Couple months ago, I stumbled upon some articles arguing that expensive running shoes are actually not good for you. Now, what interests me in this topic is, that I have been running actively since I was 14 years old. However, some time around my 18th birthday I strained my knees during one run. It started at first with a slow pain on both sides of the kneecaps (I can’t remember anymore which leg), and then started to get more intense and spread around. I tried to keep running back home, but the pain became so severe I just couldn’t anymore. In retrospect, I would have been much better of if I had just stopped running at the point when the pain started to emerge and walked back home.
For the following week I was barely able to walk. My knee had become so stiff that bending the leg was a chore on itself. As time went by I started to slowly gain back mobility, but ever since I have not been able to do any long distance running. My knees are simply way too unpredictable; sometimes they start hurting after 20 minutes, whereas sometimes I can go for an hour or so without any signs of pain.
The first article made a case in point, that expensive running shoes are actually worse for you and cause more injuries than cheap alternatives with less cushion. With overly cushioned running shoes many of the feet muscles do not develop normally as you gain strength and endurance, and when you increase the distance or intensity of your runs this becomes a problem.
Human beings have naturally evolved to run without shoes, and apparently we have the physiology to become extremely capable long-distance endurance runners. Some anthropologists even argue, that persistence hunting used to be the main way prehistoric humans to hunt. This means basically running the animal to its death. Human beings are very efficient in dispersing heat from our bodies (that’s why we sweat so much), unlike animals such as antelopes or kudus, allowing us to keep running long distances even in midday heat. Even though the prey can outrun a human in short bursts, in longer time period it will simply overheat and collapse. Pretty cool, huh?
Literally within couple weeks of reading the first article about the woes of modern running shoes, I stumbled on another one regarding barefoot running. There is a strong argument for the benefits of ditching shoes altogether – at least for some runs and walks – and getting back to the natural way of running. The article also introduced me to a product called Vibram FiveFingers, which in essence is a shoe with thin rubber bottom that follows the natural curves of your feet and has all toes separated in their own “pockets”, making it possible to enjoy the barefoot running experience without having to worry about glass or sharp rocks.
Usually these things arrive to Finland a lot later than elsewhere in the civilized world, but I was so excited about the goofy shoes that I told about them to some colleagues at a lunch table discussion at work. To my surprise, one of them had seen the kind of shoes in one of the department stores in Helsinki. Few days later I walked home proud wearing my own pair of Vibrams.
I have now been wearing these shoes for a bit over a month; starting with just walking around the town in order to get my feet and those atrophied muscles used to the different step and feeling. I then slowly proceeded to go for actual runs, and I have to say that the feeling you get when running with these shoes is incredibly liberating! Unfortunately though, the shoes have not yet been able to provide any noticeable aid to my knee problems. I am nowadays doing only short-distance high-intensity interval runs as my knees seem to be able to handle those better than long-distance endurance running.
Already after the first run it was clear that Vibrams have a different effect on your muscles compared to normal running shoes. In my case I could really feel how the calf muscles and toes were working harder. Running itself was good, but unlike with regular shoes, I could really feel on my muscles that I had a run the day before! After the first 2-3 weeks of running with Vibrams I also started noticing, that when I went running with normal shoes, my speed and strength had significantly improved.
No matter how good the Vibram FiveFingers are, my most euphoric running experience happened about a week ago, when after finishing my interval run I decided to jog back home without wearing shoes at all. I carried the Vibrams on my hand and felt the tarmac beneath my feet. Now, of course I had to watch out for shrapnels of glass, but to my surprise I could hardly feel the small stones and sand that were on the road. The feeling of freedom on the other hand was intoxicating, and I did manage to turn a few heads as well when I ran past other joggers ;)
If you’re interested in getting the FiveFinger shoes for yourself, be very careful when choosing the size. These shoes have to fit tight! I bought the KSO model which has a strap for tightening, but I am afraid I might have still gotten a pair that is one size too large, and I am now paying for that mistake in the form of occasional small blisters on the insides of my feet.