Sunday 28 August 2016

Workouts and Minimalism: Vibrams are your Eventual Friend (Part 1)

This time around, I'm going to talk about exercise and alternatives to being a gym rat with all the latest and greatest gear. In a lot of cases, the weigh, resistance, and movement of your own body is all you need. As with my other posts, I'm not trying to recommend against something like, in this case, going to the gym. But it doesn't have to be the only way. And one piece of gear that I continue to love since I tried it out are my trusty Vibrams, which I'll focus on in this post.

Warmup Anecdote

Let's rewind 15 years or so. In my case, my university added a gym, for which the student body had to pay an additional mandatory fee. As a relatively sedentary person, I was initially outraged. After paying the fee a few times, I decided if I couldn't beat them, I could try to join them. And it was then that I started using the gym.

As I got more accustomed to going, I felt the need to always have access to a gym -- otherwise, how would I work out? Surely being surrounded by barbells, ellipticals, treadmills, and sweaty people availing of all of them was part of my inspiration to push on? Put another way, I found it difficult to envision working out at all without all of these codified distractions.

A number of years later (~2005 or so), I got into running. Chiefly on the treadmill, but I started running outside. It was on the trails, paths, and roads that I realized what a step forward really felt like. It became clear to me that the treadmill (or "dreadmill", as the term of endearment goes), while beneficial with all of its preset race training, modes, and elevations, was no match for stepping on real ground and the amount of energy that was required to propel forward.

Gradually, I learned about the "proper" running shoes I was supposed to wear, with specific cushioning that corrected my overpronation. I also learned that shoes were expensive and needed to replaced early and often -- so I was told anyways! It likely comes as no surprise that I have a tendency to not accept this sort of mould and explore the alternatives. :)

Interval Training: Five Finger Time

I'd trained for a few races over the years in a few pairs of traditional running shoes (from 5ks to half marathons). The common themes were that they'd wore out quickly and I had recurring knee pains -- the latter being another narrative about runners (that largely turns out to be a myth and indicative of other issues, but that's a larger discussion possibly for another time.) Needless to say, I got tired of repeating the same behaviour and not feeling it was working for me. Whenever I hit that point, I feel: what's the harm in trying something different?

Enter Vibram five finger shoes (specifically the Komodo variety).

Image result for orange vibrams

I know what you're thinking, and no...I don't wear these for the style!

I bought my first pair in 2012.  Right away, what they lacked in style, they more than made up for in feel. Many people who use them describe what results is a style of running that feels "natural." I would agree; they felt so good.

Running suddenly felt great again. Best of all, I noticed my knee pain gradually dissipated. I felt revitalized.

Climbing the Hill: New Pain (And Gain!)

Just a quick public service announcement in the interest of preventing unnecessary injuries: If you're curious about Vibrams and take one thing away from this blog, this is it: start slow, and if you think you're starting too slow, slow it down even more until your feet adjust. I wish I took that advice; my knee pain went away, but by shifting to Vibrams too quickly, I replaced it with Achilles pain, which was even worse. It is not advisable to immediately start training for a half marathon in brand new Vibrams, even if you could previously run that distance in cushioned shoes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I'm glad I experienced the Achilles issues; the experience was a reminder that I was not diversifying my workout enough. While I could run for a long time and felt I had/have decent endurance, the next day I'd be in agony. Even with stretching. After those pains developed, I went to physio for a month or so where it became clear that I needed to build up more strength and introduce variety to my workouts. Physio exercises, bike riding, swimming, strengthening (thanks, among other things, to the Maximum Capacity workout, which I'll get into the latter in part two of this blog series).

Aside from taking that first step on a run in the early hours, I find maintaining variety to be the most challenging part of working out. Adding Vibrams and learning what I did about my body has helped me adjust and vary accordingly.

Speed Work: To Run in Everlasting Shoes

While I like a variety of workout, my favourite is still running in Vibrams -- any type of run, from free form to speed intervals to hill work.  I've run everything between 5 ks and half marathons in Vibrams and have felt great. They're also frugal living-friendly, which I'll get into in my breakdown of pros and cons.

Here are some of my favourite qualities about Vibrams:
  • The "natural" step feeling--there's something freeing about taking a step and knowing that your foot is going through the motion the way it's designed (gait). My first step in Vibrams was a mid-to-high foot strike, rather than a heel strike that typifies cushioned shoe running.
  • The fit--I always manage to get a perfect fit with Vibrams. No guessing about how much space to leave from your toe to the front of the shoe; the more flush with your toes, the better!
  • The long-term price--While a new pair of Vibrams isn't that much cheaper than a standard pair of running shoes, the amount of times you have to replace the former is far less frequent than the latter. Vibrams have no cushioning that breaks down. I'm able to run in a pair for a couple of years (I wear them to almost literal ground). Nice savings!
  • Strengthening new muscles--Cushioned shoes definitely "sheltered" some of the muscles in my legs, calves, hips, etc (the posterior chain). Vibrams bring these less used muscles to the fore; what results is a "good" sore and, over time, better strength and endurance. With cushioning out of the picture, each step is that much harder!
  • The style--I didn't love the way they looked at first, but I don't mind them now. The look signifies what the shoes stand for, for me: a return to something basic and bare bones that may raise an eyebrow (never a bad thing, IMO).
Some things I'm not a huge fan of:
  • Not ideal for winter running--My first pair (Bikilas) and second (Komodo) are definitely for milder seasons. I can usually wear them for the beginning and tail end of the winter, but I typically wear a minimalist shoe and insulated socks, to be safe.
  • Hard to find a lot of varieties in Canada--Our neighbours down south have a lot more choice (typical!) when it comes to Vibrams. If we had more choice, I might even discover that there's a variety of Vibrams that are winter-friendly. 
  • The stigma/"fad" perception--While this mentality doesn't sway me continuing to use the shoes, the thinking that they're a fad that'll just fizzle is a bit shortsighted, in my opinion. Also that they're pegged as causing more injuries--I suspect that comes from people who transition too quickly to them, as I did (refer to my comments above about Achilles tendinitis). 

Cool Down

Vibrams have been a good fit (pun intended) since I started using them four years ago. At a certain point leading up to my decision to try them, I plateaued with running, standard shoes didn't feel right, and my dull knee pain couldn't be ignored any more. I definitely transitioned too quickly to Vibrams, but learned a lot about my physical condition and what I needed to do to improve my running. Luckily, as I gained strength and slowed down on my barefoot shoes, I was able to find a routine that works for me. I pair my Vibrams with another set of minimalist shoes (as mentioned, for inclement weather); while I enjoy both, I would run in my Vibrams every time if I could.

I would recommend, without hesitation, that everyone interested in running and fitness try Vibrams. I want to qualify that, though: I'm not necessarily saying to throw out your Sauconys or Brooks and go head first into barefoot, especially if your current shoes and routine are working for you. If that's the case, Vibrams would be a nice complement to what you already do; you could do short runs or walks in them, and that'd add a variety to an already familiar type of activity for you.

If you're feeling discontent with a lot of cushioned running shoes you've tried, you might be successful with Vibrams, but start slow in every sense of the word. Taper off runs with your cushioned shoe, gradually introduce Vibrams, and build up your tolerance. You may discover new aches, new indicators of something else that's going on that you need to address; that's okay, and try not to be discouraged but rather see it as an opportunity to become a better runner. 

So, should you go with Vibrams? I say, try a pair, but go with whatever feels right on your feet -- we all have different constitutions. But find out if they're not for you, rather than taking negative hype at face value. I initially scoffed at them; now I can't imagine a run without them.

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