By Sandra Elliott
People run for so very many reasons—personal goals, weight loss, stress relief. These reasons are among my reasons for running as well. But sometimes, my reasons for running reach beyond those things, towards something more deeply personal. I run because I can.
This wasn’t always the case, and perhaps it is why running now means so much to me. I injured my back while mowing the lawn in 2002, and tried for two years to treat it conservatively, yet remain fully active. When the pain became overwhelming, I sought the care of a neurosurgeon, who confirmed that I did indeed need surgery.
After my back surgery in 2004, I was told I could not run again without risking further damage. I was devastated. Being an Army officer since 1987, I had always been able to run, and participate in local races. So when the neurosurgeon (a former Army officer himself) said “no more running” I cried right there in his office.
Isn’t that always the case? We want something we cannot have, or we don’t know how much something means to us, until it is taken away?
For the next several years, I did what the doctor ordered, having to complete the Army 2.5 mile walk test for the rest of my career, until I retired from the Army Reserves in 2006. I took my walking to the next level and took pride in the fact that I was the “fastest walker anyone had ever seen” as I pounded quickly around the track or the course. I was able to walk the 2.5 miles under 30 min, and I was somewhat satisfied at least to be staying fit. It wasn’t as if I was the fastest runner prior to my injury, (I ran about an 8 min mile), but it was the fact that I now could not run without fear of damaging my back and risk further intervention. However, with the fast walking pace, my knees and shins suffered, and continued to hurt with such a fast a pounding pace, but I was determined NOT to give up this form of cardio, despite this new, but manageable pain.
I did make several attempts to return to running, but each time even very short bouts of running brought the onset of numbness back into my foot, and I have to admit I was scared. I did not want to end up as a “failed” back surgery and have to go back for another surgery.
All continued this way, and I walked daily, finding ways to enjoy it as much as I could. It wasn’t until a unique combination of events occurred that I began to change my thinking about the possibility of running again. The noted progress of one of my physical therapy patients and the emergence of the Vibram Five Finger shoes together combined to change my mindset and my beliefs about what was possible.
As a physical therapist, first for the Army and now as an Department of the Army Civilian, I have a passion for helping others return to the activities they love—in the Army, many times that means running.
A particular patient of mine had returned from Iraq with multiple injuries, one of them requiring foot surgery. As we worked together on his plan for recovery, he kept talking about the Five Finger shoes, and how he could not wait to get back to running, once he was through the healing stages of his surgery. When he finally was able to return to running, he eagerly transitioned back with his “toe shoes,” setting an example and becoming an inspiration for all in his unit to see.
He didn’t realize that he was beginning to challenge my own beliefs about running and running shoes. At that same time, the Army Times came out with an article, which I have about barefoot running. The article briefly mentioned the Vibram shoes as well.
Soon after, my patient was back to full activity, and able to run as far as he wanted to run, happy to be back “in the game.” About that time, my husband acquired a pair of the Vibram shoes, but they did not fit, so they became mine. I let them sit on the shelf for several weeks, but finally brought them out, and headed out the door for a run.
Immediately, there was a difference—I did not land on my heel, pounding the ground the way I did when I was walking fast, instead, I had to shorten my stride and keep my foot closer to my body when landing. I was ecstatic! I, Sandra Elliott, after six long years of deprivation and fear, was able to run! Of course, the run was longer than it should have been, and the next morning (and the next several days), my calf muscles were screaming. (Since then, I have developed what I call the Elliott Triple Threat Stretches for my patients to help them with calf soreness and range of motion for their ankles. I have the do the stretches before they get out of bed.) I knew then there was more to running in these shoes, and I had better make some quick adjustments to my “transition” back to running. I began researching everything I could find on barefoot running and the barefoot style shoes. I re-started my running days later, but I followed the guidelines, and began a slower transition, running only short distances, continually monitoring my stride, my posture, my breathing—anything that could help me improve, so that I could keep on running.
I truly felt like I had been blessed with a miracle! I no longer had shin pain, my knee pain disappeared, and I had no back pain or numbness in my foot. That was when I thought about how I could use what I was learning to help my patients who may have experienced the same challenges. It seemed that there was an increased interest in the Vibram Five Finger shoes as well, and more shoes like them with less of a heel, were emerging.
Shortly after that in July 2011, I took an Army physical therapy position at Fort Stewart, Georgia. I was aware that the Army had banned the use of the Vibram Five Finger shoes, and required soldiers to wear only shoes that had all five toes enclosed, but I thought somehow, eventually, the Army could see the advantages that running in a more minimalist shoe may provide.
As I continued to serve soldiers as a physical therapist working for the Army, I decided to do a running shoe survey through the PT clinic. I tried to find out how many Soldiers might already be using or considering using a more minimalist shoe. The survey confirmed what I had suspected. There were now a growing number of Soldiers, some of who had also been injured while deployed, but also those were suffering chronic pain from the impact activity required by the Army in general, who were interested in trying out, or were already in transition with a more minimalist running shoe. As a physical therapist, I wanted to be a part of the conversation. I also began to notice that I was no longer the only runner in the Vibram Five Finger shoe at the local races in Savannah.
At the same time, I noticed on my daughter’s cross country team, that there were more teens running at least part-time in minimalist shoes. Her coach highly discouraged the Vibram Five Finger shoes at practice, but there were some members of the team using them outside of practice times. Like many people I have talked to, there is a certain fear of making such a transition to shoes that provide minimal support.
Over the last several months, I have continued my research, and have taken the next step to becoming a Newton certified Running Trainer and Coach, so that I could continue to assist the soldiers who had an interest in making the transition to a more minimalist running shoe. I wanted to get the word out that it was more than the shoe, that the running form also needed a “transition.” My mission now is to help others begin a successful journey to ‘minimalism” and to enjoy the benefits of transforming their running form to “natural running,” with the goal being to help them become a more efficient, and hopefully, injury-free runner.