Part of the attraction of running is that is a no-frills activity. No equipment or special venue is required – no racquets, membership, golf clubs, or a demarcated court to be booked in advance – just you, a pair of shoes, and the open road.
And it was that way for a while – all I bought were a pair of old-model Adidas AdiZero Manas that I got for a steal at a clearance sale.
Two years later, as I fold up my freshly-laundered lightweight Injinji toe-socks and Halo sport hat, I wondered what had become of it all. Granted, I love shopping, but it would be interesting to figure out how much of the gear I have is actually indispensable (and consider how much I would have saved!)
All my running shoes have always been lightweight or minimalist, but it was entirely by chance that I discovered minimalist footwear to work for me. I detail below how I ventured into Vibram FiveFingers for a while, before settling down to a minimalist Brooks pair. If you wear cushioned running shoes and have been doing well in them, don’t change just yet! The question of whether minimalist or maximalist is ‘better’, or if there is even such a thing, does not have a straightforward answer, and I don’t propose to deal with that in this post (though you may expect a series of articles on this in the future from our fitness contributor, so stay tuned!)
Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport Women’s
It’s an oxymoron – minimalist/barefoot running shoes are some of the most expensive items you could clothe your feet with. It appears especially so if you purchase them locally in Malaysia. True for Vibrams anyway.
Before starting to run in Vibrams, the only other pair of running shoes I have owned is the earlier-mentioned Adidas AdiZero Mana. Having picked the pair out from the sale rack because it was 40% off and in a favourite colour, I was lucky that they happened to fit me, and my gait, like a glove. They happened to be lightweight shoes. Two Christmases after I procured the Adidas, I received a pair of Vibram FiveFingers Sprint as a gift. I was quite thrilled, having been wanting to explore minimalist running further, and so I started to put them to use.
The transition wasn’t too significant, having already been used to a lightweight feel. I ran in the Sprints for a year; and kept running/shuffling in them during pregnancy. After Baby came along, it became clear that my feet had grown about half a size larger and that it was going to pretty much stay that way.
A visit to the running store ensued. Sprints were no longer in stock, and I ended up with a pair of Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sports. I ran in the Komodos for close to 9 months, for distances up to 16K, before realizing that my postpartum weight loss may have had affected the stability of my strides, particularly on my dominant foot which had a recent tendon injury. I decided to experiment with adding some structure to my running footwear, and found the….
The search for a shoe that retained the feel of the Vibrams while providing a little more structure and support, started at the neighbourhood specialist running shop. A variety of makes and models that were in stock were presented, and the one that felt most comfortable of the lot at the time seemed to be the Saucony Kinvara 4, though it felt rather more cushioned than I was accustomed to. I couldn’t linger at the store as Baby was kicking up a fuss and threatening to throw gels and Powerbars off the shelves, so I headed home, and took the opportunity to look up some reviews.
The Saucony Kinvara is Saucony’s flagship natural-running shoe, and a quick look at reviews reveal that it has been popular since the release of its first model. However it does have a significant layer of cushion, and I certainly felt the ‘pillowy’ soles when I paced around the running store. I was concerned that this may mean major adjustments to my gait all over again, seeing that I have been running with Vibrams for quite some time.
Deciding that it wasn’t going to be worth the gamble on my part as I had grown used to ‘feeling the ground’ as I ran, the search continued. I slowly discovered that finding a pair of shoes that didn’t feel slightly odd was almost as difficult as finding spectacles that didn’t have me looking like I was going scuba diving (no thanks to a narrow face shape). I decided to try a model or two of Brooks’, given its popularity amongst many running friends. To my relief, finally, the Brooks PureDrift fit like a glove and felt comfortable the moment I stepped into them. It had the same 4mm heel-to-toe drop as the Kinvara (with the option of taking out the sole for a 0mm drop a’la Vibrams) and was not as cushioned, allowing me to feel the ground better. In fact it reminded me a little of the feel of my old Adidas Adizero Manas – a good sign, possibly.
I checked the reviews, pros, cons. The PureDrift tread isn’t super-robust and won’t last too long, apparently. But a couple of points helped make the decision:
borntorun.com says “Nice Flexibility with Minimal Cushioning: Ground feel and flexibility is superb with just enough cushioning to make you feel like you could even take the PureDrift on longer efforts.”
– Great, because I was beginning to feel that I wouldn’t last very long in my Vibrams in my current condition, on runs longer than 16K!
