During 2012 my running has changed. I made the mistake last year of buying a bargain pair of shoes that felt so soft and comfy I thought they’d be a dream, but they turned out to be a nightmare.
They were so flexible that they collapsed under foot, and therefore caused so much work for my lower legs I couldn’t control my feet for long, and the shins started to hurt. Then my calves that were already over worked gave way and my knees took a hit. I was not a happy bunny.
After a lazy Christmas/New Year I started with Accelerate, and the cause of these issues became clear to me, along with the discovery that I was actually a mid-foot striker. No longer tortured by the mystery of why I didn’t land on the comfy heel I’d paid for, I embraced the opportunity to start from scratch, and go with a more ‘Natural Style’ running shoe.
Natural Style simply means more like running with no shoes on, or more specifically – less heel to toe differential, or ‘drop'(so far I’d used shoes with a pretty standard 12mm drop from heel to toe). There are plenty of shoes with less drop that still have plenty of protection between foot and floor, so I began testing shoes until settling on a pair of Inov-8 Road-X 233 with 6mm drop that felt right for me, and that appeared to allow efficient running while I was on the shop’s treadmill.
This is where the demands of Natural Running came sharply into focus. The phrase too much too soon sprang to mind. Sure they were lightweight and responsive, that was to be expected, but my mileage had to stay in the 1s and 2s for me to avoid aches and pains.
My distances increased to the point I was satisfied that I’d found my shoe, and that the Sheffield Half Marathon was going to be the next in a long line of success stories for 2012. Then during a slightly longer run than normal I felt a nagging ache in my left foot, somewhere near the ankle, not too strong. Just enough that I couldn’t ignore it, I continued running while thinking about it and spent the second half of a 9 mile loop feeling like something was unusually tight. Next day was a rest day, and just getting out of bed my ankle screamed at me. I’d pushed my luck, forcing tired legs to go too far – and with no great heel height to fall back on.
A fortnight ahead of the Sheffield Half, I was now suffering tendinitis in my left Achilles thanks to pushing ahead on a sore foot, and I’d nobody to blame but myself.
All the things I should have been doing since I bought the shoes(stretching, rest, Ice) would now be employed during the short period I had before race day. Off my feet for a week and a half, I managed to turn up for the event, completing the course in a reasonable 1hr 36mins, and blaming the heat for my finish time. Truth is, as hot as it was, I still hadn’t run very much in advance, and there’s no way anybody can go from no running whatsoever – to training in a completely different shoe – and cope without there being some sacrifice.
If I went and bought a shiny new Barbell – then hit the gym and attempted more weight than I’d ever lifted, I’d fail. At the very least I’d ache all over. Doing too much in any new shoe is just as unrealistic. Barbells facilitate the lifting of weights, running shoes facilitate running. They’re equipment, and the amount you can do with them depends entirely on a gradually increased workload with regular rest and respect for the consequences of overdoing things.
It’s for this reason that people should consider a series of ‘Transition’ shoes, to gradually reduce the heel-to-toe differential until it becomes manageable – easier to run on the front of your foot the way you would in bare feet. From shoe to shoe, minding that you can still maintain good form, try reducing the drop a few millimeters at a time, and over the 600 miles it’ll take to wear the shoe out, your body will get very used to them. As long as you make a small change each time, or take on a very different shoe in very small doses, you’ll find they help to develop strength in the relevant areas.
The human foot is designed to land at the front, and as the heel lowers toward the floor, it dampens shock and stabilises ready to allow the push-off phase soon after. Manufacturers have brainwashed us into adding as much padding as we can cram into a shoe, air bags and all, until we’re wobbling about atop foam rubber stilts, pounding our heels, but not for too much longer. There is already a massive move toward 8mm drop being the new norm.
Post Half Marathon, I’ve switched back and forth between road and trail shoes, some with as much as 9mm drop, some with zero. So far so good. Though I still find I don’t make it as far as planned – every plan involves more mileage. My left Achilles still aches, but I’m stretching all the time, and know not to push my luck if it’s particularly grumpy. It helps to have a ‘tool box’ of shoes to choose from, so I can chop and change as conditions dictate. Worth thinking about if you usually use the exact same shoes for everything you do until they fall apart at the seams.
Having a second pair extends the life of both, while allowing you to alternate and never run on shoes that are still recovering from the previous outing(they take a while to slowly expand/return to their original form, eventually staying rather crushed by default, which is when you’ll feel less bounce in them than when they were new). Now that I’ve seen the aches subside, and the Calves have woken up, I’m enjoying stronger legs, and getting out for some pretty lengthy runs. I’m entered for a couple of Ultras later in the year, and though I won’t be taking my 233s with me, they’ll have stood me in good stead.
For those attracted to Natural Running for whatever reason, there are various transition shoes. Depending where you are to begin with and how strong you are, a 12mm, 9mm, 8mm, 6mm, or 4mm drop can help your calves get used to the pressure of running on the mid or fore-foot, while allowing you to still enjoy yourself and avoid injury. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew. For more information, the chance to test some Inov-8 natural style trail shoes and lots more, you could do a lot worse than attend the Natural Running Course as part of Holywell Health’s contribution to the Big Running Weekend.