The Footwear Post

A month before the North Face 50 miler I started to experience some pain in my left foot. I first noticed it after 3 days of flat road running in Maui, where Kristin and I were meeting up with some Aussie friends on a so called babymoon. It actually felt great to get some turnover after months of hilly strength training in Marin (the rainbows and tropical breeze helped too). On the penultimate day i decided to enter a 10k road race to experience some of the local running culture and get one last speed session in before returning home to hills. It took about 5km for my legs to warm up but after that I found my rhythm and managed to reel in the 5 guys in front of me, one by one, to claim a nice little win on the road.

Unfortunately, after the race is when the pain started around my metatarsals. My heart sank when I considered the possibility that I may have blown my chances at TNF50 before i even got to the start line. I took 3 days off and made an appointment with a pediatrist the following week back in SF. As it turned out, my injury was a relatively minor soft tissue sprain, most likely caused by the sudden surge of road and speed running mixed together.

The images below illustrate how I attempted to treat the injury:  1) Submersed in a contrast bath and 2) protecting it in a pair of Hokas, my first use of these shoes after several months in the closet. The contrast baths proved to be quite effective, whereas I bailed on the Hokas after a few days because they started making other parts of my feet hurt.

 

What struck me about looking at these photos is that they represent two extremes of a new wave of “natural” running footwear (or lack thereof).  On one side you have the barefoot running craze made popular by Chris McDougall’s book, and on the other side, you have the Hokas, which in their own strange (and really bulky) way are trying to promote healthy and successful running.

As always, i’m skeptical of extremes.

As the argument goes, the unencumbered foot served us well for millenia, and we should let it do what it was evolved to do without inhibiting its natural mechanics with overbuilt shoes. This makes perfect sense to me.  But just as it took centuries of evolution to run for long periods of time in (more or less) bare feet, it also seems logical that it should require a very gradual progression to return to this state after years of running in overbuilt shoes.  So i cringe a bit when i see people jumping into barefoot running with the same abandonment as people who plunge into the latest diet or health fad.  It might make sense in theory, but it should be treated with caution and lots of careful experimentation.  Personally, I don’t want to start from scratch with barefoot running, and even if i did, the sheer volume of miles i put on my feet and nature of the terrain i run on warrants at least a moderate level of cushioning and protection.

This statement might suggest the use of Hokas, with their 40mm high uber sole, that are somewhat reminiscent a low-top version of the moon boots i used to wear as a kid.  To their credit, they have taken a truly radical and out of the box approach, and i have to respect that.    But unlike the natural running theory that promotes forefoot/midfoot strike to be more like running barefoot, they actually encourage heel strike by making it more comfortable.  From their website: “we allow for more cushioning than any other shoe on the market today, dissipating up to 80% of the shock associated with heal striking when running”.  In doing so, they seem to dull the senses of the foot and inhibit its natural mechanics of absorption and propulsion, rather than empowering them. This isn’t what i’m looking for in a shoe.

With that in mind, I prefer a more moderate approach to natural/minimalist running and consider the following simple criteria when selecting shoes 1) good fit (snug around the heal and mid foot, somewhat roomy toe box), 2) light weight, 3) minimal heel-toe drop.  The shoe market is saturated with shoes that are targeting this exact criteria, and some are doing it quite successfully.  But over the last few years, the shoe  I keep returning to are Newtons.  They promote natural running form with a minimal (to zero) heel-toe drop that encourages midfoot/forefoot strike, are extremely lightweight and breathable, and provide excellent cushioning and comfort thanks to their unique forefoot lugs.   On top of all that, they do it with panache and style.  They are the kind of shoe you can show up to a party in San Francisco (or even the office) and expect compliments  on your colorful choice of footwear.  They even made an appearance in my wedding photos last year!

So for now, i’ll save my barefoot running for the occasional strides in the grass or the sand, and the Hokas for those days when my wife’s heels are threatening our height differential.

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