Gizmodo’s review and comments pretty much sealed the deal for me: “Should you buy it? If you’re an aspiring minimalist runner, or a minimalist runner experimenting with your limits, then yes. They’re light and comfy, but still have a lot of those must-have minimalist qualities, like good ground-feel, zero-drop, and a very roomy toe-box.”
– Woohoo! MInimalist runner experimenting with limits – *hands up*. And good ground-feel FTW!
At the time of writing, I haven’t yet clocked in all that many miles on the PureDrifts, so stay tuned for updates. For starters, I have a couple of short runs at events coming up before the end of the year, and I intend to be running in the PureDrifts for those.
Verdict? YES, proper shoes are an important part of your running journey. Take your time finding a pair with the right fit. Do your research. Consult a specialist running shoe store with staff knowledgeable about the ins and outs of their products.
Socks? No big deal, right? Well, guess what, the wrong type of socks can cause blisters, chafes, or burns. Soft, smooth material that reduces friction work best for most. if your feet sweat heavily, there are pairs that have more breathing space – in the form of mesh sections or ‘holes’. The Nike “Elite Lightweight Running Sock” works great for me – smooth and sweat-wicking. They don’t cost a bomb. Got mine on a good discount off a local online-shopping portal Zalora).
When I was wearing the VIbram Komodos, I tried a pair of Injinji toe socks. To cut the story short – I don’t think I actually needed them, really. How did I end up with the purchase? I discovered that dirt tended to enter my shoes from the mid-foot region of the Komodos (I didn’t have the problem with the Sprints, possibly because the Sprints had a mid-foot strap that allowed for a snugger fit mid-foot). That made it rather uncomfortable, and initially the FiveFingers-Injinji partnership seemed to be worth every cent of the investment. However, to be honest, I had to admit that the toe-socks-in-toe-shoes feel was, after a while, getting a little too snug for comfort, especially on longer runs when the feet start to expand a little more. The minimalist feel was also lost, to an overwhelming sensation of being bound by something elastic. I eventually stopped wearing the Injinjis, and just (i) avoided sandy paths wherever possible, and (ii) slapped on as much Vaseline I could on my feet before I slipped them into the Vibrams. The Vaseline does get a tad greasy, but as long as it doesn’t result in the foot shifting in the shoe, it was fine. The toe socks ended up being used for Pilates!
Verdict: Socks are important, especially if your feet blister or chafe easily! And, personally, having tried it, I wouldn’t recommend wearing Vibrams with socks..
Kneeguards (of various brands)
This is on my list only because I have a bad knee. I’ve had a dislocation of my left kneecap, twice. The injuries were not running-related – they were largely dance-related – and it used to be that I would never leave home (running) without them. In my mind it was a preventive measure, in case the knee was still unstable. After physiotherapy, as I continued exercising the muscles around my knee back to life, the good knee started to feel the strain of compensating for the bad knee, and guess what? I slapped a kneeguard onto the good knee, too.
After a year or so with kneeguards as a running staple, and having built back some muscle mass in the bad leg, I experimented with doing short runs without the kneeguards. I realized how liberating it was, and how much better I could feel the ground below me and adjust my gait accordingly.
The kneeguards have been packed away since.
Verdict? Do you need a kneeguard? – That’s something to check with your doctor or physiotherapist. If you’ve got some on “just in case”, consider whether you might be overdoing it..
Polar RS300X heart rate monitor
It so happens that I didn’t really shop around for a heart-rate monitor – my ownership of this Polar one was the result of credit card redemption points (well hey, I grew up in a community that could put Extreme Couponing to shame. This was the least I could do! :D)
While I don’t always run with the heart-rate monitor strap in tow (I would just use the stopwatch option), using heart-rate zones in training has been useful in gradually building up stamina towards a target distance and/or time. (My wishlist would include a GPS-enabled version!) All in all a useful investment, though once in a while it’s good to just leave the watch and strap at home and just enjoy the run, regardless of its statistics.
Verdict? Great tool for training and charting progress. But remember, you don’t have to turn every run into a data point for your statistics – it can also feel good to go without it once in a while!
iPod Nano & headphones
My first attempts at running were with music, mainly to deal with the monotony of doing seemingly endless rounds in a park (and I took a lot of time doing it, with a bad knee and all). An iPod Classic that I owned for years finally gave up the ghost, and I got a Nano (again, a fortuitous coincidence with the amount of credit card redemption points available!)
