Monday, June 9, 2008

(Don't) walk a mile in my shoes

Day 6 since my last run (counting the scratch marks in the wall) and my achilles tendon is starting to feel a lot better. My brain, on the other hand, is going spare.

A lot has been written about how the runner's body makes all sorts of pleasure-inducing, pain-inhibiting substances, but I used to think that this only applied to fast runners and that whatever slight dribble of endorphins my body managed to squeeze out while I chugged along would have less mind-altering effect than, say, a good cup of tea. However, I think I was wrong about that because I'm seriously craving a run right now. Even the usually reliable, healthy substitutes, like coffee and chocolate, aren't working.

It's my own fault of course. It was silly enough trying to run those speed intervals in the marathon training program at, well, speed, but on top of that I made the fatal mistake of wearing... shoes.

Most runners wear running shoes. You go to a race and you see a lot of colourful, expensive, very high-tech running shoes. A pair of running shoes might last 600-1000km which, even for a newbie runner like me, doesn't take that long to do. So the average runner spends quite a lot of money on shoes each year. But it's worth it, we are told, to protect our feet, our joints, our muscles and tendons from the pounding that they would otherwise get when we run, especially on hard surfaces.

There have always been a few mavericks who choose not to wear running shoes; who argue that humans evolved to walk and run barefoot; that modern, cushioned shoes distort the running gait and can actually increase the risk of injury. These people are generally treated in much the same way as an Australopithecine would be if it turned up for a fun run: interesting, amusing, out of the ordinary, but definitely a different species. However, barefoot runners have refused to go extinct and hang on stubbornly, albeit as lonely individuals or in small remnant populations.

Despite living in Australia for most of my life, I have English feet: soft, sensitive, delicate... in other words, pathetic, especially for walking on rough, hard surfaces. Barefoot running held about as much attraction to me as fire walking. So when I began running last year I invested in a pair of moderately expensive running shoes based on the good advice of a specialist running shop. And very comfortable they were too compared to the ancient, clapped-out objects that I'd previously worn for my rare, athletic activity. But after a few months of running I started to get knee pain, and this gradually worsened until it stopped me running altogether. Some visits to a good sports physiotherapist helped a lot. I learned that the root cause of my problem was that my running style was not entirely optimal. It was crap in fact. My right leg had a strange tendency to buckle at the knee, as if it was trying to swap places with my left leg. The ungainly action that resulted put all sorts of damaging stress on my joints and tendons, eventually causing them to complain painfully.

I needed to learn how to run better, and I got interested in the claim of people like Barefoot Ken that running without shoes can improve your action and reduce the risk of injury. I started out with a little barefoot walking, gradually working up to 1-2km runs on concrete and bitumen. But my wimpy English feet didn't enjoy the abrasion or the frequent punctures from pieces of broken glass that seem to litter every stretch of local footpath. I looked around for some sort of minimal protective footwear and found Nike Frees and Vibram Fivefingers. The Frees seemed a bit too much like shoes. The Fivefingers looked interesting but, locally, cost more than I could afford. Then I found Barefoot Ted's running sandals. These looked like just the thing: minimal, cheap and with traditional cred. But I couldn't get Barefoot Ted to reply to my emails so I decided to make my own. About $5, a rubber doormat, some foamy stuff and a tube of glue later...

I christened them Slowmo's Cheap As Chips Running Sandals and they worked a treat ! It took a while to get used to running in them (which I'll talk about another time) but I found that they made me feel lighter, surer, like a runner in fact... And, no more aches and pains !

So why was I misguided enough to go back to shoes to run my first speed interval session ? Fear I think, an irrational regression to the belief that it would be better to wear shoes for this new exercise.

Ah well, despite the achilles tenderness, the self-criticism and the endorphin withdrawal, at least I have the perverse satisfaction of knowing that it was running shoes, and not my barefoot(-ish) sandals, that caused the problem.


ASPHYXIA said...

Hey how are you going with your achillies issues? I am having similar problems and I also think it was from wearing.... yep..... shoes. Was too embarrassed to be seen leaving work to run home in the FF.

slowmo said...

It's been a good lesson for me: worrying what others are going to say or think leads to pain :)

Runbare said...

yeah, get crazy and wear whatever you want. or wear no shoes :) It's fun to have people point and stare. And it annoys the parents of small children, who HAVE to wear shoes.