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Monday, March 14, 2011

Shoe Evolution: Adapting to a Minimalist Shoe

Just a little over a year ago, I was hobbling around nearly lame from excruciating knee pain. Simple runner's knee had progressed to a major injury, and I ran my first marathon so injured that my patella strap popped off mid-race because my knee had swollen so much. Less than six months later I was running pain-free and getting faster with every race. How did I heal?
I wore less shoe.
Take a look at my shoe progression.
Brooks Ariels, Saucony Triumph, New Balance, Karhu Fast, Saucony flats

1. I started out with Brooks Ariels, a massive shoe with heavy, solid arches that absolutely prevents any kind of pronation. The shoe weighs an incredible 12.3 ounces, and is about as flexible as a cinder block.Worst of all, I wore these with stiff orthotics! The result? Heavy, unnatural gait and severe knee injury that led me to the doctor.
2. Next came Nike Craptastics, a pair of shoes so cheap and poorly made that I got blood blisters from deteriorating insoles. I bought these from the same running store, as my doctor (typically) recommended new shoes for a knee injury. They felt all right on - wide toe box, good fit - but all wrong when I ran. They were also a stability shoe and my joints felt jarred with every step. My runner's knee was compounded by a gigantic black and blue bursa injury.
This is the only picture I could find of my Nikes (L) because they are no more.

3. The light! All at once I bought three pairs of shoes in my quest to replace my dying Nikes. About this time I started researching running gaits and knee injury, and I concluded two things: first, that pronation actually protects your knees, and second, that I do not overpronate. My shoes wear on the inside because I push off with my big toe joint. We call this, um, bunions. I settled on the Saucony Triumph, a men's shoe, because they seemed likely to stand up to many long runs. They are tough, but best of all they were a flexible neutral shoe. These were my first neutral shoes and in days my knee pain had subsided.
4. I moved on to a pair of now -discontinued New Balance shoes that are very lightweight, flexible shoes. I loved the lightness of this shoe and ran four marathons in it - however, I did not rely on it much in training because as you can see it has a very high heel. This cushy stacked heal makes me heel-strike, especially when I speed up, so I felt a little uncomfortable. I could tell that it was making me change my gait.
5. My beloved Karhu Fast Fulcrum shoes had been waiting in the wings all the while. I had been "saving" these shoes for shorter races because they have basically no outsole. But I love the nearly zero-drop heel and the superb flexibility. The "fulcrum" encourages mid-foot strike, which I like because I already mid-foot strike. I began a secret plan to train for and run the Mardi Gras marathon in these shoes, part of my move to more minimal shoes. I almost ditched the plan after I had a bruised toe following The Wall 30k, but I stuck with the plan and PR's at the marathon in the Karhus.
6. Because I have an addiction, I recently bought the Saucony Kilkenny flats. I like that they are basically no shoe at all, but the wells where the spikes would screw in decrease overall flexibility.
Compare the heels on my Brooks Ariels and my new Saucony flats. Geez.

During this past year of shoe experimentation, I came to a few conclusions.
1. Our bodies are smart. We do not need to retrain our bodies to do something we are designed to do and have been doing all of our lives. If you over-pronate, it's probably to compensate for some gait or structural anomaly. A more flexible shoe lets your body work the way it has learned to.
2. If it makes you change the way you run, don't wear it. Honestly, I am not a fan of altering your running gait. I know many people are advocating Chi running and barefoot running, but if you have to make major changes to your stride to adopt a new style you are begging for injury. Running should feel natural to you. When I run, I don't want to think about how I am running. I don't have "perfect form" (according to whom?) but I also ran five marathons in six months injury-free. When I bought the Nikes, the short and  wide toe box seemed ideal for me. And indeed, the shoes fit my feet well. But they forced an uncomfortable, unnatural landing that hurt every step. I felt back and neck stiffness after a long run. The Karhus claim to adjust your gait (that's what the fulcrum does) but it works for me because that already IS my gait.
3. If it isn't broken, don't attempt to fix it. Sorry, guys, I had to correct that old and wise phrase! Don't jump on every running bandwagon. Are you in pain? Injured? Slow? No? Then keep the shoes you've got.
4. Go slow. If you make shoe changes, do it gradually by working a new pair in. I did this with all my shoe changes and I still rotate shoes. Right now I am wearing mainly my Karhus, but I wear my New Balance a few times a week because I'm cheap and I'd like to get my money's worth. Once a week I work in my flats. My Saucony's seem stiff and heavy to me now, so I have relegated them to gym only. 


  1. I notice you never used Aesics? I wonder how they match up to your flats. I use them and like them but have never used the flats. I am intrigued.

  2. Kyria, I've tried Asics on before and the fit was never right. Also they weigh a lot. Their cushioning neutrals are 9 or 10 ounces. SO I never bought any.

  3. Great progression, glad it worked for you!

  4. I wear Asics and they seem to work well for me. I recently downgraded from the Kayano's to the GT 2160's because they are a bit lighter (and cheaper) and they seem to be working good. I haven't had any injuries yet, anyways.

    I am still fascinated by Vibram's and barefoot running though. I kind of want to get Vibram's just to strengthen my feet/leg muscles!

  5. #1: agreed. And not just with running/shoes. If we take care of ourselves and use the right tools - our bodies are designed to do some amazingthings without "man's" interference.

    How about Sauconys that aren't XC shoes? They make road flats too (as do their competitors). I run in their A2's which probably have moved on to A4's or something now since they have to "update".

  6. I run in Mizuno's & love them. When I was training for the marathon last summer, I talked to the guy at my running store about maybe going to soemthing with more cushion and he basically said, if you are running pain-free, it's the right shoe for you. I love my Mizunos and I love that they are a pretty inexpensive running shoe.

  7. Great advice!! I'm slowly moving to less and less shoe too. Although, i'm really taking your 'go slow' to heart and taking it REALLY slow!!

  8. Tomorrow my running partner and I are going to check out Southern Runner on Magazine St. I hope they can point me in the right direction. Which running store do you go to?

  9. My daughter wears Saucony Kilkenny flats and loves them!