Yesterday, I had a relatively off topic post at Engineer Blogs discussing why thinking outside of the box is a good thing for engineers. I used the Vibram Five Fingers shoes as an example of how this can not only be a concept but come to fruition (and the the market). I thought I would go completely off topic today because I'm dealing with stupid BS that I don't want to deal with and I would rather talk about something enjoyable.
I'd like to say I'm an avid runner but I just don't have the time any more. I'm probably more than a weekend warrior but less dedicated than someone with a regular training schedule. I used to have a bunch of minor foot/ankle/knee/hip problems that were always nagging me. That was until I bought a pair of Nike Free.
Slipping on the Nike Free was like a caressing glove for my foot. Two things were immediately apparent after my first run in the Free: 1) the separation of the sole compartments means your foot conforms to the road and you feel more and 2) there's no way in hell you can run heel-toe in these shoes. Maybe smaller runners don't have this problem but I'm nearly 200 lbs and there's not enough padding in them to support that kind of impact. This essentially forced me to run completely on the ball of my foot, which is no easy task. It took a few weeks but I definitely can see the difference between running only on the ball of my foot versus heel-toe. Many of the annoying aches and pains in my feet/ankles/knees/hips have mostly gone away. Also, it forced me to change my stride to be more efficient and my running times have dropped significantly.
But I still wanted a more natural feel, so I tried a pair of the Vibram Five Fingers and went on my first run two days ago. My initial impression of the Five Fingers was that they were extremely weird. There's no padding or cushioning and depending on the model, you either get a nearly flat bottom or a modified tire tread. In these shoes, there's no margin for error with heel striking. If you cannot run only on the ball of your foot, then you're not ready for these shoes. Also, the separated toes aspect is insane, crazy, and totally works. I thought I would have issues with my toes slipping out of their little compartments but had no issues with it.
For a test run, I did my normal 4 mile loop, which is all on the side of the road or sidewalks. My normal time is somewhere between 27:30 and 30:00 depending on how hard I'm pushing it. The course is mostly flat with only minor hills. For the first 2.5 miles, the shoes were great! I was able to feel the road more. I definitely felt more twigs and small rocks that I normally don't. And it's very hard not to run fast in these shoes. I had to constantly restrain my effort because I was concerned something might go wrong and I didn't want to have to walk 2 miles back to my house. After about 2.5 miles, I started to notice a few problems, namely blisters forming under my big toes. Part of this problem was from me pushing it too much (I should have only ran 1 or 2 miles) and part of it was having the trail version of the shoes which has a significant tread under the big toe. You can see how that looks in the figure below.
I slowed down and tried to run on the grass next to the sidewalk, which was pretty difficult because it was dark and I couldn't see where I was stepping. I hit a few ditches (com'on people! fix you lawns) and decided to deal with the blisters and stay on the sidewalk. Even then, I was still under 29:30 which is at least an average run for me. In the future, I plan on using these on the trail runs that I do on weekends where the toe will (presumably) sink in to the ground and not cause blisters.
The last comment that I'll make about the Vibrams is that they are definitely not for the inexperienced runner. I run exclusively on the ball of my foot, even for long runs that last an hour or more. Also, my guess is I'd be somewhere near 5 minute mile run if I was really racing that distance. I'd like to think that qualifies me as someone who isn't bothered by the lack of heel striking in the shoes. But nothing could prepare me for the cramps, aches, and overall workout that my calves feel right now. The 2nd day after a race or hard run is really when you feel it and I'm definitely hobbling around. My calves haven't had a workout like this since I started with the Frees, and even then it wasn't this bad!