Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Minimalist shoes and fixie mountain bikes

This afternoon, Beat and I went for an eight-mile run in the heat of the day. I didn't feel any strain in my feet — an encouraging development. For two days after the 50K, I had mild soreness on the sides of both feet that felt like muscle strain — very much like one's biceps might feel after too many reps with heavy weights. Even after the long day Saturday, my legs still felt great, so I did two days of bike recovery — 20-mile, 2,900-feet-of-gain mountain bike ride on Sunday, and a 25-mile, 2,600-feet-of-gain road ride on Monday. By Tuesday, I'm back to running. It feels good.

Since I started wearing my Hoka One One shoes in public more often, a lot of people have asked me how I like them. Since this is a bike blog, I feel like I should back up first and explain. In trail running right now, there appear to be two growing trends on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first are ultra-cushioned shoes like these Hokas that claim to absorb 80 percent of the shock associated with heel striking. The second and arguably more popular are minimalist shoes, or "barefoot" shoes like Vibram Five Fingers, which eliminate cushioning to prevent heel striking altogether. Both claim to minimize injuries and make running more fun.

Beat bought me the Hokas as a sort of "I'm sorry for wrecking your feet" gift following our awesome first date at the Bear 100. I traveled 50 miles with him and developed so much foot pain that I could scarcely hobble the last eight miles of the race. I attribute this pain to excessive impact, the kind that could arguably be reduced with heavily cushioned shoes. At the time I was wearing an admittedly worn-out pair of Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes. The pain, which was similar to a mild case of plantar faciitis, bothered me for nearly six weeks after the Bear. I accepted my injury because it is quite reckless to go from practically zero running to 50 miles overnight, but at the same time desired a way to get back into running quickly while keeping my soft feet functional. Beat, who had seen the Hokas work very well for more than half the field in the grueling 200-mile, 80,000-feet-of-climbing-crazy-steep Tor des Geants, told me I should try out the clown shoes.

The verdict: I like them a lot. I still run in my regular Vasque shoes in mixed and soft terrain, such as mud and snow, but I by far prefer the Hokas on hard dirt and rocky trails. I compare them to trail riding with a full-suspension mountain bike. The thick cushioning floats over small rocks and allows me to pound hard on terrain where I otherwise might tiptoe or hold myself back. While I am still a running klutz, the Hokas do help improve my downhill confidence by absorbing the shock and allowing me to increase my speed. They also seem to maximize foot and leg comfort over higher mileage runs compared to my regular shoes. I mean, a mere 36 hours of minimal foot strain after an eight-hour run, following two months of relatively little running, really isn't too shabby.

And then there's the other end of the spectrum — minimalist or barefoot running. As a newbie runner who has never even tried these types of shoes, I can't claim to know anything about it. But when I hear others counter my "awesome full suspension" views about Hokas with the case for barefoot running, I can't help but smile and think of the claims of the growing culture of mountain bikers who like to ride fixed-gear bikes off road. Both tout simplicity and the lack of extranious and arguably needless pieces of metal and plastic that just weigh you down. Both tout connectedness, a sort of "one with the trail" feeling that can only be achieved if there is a high risk of stubbing your toes or bashing your pedals into a large rock. Both claim to force a flowing, natural sort of movement — for runners, that means landing on your forefoot. For fixie mountain bikers, it means mashing pedals really really hard when you are climbing a hill and then spinning your legs into a soft whip upon descent. Both take a higher level of skill and both are more physically taxing than the "geared" version. Both embrace abstract and therefore unsubstantiable ideals such as liberty, freedom and mindfulness. And both, from my limited perspective, seem to sustain a whole lot of injuries — barefoot runners get stress fractures, and fixie riders crash a lot.

But, of course, both require a slow buildup and time and distance in order to master the discipline, which is great. But not all of us have that kind of time or patience. Some of us just want to spend as much time and as many miles as possible in the beautiful outdoors. We want to run and ride whatever terrain we want, when we want, instead of building up distance on smooth gravel roads in 1/10th-mile increments over many tedious years. To me, tools that allow us to move more easily and freely — tools such as full-suspension mountain bikes and Hoka shoes — just make a lot of sense.

I'm not saying those arguments that heel-striking leads to long-term injury have no merit; I'm only saying that there does seem to be inherent risk in trying to fix a "problem" that may not need fixing. As Beat likes to argue, the problem isn't running shoes — the problem is running on roads. Technical trail running by definition forces natural movement and all but eliminates repetitive motion and heel-striking issues, even over long distances. But it still feels rough on soft cyclists' feet, which is why I love my Hokas.