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Friday, September 2, 2011

Getting Used to Flat Shoes Again

Yesterday I wrote about research I found that said overly-cushioned shoes could actually cause foot and leg problems. I decided to experiment and see if it was really true, since I've had some prolonged foot and leg pain.

But the articles I read said you can't just go back to flat shoes because the muscles in your feet must be given time to strengthen first. Otherwise you can end up with strained muscles in your feet. So I set out on a 3-month experiment, beginning in early June, to see if changing shoes would really make a difference. I'm posting it here in case any of you are interested in trying it, since I couldn't find any procedures to help me make the change.

To start with, I needed to figure out a plan of attack. While the articles I read gave me ideas, nobody seemed to know how to make the switch beyond "take it slow." Real helpful, huh? So I created my own two-pronged attack:
  • First, I started going barefoot (or sockfooted -- is that even a word?) around the house. That way I knew I would neither injure my feet nor end up having to walk if my feet got sore. This "step" was easy.
  • Second -- and more difficult -- I had to find a way to adjust my running. Buying new shoes wasn't an option at this point. Suppose they just made my feet hurt more? I decided to keep wearing my regular running shoes but change the way I ran.
This didn't take too long, but I had to study the video in my last post more closely. I decided the major changes running barefoot caused were (1) a shorter stride so I could (2) land more on the balls of my feet. Those were changes I could make without any expense or major changes to my regular routine.

I was surprised at how much of a difference these two changes made... and how quickly they became obvious. My typical running time was around 19:00 minutes. I walk part of the distance because there are some steep downhills involved, which are harder on your legs than flat land or uphills, and I have to walk some of the distance simply because I can't run the full distance yet. The foot and leg problems have made it hard for me to get back in shape... and I love to run.

I run 4 times a week -- Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, with a walking day on Wednesday to mix things up a bit. I had run an 18:42 time on Monday and started the new routine on Tuesday. That first time I ran about the same time -- 18:44 -- despite taking shorter steps. I attributed this to the steps being a bit faster (short steps take less time, right?) and being able to run a bit more of the distance since my legs didn't get quite as tired. I walked Wednesday as usual... and then things went crazy.

Thursday's time was 17:26, well over a minute faster than Tuesday. I thought it was just an anomaly, one of those "best time" days that happens occasionally. But then I ran 17:28 on Friday, so I decided to see what happened the next week.

Monday I ran 17:43, which was slower but still a minute faster than the Monday before... and then Tuesday I ran 16:39. This is over two minutes better in only one week... and then I noticed the weak left ankle was stronger. I won't go into detail, since it involves my shower after the run, but I found I could stand on my left foot alone without losing my balance. At this point I decided to splurge on the second stage of my program.

I bought a new pair of sneakers for wearing around all the time when I wasn't running. And since I wanted to eliminate any potential benefit from the sneakers, I went for the cheapest things I could find. I bought a pair of Faded Glory sneakers from Walmart; they cost about $12 a pair here, and they feel more like bedroom slippers than shoes because the soles are so thin. I kept running in my regular shoes, however, because I figured it would take longer to get where I could run in flats.

After three more days of runs around 17:20, my regular time dropped to around 17:00 minutes! I even had run a 16:46 time by the end of June. In case you've never followed a running program before, this kind of improvement is much more than you typically see. I decided to buy a second pair of cheap sneakers for running in, which I started using July 1st. It was an odd feeling -- despite having adjusted my running style, the first few steps in the sneakers felt like I was dropping into a hole. After the run my feet and legs didn't hurt but they were really tired. If you've ever had a "pump" after a workout, where your muscles feel warm and relaxed, you know how I felt afterward.

The next day I did some extra walking that turned into something I didn't expect. I walked for a half-hour, felt good, and decided to walk another half-hour... during which I ran into one of the neighborhood kids and ended up traipsing around for two hours that involved running and climbing in the woods! I was afraid I would be sore the next morning so I took a couple of Tylenol before bed, but had no problems.

The next week I ran a 16:04 -- I'd now beat my original best time when I started by 3 minutes in only 5 weeks. During the month my times were all over the place because some days my feet and legs were really tired and other days they felt really strong. By the end of the month I'd also run a 16:30, a 16:20, and a 16:15 time. I haven't been that fast in years.

In the last week I've beat that 16:04 best time 5 straight days -- my new best is 15:31. My weak left ankle is now as strong as my right ankle for the first time in about 5 years. I suppose part of my speed improvement could be due to the sneakers being lighter -- gosh, you don't realize how heavy running shoes are until you run in something light! -- except that I'm now able to run on pavement in these unpadded shoes without any pain. It often hurt me just to run in the grass before I started this little experiment, even wearing padded shoes.

The chiropractor friend I mentioned in the other post has told me that he never would have believed this if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. He says I'm running more easily than he's ever seen. That's certainly due to the increased strength in my lower body.

So that's how I got used to flats again. It took about two weeks of going barefoot around the house and shortening my walking and running stride in the regular shoes, followed by two weeks of walking only in the flats and running in the regular shoes to get my feet in good enough shape to leave the padded shoes entirely.

That's a month to switch over for casual use, and maybe another month to feel completely comfortable doing anything I wanted. And I didn't have to change anything else in my daily routine to get through the changeover. There are certainly worse ways to get rid of some foot and leg pain.

Again, I have to remind you that I'm not a doctor and I can't tell you what's right or wrong for you. But if you're interested in experimenting with less-padded footwear, this is the process that worked for me.


  1. My group has been having a ongoing discussion about spiked and spike-less golf shoes for awhile now. I'm not talking about tennis shoes, they can slide on the downswing/impact, but golf shoes without spikes.
    We all wore soft spikes. Our swing speeds are probably in the 80s to 90s. I started playing regularly with another friend who wore spike-less golf shoes. They cost around $50. His handicap was in the low 80s.
    One of my group replaces the spikes on his shoes once every two years. I don't think all of the spikes were there.
    I switched from soft spikes to a spike-less shoe. I didn't feel any difference in my swing and the shoes are more comfortable.
    My buddies believe that spiked shoes give you more traction and are necessary for golf but I am moving to spike-less only.
    What do you think?

  2. It's a matter of how you swing and the conditions you play in.

    Some people really use their legs and feet a lot during the swing, others don't. This is definitely a generalization, but a player with a flat swing will often need spikes more than a player with an upright swing. I imagine the same is true for width of stance -- a wider stance probably needs spikes more than a narrow stance because the feet have to push sideways more.

    Likewise, a player who doesn't need spikes in dry weather may need them in wet weather. Uneven lies can have an effect too.

    Personally, unless conditions are wet or the grass is especially lush -- the latter is generally not a problem on the public courses I play -- I can usually get by with just tennis shoes. My legs are pretty "quiet" during my weight shift; I tend to push down when I swing rather than to the side.

    Do spikes give you more traction? Of course. Are they necessary? That depends on who you ask. After seeing the shoes they wear, I suspect Fred Couples and Vijay Singh would say no. ;-)