I won’t tell you the whole story of how I got into barefoot / minimalist running, I’ve done that before. But for the sake of comprehension, I need to mention that I started barefooting to break an unending circle of injury, notably of IT Band problems. I’ve been (road) running barefoot for over two years now, with great satisfaction and success.
I rediscovered trail running this summer, while preparing for my first ultra marathon. I had somehow forgotten how incredibly better trail running is, with its added challenge and beauty, the need for constant attention and the reward of being one with nature in a very special, physical way. Awesome.
After my ultra, and even more so when I learned I would be running the Copper Canyon in 2012, I realized that my trail abilities needed to seriously improve. So I started adding at least one trail run per week, while adding to my mileage gradually. I chose trails that offer various levels of challenge, but that can all be regrouped under the category “technical”, which means they are of the “single trail” type. Not smooth, gravelled park pathways. I’m talking roots, sharp rocks, vertical drops up to 5-6 feet, rolling pebbles, riverbeds, mud pits. Below are a couple images of trails I run (Click to enlarge).
I started hitting the trails in the same minimal shoes I ran my ultra with, the Merrell Trail Gloves. However, I quickly found they were very limited in capability, notably in terms of protection. I’d get bruises under my feet, experience severe adherence issues on slippery downhills or wet tree roots, and have a really hard time with surfaces made of sharp, protruding rocks. All these issues would get much, much worse as I would add speed to the equation.
I also had a very hard time going downhill on steep declines. This is clearly inexperience on my part, but I also think there’s more to it. After realizing I couldn’t really forefoot strike while going downhill unless I break my cadence with every step, I was advised to aim for a mid-foot landing that would allow me to use gravity to my advantage and that would stop me from hitting the ground so hard (and breaking my forward momentum) compared with my usual “barefoot” form.
So I did, and for a while, I got convinced I’d found the proper solution. I replaced my Trail Gloves with somewhat minimal La Sportiva Cross Lite and changed my downhill running technique. I gained awesome traction, a lot of confidence and I got much faster (in a mid-pack runner way, not the Patrick Sweeney way ;). All was good under the sun!
Except, Last week I did 2 hard trail runs, doubled with road trainings on the same day (the “back-to-back” technique for ultra training). My first one was 22.5km (14 miles) trail + 9km (5.5 miles) road, both at moderate pace. I took a 2-day break, then went for a 9km (5.5 miles) hard trail run (fast+technical), then went home and out for a 16km (10-mile) road run. I had to stop my road run because my knee started hurting in a way that was all too familiar – and, must I add, that I thought was gone for good. It was a slight IT Band pain. Like back in my shod days.
I gave myself 4 full days of break, then last Saturday went to a 23km (14.5-mile) vertical trail race up and down a ski resort. The knee pain came back around the summit (around the 11 mile point), and with a vengeance. When I started the last 3-mile straight downhill to the finish, the pain was really bad, I was limping and pretty much unable to run decently. Under other circumstances, I would’ve quit altogether. Anywho, I finished the race, but now my knee’s bad. And it’s IT Band.
This makes me think it’s a warning of overuse AND a sign of bad running form (probably a bit of both), coming from my intensified trail training / volume and the changes in my technique. I feel a little depressed, and back to square one. So while I ice and whine, there are many questions I want to ask you :
- Did any of you experience similar issues?
- Do you think this is maybe an “adjustment” my body’s doing and that it just needs time?
- Are there barefooters / minimalist trail runners out there running shod part-time? What shoes do you use?
- What do you specifically recommend I do, when I get back on the trails, considering the above context?
- Am I the only one to think “performance” trail running on technical, single trail courses is impossible barefoot and extremely tricky / risky in minimalist footwear? (Also note : I’m from Canada, with seriously cold falls and winters)
- For a barefooter / minimalist runner who gets injured the minute they wear shoes, what is the proper downhill running technique?
- I am used to training volumes of 40km (25 miles) to 85km (53 miles) per week, on road. What should be my volume on trails?
- Considering my ultimate goal is the Copper Canyon Ultra next March, do you have any other advice for me?
I hope I provided enough details for all this to make some sense. I also wish this can bring an interesting debate and stir ideas around a little. I find that there’s an overwhelming number of barefoot/minimal/whatever shoes that have gone out recently and pretend to be trail runners while they are far from it.
I will come back often and respond to your feedback. Thanks a lot for your time and help!