Not a lot of activity for me recently; I had a bit of a laze around after the Tor des Geants for a week or two then on Monday finally had three hernias which have been a problem for some years repaired. Keyhole job but still a bit stiff and sore - I guess it will be a week or two before I'm back running so I've spent more time than usual catching up on everyone's blogs, facebook and so on. It seems the shoe debate is still going strong so I'll take the opportunity to add my two penn'orth.
Now I don't seem to get riled much these days, maybe it's a date of birth effect, you get a bit more accommodating to views other than your own, but I do raise an eyebrow at the passion that I see generated on this subject. Barefoot runners, minimalists, Hoka blokes, every opinion seems to get a wave of counterclaims from folk who just know that their way is best. Well, you're not going to get any evangelism from me I'm afraid; I'll just start by saying that I think this is actually quite a complex subject and then try to outline what I think I've learned over the past few years. This may take a while; if you're familiar with my posts this could be at least a two G&T affair. Remember though this is just what I have observed and think I have learned. I don't have any medical or sports science expertise, I'm just an engineer interested in learning how things work and how they can be fixed.
I have to confess something here - I was once a runner. Back in my late teens I could make a good enough shy at a 50 second quarter mile or a two minute half (note the distances, this was way before UK athletics went metric). I mention this only because these sort of distances encourage a long stride length which, although I then went away to college and gave up running in favour of more sociable sports such as rowing and rugby, persisted most of my life and has a bearing on the later story. Later on I always did a bit of running, to stay fit for other activities, to get away from the office or the factory or whatever, but I never raced or competed in any way. My main sport was always mountaineering and climbing; whenever I went running I just used whatever shoes I happened to own at the time, the same ones that I would wear for wandering up to a crag or going to the pub. I wore Reebok Royales for many years, I really liked the colour. Then a job posting to the Netherlands in my mid fifties meant that climbing became a bit difficult for a while; a colleague suggested running the Rotterdam marathon so I signed up and started training. I learned that the game had moved on a bit since my youth and I went to a specialist running shop in Rotterdam who had a treadmill for gait analysis so I could get kitted up. They told me that Reebok were the wrong shape of shoe for me, I had an "Asics" foot. They sold me a pair of Asics Nimbus;
I've never felt the need to change for road running and I must have had a dozen or more pairs since then; they seemed to work for me and for many years I didn't really ask why. I was conscious in road races that I was taking longer strides than runners of similar height, but I was secretly quite pleased with this - must be more efficient, right? I landed on my heel and used all of the shoe before takeoff, I felt I had a nice smooth running style.
Early Ultra Experiences
After half a dozen marathons, I got into the ultra running scene. My first race was the Highland Fling in 2007, which I ran in the same Asics road shoes. OK, but after the finish my heels were really sore, I could barely walk for a week or two afterwards. Reading other peoples' race tales, I began to understand that different footwear was required for trail ultras, that was probably the problem, I'd used the wrong shoes. Several runners had recommended Montrail Hardrocks, so I bought some. After a five mile "familiarisation" run in them, I then went out and used them on the northern half of the Anglesey coast path, a hilly and rocky 50 miler. When I finished my heels were wrecked. I had the first bout of a condition that was to plague me for the next three or four years, plantar fasciitis. If you've ever had this, you'll understand, if you've never experienced it then you don't want to. Your heels are so sore that even walking is painful.
Over the next few years I experimented with all sorts of shoes and insoles, looking for a "magic answer". I should of course have consulted a good podiatrist, but up to that point I had never trusted medics as far as sports injuries were concerned, so I didn't. In the end, I settled on going back to my Asics Nimbus for all running, road, trail, fell, whatever. I used fairly firm insoles of the type you heat in the oven then mould to your feet by standing on them. These seemed to help with the PF, and I was convinced I needed the cushioning of the Nimbus shoe to see me through any long race, though I always had sore heels way before the end.
