Minimal trail running.

My wife and I discovered on a Thanksgiving trip to Harper's Ferry that a lifestyle of fitness gives you a resilience and inherent strength that pays unexpected rewards. We were planning to do some trail running along the Appalachian Trail, when, several tens of miles into the drive to our destination, Denise announced that she had forgotten her trail running shoes. She had only brought her minimalist running shoes, which are designed to help the runner achieve a most natural gait by providing no support and no heel lift. In my irritation, I announced that she had probably reduced her running range by 75%, specially on the more rugged trail going up Maryland Heights. I presumed that the weekend was shot, at least as far as trail running was concerned.

We spent Saturday afternoon and evening exploring Harper's Ferry, reducing our running goals since we did not have the shoes necessary for the planned mileage. We discovered the Appalachian Trail Conservancy building in town. It is significant to the trail hiking community because it is located near the halfway point of the trail which spans from Georgia to Maine. We had a delightful introduction to trail campiness from a young lady volunteer at the office. It so enthused Denise that she would have been willing to commit to through-hiking the trail next year, if I agreed. 

In the morning, we set out, pre-dawn, on our run. Picking put the AT not 100 yards from our hotel, following it down along the Shenandoah to its confluence with the Potomac. We crossed the Potomac and began our ascent of Maryland Heights. We gained 800 feet of elevation before turning around and heading back. Denise ran down the side of the mountain with her usual abandon. We couldn't help compare the experience to a roller coaster, running downhill at the edge of being out of control, bounding from step to step, rock to rock. We passed other hikers, looking in astonishment as two 60-somethings tore by them in a race for simple thrills.

My wife and I have been experimenting with natural fit running shoes for many months, adapting and strengthening our feet. These shoes typically have no heel, called zero drop, a wide toe box to fit the shape of a foot naturally, and often little or no padding and support. Natural running advocates argue that human bio-mechanics are naturally structured to work most effectively barefoot. Wearing normal shoes is detrimental to the overall health of feet and legs. The heel causes the Achilles tendon to shorten as it is never required to fully lengthen during the stride. This causes the initial foot strike to fall further back towards the heel, eliminating the shock absorption properties of the foot's arch. Additionally, the support and motion control often engineered into shoes acts like a cast, preventing the foot and leg from naturally supporting its natural movement. The unused muscles atrophy, setting up a life time of issues stemming from the inherent weakness. Natural shoes prevent this by allowing the foot and leg to operate in a natural fashion, strengthening the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Dave and Denise Vause crossing the Potomac Crossing the Potomac IMG 1551Half way up Maryland Heights/a> IMG 1551W. Va. from Maryland Heights
IMG 1575The trail downwards Looking south along the Potomac. Looking south along the Potomac Looking south along the Potomac 1Potomac Rapids Looking south along the Potomac 1 Bridge over a portion of the Shenandoah River


 After months of wearing minimal shoes naturally strengthened Denise's feet and legs allowing to achieve 5 miles over  at times challenging, rocky trails. The usual advice for starting with natural shoes is to begin with very short runs over easy, flat terrain. But her previous experience using them with everyday wear had strengthened her sufficiently to run 5 miles with a challenging ascent without problems.

The next weekend, we ran the 5.4 mile Perimeter Trail in Greenbelt National Park. Denise chose her minimals again, which shamed me into trying mine for trail running too. The experience was astonishing, intimately feeling each step of this fairly technical trail. The total lack of support or cushioning quickly demonstrated to me that it was phenomenal cross-training for a runner's legs and feet. While I remain skeptical of minimal running on hard surface, minimal trail running is a completely natural practice that trains all portions of a  runner's kinetic chain. While I understood this theoretically, I had substantial reluctance to take the gamble and start using my trail minimals for an actual trail run. It was thanks to Denise and her lifestyle of fitness and pushing her limits that finally caused me to put aside my traditional trail shoes and run in something more natural.