Danny Abshire, the force behind Newton Running Shoes and the author of Natural Running, is my new hero. I have made previous forays into minimalist running, with mixed results. After reading Born to Run, I went out and bought myself a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and started using them as a training tool. I was aware that I needed to start slowly, and I built up a mile at a time to a maximum of five miles, one day per week. I did end up injured during this time period, but I can't definitively say if it was due to the Five Fingers. I was running about 40-45 miles per week at the time, so my injury could have been caused by general over-training. I suspect the Vibrams were a contributing factor, but not the only reason I was sidelined for several months with a shin splint so severe the doctor suspected a stress fracture and had me do a nuclear bone scan.
Now that I know what it's like to stare longingly at other runners like a kid on the wrong side of the playground fence, I want to do everything I can to stay healthy. It was a ridiculously long recovery full of small gains and demoralizing set-backs. I tried a myriad of things to repair and prevent my shin splints (which have a number of definitions, but in my case was a severe pain where the tibialis anterior attaches to the bone on the inside of my leg above my ankle and extending for about four inches). I read a lot of articles (not much else to do, after all) and did a lot of icing (helped) stretching (helped) foam rolling (definitely helped) acupuncture (probably helped) deep tissue massage (didn't help) KT tape (probably helped) calf sleeves (caused a setback) and chiropractic (helped somewhat). This was over the course of the fall and winter of 2010/2011. I was doing fairly well, when one of my setbacks prompted me to start looking a little deeper at my running form. While running the first of a back-to-back series of half marathons on New Year's Eve, I ended up with pain in my left leg, in the exact location that I had been making progress in on my right side. It wasn't as acute as my right leg (and it never did get as bad), but it made me realize that the forces that caused my initial injury may not have been entirely external, that is, I must have an imbalance that was causing my injury and unless I fixed it, I would be stuck in an endless cycle of injury and recovery.
One turning point came when I heard a podiatrist speak about the barefoot craze. One of the things he said was completely obvious and yet a total revelation to me. He related an anecdote about a woman who came into his office from an injury she sustained while trying to transition to a minimalist style of running, yet she wore three-inch high heels to the appointment. Minimalism, for it to be effective, is a lifestyle choice and cannot be compartmentalized to the hour or so a day that you spend running. You can't expect to make gains in foot strength and stability when you're walking around the majority of the day in footwear that has the exact opposite effect. After hearing these remarks (that not coincidentally, are echoed in Abshire's book) I immediately put away my high-heeled winter boots in favor of flats. I can honestly say it made a difference. My shins were much less aggravated after making this relatively simple change (although the hems of my jeans suffered in the Oregon rain). In addition, I also started backing off on the level of support in my regular running shoes, choosing to wear mostly racing flats and keeping one pair of Nike LunarGlides to wear if I am feeling particularly fatigued because they are a neutral shoe with "dynamic support," that is, fairly fluid support as opposed to rigid stabilizers.
The other change I made was to improve my core strength (also advocated by Abshire) by taking classes at Twist Sports Conditioning. My husband has been insisting that I add weight training to my routine since he graduated from the National Personal Training Institute and I understood the reasoning, but I had been putting it off until Twist and Portland Fit teamed up and the gym gave the Assistant Coaches (like me) a discount on classes. The workouts are designed to get runners moving outside of the sagittal plane, focusing on side-to-side movements. They incorporate lots of balance work as well as weight training, including body-weight exercises. I started doing these workouts in my Five Fingers simply because it is easier to balance on a BOSU ball when you can grip it with your toes, but then I noticed that I was activating a lot more of the muscles in my lower leg with the minimalist shoes vs. my running shoes. I feel that the Twist workouts as well as my choice of footwear have combined to strengthen the auxiliary muscles in my lower legs, greatly improving my shin splints.
It was at this point that I read Natural Running. Of course, I didn't actually read the entire book before I got all excited and tried out his technique. I went out for a training run with the intention of keeping Abshire's tenets in my mind: mid-foot strike under the center of mass, slight lean forward, high cadence. He has some stuff in there about what to do with your arms too, but I'm pretty sure my arms aren't the problem, and I had enough to remember as it was. So I took off running and then, I flew.
Of course, I didn't literally fly, but it felt like it. My average pace for a training run ranges from about 9:40 to 10:40. My half marathon PR is something like 2:01:00, or roughly a 9:15 pace, and I haven't been able to approach that since before my initial injury, though I had run several races since my recovery. On this day, I ran sub-9:00 minute miles. Seven of them. In a row. And not just a little under, I ran an 8:47 average moving pace. Granted, my heart rate was soaring, but so were my spirits. It truly felt like a breakthrough. I finally understood the forward lean, I really had my cadence down, and it all felt...natural.
Then I read the rest of the book, in which Abshire recommends trying out Natural Running for about ten minutes at a time to start off with, after you've already completed a dozen form drills. This was just like the time I read Chi Running halfway through and tried out that method, only to strain my lower back and realize I had gone about it all wrong after finishing the book. I'm not sure if I am demoralized or cautious, but I haven't been able to duplicate that fantastic run again. Maybe it's guilt, like Danny Abshire is going to somehow know I ignored his advice and cheated on his program, or that his dire predictions of screwing up and getting injured or making my form worse by not training in precise increments will materialize.
I can't cut my miles down to virtually nothing so I can build up to Natural Running slowly as Abshire advocates because I'm in the middle of training for a 50k. So now I have quite the conundrum: Do I keep my same old form and risk injury, or do I go for Natural Running form without following the program explicitly and risk injury?
Comments here would be much appreciated.