An Old School Runner Experiments with Minimalism

An Old School Runner Experiments with Minimalism

Like a lot of runners, I’ve had my share of injuries, and like a lot of runners who have had injuries, I’ve looked high and low for solutions to my various problems (which have become more frequent and more widespread throughout my body as I’ve aged …). If you’re doubting my credentials as an Old Guy Who Has Been Injured a Lot, let me just say that I had a pair of Nike Waffle Racers before they became vintage footwear that can fetch thousands of dollars at Sotheby's.

A few years ago, I had a pain in my left heel, and after struggling with it for months, I finally went to see my physiotherapist (I know, I know, what was I waiting for?), who diagnosed Haglund’s Syndrome, a bony protrusion on the back of the heel that can cause irritation and inflammation of the bursa, a small fluid-filled sac that provides a cushion and reduces friction.

Long story short, I had surgery to shave down the bone and after a longer-than-I-expected convalescence, during which I did much less rehabilitation than I should have, I returned to running (and eventually, incurred other injuries, but that’s another story).

Before I had my Haglund’s diagnosed, however, I tried to run through the pain, and – of course – I tried to change my shoes, in the hope that would fix the problem. I’ve run in a lot of different running shoes over the (many) years, including 10 years as a sponsored adidas athlete, but when my heel started to bother me I had been running in Asics. Which were fine.

But I thought, maybe it’s the shoes. [Spoiler alert: it wasn’t the shoes.] So, on a friend’s recommendation I switched to Hoka. On the face of it, this made a lot of sense. More cushioning, and a reasonable heel-to-toe drop that would presumably reduce the pressure on my Achilles tendon. Didn’t work, though, and I went through with the surgery.

Then after I recovered, I came across Xero Shoes, a “barefoot”, or minimalist running shoe brand. I had missed the whole “Born to Run” boom, but I listened to the rationale behind minimalist running, and it made sense to me.

The theory behind minimalist running is that by encasing our feet in relatively rigid work and running shoes for years, the muscles in our feet become weaker and the joints in our feet become less flexible. If you’ve ever had your arm or leg in a cast, you know how quickly your muscles atrophy if you’re not using them. The extension of the theory is that if you work to regain strength and flexibility in your feet and lower legs, you will improve your balance and speed and decrease your chances of injury and recover more quickly if you do get injured.

I thought to myself, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something to that”, but I certainly wasn’t ready to dive into the deep end of the pool and throw away my “regular” running shoes, so I bought a pair of Xeros with the idea that I would run in them once or twice a week on my shorter runs. And of course I had listened to the professionals and I was planning to transition to minimalist running gradually, rather than running 20K on the first day and injuring my Achilles or straining a calf muscle.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get right back into running after buying my Xeros because I picked up another injury (I can’t even remember what it was). So I started walking around town in them. I figured that if running in “barefoot” shoes would strengthen the muscles in my feet and lower legs, so would walking.

And something interesting happened.

Most days I walked at least 10 kilometres, and pretty much every day I came home with very tired feet and lower legs. I could feel my feet behaving differently inside my shoes, which had a much more spacious toebox than I was used to (in my work shoes and Hokas, and before them my Asics, and before them, my New Balance, and before them …), and I could feel the muscles in my lower legs responding differently to the 5.5mm stack height and zero drop construction. [Stack height is the thickness of the sole and midsole; zero drop refers to the difference between the heights of the heel and forefoot. My Hoka Rincon – which I absolutely love – have a stack height in the heel of 29mm, and in the forefoot, 24mm.]

As you may imagine, coming home every day with tired legs and feet was not what I had hoped for, and I was beginning to think the whole minimalist running thing was a hoax. 

But then, dear reader, to my great surprise, after around three weeks, everything changed. All of a sudden, my legs and feet felt great! I could walk and stand (for example, for 12 hours at the Red Dot Running Company booth at the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon) all day, and come home with my feet and legs feeling great.

I can only assume that the three weeks of walking around had rebuilt the muscles in my feet and lower legs (“We can rebuild him!”) and once they were back on the team, I was good to go. It was fascinating.

And at that point, I had recovered from my injury (whatever it was) and was running again, but I did not feel I needed to adhere to my original plan of running once a week in my Xeros. I had already figured out (by accident) how to get the benefit I had been seeking. So, from then I just walked around in my minimalist shoes and continued to run in my Hokas.

Should you consider trying a pair of minimalist shoes? That’s up to you. I’ve always been interested in sport science, and physiology, and of course in trying to improve (though my days of setting personal bests are behind me, I’m afraid), so when the science of minimalist footwear was explained to me, it made sense, and I thought I would give it a try.

But everyone is different, and for sure there is no one proper way to run. Keep trying things until it all works for you, with your performances continuing to improve and your injuries infrequent. See you out there!

[First published on RUN Singapore, March 2021]

– Roberto

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