From Gimp to Athlete

It was during college, I decided to go for a run that day. Beautiful weather, sun beaming down but not too hot. I went for a few miles and was running alongside the railroad tracks. Somehow I tripped and banged my knee pretty good. I figured the pain would go away after a few days and it did; however, the pain would always come back when I tried to run. Like an idiot, I never went to the doctor. I decided to take it easy on that knee and because the glory days of racing were over, I thought nothing more of it, aside from praying for God to remove the pain. I had many people pray for me actually. But I figured I was now an academic, so that was where I focused my energies.

After two years of no running I decided to give it another go – I was visiting my parents when I tried to go on this run. Once again, it was another beautiful day and I was running around the lake on their property. The pain in my knee became excruciating, I walked to the house and started rubbing down my knee and then I felt it: a huge extra bump on the inside of my leg! Whoa, what is this! Am I an alien? I asked my mom to look at it and she freaked out – and she is a nurse! We went to get X-Rays as soon as possible and discovered what is called Osteochondroma, essentially it was an extra piece of bone growing off of my femur. It was about 4 inches long and was wrapped around my knee, and the ligaments in my knee were catching on it whenever I moved. No wonder it hurt!

Long story short: I had surgery, they had to make a seven inch incision through the muscles in my leg. Surgery went well, we found out that it was not cancerous and it never came back. However, they completely destroyed the muscles! I would have a long journey of PT. Impact sports were out of the question because of doctor’s order. I decided to start riding a bike to commute, and enjoy the scenery, being I could not enjoy that by running anymore. I got really into biking, my wife and I even started racing. And then I decided to try running again. The scenario: I was competing in a cyclocross bike race, my tire flatted and there were no neutral wheels that fit my bike. I was not going to quit, so I ran for 4 miles and finished the race. And amazingly, my knee was not hurting! Whoa! However, my back was killing me! What a strange twist of events?

My back problems continued getting worse so I visited several chiropractors and it was Dr. Scott Shepherd (Portland, OR) who helped me realize that I had been tri-poding for the last few years. Because of the weakness in one leg, I would put most of my weight on one leg so that I could baby the other one. The downside: it messed up my alignment big time! My spine was so curved! We decided to put in a heal lift on one of my shoes and after a year of this and regular chiropractic my spine was much more strait. He helped eliminate all of my everyday pain! Thank you Dr. Shepherd! But every so often I would attempt to run again, and I would develop more back pain, what was going on?

During this time my wife had become a personal trainer and was sharing my story with a few of her co-workers and it was Krista Loveless, the Pilates instructor, that I am ever grateful for. At this point I was so willing to run that I was willing to do whatever it took. Krista is not a big fan of heal lifts, so we got rid of it. Then she had me start strengthening my feet by doing toe curls and other random exercises! Have you ever done toe curls? they are hard! It takes a lot of coordination. And then we started doing a ton of different exercises on the Reformer – it is amazing how much stability you can gain through working out on that thing! I did personal training with Krista for close to a year, and during that time I withheld from running so that I would not ruin a good thing. I knew that a good runner needed strong feet and a strong core (refer to previous post on Virbam 5 fingers vs. New Balance Minimus Zero).

From the time of my original injury til today, it has been 9 years. I have been running again for the past year with no knee trouble and no back pain. Dr. Shepherd is still my chiropractor for emergencies (like when I crash my bike) and is stoked to see how far I have come. Krista is still my friend and is doing an amazing job as a Pilates instructor! Today, I am training for my first marathon this October. My wife is now my personal trainer (Sara Fletcher) and she is helping me train to shoot for a 7:00 min/mile pace. Can I do it? I don’t know, but I will try 🙂

Nine years is a long time to fight through an injury. I used to wonder if God cared about me, I would get upset on occasion because he did not heal me. But I have come to realize something: God did answer my prayers, it just happened to be through my hard work. God loves it when we are faithful with the resources he gives us. He gave me plenty of resources and I was faithful to diligently use them. Amen!

Vibram 5 Fingers vs. New Balance Minimus Zero Road

The barefoot running trend has become very popular these days, and many people have had serious injuries because of it. What is going on?

We must first understand some basic physics. Have you ever looked at an archway such as a bridge? I am sure you have. When you look at it you will notice that there are not support beams in the archway itself; that would weaken the structure. As gravity pulls down, the structure actually becomes stronger.

