More than a year and a half into this process, it’s fair to say that I love minimalist running. I love the biomechanical advantages it offers. I love how it strengthens my feet and allows them to function naturally. I love how it makes me feel more connected to the ground beneath my feet. Best of all, I love the spirit of freedom and simplicity it gives me every time I run.
I just wish I could do it a little bit faster.
One of the major criticisms of barefoot and minimalist running is that it prohibits you from running at top speed without the protection and cushioning of traditional shoes. The question has been debated and discussed in several running circles, and conventional wisdom seems to say that shod running is for racing, while minimalist running is merely for enjoyment.
But what if you want to be a fast minimalist runner? What if you’d like the ability to run casually on some days, and speedy on others? Those are questions I’ve been addressing with myself over the past couple of months.
There was a time in my life – a period of several years, in fact – where the only aspect of training that mattered to me on a daily basis was how fast I could run. I recorded lap splits during track workouts, mile splits during tempo runs, and 5K splits during long runs. A tempo run that took 5 seconds longer than the previous week was cause for concern, and workout times that were faster than the year before reassured me that I was race ready. From day to day, I lived and died by the numbers that showed up on my watch each morning.
However, for the past several years the tide has turned, to the point where I very seldom care about how fast I run anymore. The primary driver of this is my immersion in the world of ultrarunning, where mile splits aren’t nearly as important as the long-term resiliency to continually put one foot in front of the other. The second factor was my transition to barefoot running, where you have to quite literally start one step at a time, and slow down to practically a snail’s pace to get the technique correct.
Consequently, the twice-weekly speed workouts I did during marathon training have gradually declined – first to once per week, then once or twice per month, and ultimately to an every-now-and-then occurrence just to keep things interesting. In a related story, I’m a much slower runner than I used to be.
Now that I’m doing nearly 100% of my mileage in minimal footwear, I’m curious as to whether I can start building some of that speed back. For the past couple of months, I’ve done brief track workouts and short-distance tempo runs, trying to get my legs used to moving quickly again when there’s nothing underfoot to support them. The answers I’ve found have been kind of depressing.
Compared to my marathon racing days, I’m pretty much a turtle nowadays. The tricky part is that I’m not sure exactly how much of this is attributable to my current choice of footwear. I find running fast in minimalist shoes to be quite difficult: I’ve always derived my speed from having a long, powerful stride, but in Vibrams or Evos I have to remind myself to keep my steps short and my cadence quick. Even when I’m focused on it, my form tends to fall apart as I get fatigued, and I start to fall back into my old habits. The result is that I have a hard time just opening the throttle and running like a maniac, which used to be my hallmark during tough track workouts.
On the other hand, even if I had perfect form, I’d have a hard time matching workout times I did a few years ago anymore. After attributing a few consecutive slow tempo run times to my footwear, the following week I did the same course in Newton Gravitys, which I’ve called my traditional footwear of choice for running fast. To my dismay, my time on a 4-mile course was only about 30 seconds faster. So clearly I can’t blame it all on the shoes.
Every now and then I long for the times when I could lower the hammer and outrun my training partners to the car in the last 2 miles of a 90-minute run, or burn a workout of 8 x 1600m at 5:30 pace in the midst of a long training week. I honestly have no idea (but truthfully, I’m somewhat skeptical) that I can ever match those days, but without any ultras on the calendar until next spring, I’m making it a point during this winter to try and build some of my old speed back – only this time, I’m doing it with minimalist shoes.
I’m not looking to jump back into road racing or set a marathon PR anytime soon - I just figure that as long as I’m committed to this minimalist thing, it would be nice if someday I could do it a little more impressively.
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