Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The obligatory gear post


As a self professed minimalist/barefoot runner, I have already begun to get questions about what kind of shoes I wear (we'll get to the irony of that in a minute). So, I figured I'd take a moment to get those questions out of the way and talk a little bit about my thoughts on running gear in general.

The Shoes:
You're looking at 'em. At the moment I am running in a pair of huaraches made from a 4mm Vibram cherry sole, 6ft of nylon cord and a tracing of my flat, ugly, hobbit feet. I purchased them from Steve over at They work great. As anyone who wears huaraches for running will tell you, figuring out the best tying method is the hardest part, but after that you're good to go. I've opted for the slightly more old-timey toga/Jesus-cruiser tying method. I've tried the slip on method most people seem to like, and not only did I not like the feel of the extra cord around my ankle, I actually found it harder to put on. Just goes to show you how much it's all about what feels right for your feet.

The sensory transmission is just right for road and groomed trail running I think. The total lack of artificial cushioning really forces you to transition to a running form that allows your legs and feet to soak up landing forces in a much smoother fashion. If you run with incorrect form, it will only happen once. I promise you. I really wouldn't want to do any serious running on rocks as the thin sole wouldn't provide much relief from odd pressure points and sharp edges. That being said, doing so would certainly encourage you to give a little more thought to where you place your feet which may result in fewer injuries over the long run in exchange for speed.

I've had a bunch of people ask me if I run in Vibram FiveFingers shoes. The short answer is this: Only if I have to. 

First off, I'd like to point out the irony of spending $90-125 on a pair of shoes so you can run "barefoot." Seriously? I should market a line of "naked" clothing to nudists. Anyhow, my personal thought is that there is a small subset of barefoot/minimalist runners out there who do a large ammount of trail running, or who run ultras, where the extra protection from debris and better stability through odd conditions naturally make VFF shoes a preferred choice over sandals, or nothing at all. Everyone else can do just fine with less. The logic goes something like this.

If the form of the running shoe is no shoe at all (philosophers, discuss), then the practical manifestation is a shoe with as little "there" there as the conditions will let you get away with, allowing your body to do what it's designed to do. For example, I do almost exclusively road running at the moment. I could go barefoot as a few brave barefoot commandos out there do. However I look at it like this: While certainly not that much harder than hard packed earth, asphalt and cement are certainly more abrasive. So, since my running surface is slightly removed from "natural" conditions, I want a little something to help compensate, nothing more, nothing less. If lived in Seattle, I might want something that works well where it rains 364.5 days out of the year, either from a traction or thermal protection standpoint. I think you follow. Which brings me back to the VFFs.

I'd love to run in my huaraches year round, but somewhere along the way I made some bad choices in life and ended up in Wisconsin (I kid, I kid). The hard fact is that it gets really damed cold around here and it snows. If I want to keep running through the winter, I'm going to need some thermal protection for my feet, and ideally some aggressive tread to help contend with the snow. So, as much as I'm loathe to doing so (because lets face it, forking over three Hamiltons for a pair of shoes is way better handing over ol' uncle Franklin) I will probably end up purchasing some kind of mimimalist running shoe that will keep my toes from falling off once the temps start to drop. At present I'm leaning towards a pair of VFF Flows, but a number of manufacturers are coming out with products soon so I plan on holding out as long as absolutely possible before making a choice. Then, as soon as the spring thaw comes, I'm going back to the huaraches.

Don't get me wrong, Vibram makes a stellar line of products and I'm glad that the growing interest in their shoes has introduced scores of people to the benefits of barefoot running. I just think that people should be made aware of all the options, and not just sell themselves on the idea that barefoot running is somehow a technology thing.

Bits and Bobs:
At the moment the only other piece of kit I use is a Nike+ Sportband for logging my runs. I thought about a GPS watch but for my needs over the foreseeable future, this should work fine. It's easy to use, fairly accurate, and gives me the flexibility to use the sensor with my iPod touch for those times when I want to run to music, but still want to keep the amount of "stuff" to a minimum. The only downside is that, while I've figure out a way to strap the foot sensor to my huaraches, it looks damned peculiar (not that the fat dude running in toga slippers didn't look odd to begin with).

Maybe, way down the line, I'll get a GPS watch if I start running trails because then things like elevation and location would be nice to track alongside pace and times.

I've noticed that the modern day amateur athlete seems to be obsessed with gear. I find it somehow ironic that people who are the most consumed with exploring the limits of the human body are equally, if not moreso, obsessed with getting the newest coolest gear available on the market. I personally think it has to do with the popularization of events that previously were the exclusive domain of the elite athelete; the marathon and now the triathalon. I think a lot of people have been sold on the idea that if they wear the newest carbon fiber spring motion control shoes, ride the newest aero titanium-carbon bike, eat the magic diet, take the right supplements, eat the goo, drink the drinks... that they will be able to run with the Usain Bolts and Lance Armstrongs of the world. Maybe I'm cheap, but while I certainly find all the neato whizbang stuff the sports companies come up with to be exceedingly cool, I don't think that it's necessary. There are a small number of us who have reached the limit of what our bodies can do in which case maybe some tech can help. For the rest of us... I'm not convinced. Maybe in the world of cycling I can see the benefit because the man is only half of the man-machine equation. But particularly in the world of running, I've long though that things have been a little out of control. Is there any research that indicates that the $150 running shoe with carbon nanotube supports, bedspring shock absorbtion and the optional hand-job accessory helps people run better? Sure its cool to have the newest kit, but I think that a large segment of the amateur athlete community honestly believes that they have to spend the money on all that stuff to play.

Even worse I think is the seemingly smug attitude adopted by folks who buy into this whole hog. People seem to think that if they have that little oval marathon or triathalon decal on the back of their car they are somehow superior to all those folks who put on their grubby work out clothes and eight-seasons-out-of-date, worn out running shoes every day and grind it out.

I think that one of the most important lessons from the barefoot running movement that is unfortunately overlooked is the importance of form, of technique. Of teaching your body how to go farther, go faster, and not get hurt. Really, the barefooting thing isn't just about not wearing shoes. Its about how not running in shoes forces you to run in a more biomechanically efficient way... of how we've somehow let our gear obsession get in between us and really listening to what our bodies are telling us... and how focusing on the basics can let us do all the crazy things we want to do and enjoy it at the same time.


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