I came across the book "Born to Run" and was intrigued by the theory of landing on the forefoot, saving both heel and knee impact. I tried to get into it but it wouldn't work for me, it felt so artificial and strenuous, all that leaning forward and taking short strides, I couldn't relax into it. I was resigned to the fact that I would have to stick with my road shoes and manage the PF. The only trail shoes that I could tolerate were Asics Trabuccos, which I found were great for short days (say up to 5 or 6 hours) much better grip on rocky ground, much more "nimble" feeling, but again on a longer run the heel pain would come on again.
By now I had started going to a good physio who helped me sort out some hamstring problems (and who has since then seen me through a lot of other potential difficulties - once you find a good sports physio they are really worth hanging on to). I chatted to her about the PF and she recommended a local podiatrist. He spent a good hour working out how I walked and ran, one of the best £50's worth I have ever had in running. He said the insoles I was wearing were holding my foot far too rigidly; he put together what he called a "Blue Peter style" insole by sticking bits of tape onto a thin standard sole and gave it to me to try for three weeks. They made a huge difference. He said I could have some soles made on a machine to copy what he had done, but they would cost around £100 a pair. I said I was happy with the trial ones, and ever since he has let me have a supply of "Improved Blue Peter" soles which he makes by putting a thin layer of leather on top of the sole and tape blocks at a cost very little more than the mouldable ones I was buying earlier.
I learned a lot from this guy. He explained that any gait correction should be done by "jacking up" (my terms) the foot to land, roll, or take off to keep the knee and ankle joints in the best position for running, which explains the small platforms that you see in my insoles in the picture. This is an individual operation, every runner is different, so if shoe companies try to produce a shoe to correct under or over pronation in general they can't do this, what they have to do is to change the plan geometry of the shoe instead. Turn your shoes over and lay a straight-edge over the mid points of the heel and the instep, and see where it comes to on the forefoot. The picture shows my Trabuccos, which are a pretty neutral shoe, yet you can see that they are still a little "banana-shaped" which tends to force the forefoot to roll outward on takeoff, pushing the knee outwards. Some shoes designed to cure pronation problems are more extreme in this effect, which may cure one problem but cause another. You pays your money and takes your choice as they say.
Later Ultras, and maybe a breakthrough
So things were getting better. On shorter races I could choose shoes that were better for the task in hand, in terms of grip, manoeuverability and so on, but on longer trail races I would go back to my road shoes with the custom made insoles and accept that I would have to be a bit more careful on the rocky sections. I started getting interested in even more technical ground, Bob Graham Round sections and so on, where the road shoes would work in the dry but were hopeless, possibly even a bit dangerous in the wet conditions usual in our British hills. I looked at Walshes and flirted with the Innovate range but eventually came to find that the shoes that suit me on this terrain are the very lightweight Salomon Speedcross.
These have great grip on mud and grass and a lot of precision on rocky ground, but equally importantly they fit my foot perfectly; they always feel like carpet slippers when I put them on. But an important point here is that on this type of ground you experience a completely different type of running. On larger rocks, you are always landing on the forefoot (you slide off if you don't) with a slight spring in the landing; steep down hills where you dig in the heel are relatively short and infrequent. Uphills are always taken on the front of the foot. You don't get the continual heel pounding that a heelstrike runner gets on roads and easy trails. I found I could wear these for quite long periods in the hills because the terrain itself was forcing me to run in a gentler style.
