Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Shoes that Changed my Life


Okay, you got me, of course they perhaps didn’t exactly alter my life, but they did change my perception about what (some people might say) feet “should” and “shouldn’t” run in, and made me realize how freeing it can be to run in a lightweight, minimal running shoe with the right balance of protection and sensitivity.  Actually after reading this, you just might think they actually saved my running, and yes, changed my life.  

The shoe I’m talking about is the Saucony ProGrid Kinvara 2, or more lovingly put, the Kinvara 2.

My 4 Pairs of ProGrid Kinvara 2 Shoes
I had long since given up the notion that I could run in any shoe other than the Nike Zoom Structure Triax (which continues to go through a variety of name revisions, always managing to confuse me with its latest moniker).  As you know, or may have guessed by its name, it is a stability/support shoe.  At various points I’ve been told by various professional shoe salespeople I pronate this way and that, and roll here and there, and this shoe will fix me up real nice.  I was a loyal Structure Triax customer for several years.  It seemed to be the one shoe that helped me out during my shin splint phases, and I was content.

Because of my “condition” of shin splints, pronation, etc. I also wore orthotic inserts -- that’s what the doctors prescribed me.  I didn’t question them, nor the extra pounds my feet were slogging around mile after mile.  Stability shoes and hard plastic inserts must yield improvements in pain and form, and therefore, speed and distance, right?  Well, that was the theory.  So my feet stayed strapped in and locked down good and tight and I stopped thinking about it for the next several years.  

I had successfully starting running back-to-back days at the end of 2010 without issue, so I was pumped full of optimism going into 2011 and ready to be more adventurous.  My first big move was to dump the orthotics.  By the end of January, I was running orthotic-free and made the transition with only a tiny bit of soreness that seemed to be resolved by a foot wheel, or simply on its own.  I was now running in just socks and shoes, no extra plastic plates.  Was my running better or worse off?  I don’t know, but I was happier, and I was continuing to improve in my training.

Then in April, I read, Born to Run, and like many runners I was captured by the concepts of barefoot and minimalist running presented in the book. Though I wasn’t ready to drop my shoes and try to relearn how to run from scratch just to go barefoot (besides barefoot just seemed a little too extreme, even for me); but I did begin to question the overt and widespread “shoe store” diagnostics of running form which is conveniently linked to the shoe prescription process for correcting said bad form, etc.  Without knocking down the entire running shoe industry, I should say I do believe that quite a few stores do help a majority of people find the best shoe for their particular needs.  Yet, I’m skeptical of the fact that the shoe industry as a whole is prepared to solve what may not needing solving 100% of the time.  In the end, my conclusion after reading the book and further research was: we wear too much on our feet given what our feet are designed to do:  too much weight, too much security, too much correction, too many features, too much drop, too much inflexibility, too much stability, too much support, too much structure (appropriate for my own pair of shoes at the time); and too much money goes into all that extra excess.  My thinking about shoes and the role they play in our running had been altered.  At the same time, I was realistic: I knew I couldn’t just swap out my pair for anything and not risk an injury.

But over the next month I looked into the minimalist type of shoes and got into reading up on what others were wearing in this category for racing in distances from half to full marathon.  When it was all over I got a pair of blue and white Kinvara 2 shoes with a birthday gift certificate, thinking it would be the perfect shoe to experiment with.

When I put them on, I knew something was definitely different about these shoes -- they were light and comfortable and allowed my feet to move.  The next morning I went out for an easy 3 miler in them and everything felt great, so I started running in the Kinvaras using them only on easier, shorter runs.   Gradually over the next 2+ months I increased my mileage and frequency in them.  By mid-August I had progressed to 19 and 20 mile runs in them and I was still feeling good.  After that point, I was using them for every run and feeling quite good.  I was able to focus on my form more, and I was increasingly conscious of foot strike.  Gradually I shifted to a midfoot strike (some may argue that is neither good nor bad), and I felt like the pounding of the pavement was more efficiently absorbed by my feet rather than being transferred up my legs, jarring my hips.  I found Kinvaras to be light, simple, responsive, flexible, sensitive, have a low heel to toe drop of 4 mm, feel more natural, provide the protection of a modern running shoe while being ridiculously comfortable, and are even a bit cheaper than my Nikes.  Not bad.  I loved the shoes at first sight, but over the course of those few months, I really came to appreciate them.  I was running on fresh legs for the first time.

And what about my form? I’m sure I need further improvement in my running form, and I try to pay attention to it on every run; but beyond the basics, it seems we all run in our own ways and there may be nothing wrong with that.  I’ve run three marathons in three different pairs of Kinvaras and they have not let me down.  The only time I felt that I could have used more protection or cushion was during the Beaver Island Marathon: it had rained quite a bit and turned the dirt roads to mud.  After miles of running through the soft mud, we hit paved roads, and for those last few miles it felt like hammers on my feet.  It was the first time I experienced that, and am certain running so many miles in mud made the pavement feel extraordinarily firm.  

Today I realize the Kinvaras have enabled me to feel running with my feet, and made me aware of each footstep and stride, as naive as that may sound.  In contrast, my Zoom Structure Triax shoe was a stiff platform effectively blocking out all feeling of the road beneath my feet, which I think contributed to further bad form, and what I call, lazy feet, as they were not able to truly move with my running.  I’m now very conscious of not overstriding, and subsequently have become much more in tune with my cadence, which has quickened.  Has this all made me a faster or better runner?  Well, I can say I am a faster and stronger runner today than I was a year ago.  That may not be a direct result of the shoes, but I believe they’ve played a key part in this saga.  

So, am I a loyal fan of Saucony, now?  Not necessarily, but the company is growing on me.  Nike makes a great minimalist shoe.  Maybe someday I will run in it.  And, I was very excited to try out the Brooks Pure Project shoes (Brooks’ minimalist response to the trend) when they were recently released and showed up at my local running shop.  I had been waiting to try them out for a few weeks after I learned about them.  I hurried over to put on pairs of Brooks Pure Connect and Pure Flow shoes.  They felt okay to me, but were not the same as running in a pair of Kinvaras.  So I got another pair of Kinvaras.  Not long ago, I cleaned out my closet and donated quite a few pairs of Nike Zoom Structure Triax.  I don’t miss them.  I am on my fourth pair of Kinvaras, however, and am not yet able to let go of that first blue and white pair that changed my life...

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