Or have you seen leaf-springs in truck suspension before? They compress and de-compress based on the load and terrain. You do not find coil springs on a leaf-sprung truck, that would be counter intuitive (ok, some will do front coil, rear leafs, etc.)

With running, the foot arch is like a bridge and a leaf spring. It becomes stronger as more weight is applied and it compresses and de-compresses based on the load for a smooth ride. Like a bridge, if you were to put in a support beam in the middle of the arch, the arch would actually lose strength. And like a truck’s leaf springs, if you put coil springs on top of the leafs, it would not function properly. We don’t do this on bridges and trucks, why do we do this to our feet every day?

Arch support in a shoe is like putting arch support on a bridge. It weakens the structure. Modern shoes have very stiff arches which do not allow the leaf spring of the foot to actually work. Thus, with a non-movable leaf spring, they have now added “coils” to the shoes, or the hundreds of different types of springy foam which lose their spring after 300-500 miles.

Why is it a bad idea to switch to barefoot running today? Because your feet are weak! You have had arch support in your shoes for your entire life, your foot muscles have atrophied. How do you strengthen your feet? Some suggest using minimalist shoes on rare occasion to work the muscles. I suggest doing what my Pilates instructor taught me: toes curls. Put something around your toe that you can hold onto with your hands (a towel works). Then try to press against the pressure of the towel one toe at a time. Also, stand on a ball and use it like you would use a foam roller on your legs. Do this every day and I guarantee that you will have stronger feet.

I used Vibram 5 Fingers to run in for over a year until I had any problems. I ended up upsetting Tom, Dick, and Harry (nicknames for tendons in the heal, not the Achilles). I decided I needed to try a different shoe. So I did, I ended up trying out the Brooks Pure line and the New Balance Minimus line (both trail and road).

The verdict: New Balance Minimus Zero Road wins by a landslide.

Try spreading your toes. Really, try it. Do you feel the muscles in your foot and calf working overtime? Well, this is exactly what is constantly happening when you run with Vibram 5 Fingers. When you ran as a child with no shoes; did little gnomes run around following you trying to spread your toes open? No, that would be ridiculous. As I said: Tom, Dick, and Harry ended up getting irritated, so I listened to my body and only use the Vibrams during gym workouts now. I tried the Brooks Pure but discovered that there was still too much arch support. My arches compress and de-compress a lot when I run, and my arches were getting nasty blisters from the Pure because the arch was too stiff. Over time, my foot would have adapted and become weaker to compensate for the shoe. I didn’t like that idea. I went back to the running store and looked at the shoes again. As I looked at them, I decided to try folding the shoes in half, if you can easily fold the shoe in half it means your foot arches can work properly – only 2 shoes in the store (aside from Vibram) were able to fold so easily: New Balance Minimus Zero Road and Mizuno Wave Universe. They did not have the Mizuno in my size, so I bought the Minimus Zero Road. There is zero drop from heal to toe, 12mm between my foot and the road, and they weigh 7 oz. In comparison, the Vibrams have zero drop, 4mm between foot and road, and they weigh 7 oz. When I run with the Minimus Zero, I actually feel like it is more of a barefoot running feeling than with the Vibrams. And as a kicker, these shoes are so incredibly comfortable, I have never felt such a smooth upper on a shoe in my life.

A little on running technique:

  1. You need strong feet – doing toe curls is a great place to start.
  2. Strengthen your core – strong abs help your body move fluidly.
  3. Bend your knees – I am 5’11” but look 5’7” when I run
  4. Don’t bob up and down! If your core is strong and your knees are bent, you prevent this “jogging” up and down
  5. Have a quick turnover – if you hit the ground 180 times per minute you are doing great. Fast turnover does not necessarily mean fast pace. Don’t worry about having a fast pace. Whether my pace is slow or fast, I try to have a fast turnover cadence of 180.
  6. Fall forward. Keep your body strait (strong core) but not upright. You want to have a slant forward the entire run.
  7. Pay attention to your feet, there will be 3 parts of your foot hitting the ground on each stride: Mid-foot, Heal, Toes. It might seem ridiculous, but this is what is happening if your knees are bent, you core is tight, and your body is falling forward.
  8. Love it.
  9. Repeat a mantra on the difficult sections; I repeat a simple prayer over and over again, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”