The Shoe Experiment
by Vince Matteo
No different than when I was a child, when I started running as an adult, I just went out and ran. I didn't wear proper footwear or worry about form, I just put one foot in front of the other and continued to do so at full speed until I got tired and I couldn't run any longer.
In my first year of running, when the weather turned to colder temperatures and the hours of sunlight were limited, I purchased a $600 treadmill and I ran on it for 5 days a week until one day I killed it from overuse. That was the day my running moved outside almost exclusively.
Still putting one foot in front of the other, my mileage increased and I continued running until pain appeared in various parts of my body. No pain, no gain I said but eventually the pain became unbearable and I went to see a doctor.
The doctor said a bunch of things I didn't understand, suggested I wear proper footwear and recommended a local running shop where I was fit into a pair of motion control and stability shoes. While waiting for the clerk to return from the stockroom, I eyed a sleek pair of racing flats but the clerk returned with a clunky pair of running shoes which, despite their appearance, enabled me to run pain free.
I recall one year when I had to experiment with a number of different shoes because my shoe was eliminated. In the transition period, my training became sporadic due to frequent injuries but through trial and error, I eventually found another shoe that enabled me to run injury free once again.
I've never bothered to understand why I have issues, I've just focused on finding a shoe that allows me to run. And once I did, I remained faithful to those shoes out of fear. But all of that changed in the beginning of 2010 when I began to analyze and tweak my form as well as try different running shoes.
There were a number of factors which prompted the change. I can't point to one specific reason although I can say the barefoot crowd makes a compelling argument. That said, I have no desire to run barefoot, I'm just want to run in the least amount of shoe possible.
Rather than dive in head first and go for the racing flats, I opted for a conservative approach and picked a model that was one step down to my current shoe and closer to a neutral shoe. From there I moved down one step further and one more after that until I was in a neutral shoe.
The point of this exercise was to see if I could slowly get my body to adapt to a more neutral shoe and build a stronger support system in my feet and ankles while adjusting my form. No such luck though. After six months and two ironman races, I felt more fragile than ever and I decided to rethink my plan.
In the end, I felt like I was fighting a losing battle and I didn't want to jeopardize my training. After making the decision to end the tinkering, I breathed a sigh of relief and I went shopping for a pair of big clunky shoes.
It's been six weeks since the switch back and I've been successfully averaging 40 miles each week. Although I haven't shaken it completely, I'm feeling more durable than I was earlier this season.
As a goal-focused athlete, I think it's important to look for ways to improve every aspect of our training and racing but also equally important to be able to recognize when something isn't working. In the case of my shoe experiment, I let it go on for too long out of sheer stubbornness because giving up would mean losing. And I hate to lose -- but not being able to run because of an injury would be an even bigger loss.