Seven years ago, I, like many other fitness enthusiasts, bought a pair of Vibrams, the minimalistic ‘five fingered’ shoes. Barefoot exercise was supposed to be better for your feet, ankles, and legs, making you perform the way your body was made to, in its natural state. As a recreational runner who had experienced my fair share of shin splints and stress fractures, I remembered with fondness running through my back yard as a kid, barefoot and without pain. I wondered if maybe this is how I should be running. Maybe this would be the solution to becoming the runner that I always wanted to be.
Despite having to learn a new technique by running on my mid foot and not heel-toe, I was running pretty well in the Vibrams. (I still slipped into a heel-toe stride from time to time, but a sore heel reminded me I wasn’t running the right way.) My husband and I would go out for three-mile jogs on the weekend and I happily had no shin splints. After weeks of running I was convinced I had found my holy grail to running – I had found the vital piece that would make me a real runner. Now it was time to cross something off my bucket list – running a marathon.
Initially, running in the Vibrams killed my calves. My feet and arches were also sore. It took some time to build up strength and stability to go for a run in the Vibrams and not feel delayed soreness. My feet had to get used to absorbing the shock of hitting pavement over and over again. As my training scheduled intensified, my soreness faded and I was feeling great. The only other hazard I had to deal with during my training was the obvious one – having to watch my step. Constantly. You have to always pay attention to where you are running. Sticks, sharp rocks, glass, and uneven pavement don’t feel the same in Vibrams as they do in regular running shoes.
A few weeks before our first half marathon, I noticed that I was able to spread my toes. This was something I had never noticed before. I was able to stretch my feet and toes out horizontally. It was incredibly odd but I definitely knew it was the result of running in my Vibrams.
On the day of our half marathon, I tweaked what I thought was a minor ankle issue in my weaker leg. In the last few miles of the race, I continued to run despite the pain. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was in agony. I stopped running, savored the joy of running my first ever 13 mile race, and then I could barely walk. The swelling in my ankle was so severe I had to limp on one foot to the car. What did I do to myself?
What I had was peroneal tendonitis. The lateral muscles of the calf wrap around the bony prominence by your ankle. This was where my tendonitis and pain was located. Whether it was ankle instability, the result of running on uneven surfaces, injury due to repetitive movement, or the lack of shoe cushioning, I had recover quickly if I had any chance of running this marathon.
This is when I turned to physical therapy to help with my recovery. It was the end of August, and the marathon was in October. My doctor naturally recommended I stop running and run the marathon the next year. However, I wasn’t going to put in all this time and effort (not to mention money, marathon entries are expensive!) to just end it all.
I stopped my training runs, switched to the elliptical machine, and did routine physical therapy. Eventually my therapist began taping my ankle to allow me to run. During this time, I could only run part of the longer runs, logging in 3-5 miles instead of 18 or 20. I wasn’t going to risk further injury so I ran what I could and stopped. I was discouraged, frustrated, and angry. I was mad at my physique (I don’t have the long and lean physique of great runners), mad at my weak ankle, and mad at myself for wearing the Vibrams. But at this point, I couldn’t switch back to a shoe; that could have made everything worse.
I made the decision to run the marathon, knowing that it would not be the marathon where I tried to reach my goal time. My goal was to simply finish the marathon and run as far as I could; I didn’t care what time I got. I just wanted to be able to walk to the car after the race. No limping this time.
On the day of the race, my ankle was taped, my feet were strapped into the Vibrams, and I was ready to get this damn marathon over with. With my ankle stabilized, I felt ready to run. Other than dealing with my injury, my biggest obstacle during the race was running over all of the bridges in Chicago. The bridges over the Chicago River are made of steel grates that slowed down my stride and elicited “ow, ow, ow!” from my lips. Damn Vibrams! (However, they were an advantageous choice of footwear when we were sprayed with hoses from bystanders and when my feet got splashed with Gatorade – I didn’t have to deal with wet, squishy shoes afterwards since they dried quickly and since I didn’t wear socks.) Throughout the race, I saw a handful of other Vibram runners and even a barefoot runner, which somehow evoked a sense of kinship…other people that perhaps knew what I was going through, someone I could relate to and bond with.
I was able to run about a good 17 miles before things started to go downhill. My husband kindly reminded me not to push it, and we ended up doing the run-walk thing for a few miles. As the miles increased and the temperatures pushed 85, we walked more and ran less. In the end, I ran the last couple of miles, ready for that brief moment of satisfaction of crossing the finish line.
It was over.
My pain was minimal and I was able to trek all the way back to the parking garage without limping. Of course, I didn’t get the time I wanted – I was about an hour over what I wanted to finish at (before getting injured), but I ran a marathon and I just had to be happy with my accomplishment for what it was.
About seven months later, I was back in Chicago again for another half marathon. This time I was wearing Nike Free shoes. They are minimal gym shoes, but they do have padding and protection. I had no further injury, partially from the shoes and partially from running less mileage.
Today I still wear the Nike Free shoes, primarily because they are one of the few shoes that fit my permanently wide feet (thanks Vibrams). I’ve added my name with the countless others to the class-action lawsuits brought against Vibram. I don’t know or care if anything comes out of it, but I simply want to be recognized for the three pair of $100 Vibrams I bought, and for chasing a dream.
While the jury is still out on whether barefoot/minimialist running is better or worse for you, I’ve pretty much decided to stop running. It’s been six years since the marathon and I only run on occasion. My knees are in tough shape from years of physical activity and I have to get my cardio in on elliptical machines now.
In the end, I have no regrets. I don’t regret falling into this craze because that is what got me to run my first and only marathon. I guess what I failed to realize was what the impact was going to be on my lower extremities: the flattening and widening of the feet and the impact on my joints. However, I gained a lot of strength and stability in my feet and ankles as a result.
Now the Vibrams sit in the back of my closet. Possibly to be used for the pool, hiking in and around water, or as an unfashionable alternative to flip flops. My arches are still flatter and my toes can still stretch out. And all my shoes are wider now. I used to think I had decent looking feet. Not anymore.
Were you one of many runners with Vibrams? What was your experience like? Tell me in the comments!