? Or will I break my foot again? (to be continued)

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