Earlier this week I got up to run and realized that my full-length orthotics were still in a pair of shoes perched in the back of the car my wife drove to early morning swimming. I thought about that for a moment, and decided to improvise.
I’ve worn orthotics in my shoes for more than twenty years. I got my first pair from a podiatrist known for working with the running community. He was essentially a “podiatrist to the stars” because he fit the likes of Sebastian Coe, an Olympic and world champion, and Jim Spivey, one of America’s top distance runners for more than a decade.
Those guys needed orthotics to run as well. Now grant you, in my prime, I was nowhere as fast as Coe or Spivey at any distance. Spivey ran a 13:15 5000 meters back in 1994. My best was 14:45 of so back in 1984. If I recall correctly, he actually won the race in which I ran my PR at an All-Comers meet at North Central College in Naperville. I think he ran 14:01 to win.
That meant I was still a half lap behind when he finished. I actually recall looking across the track to see him zip across the line under the lights. The 5000 had not started until midnight due to the number of competitors in all the events that evening. But despite the late hour, I had accorded myself well enough to stay within a half lap of the winners.
I wasn’t wearing orthotics in those days. My feet were still youthful enough that I did not need the additional support. The shoes I wore that evening were a featherlight pair of Nike Zoom track spikes, white with sky blue swooshes I was obsessed with the weight of my racing shoes in those days. The lighter, the better.
All that shifted over the years as my body changed. My podiatrist in 1993 or so fit me with a set of modestly supportive orthotics. Within weeks the chondromalacia that was plaguing the spot under my left kneecap had resolved itself.
But then, as my body got used to the benefit of additional support under my feet, I was stuck wearing orthotics all the time. That first pair were built with an insole glued on top of a hard plastic orthopedic support. That insole got really stinky after a while. I didn’t have an alternate pair of dress orthotics to wear in my work shoes. More than once while sitting at my office desk, the odor would waft up in an embarrassing haze.
I wore those orthotics all through the 90s and into the early 2000s. Then I ordered some dress orthotics but badgered the podiatrist to tweak them for my running. They worked well for both purposes for quite a few years. Then my calves started to tighten during runs I complained to a runner I’d met at a trailhead and her friend that was a pedorthist happened to be within earshot. She set me up with the full-length and rather heavy orthotics I’ve been wearing ever since.
They are supportive, but also rather clunky. Every pair of shoes I put them in feels like they weigh a ton. I’ve even put those orthotics in racing flats but the sensation of heaviness is still the same.
Shedding the shoe condoms
Which is why it was somewhat of a pleasure to try running with my “old” orthotics from way back when. I pulled them out of a drawer and slipped them into my running shoes earlier this week and went out for a run.
A few strides out the door I was nervous about how it might go. Changing up your footplant or making major changes in orthotic support can result in muscle tweaks or even full-blown injuries no matter how careful you take it.
But I ran a half mile and things felt good. My feet felt light without the big orthotics, and for the first time in many years I got to feel the responsiveness of the insoles that come with the shoes. It was a strange sensation, almost like “running naked” again. The best analogy I can relate is that it’s like having sex without a condom again after many years of covering up the Willie. But it’s kind of like a condom in reverse. There’s a freedom and a joy in running without the heavy ‘shoe condoms’ in there.
Miles of pleasure
I covered a mile. Then two. It felt good to be “naked!” again. Then I’d run three miles and I was back home. No injury. My Achilles even felt a bit more relaxed without the big orthotics. Were they overcompensating and putting my ankle in a stressed position?
The next day I ran in the old orthotics again. This time I actually did a few pickups, and that felt good. Then I ran the last mile harder, dipping down toward 7:30 pace. No problems.
In fact I’ve convinced myself to give this experiment even more time to work. I’ll continue with yoga and some strength training, because there is still hip weakness and other flaws to manage. But damn it feels good to loosen up and just run a bit without those big orthotics in my shoes. It makes me wonder what it would feel like to lose ten pounds as well. How fast could I get then?
Only time will tell.