I chose the Nano also with the intention of trying out the associated Nike+ application. Unfortunately, the Nike+ function was not as user-friendly as I hoped. To start with, setting up the pedometer to link to Nike+ wasn’t straightforward, and a fair amount of time was spent poring over a downloaded user manual. After a few sessions, I realised that a GPS app on a smartphone would offer better accuracy than the iPod’s pedometer. These days, I don’t use the pedometer/Nike+ function on the Nano any more, preferring to RunKeeper or Endomondo on my smartphone. The Nano certainly still serves its purpose as a very portable little mp3 player.
Is the iPod indispensable? I used to think it was. Not so much to keep a constant pace to songs with the optimum rate of beats per minute, but just to have a favourite playlist providing some motivation, and for me it was a way to shut out the outside world while I just took to the road. When I started training on open roads, I left the iPod at home, for obvious reasons of safety – music blaring in your ears can render you oblivious of your surroundings – and I found that running without music (like running without kneeguards – see above) can be strangely liberating. I realised too that having my own time out running doesn’t necessarily mean I need to shut out the outside noise – the noise in the park, on a road, at the break of dawn, in the bustling evening, are part and parcel of the run, and itself offers a break from home or work routine.
Note: My iPod Nano is the 6th generation model, which is square, with a touch-screen, and can be clipped on easily on running attire. The Nano has since changed in dimensions and specs and arguably isn’t as portable (it doesn’t clip-on anymore, amongst other things). The closest in portability amongst the current iPod models may be the Shuffle, though do note that it doesn’t come with a touch-screen.
As for listening to the music – who would have thought that I would have to search for a proper pair of headphones that didn’t slide or fall off my ears as I ran. The earbud type never stayed on for long no thanks to sweat, and odd-shaped ear canals. The pair that provided good sounds and stayed put in my ears was a Sony pair which hooks around the ear. Which model of Sony, you may ask? It came with a late model of the Discman. Unfortunately I don’t know if the exact model of headphones is sold separately!
Verdict? Music is not indispensable on the run. Nowadays I clip it on my vest, but I don’t turn on the music unless I’m at a particularly gruelling stage and need some motivation. And, for safety’s sake, don’t take music with you on open roads.
Halo sport hat
Not a must-have, but useful if you have a problem of sweat streaming down your face and into your eyes, like me. Regular cotton sweatbands don’t stay on my head very well, so I have always worn a cap during runs – the cap acts like a sweatband, provided there is sufficient absorbent material on the forehead section and the cap is anchored down well.
The Halo sport hat is essentially a lightweight cap that has a built-in sweatband for the forehead section. There is also a version of the product which is just the sweatband itself. The sweatband has a rubberized seal to channel sweat towards the back and away from the eyes.
The only drawback is that the cap size tends to be on the small side (it’s free-size, so there was no larger option), and so the sweatband tends to be quite tight especially when the hat is new. That means the hat will stay on well, of course, and you’ll stop feeling the tightness after a while once the cap is on. However you may end up with a very visible bevelled line on your forehead after a run, so if you’re heading out someplace other than a drink with fellow runners after your run, don’t say you weren’t warned about potential stares!
Verdict: Caps are useful, but there’s no need for specialist models, really. (Could’ve saved up for more socks!)
Chafing is bothersome and potentially debilitating. To some, it’s nothing short of a nightmare upon stepping into the shower after a run. Vaseline and its equivalents – BodyGlide and the like – are a lifesaver. Apply it to wherever there is potential skin-on-skin friction or areas where you may chafe from contact with clothing or shoes.
I’ve been using it for regular high-heeled shoes as well – it’s more effective in blister prevention than the favourite remedy of applying candle-wax to the problem areas of the shoes. (Although with regular women’s shoes, which are not engineered to fit as well as running shoes, there is a higher propensity for the foot to slip in the shoe when Vaseline is applied – so do go easy with the stuff!)
Verdict: if you are prone to chafing, yes, this is essential. Don’t leave home without it. Buy a bunch, leave one in the car!
Note: All opinions and reviews above are based on the writer’s personal experience, based on the writer’s specific circumstances. Different products may well suit some better than others – so do consult your running store before you ditch any current gear or make any new purchases! This blogpost is not sponsored by any retailer or brand.