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November 21, 2010

The Minimalist Speed Project

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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Johns Shoes 11/21/10, 11:39 PM  

When you have worn deep soled road shoes all your life, barefoot running looks worrying. But i know alot of people swear by it...

RICK'S RUNNING 11/22/10, 12:13 AM  

I can't see and reason why you can't get back your speed with the right training.
You could start by finishing some of your steady runs with a fast mile and on another day finish will 6 x 20 sec wind up strides.
i find my modified Nike frees which now have a zero toe to heel drop work well for fast sessions.
You might need to do some dynamic stretching for the hip flexors, quads, hams and calf muscles to improve range of motion.
Yeah I'm sure you can improve your speed!

Pete Larson 11/22/10, 5:38 AM  

Great post Donald! As someone who is still more on the speed-oriented, road running running side of things, I have also found it difficult to push really hard for a long distance in shoes like the Fivefingers. I can knock out a fast mile or 5K in them, but it takes a lot out of me. That being said, if you put in the speedwork, I don't doubt that your speed will come back. The shoes are just one part of the puzzle.

Thomas 11/22/10, 5:50 AM  

Why? Why are doing this? Why not run fast in racing flats? They don't exactly have a lot of features built into them.

I don't get it. What's the compulsion of running fast in minimalist footwear?

Tuck 11/22/10, 7:13 AM  

There are folks who are running quite fast in minimalist footwear. Aside from the Africans, who have the advantage of growing up barefoot, there are a number of Americans who run fast in minimalist footwear. Patrick Sweeney is a good example, the Romero brothers are another.

I don't know what exactly is holding you back, but it's certainly possible.

@Thomas: because it's a lot more fun, and it's certainly possible.

Donald 11/22/10, 8:03 AM  

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Rick's and Pete: there's really no reason I can't build it back, but it's just going to take me a while. I've realized my pre-minimalist form was pretty heavily shifted back toward my heels, so there's still a lot of habit to overcome.

Thomas: Racing shoes might be a good compromise for some, although I tend to find that the toeboxes of most are too narrow for my liking. As to why ... mainly because I'm curious. And because I enjoy what I'm doing enough to not want to switch back and forth between footwear styles.

Tuck: Yup, Sweeney and the Romeros are all awesome. There are a handful more out there like them, but I wish such folks were more commonplace, so people can't dismiss them as "gifted exceptions".

Stuart 11/22/10, 1:09 PM  

I am wondering if a cadence monitor would help you with your pick up?

Boris Terzic 11/22/10, 6:43 PM  

I am with you, I find my pace picks up when I am in vibrams or barefoot. It feel freeing!

cheryl 11/22/10, 7:27 PM  

Hey Donald,
I’m going to add my two cents to your barefoot/speed dilemma which really will be two cents because I have not run barefoot yet. However, I do have a few miles on my legs with a couple of ultras and triathlons. So here goes. Hope you don’t mind my feedback and hope that it might help.
You obviously are a strong and experienced runner who has changed your technique as a result of barefoot/minimalist footwear. Your midfoot strike, shorter strides and faster cadence are the hallmark of an efficient and injury free runner. It is great that you have achieved that through the use of your Vibrams. I have been impressed with your long run/race reports in your minimalist shoes. You are obviously a talented runner and I think you can go fast barefoot. (I mean look at Bikela…)

You have probably heard of ChiRunning and the Pose Technique. I am a huge fan of ChiRunning (I find it very easy to understand compared to Pose) and believe that injury free running, and efficient speed can only be achieved through excellent technique. (Duh!) The one concept that you might want to consider is one that is described by both ChiRunning and Pose and that is the concept of leaning at the ankles. Not your waist, your ankles. To do this requires excellent posture and a strong core.

I am guessing that your speed returns when you put on your cushy, high heeled shoes because you are able to heel strike when you throw your legs in front of you to create a longer stride and more speed. This is going to sound weird, but you may be struggling to go faster because you are using your legs to create speed. If you use lean and allow the force of the road and gravity to move your legs behind you instead of throwing them in front of you, you will be able to maintain a midfoot strike, lengthen your stride and improve your speed. I can see from your still shots that you are upright with a long stride. Putting a lean into all the strength that you have will give you the speed you are looking for.

The lean is your gas pedal. A one inch lean is first gear barely moving, increase your lean to two inches and that’s second gear, your aerobic, long run, talking pace. Tempo runs or race pace should be done at 3rd gear with a 3 inch lean. Sprinting and speed work is closer to a 4 inch lean.

Your cadence should always be the same regardless of speed. As you increase your lean (your gas pedal) your stride will naturally lengthen. The ideal cadence is 90 SPM (or 180 if you count each foot). Most people run at too slow of a cadence – under 85. You can see how lean affects stride length using a metronome to keep cadence.

If what I’m saying doesn’t make sense, take a look at the ChiRunning book. Danny Dreyer, the creator and founder of ChiRunning, presents the concepts in easy to understand narrative using gradual progress and skill building to create this revolutionary technique. I read the first 100 pages back in July and began transforming my running into pure joy again. I’m a trail runner more than anything else which is why I’m reluctant to go totally barefoot, but minimalist is definitely in my sights for next spring. I am injury free, about 15 years older than you and running like I did when I was in my 30s! (ok, granted not as fast, but definitely enjoying it like I did back then!)


Donald 11/22/10, 9:02 PM  

Stuart: Good idea. A monitor would almost certainly help, since I have no idea what cadence I'm keeping now.

Cheryl: thanks very much for the advice. I'm aware of the importance of leaning, but I don't do it nearly enough. I appreciate your pointers for improvement.

Andy 11/23/10, 6:53 AM  

You certainly don't need to heel strike to go fast. The elites manage to fly while forefoot striking through power and minimizing ground time, not by stretching their legs forward. Their shoes aren't that far from being minimal, either.

Who knows... a few steps back for a big leap forward? If you can get some of that power back while maintaining the good form, you could be faster...

Stacy,  11/25/10, 12:48 PM  

Thanks for sharing this part of your "experiment of one." I for one find it very interesting and informative to hear your experience with various trials and tweaks as you dial in your preferred running experience. I hope there will be more like this to come as you go along.

FredBros 12/11/10, 5:49 AM  

I began minimalism one year ago. Newton to start with of course to switch from heel striking to middle of the foot striking, then VFF, Kigo, Terra Plana and was planning to run a marathon wearing VFF. I did all my training sessions with the VFF including the weekly Speed Work (things such as 7x250m + 7x200m + 7x150m on hard surfaces ...). I found these trainings far more difficult with minimalist shoes than with my racers (adidas adizero adios) and indeed my measured speed was 0.5 km/h below.
However, if I have a look at my races performances (10km since I encountered a stress fracture of the foot just before my marathon), they are the same with minimalist shoes or with usual shoes. Which means that being slower during Speed Work isn't that important.

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