Friday, March 5, 2010

VFF -- I've Joined the Cult

At this point, I think I can say I'm a convert to the Cult of the Vibram Five Finger.

I had posted previously that I had switched off running back & forth between my VFF's and my usual running shoes -- a pair of Asics Motion Control shoes with a sole insert. Last weekend, I got to the point where I didn't switch from the VFF to the ASICS at mid run. I did a full run with just the VFF.

Note -- anyone reading this who is interested in using VFF as their full time running shoe should still proceed with caution. My approach may not work for others.

My goal had been to do a 3 mile run in the VFF's. Three miles is my minimum running distance in any one session. My interval workouts are based off this distance. It serves as my recovery run distance during periods I trained for either half marathons and other longer trail runs. It also the base training run I start from when I do longer runs, adding additional miles to my 3 mile run till I get close the target distance.

My assumption had been that I would, starting from a base distance of 1.5 miles in VFF's, add half a mile to my runs each week. From the time I started in mid February this would bring me up to 3 miles a session sometime in mid-March.

Last weekend I decided, on a whim, to push the envelope. Two weeks back I had injured my left calf during a conditioning workout. I was wearing my VFF's. While doing a short jog down the street, I heard an odd ripping sound, then felt a combination of pain and muscle spasms in the back of my left calf. Then the pain began, and I had to slow down for the rest of the workout session.

I laid off of running in the VFF's for a week. I still did my regular Krav workouts. My calf hurt, but improved slowly over the week. By Saturday I felt good enough to do a run around my neighborhood. My original plan was to do 1.5 miles miles in my ASIC's then 1.5 miles in my VFF. Interestingly, when I ran with my ASICS my left calf hurt like crazy. I barely ran two blocks before it became so stiff I couldn't run properly. I turned around, went home, and went to a Krav workout instead.

Afterwards, just for kicks, I decided to run 1.5 miles in the VFF's. The Krav workout did not aggravate my calf problem at all. If anything it felt a little better.

What happened when I ran with the VFF's? Nothing. I ran up the hills towards Pacific Heights, making sure to land flat footed instead of on my toes. There was some tightening around my calves, but nothing on the level of that morning's attempted run with my ASICS. I was expecting massive pain and stiffness, but my calves felt no worse than they did after the Krav workout earlier in the day.

I expected the next morning to be excruciatingly sore in my calves. Oddly enough, my calves felt fine. I had mapped out on the previous night a pair of running routes: 2 miles if my calves screamed in pain from the VFF, 3 miles if they felt OK. I assumed I'd only be able to do the 2 mile run.

I was wrong -- miracle of miracles -- while my calves tightened up at times, they didn't tighten to the point I couldn't run anymore. Around the 1 mile mark, standing on top of Russian Hill, I decided to go the extra half mile down towards Fisherman's Wharf then turn for home, putting in a 3 mile run in total. I was sore afterwards -- but not terribly so.

This past Wednesday I decided to add a little mileage. I decided to do a 3.5 mile run in the local hills in my VFF's, see how much my feet could handle. As before, I had to run flat footed to avoid overstressing my calves. Towards the end, my feet did feel uncomfortable, but not so uncomfortable I couldn't run.

Next morning -- calf soreness when I got up, but not through the rest of the day.

At this point I'm going to get rid of the ASICS and just use my VFF's as my standard running shoe. My calves have hardeded up to the point that while they are still sore after a run, they are no more sore than the rest of my legs & butt would be if I was running in my ASICS.

Some lessons to draw from the experiences of the past several months with the VFF.

A. Use the VFF for other physical activities and workouts. It helps condition the ankles and feet. In addition, the other activities you do in them, even if they are low impact, will condition your ankles and feet to doing hard work. In my case, the mountain climber tabata's in my conditioning classes probably hardened up my calves to the point where running in VFF's was no longer that hard.

B. Pretend you just began running for the first time. If you are a regular and experienced runner you won't be able to immediately do the same mileage in the VFF's as you would your old running shoes. So pretend you are starting over again. Use the same mileage & frequency of workouts you did when you began running years back, but do it in your VFF's, and build up the mileage, frequency, and intensity.

C. Experiment with different increases in mileage. Different people will adapt to the VFF differently. I had read elsewhere that you should only add on 5 minutes per run each week when using the VFF, and not to do back to back days running in the VFF. Last weekend I went from 1.5 miles to 3 miles on back to back days. Also, your ability to adapt to the VFF will vary depending on what other workouts you are doing at the same time. The increase from 1.5 miles to 3 miles in one weekend was doable two weeks ago, but not doable in July 2009 when I first got the shoes. In retrospect, the last three months of using VFF's for Krav Maga classes helped tremendously.

D. Don't try to change your running style before getting the VFF, get the VFF and change your running style. Something I did last Summer to help transition into the VFF was attempting to convert to running with a forefoot/midfoot strike in my ASICS, THEN moving into the VFF. In retrospect it was a terrible mistake. Running forefoot/midfoot with the ASICS was a horribly painful experience. The calf pain I endured during the period was exponentially worse than anything I've felt running with the VFF. I don't have a scientific explanation for why this is so. Maybe it was the 3 months of using VFF's for other workouts. I personally suspect that the ASICS are just designed to be used for heel strike running, NOT forefoot/midfoot striking.

E. Run on hills with the VFF. In the past few weeks I've found that running uphill in VFF's was more comfortable than running on flat roads. The impact on the feet and calves going uphill wasn't nearly as bad as running on the flats and downhills. The uphill running became a way of transitioning into the VFF, getting my feet and ankles used to the impact of running.

I won't claim (at least at this early stage) that the VFF reduces running injuries. Also, the issues with my legs that brought me to the VFF's (runners knee, stiffness in various joints) were ultimately addressed through stretching exercises on my hamstrings, glutes, and quads.

But I will say this -- running in the VFF is a lot more fun than running in my ASIC's. The easiest way to compare the two;

- The VFF: Wild kinky sex without a condom
- ASICS: Sex with three condoms, and a spermicide.

'Nuff said.