Monday, August 31, 2009

Comments from the sidelines of the running shoe revolution

The New York Times had an article yesterday on the "back to basics" movement in running shoe design (link). The last few decades of increasingly more sophisticated (and more expensive) running shoes have apparently not lead to any reduction in the number of running injuries. A passage in "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall cites the statistic that there is a correlation between how much money people spend on their running shoes and how likely they are to become injured. More expensive shoes equals more likely to become injured (however people who spend lots of money on running shoes might be likely to run more...)

I started experimenting with the Nike Free 5.0 a couple of months ago after reading "Born to Run" (which I highly recommend). The Nike Free is marketed as a training shoe, providing minimal cushioning and support in order to develop and strengthen the foot muscles. It is claimed by proponents of the back to basics movement that shoes with too much cushioning make the foot muscles lazy and weak from under-use, increasing the likelihood of injury.

I bought my Nike Free's from Paragon in New York in July, and the next day did a 15 mile training run in them through Brooklyn and Manhattan. My feet did get a little sore, but I also noticed some tiredness in my core muscles and glutes that I had never experienced before: these muscles were being engaged more to power my running. I also noticed that my posture was more upright, whereas in cushioned shoes I tend to lean forward quite a bit when I run. Since then I have ran exclusively in the Nike Free's while training for the fall marathon season. I am not sure I would recommend these shoes for marathons, but at this point I am not sure I want to run a marathon in my regular cushioned shoes either. My old running shoes felt like superbly comfortable slippers when I tried them on recently, but I couldn't imagine running in them again. One unexpected benefit of the Nike Free's is that my chronic lower back pain has completely disappeared, a back pain I have had for several years. It never occurred to me that back pain can be caused by running.

Some drawbacks of the Nike Free's. There are deep carves along the length and width of the soles in which small stones become trapped. I have found it necessary to remove stones from the soles once or twice a week. I have also had problems with the sizing of the shoe: the upper of the right shoe sometimes presses quite a bit against the top of my foot, causing some discomfort on longer runs. Other people have recommended going up a size when buying these shoes.

My conclusion so far is that the Nike Free's are a stepping stone on the way to running in lighter shoes. I will probably keep using the Free's for training, but I would like to find a lightweight shoe with a little more support for long distance running.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence Marathon

Yesterday I ran the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence marathon. I did not find transcendence. The race took place in Rockland State Park, near Nyack in Rockland County, New York. It was hosted by the Sri Chinmoy spiritual organization.

This was not a typical marathon for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was held on a Tuesday morning, in the middle of August (and over 80 degrees). Secondly, it consisted of 9 loops of a lake with aid stations at every mile providing sea-weed, M&M's and coke. There was a very serious-faced poet stationed at one point who for the entire race read inspirational pieces in a monotone voice about overcoming adversity to reach one's goals. Musical groups seated in the shade along the course sang us happy, bouncy songs. There was a guy under a tree playing a sitar. I turned up at the race ten minutes before the start and was told while picking up my number that I had plenty of time.

I ran the race in my Nike Free 5.0 running shoes, which I had been experimenting with for the past month. These shoes are designed to make you feel like you are running barefoot, providing minimal cushioning. They lived up to their goals: my feet and legs hurt quite a bit after 18 miles of pounding. The hardest part about the race was seeing my car parked on every lap and wanting to jump in and drive home. I recorded my second worst time ever for a marathon (4:17), and almost fell asleep in the car driving home. In hindsight, I had a great time. Looking forward to next year...