Going the Distance with Vibrams

I started running about two years and four months ago.  As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was in a hate-hate relationship with running for the 30+ years prior to that.  But after seeing Vibrams around and brought up in several conversations in the months prior, I decided to get a pair, just to see how they fit and what benefits could be had from them, even just for walking around.

The Challenges
There are three challenges that come when you acquire your first pair of Vibrams.
  1. Getting the damn things on!  The first month or so, it could easily take me 2-3 minutes to get them on.  Nowadays, I can get both pairs on in less than 30 seconds.  But my toes weren't as used to the feel and the need to spread out as they are now, so trying to get each toe into each slot proved a bit challenging.  
  2. Dealing with the looks, because you will get looks.  In fact, I think the social challenge for many is the biggest hurtle.  It feels quite challenging to walk around in Vibrams because they don't look "normal".  This is amazingly ironic since most foot apparel does not look "normal" by any means (in relation to what the foot looks like).  I wonder sometimes how it is that Uggs, Crocs, and stilettos are somehow more "normal" than a pair of shoes that replicates the foot.  
  3. Oh, Hi there muscles that I never knew I had!  Realizing that changing to a shoe that reinforces the traditional ways in which our feet actually operate can be painful in that there will be muscles that have been vastly underworked now trying to catch up with muscles that may be overdeveloped because of the ways traditional shoes work.  
The Questions
Coupled with these challenges, I also get these questions:

Question:  Doesn't it hurt your feet?
Answer:  To start running in them, yes.  I got tired and sore feet as well as my share of blisters.  But the foot was meant for walking and running, barefoot.  It's designed to move barefoot.

Question:  But what about rocks and glass?
Answer:  Running in Vibrams or barefoot does mean you need to pay more attention to the ground.  But that's a good thing because it often takes your mind off the distance.  But rocks and glass are not as traumatic for Vibrams as they may appear.  Glass or metal, unless it's stick up at a crazy angle is not likely to do harm with the Vibrams on.  Rocks can be trickly.  But something that happens when you start running with the Vibrams is that though your foot toughens up with some callouses, it remains extremely sensitive.  I cannot count the number of times that I came down on a rock and was quickly able to switch balance because I sensed and reacted quickly.   Your feet are amazing sensors when given the opportunity to response.

Question: Doesn't that do harm to your knees and back?
Answer:  I've actually found my knees and back doing much better since I've started using them.  Knees and back hurt because as runners or general walkers we land harder than we should on our feet.  We don't realize this because our shoe cushions our feet.  It doesn't cushion our knees or back which still feel the impact of hard steps.  However, with Vibrams or while barefoot, we can't slam down, we have to purposefully plant and absorb the step and it relieves the stress on the rest of the body.  What's actually has happened is that my foot and lower leg muscles have seriously developed so that they receive each step, lessening the pressure on the rest of my body.  The only place this is challenged is when I run down hill where the pull of gravity delivers a bit more pounce with each step (which is why I actually enjoy running up hill way more than I do down hill).

Question: Doesn't it feel weird to run in them?
Answer:  Initially, it certainly did.  But now, it feels natural and right.  I love that I feel the impact of each step and that I can feel such balance, grip, and centeredness because of my Vibrams.

Keeping Stock
Clearly, I made it through these obstacles and am now an ardent fan of the shoes to the degree that I (when possible) buy them in bulk when they are on sale.  (Let's not talk about the fact that I've turned into that running person who buys such things in bulk--another post for another time, I suppose).

Newest to oldest; left to right
I just started on my third pair of Vibrams in September.  My second pair of Vibrams probably still have decent mileage on them, but I wanted to start with a new pair and break them in fully before I did the marathon in October.  However, what's great with the Vibrams is that you literally can wear them down until there are holes in the soles.  In fact, I still have my first two pairs of Vibrams and will use them substantially this winter for runs on the treadmill.  In this way, I can maximize the life of the three pairs and hopefully have the third pair carry me well into the next year.

My first pair.  I'm still able to use them on the treadmill.

Starting to show some wear,
but still has a few hundred miles left in them.

The new pair, ready to go.

Going the Distance
A lot of runners I know who are interested in Vibrams tend to be reluctant for a few reasons.
1.  Knees and back.  Many are concerned about how it will hurt their knees and back.  As mentioned, my experience is that it has improved these or at least taken some of the stress off of them.
2.  Retraining.   Switching to Vibrams will mean a loss of progress for some.  It will take a while to build up to the mileage that one is used to if they have already been running.
3.  Loss of Speed.  You trade in speed for stability and strength when you switch to Vibrams.  You are much more limited in your speed because of the impact factor.  For people who race for speed, this is a major detriment but for the rest of us, it just means adjusting your goals and recognizing that though you might be slower, you're getting more punch out of each step.

However, if you are flirting with running, I highly recommend the Vibrams.  The biggest benefit that it gave to me while building up to my marathon and beyond is that it kept me from running ahead of myself.  With shoes, it's very easy for us to outrun our bodies and thus mess up our breathing and rhythm.  Because I needed to start very slow with the Vibrams to get used to the new running style and the impact of each step, it means I was able to slow down significantly so that my body and breathing could work together to get me to the distances that I wanted.

In the end, I will never be a fast runner.  Of course, I never expected to be any kind of runner besides a non-runner.  But with Vibrams, I will always be a runner.

So what are your experiences with Vibrams, barefoot running, and other types of minimalist running shoes?

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