Then about 18 months ago after finishing the 2011 Hardmoors 55 race I saw Hokas for the first time. They looked really weird but I was still after the magic answer. They had to be worth a go so I bought a pair of Mafates straight away and started playing. For the first three or four weeks I was really disappointed. They didn't seem very comfortable, didn't have a great grip in a lot of conditions, no precision over boulders and I always came back with really tired legs, especially in the hamstring and Achilles area. I nearly threw them away but two things encouraged me to persist. Firstly, I understood that the designers were a couple of ex Salomon guys; this company has been behind a huge number of game-changing designs in ski-ing, climbing and running so their designers must in general be good; maybe they had something that I just wasn't seeing. And secondly, there were the downhills. The Hoka strapline is "Time to Fly" and if you want to experience this, you just have to get yourself to the top of a stony but not too technical track and try to forget all your preconceptions about how to run down it. Imagine it's an easy angled, dry grass field, don't worry about individual footfalls and just go. The effect is truly amazing. I can only describe it as the difference between descents on a mountain bike with and without front suspension, or cruising through off-piste crud on modern wide skis compared with the toothpicks we had a generation ago. A trial becomes pure pleasure. I thought about all the batterings my feet had got over the Lairig Mor, down the Garburn Road, and down the hill from Bloworth Crossing. I needn't ever go through that again.
So I persisted with the Mafates, and over the next few months I learned to deal with them and love them. What I hadn't understood was although they are heavily cushioned, they also have very little heel raise (the height that your heel sits in the shoe relative to the forefoot), around a centimetre less than my road shoes, which means that to get a comfortable gait you actually have to take shorter strides and land on your forefoot. Years ago I couldn't do this just by thinking about it, but by running so that these shoes felt comfortable, it was happening. I hadn't made the transition in time for the Highland Fling that year, or even the West Highland Way, but I bit the bullet for the Lakeland 100 and in the following month followed most of the UTMB trail twice in them. The Mafates saw me through the winter and over the 2012 Hardmoors 55, but by the time the Highland Fling came around they were pretty shot. I bought a pair of Hoka Evos, similar to the Mafates but with a slimmer fitting and slightly more aggressive sole, took them out of the box in Milngavie and ran the 53 miles to Tyndrum. No problem, no pain.
So what have I learned?
Interpreting all this has taken a while. The Hokas weren't the "magic answer" of course. There simply is no magic answer. They just helped, maybe forced, me to adopt a running style that is more suited to long distance races than the one I had before; kinder to joints, to feet, more efficient. I can feel that I run in this style now whatever shoes I am wearing, and that gives me more options to tackle different events. I talked to Mark Barnes about whether Hoka could find a way to overcome their deficiencies in terms of grip and precision; of course they could, but only by taking away some of the features that make them unique. We can't have it all. Design is about finding the best solution to the problem, but you have to define the problem, not "all problems"! And so to address maybe what you might have thought I was going to do right at the start of this little meander. What is the best shoe for running ultras? You will get plenty of votes for Innovates, for Salomons, for Brooks, for Hokas, for sandals made from car tyres, for the shoes that I get for thirty quid at Asda.
My own conclusion is that for one person, for one race, there may be an ideal. As soon as you break out from that specivity, you're into the land of compromise and choice. Don't ever let anyone try to convince you that their choice will be the best for you, because chances are, it won't be. Sorry, but we all have to find our own best road. My own strategy if you're interested is this:
1. For long trail races (probably 50 miles and up) I will wear Hokas. They are simply too comfortable, and too good on stony downhills. I accept that on the technical ground I will have to be careful, so I will go slower. Would a more competent (ie faster overall) runner make this compromise? Maybe not. I won't use them for shorter races or train very much in them (there are cheaper alternatives that are more "fun" if you don't need the comfort - a bit like a sports car in the hills and a saloon on the motorway...).
2. For shorter trail outings I'm happy with my Asics Trabuccos. Tough, grippy, manouverable, hard wearing and relatively cheap, they're also the shoes that accept Yaktrax easily and are perfectly fine for going to the pub afterwards (after the mud's been knocked off I suppose).
3. If it's technical stuff on the fells, I go for the Salomon Speedcross. Also for trails if there's snow rather than ice about.
4. On the road, I'll stick to my road shoes. I never go further than 26.2 miles and that's what road shoes are for.
Actually, one size never fits all.