Friday, August 27, 2010

First outdoor run in the Vibram Five Fingers!

Earlier today I ran outdoors for the first time in my Vibram Five Fingers. I ran six miles, and absolutely loved the experience!

What differentiated the run for me was the intense awareness that I had of the Memorial Park running surface, i.e. I was keenly aware of when I was running on loose dirt, crushed gravel or the occasional tree root. This awareness - which was never painful or jarring - led me to automatically adopt the key running form elements that otherwise required concentration to maintain, i.e. a rapid cadence (~180 steps per minute), somewhat shorter stride, a forefoot or mid-foot landing, and a slight forward lean from the ankles.

I had previously purchased my Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs) "Classic" model in May. In the intervening months I transitioned to them by migrating away from my former heavier stability shoes into other light weight and less supportive shoes, while simultaneously reinforcing the above-cited key running form elements. I found this practice and experimentation was most effectively done on the treadmill, as it offers many advantages for a runner who is working on their form elements, i.e.:
  • Minimizing visual and sensory distractions which otherwise interrupt one's concentration;
  • Providing a softer running surface than concrete or asphalt, thereby reducing the likelihood of developing an injury while in a vulnerable mode of transition;
  • Allowing easier and more consistent audio and tactile feedback of the 'proper' stride (i.e. when I lose concentration and/or become fatigued I hear a different sound and pattern from my footfall on the bed of the treadmill);
  • Offering a fixed-speed running surface - set between a one to two-percent grade so-as to make the effort equivalent versus running outdoors - which the runner can use to indirectly gauge their running efficiency via their their rate of respiration.
Launching me in this direction was my initial racing success in my Newton Stability Trainers roughly one year ago, as I was immediately gratified by a string of significant personal records which has continued since. These Newtons remain my prime racing shoes, and I will wear them at my forthcoming marathons in Chicago, San Antonio and Houston. However, intensely cognizant of the high cost per mile of running in the Newtons ($175 per pair), I searched for lower cost light weight training shoes with a similar minimal heel-to-toe drop.

This quest led me to transition most of my training miles away from my former stability shoes, the Brooks Adrenaline and the Mizuno Wave Inspire. Though well made shoes, they are relatively heavy (~11 Oz.), and possess a large (12mm) drop which encourages a heel strike and makes it difficult to land properly on the mid-foot or forefoot. Consequently, I purchased a pair of the ultra flexible soled Nike Free Run+, which I thoroughly enjoy as they provide a tremendous amount of comfort while strengthening the muscles of the foot. The Nike Free Run+ are light weight (~9 Oz.), and also have a low drop (though clearly not as low as the VFF's, which have a zero drop.)

Another excellent transitional shoe, which was recommended by Pete Larson in his tremendous running blog, is the Brooks Mach 12 Cross Country Running Flat, which similar to the VFFs have a near zero heel-to-toe drop.

Late last week, after three months of transition I felt that I was ready for the VFFs. While my initial run on the treadmill was largely successful I was forced to switch shoes after only four miles owing to chafing from the rubberized/cloth seam against my large right toe. Fortunately, prior to this morning's run I purchased a pair of Injini toe-socks which solved the chafing problem completely.

Vibram's website emphasizes the importance of transitioning appropriately prior to running in the VFFs. I concur, as I had none of the problems that some have reported (i.e. heel pain, pain on top of foot, or an extremely fatigued calf muscle.) Conversely, running in the VFFs provides a unique, nearly barefoot experience, but without its anxiety. I believe that other experienced runners who similarly take the time to transition gradually will also see their first VFF run as a real eye-opener.

Finally, on a related note suggest review of my prior blog post regarding the Evolution Running DVD which has proven in my running form transition, and a good blog post by Barefoot Chronicle's Jason Robillard which discusses the ongoing minimalist shoe movement.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Negative split *every* run

Having the good fortune of training in Houston through the excellent Kenyan Way program over the past several years I've repeatedly heard Coach Sean Wade's introductory comments to new runners. In each case he says with his greatest vehemence: "If you remember just one thing tonight, it should be this: You should negative split every training run and every race. This does not mean pushing the pace but rather starting out super easy and increasing the pace naturally as you warm up."

Sean Wade's opinion matters. Currently 44 years of age, and a native of New Zealand, he was named the fastest master's runner in the world in 2006 by the RRCA, and was selected the 2006 Masters 40-44 Runner of the Year by Running Times Magazine. Wade is one of only two men over 40 years old to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Trials by running 2:20:00 at the 2007 Houston Marathon. Other achievements include competing in the 1996 Olympic Marathon for New Zealand, qualifying with his personal best marathon time of 2:10:59.

Additional elements of Sean's training philosophy are that: "The key to improved running is consistent steady training with a slow increase in weekly mileage. You need to know your different training paces (recovery, long run, threshold and 5K paces) and be sure to run easy on your easy days. Too many runners don't run slow enough or fast enough. Everything just blends together. Tempo runs, hill, intervals at goal race pace, and long runs are all important pieces of the puzzle. You have to listen to your body and take an extra recovery day or skip a hard workout if you are not feeling up to it."

To help the Kenyan Way runner, Sean converts his successful training philosophies into reality by providing access to powerful web-based tools which automate the creation of a custom training plan. The runner merely inputs their recent 5K race result, their next race, goal finishing time, the number of days per week that they are willing to train, and the extent to which heat affects them (clearly, a huge factor in Houston!) Upon doing so the custom calendar is built, which provides detail surrounding every day's run, distance and goal pace.

Consistently achieving a negative split in all races and training runs requires a fundamental shift from a typical runner's approach. Particularly in races, with the athlete well rested and eager to begin their race, the jolt of adrenaline at the gun often overwhelms reason - with the predictable disappointing end result. Often erroneously described as "just a Rookie mistake", it actually afflicts nearly all runners - including unfortunately myself on countless occasions. Sean's antidote is for the runner to fully utilize their Garmin Forerunner in the early miles, then keeping their pace within their pre-established initial plan. When I have departed from this sound advice I have regretted it (as I have also when I ran ahead of my marathon pacing group in the first 20-miles).

Ultimately, Sean's emphasis of building a strong base of endurance, then negative splitting every run makes perfect sense by requiring the runner to begin their run at an appropriate pace, then to naturally speed-up as their muscles warm-up. Running faster while fatigued builds the required mental discipline for success, accelerates beneficial physiological training adaptations, and is very motivational.

When planning your next race or training run keep Sean Wade's 'Negative Split' strategy first and foremost in mind!