Gear: May 2010 Archives


May 29, 2010

Ever since I got my VFFs, people have been asking me whether I ran in them and I'd always give the same answer: I haven't been brave enough. After I ran into Phil Stark, though, who does ultras in his huaraches, I figured I'd give it a try.

Rather than slowly transition, I decided to just switch over to Vibrams completely (this was Phil's advice and I had injured my shoulder, so couldn't do too much mileage anyway). That was about 6 weeks ago and I'm now at the point where I can comfortably go up to 7-8 miles, either on trails or road, and I feel like I have a long enough baseline to report back.

The Transition
It wasn't that hard for me to transition. I started with really short, with a mile or so, and then worked my way up over the course of a month or so. If you're a foot striker you need to completely alter your stride so you land either mid or forefoot (this is pretty much the point of going barefoot). I started out mostly on asphalt, which you would think would be pretty hard without any cushioning, but it really forces you to concentrate on your stride: one or two (incredibly unpleasant) heel landings on asphalt with no cushioning teaches you real fast to adjust your stride. Anyway, once your stride adjusts and you learn to land softly, I at least didn't find that there was much trauma to my foot. At around week 3 or 4, I started to get some pain in the metatarsals of my right foot, but that mostly went away after a few more weeks.

Instead of the foot, the primary adjustment was in the calf. Because you land on the forefoot, and seem to push off more by extending your foot, it seems like you put a lot more stress on your gastrocnemius. For the first month or so my calf and achilles tendon would be sore after each run, and at least once I had my right calf completely lock up and I was limping for a few days. This has mostly gone away by now, however, and I feel pretty comfortable up to reasonable distances.

Surface and Terrain
I've now run in VFFs on a whole bunch of different surfaces. Dirt trails are the best, then grass, then asphalt, and then gravel. Basically this is an issue of cushioning: with VFFs you're much more sensitive to how hard the surface is and grass and dirt are just nicely comfortable and springy. (Note: I prefer dirt even with a real shoe). Asphalt gives you a harder landing and so is less comfortable, but basically fine as long as you are actually landing OK. The problem with gravel is that as the size of the rocks starts to get bigger you start to have to really watch your landing: coming down hard on a sharp rock the size of a golf ball can be quite painful.

Climbing hills is good: you would naturally tend to land on the ball of your foot anyway, so it doesn't require much of an adjustment in your stride. By contrast, going down is bad because you would naturally tend to heel strike so you need to really overcompensate to avoid that. And of course since you tend to strike relatively hard going downhill anyway, this is doubly bad. Even now I tend to come down harder than I would like.

Road Hazards
The biggest problem with running in VFFs as opposed to shoes isn't the routine pounding but rather pebbles, rocks, acorns, etc. The soles are just too thin and flexible to protect you from this kind of impact. You can't always avoid stepping on rocks, but when you're running on a basically flat surface you can mostly see them in advance and when you do accidentally step on one, you usually notice before you've put your full weight on it and can just pull your foot back before you've done any real damage. I've only really managed to hurt myself twice: a week ago when I stepped on a small pinecone but landed on the side of my foot rather than the ball and wasn't able to correct. Then yesterday I want running on the baylands trail and there were just so many rocks that I couldn't avoid all of them and so landed pretty hard on a few.

Even in those two cases, I didn't do any permanent damage, just hurt a lot immediately and then ached for the next 5-10 minutes. It feels fine now, though and I don't see any bruising.

Other Issues
People often ask me about running with shoes with so little support: I have incredibly flat feet and I've never really found that having a lot of support did much for me; I find it more comfortable to just let my feet pronate completely the way they want to, even in normal running shoes. I don't know what VFFs would be like for someone with normal arches.

While I wear socks with regular shoes, I don't wear them with VFFs (you can wear Injinjis), and this hasn't been a problem for me. I have one friend who tends to get a lot of blisters with VFFs, but this hasn't been a problem for me at all (and I have gotten blisters with other shoes, so it's not like my feet are especially tough). I suspect this is primarily an issue of fit. For longer runs, it seems like I might be getting a few hotspots and I've been trying to slather on some Hydropel as a precaution.

You need to be a bit careful about stubbing your toe. There's not much protection and if you scrape the top of your toe, you can tear through the thin nylon at the top or peel the rubber sole away. I've got a small tear above my big toe. So far it's not expanding but I've ordered a new pair just in case.

Bottom Line
I suspect I'd be able to run much longer in VFFs (and I'll try a 10 this weekend), but given how much trouble I had when I ran on grave of the wrong size, I'm not sure I would want to do something like an ultra, where I couldn't turn around and didn't know that the surface would be good. In view of that, I'll probably start mixing it up more to make sure I still can run in shoes if I want to.


May 8, 2010

As a kid I discovered wool clothes were super-scratchy (and was actually diagnosed with allergy to wool, but more recent tests don't seem to bear this out). So, when Eu-Jin Goh told me that I should try some of the new wool athletic gear (Smartwool, Ibex, etc.) I was pretty skeptical. But then I read this Backpacking Light article comparing wool and synthetics which reports that wool has comparable performance to the best synthetics and started thinking maybe I should give wool another try. A month or so ago, I ordered a Smartwool NTS top (microweight) and it really is pretty good. I've since ordered two more of the NTS tops in lightweight.

Traditionally, people have three main complaints about wool: comfort (it's scratchy), care (you can't machine wash it), and price. Modern athletic wool garments address two of these issues. The main advancement in the comfort front is the use of Merino wool. Merino has a much finer fiber than ordinary wool, and (in general) the finer the fiber the softer the fabric you make out of it. In addition, the new Merino yarns are much thinner, which also makes for a much softer fabric. My Smartwool tops still aren't quite as soft and smooth as a comparable synthetic such as Capilene or typical Coolmax/Lycra blends, but they're far less scratchy than I remember wool being. This doesn't mean not scratchy at all (especially before the initial wash), but it's comfortable enough for everyday wear, and the compensation is that there's rather less of the feeling that you're wearing a Tyvek envelope that you tend to get with synthetic fabrics. [The above relies heavily on the Backpacking Light article, which is behind a paywall, albeit one worth shelling out for if you are interested in this sort of thing.]

The other major advance is washability. As everyone knows, machine washing wool garments ruins them. The problem here is that the fabric felts (actually, Wikipedia claims that they've been fulled, but Mrs. G says that everyone just says "felted"). Basically, what happens is that wool (like all hair) has a scaly external structure and the heat and the agitation causes the scales to interlock, so you just get a single shrunken mass. In the 1970s (thanks, Wikipedia!), however, superwash wool was introduced: superwash has been treated either to remove the scales or by coating them with a polymer that prevents the interlocking. In either case superwash wool is wool you can wash in your washing machine. You can also tumble dry it if you're moderately careful; Smartwool recommends the low setting but I've used my dryer's permanent press setting with no sign of real shrinkage after the first washing (warning: there is some built-in shrinkge the first time so pay attention when you buy). This is mostly as convenient as most of my synthetics, and better than my polypropylene SportHill gear, which I've actually damaged in the dryer.

The price issue, however, remains. For comparison, the GoLite BL-1 lists for $42. The comparable Smartwool NTS is $60. I've also seen complaints that wool doesn't hold up to extended wear as well as the synthetics do, which makes the price issue more serious. Regardless, I'm now considering wool a serious option; I've tried it for a few short runs, but I'll report back after my next serious test, either a long run or a extended backpacking trip.

Acknowledgement: This post relies heavily on discussions with resident wool expert Mrs. Guesswork.