Going Minimalist to Escape Injury: A Runner’s Experience

Vibram Fivefingers Speed

Hey Dailymilers! I want to start off with a small introduction. My name is Sean Fillner, and I have been running and working out for 20+ years. However, it was not until recently that I buckled down in 2008 and ran my first marathon, the Portland Marathon (PDX), in 4:12. I lost 40 pounds in 2009 and ran Portland again, this time shaving almost 30 minutes off my previous years time (3:42). The following month I ran Seattle in 3:33. I consider myself an average athlete, and love helping others out with tips and tricks I have learned over the years.

One thing that I have noticed over my years of running is that I have always had injuries. You name it, I have had it. My list of maladies includes shin splints, ITBS, torn hamstrings, torn quads, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, runner’s knee, patellar tendonitis – the list goes on and on. I have a length difference of 5mm between my legs, so this plays a huge role in my injuries. I also suffer from chronic IBS, so running is a huge challenge for me at times.

While running the Seattle Marathon in 2009 there was an older gentleman, probably in his 50′s, running next to me the entire race 100% barefoot. To me this looked as painful as all sin. The thoughts running through my head were likely the same as those of many other people who have witnessed this. Thoughts like “I could never do that, I need the cushion of my running shoes or I will get injured” or “Is that guy mentally sane?” I’m sure there are other variations on these thoughts, but those two were the most prevalent in my mind. I started researching on the internet and began finding little pockets of information on injury-free running and the barefoot/minimalist connection. I was in disbelief to say the least. How could running barefoot/minimalist reduce injuries? Little did I know I was about to find out in a very big way.

Sean F. on dailymile

Two weeks prior to the PDX marathon I had a massive ITBS injury that would barely allow me to walk, let alone run. In our goody bags we got a sample of KT tape, which I used to finish the marathon with very little pain. I highly recommend KT tape for injuries if you haven’t tried it. One injury that I have always had that never seems to go away is plantar fasciitis (PF). I have tried everything known to man to cure this painful and debilitating injury, and I never really got anywhere with it. Fast forward to my first pair of Vibram Fivefingers (VFF) KSO’s.

In May of 2010 I was so tired of being injured all of the time that I decided it was time for a change. I picked up my VFF KSO’s at REI for 20% off, which was fine in my book. The first run I did in them was 7 miles. I know this was way more than is typically recommended during a transition to minimalist running, but by listening to my body I may have found the answer to my injuries. I got home, took the KSO’s off, and had some blisters, but my PF pain was gone. I was amazed and bewildered. This led me to where I am now. I refuse to run in any shoe that will comfortably allow me to have a heel strike. This led me to my minimalist/barefoot shoe craze.

I now own 3 pairs of Vibrams; KSO’s, BIKILAS, and SPEEDS. I am going to tell you my likes and dislikes of each model.

Vibram Fivefingers KSO

Vibram Fivefingers KSO. The KSO is a great “foot glove” for those wishing to build up calluses so that they can transition to fully barefoot runs on occasion. This model is semi-thin, with great ground feedback. Keep in mind this is not a great VFF for rocky trails. It is very easy to experience some stone bruising on your feet if you are a newer minimalist. This is, however, a great VFF for smooth pavement. My complaints are that the insides of my feet get abraded by the stitching, which creates a blistering effect. Not a great feeling especially around mile 8+ on a long run. I use these now mostly for swimming, with an occasional run on smooth pavement.

Vibram Fivefingers Bikila

Vibram Fivefingers BIKILA. The BIKILAS are the newest Fivefingers model, and are specifically designed to be used for running. The insides of the BIKILAS are super soft, and they have great protection against stone bruising. I have run up to 15 miles in them without socks. I get some pretty good blisters from them on the insides of my feet once again. The strap that runs across the top of the foot is also prone to causing blisters/abrasion on my long runs (Editor’s Note: I have not experienced blistering or abrasion in my Bikilas, so it may simply be a fit issue that differs between Sean and I – for comparative purposes, you can read my preliminary review of the Bikila here). I have a huge problem with them when I run my normal long distance pace on a good day, which is in the 7-8 minute/mile range. My feet slide around and I get some hot spots on my metatarsal (forefoot) pads, which becomes unbearable around mile 13 or so. I have found that wearing a pair of injinji socks helps, but it does not solve the foot sliding issue. I now use my BIKILAS on <10 mile runs.

Vibram Fivefingers SPEED

Vibram Fivefingers SPEED. My lack of personal success with the KSO’s and BIKILA led me to search for another solution. Scouring the internet I come across a VFF model that is only sold in Europe: the Vibram Fivefingers SPEED. These things have laces that would prevent my foot from sliding around, and a nice mesh fabric that breathes better. Searching the internet for a retailer that would sell me a set and ship them to the USA was a task to say the least. I ended up buying them through purefootwear.com/uk . I cannot say enough good things about this company. They got them to me in 8 days from the time they shipped them, included a coupon for 10% off my next order, and included a nice catalog as well. I ended up paying $145 for them shipped. To me it was worth it to have a unique pair of VFF’s that, most likely, I will never see anyone else wearing. I received the SPEEDS in the mail the day prior to the Sauvie Island Half Marathon that I had registered for. I figured this would be a great test for a first run in them. I wore them with injinji nuwool socks to be on the safe side. I was, to say the least, “so dang happy” during the half. I ended up running it in 1:37:53 which would be the first official race that I had conquered as a minimalist, and it felt great. In my opinion, the SPEEDS are the best model of Vibram Fivefingers if you are looking to go fast with no blisters or rubbing issues. I regularly run 15+ miles in my SPEEDS, and they are holding up great so far.

I am currently helping others with the same “thoughts” that I had when I first saw that barefoot runner in the Seattle Marathon. Some of the benefits that I have noticed since my transition are 1/4 of the time to recover from my long (15+ mile) runs, silent foot landings, no jarring feelings on ground impact, being able to walk comfortably after my 15+ mile runs rather than wanting to sit down immediately, injury free running (minus the occasional blister), a slower pace at first but then gradually building back up to my “shod” pace and exceeding it, and being able to run 4+ days a week rather than 3 because my recovery times are much, much, faster. All in all, I am thrilled with the results I have gained by going minimalist, and I can’t see myself ever going back.

I am available for questions and love helping others through their transitions. My DM page is http://www.dailymile.com/people/SeanF2. My FB page is http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=1245705121. Feel free to add me as a friend on either site, and I look forward to meeting and helping each one of you!

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