It’s been coming. I haven’t talked much about it because I have these personal superstitions that if you talk too much about something before it happens, it won’t come true. Coming back from a four miler yesterday I decided it was time.
I am now a minimalist runner. The transition is complete. That doesn’t mean the work is over, though.
What clued me in? It wasn’t just the mileage – which has been building nicely – or any one thing in particular. On a long run the other day I noticed something. That got me noticing other things. Subtle things.
A Breath of Fresh Air
The trigger was my breathing. It had changed. When heel striking I had a two step cadence. Two steps inhale then two steps exhale. As I was about six miles into a ten mile run I noticed I was breathing on a three count. It wasn’t something I had tried to do or even thought about. I don’t know when it happened or if it was that way from the start. There I was cruising along at a nine-minute per mile pace on a long, slow distance run feeling the motion and I noticed my inhale and exhale had changed.
Then I realized my breathing was easy and natural. When I ran with a heel strike my exhale was much more pronounced, like when you do benchpress reps. Now, in natural form, I had a conversational exhale. And I was running at a similar pace, with a higher cadence. Clearly, my diaphragm was not getting bumped as hard or my body was just more relaxed so the breathing was easier. I still did the tummy breathing as always, it just felt more comfortable.
There is a quote from Caballo Blanco in Born to Run that crossed my mind right at that point:
Think Easy, Light, Smooth and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget your practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one—you get those three, and you’ll be fast.
I had finally gotten to smooth. Fast was never my goal in transitioning to minimalist running. For me it is all about longevity and distance. I want to run a long time, in both senses of that phrase. That moment in a ten mile run I realized I could run much longer than I ever imagined. Yes. There was a smile.
The Feat of Feet
The transition has not been without frustration and some pain. As I said in the first entry of this journal, I’ve been running in modern shoes for more than 40 years. That is a long time for muscles to slack off and get out of shape. Those initial runs killed my calves because I ran too far too soon in minimal fashion. That was when I was still trying to figure out what to run in and what the right form felt like. I’ve tried a number of shoes and sandals as well as barefoot. Here are my weapons of choice.
My Luna Sandals and Lemming Footwear are my weapons of choice. There are other sandals and minimal footwear out there. I have learned that no two pairs of feet are the same, so what works for me may not be right for you. It is a bit expensive, but try some options if you can and let your feet be the judge.
Keep in mind that the transition takes time and no footwear is going to change that.
The transition will go through stages, which will also vary by individual. For me, the pain of conditioning seemed migratorial. Every stage of progress led to a different group of muscles protesting.
There was the top of foot pain that came early on. I thought it was because I had my sandals tied too tight.
Then came the arch muscle pain. You could expect that one, but it confused me that it didn’t come until I started to run in the 4-6 mile range on a regular basis.
For a short time I had some sensitivity on the ball of my right foot where the strap came between my toes. I’m a guy and don’t really pay much attention to my feet. What I discovered was a small callous from the strap that had grown to the point where it rubbed on the sole of the sandal. I do play guitar and my fingertips have small callouses, so this made sense to me. Nothing painful, but I did discover that sanding the callous off made it much more comfortable. That is now part of my routine every week or so.
Then came the ankle pain. I think it might have started from a slight twisting I had while working in the yard, but there it was on both ankles. It came when my mileage moved up to the 7-9 mile range.
With each of these pain points I listened to my body and didn’t push it. I didn’t shy away from the pain as long as it was not debilitating, but I didn’t ignore it. What encouraged me was that the pain would go away a short time after the run. I’m used to other muscle groups going through workout pain, but I’ve never exercised my feet or ankles. This was new territory for me.
I also learned to pace myself on my journey. It is not usual for me to rest multiple days between runs when I was moving to the next mileage plateau. I didn’t baby the muscles in pain, I just didn’t run as long or as often while the adjustment was going on. I found alternate exercise (riding my bike or doing P90 or whatever) for those non-running days. Walking around barefoot or in socks often and I tried to work my feet as I walked. Soar muscles are part of strength development. I hate that “no pain, no gain” macho shit, but there is truth to it. Just keep going.
Here’s the interesting thing. As I took extra days off, it didn’t effect my mileage ramp up. I’m now at the half-marathon length runs about a month ahead of when I had planned to be there, but I am in now way following a half-marathon training schedule. Which is kind of wonderful because I am running at a competitive pace to my shod self.
Eye on Ultra
Breaking with my superstition of not talking about something I am going to do, I am now targeting some ultra length runs. Along with marathon distance runs, I am looking at 50K and 50M runs later this year. It is something that I have never dreamed of doing in my heel strike mode. It was painful at the end of the marathons I’ve run before. I don’t just mean muscle soarness, which is expected, but my body just felt beat up.
The idea of ultra became real for me at the end of that ten miler. The last three miles I listened to my body. It was my longest run after transition. My form was good and it was something I seldom thought about. My breathing was smooth and even, much easier than ever before in running. My pace was right where I wanted it to be for that distance at that point in training. The hills came at me and I just moved up them with a smooth step. Yes, I had to breath harder as I worked the hills, but it felt like I was running them, not fighting them. Shorter steps at the same cadence.
As I pulled into the last mile I felt an ease in my run. I always try to finish faster then when I start out. My stride was comfortable, easy and natural. In that moment, when ten miles were nearly expired, I felt I could go on. In that moment, I knew that I was born to run. There, on a street in New England, I felt a common line of heritage to my ancestors who first wondered out on to the plains of Africa. They could run all day. I am built of the same stuff. Why couldn’t I?
Transition – Again
I am a minimalist runner now. This journal will follow me to the next step. Becoming a runner of long distance. I may never get to the intensity of century runs across Death Valley, but in the back of my mind I feel I can run a century and I plan to.
Running, for me, is a time of personal reflection. That does not mean that running is a solo sport. I draw on a large community of runners, shod and barefoot, at #running on Twitter and elsewhere. We share a passion and spirit. When I read of someone killing a race or running a mile for the first time I smile, send a congratulatory note and think of them when I am on the road. The one thing that we have in common as a species is that we ran together to survive. Before language or tools, we ran.
This week I watched “The Perfect Runner”, a film written and directed by anthropologist Niobi Thompson. In that film he said something that was almost a direct quote of my high school wrestling coach. “Your body can take a lot more than you can give it.” If you’ve watched The Biggest Loser, you know that that is absolutely true. Don’t be foolish in ramping up, but don’t be afraid of pushing yourself. You’ll be amazed at the places you can go (thank you Dr.Seuss!).