I’d briefly mentioned that I was going to start a new and different training plan to carry me through the winter and prepare me for next year. They’re the plans outlined in Eric Ortner’s book The Cool Impossible.
The first part of the plan is the “Performance Running Transition Program.” It lasts for four weeks and is designed to help you to improve your running form – to a more natural, correct form – and to transition to zero-drop shoes, which make that good, natural form, well, more natural. Let’s take a tangent on zero-drop shoes.
I was surprised to learn that even some of my most seasoned running friends didn’t really understand what zero-drop shoes are. Here’s the gist: the “traditional” running shoe has more padding in the heel than the forefoot. So if the shoe has 8 mm more cushion in the heel than in the toe, the shoe has an 8 mm “drop.” (To me, that’s counter intuitive. I’d call that an 8 mm “lift,” but what the hell do it know?) The idea is that more cushion in the heel helps to prevent injuries caused by heel striking. The counter argument for these types of shoes is that the addition padding in the heel makes it difficult not to heel strike, and is therefore, unnatural and more likely to lead to injury.
“Minimalist” shoes, like Vibram Five Finger, are zero-drop shoes, but zero-drop shoes aren’t necessarily minimalist. Zero-drop models can have cushioning in the soles. The difference is simply that the padding is even from heel to toe – the entire sole of your foot is the same distance from the ground. After reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, as well as The Cool Impossible (whose author coached Christopher McDougall), I decided that I wanted to try to improve my form to a more natural stride, and therefore needed zero-drop shoes. However, I didn’t want to go the minimalist route, so – after doing some research – I invested in a cute pair of Altras. Here they are:
As you can probably see, they’re not only different in that the cushioning in the soles is even from toe to heel. They also have a wider, more square toe box (making my over-sized feet look even more like little blocks!). Instead of narrowing at the toes – and pushing your toes together – these shoes allow for more movement of the forefoot within the shoe. This also allows for a more natural movement in the foot by allowing the forefoot and toes a wider range of motion to balance the feet while running.
The idea is that the design of these shoes allows for your feet to move more naturally – the way your body was designed to work. The catch is that, even thought this is ideal in the long-run (pun intended, I guess), you can’t just slap these shoes on and go. If you’re used to running in a traditional shoe, zero-drop shoes will change your stride and cause you to use different muscles than you’re used to. Therefore, you have to transition to them gradually. (The Altra website has a page with some guidelines for doing so – here. They also include helpful videos on proper running form.)
The Cool Impossible transition program goes something like this: Four weeks of 3-4 runs per week, building up to 30 minutes of running for each session. In addition, it includes a series of exercises to strengthen the feet, as well as a series of drills to encourage good running form in five areas:
- Forefoot strike
- Let stance
- Knee drive
- Arm carry
Monday morning, I laced up my Altras for the first time (after doing my slant board exercises and form drills barefoot) for the very first time. As each of the four areas includes several form drills, I decided I’d focus on one of the first four for each of my four runs each week. (And I’d address the “arm carry” area throughout.)
First of all, I have to mention that I over slept and almost put the whole thing off for another day. After quite a series of spirited debates with myself about whether or not I had enough time, I got up at the last possible minute, slapped on my running gear, grabbed my shoes and socks, and headed to the basement to start with my barefoot, slant board exercises. The slant board exercises mostly involve trying to stand still (i.e., balance), so it’s surprising how much sweating goes on during this rather still activity. It’s harder than it looks and you feel it from feet through your core. Without going into all the details, I’ll just add that the one thing I find to be unique to this program is that it begins by focusing on strengthening your feet. (I’m not going into the specifics of how the slant board exercises are executed right now because I addressed that activity a while ago in this post right here.) When you really think about it, it’s somewhat surprising that most training programs, as well as recommended cross training regimens for runners, don’t address the feet, which are more than a little bit essential for running.
Anyway! After my slant board balance and slant board movement sequences, I performed the form drills for encouraging forefoot striking, which are jumping and running (barefoot!) in place. These drills encourage forefoot striking because it’s virtually impossible to heel strike when you jump or run in place. Did I mention that I got up late? Yes, yes did. Therefore, my barefoot jumping/running in place session for lasted for all of about 90 seconds before I needed to get my neato new shoes on and hit the pavement.
Since I knew I needed to get used to the shoes slowly, I decided I’d run a single mile today in the Altras. I knew this was going to suck because the first mile always sucks. And when your first mile is your only mile, obviously the whole run is going to suck. At least it doesn’t last long, I guess.
When I set out, I was surprised at how good the shoes felt. I could definitely tell the difference, but I expected it to be less comfortable than it was. I’d mentioned that you begin to use different muscles when you transition to zero-drop shoes, so I’m not surprised that I can feel today’s short run in my calves, which had to work harder than they are used to because of the change in stride. I’m waiting to see how sore I feel before I decide how far to go in them on Wednesday. I may stick to a single mile again, or I may try 1.5 to 2 miles on Wednesday, depending upon how I feel.
I’m excited to finally be starting this training plan! Now I just have to get myself motivated to get back to strength training on non-running days. Wish me luck!