(Skinny Pear and Ginger Smoothie - this recipe and more in post)
I love smoothies.
You know what else I love? Running.
A couple months ago, I torqued my knee while running. It wasn't major, but as any runner knows an injured knee can be a huge set-back. You can't rush the healing process, and you can't push through the pain - you just have to wait.
In the meantime, I've been swimming, biking, and doing other low-impact activities. Now that my knee is recovered, though, I'm anxious to run again. And nothing gets me itching for the wind in my hair like a new pair of shoes!
These are Vibram's FiveFinger shoes. They've become pretty popular, as a style statement just as much as a practicality.
My knees have been through a lot, and once you have knee problems they tend to persist, so keeping down the risk of hurting myself again is top priority.
While the shoes are recent, barefoot running is no new thing. Many studies have been done, and more extensive analysis is still being performed, to prove how much safer barefoot running is. To me, the evidence speaks for itself in aboriginal, tribal, and other such peoples - people who have never worn shoes, never slammed their heels into the ground with every step, and are clearly swifter runners than any regular athlete. I'm sure we're all familiar with the stereotype of Kenyon natives winning foot races, but the reality extends far beyond that.
In his book 'Born to Run', Christopher McDougal documents the incredible lives and abilities of the Tarahumara Indians, who run literally hundreds upon hundreds of miles, without injury, and with nothing on their feet except thin, flat-soled sandals to protect from rocks and debris... if even that. They are swift, tireless, and above all enjoy every moment of what they're doing. McDougal even likens them to children, running from one place to the next simply because it's more fun to run. Isn't that how it should be?
Alright, so let's talk mechanics.
Most modern shoes and sneakers feature a well-padded sole, which is raised slightly at the heel. When running, the leg comes to a (mostly) full extension, and the heel contacts the ground first, toes pointed, then the foot rolls forward, pushing off with the toes. This heavy landing produces a sharp, single point of impact. The pressure radiates directly through the leg, to the knees and hips. It also pushes up and backwards, causing a loss of momentum.
If you've ever run in your bare feet, you know that landing heel-first is just asking for injury. You step lightly, landing on the balls of your feet, knees bent. This is called fore-foot running, and if you think about it is the way humans always ambulated before the invention of modern shoes. With this style of step, the impact is distributed throughout the foot, and your bent knee can then extend into the space between your heel and the ground, acting both as a shock absorber and a spring, pushing you forward and into your next step. This makes running significantly faster and more efficient, as well as gentler on the joints.
Transitioning between these two styles of running isn't a quick change to make - while fore-foot running may be simple enough to get the hang of, it works completely different muscles in your toes, arches, and calves. It is very important to train slowly, starting with only a fraction of the distance one would normally run, until the muscles have strengthened.
There's also the option of transition shoes - many brands offer very thin, or flat-soled, running shoes that can help make the transition from regular sneakers to barefoot running smooth and easy. While there are several good ones available, the Saucony Kinvara's are what have caught my attention the most, as they seem very minimal. A pair of these will likely become my secondary runners.
(The Brother's brand new Kinvara 3's - a lucky find pre their release)
Okay, now back to the shoes.
The question on all your minds, I'm sure, is are they comfortable - and all I can say is... what shoes? The material is flexible, offering a wide range of motion, and the sole is thick enough to provide protection without getting in the way. I can feel the soft grass brushing along the bottoms of my feet as I walk, but stepping on twigs, pebbles, or other debris causes no problem at all. The toe thing feels a little odd at first, but now I can almost forget they're on.
Before running in the shoes, Vibram suggests running a few yards in your bare feet. Feel how your foot lands, and use that as a model for running with the shoes on.
I spent a few days walking around the house before taking them for a spin. As I began to run, the difference I felt was tremendous. I took shorter, lighter steps, and my legs moved almost effortlessly. I felt completely cushioned by my bent knees, and was propelled forward as though there were springs in the backs of my legs. I had initially worried that fore-foot running might strain the arches of my feet, but I quickly realized that was no concern - my feet felt as comfortable as ever.
The shoes are nearly weightless in comparison to regular running shoes, and my feet moved quickly and nimbly. My knees felt strong, pain-free, and I could even feel a difference in my hips, as they took virtually zero impact with each step. I also found it much easier to maintain good posture through my mid and upper spine, something I've struggled with in the past.
While less exaggerated, this style of running reminded me of the form taken when sprinting, leaning forward over your toes and pushing off with the balls of your feet. I went an average of nearly 2 MPH faster than my usual without even trying, and had to force myself to slow down. It was like I couldn't keep up with my own legs. Every stride felt fast and smooth, and if the muscles in my feet and legs were accustomed I'm sure I could've run on forever.
That said, my feet and legs are not at all accustomed. Muscles that are normally neglected or misused sprang into action, and after just a half mile my calves were getting tired. Even then, I had so much momentum it was a force of will to bring myself to a halt. This is how I remember feeling when I was a kid, running around the house at what I used to refer to as 'super-Sonic speed!' (not because I knew what super-sonic meant, but because I knew who Sonic the Hedgehog was).
Despite how much fun I was having, I was careful to take it easy. I called it a day, and put the shoes up to rest while I stretched and pampered my legs. A good thing, too, as the very next morning I could feel parts of my feet and calves aching that I never even knew were there!
One of my favorite ways to wind down after a run is with a big fresh smoothie.
That's right, I'm bringing this post full-circle!
Actually, smoothies are one of my favorite ways to begin any workout. Or start the day. Or finish a meal. They're so customizable!
The natural sugars in fruit and antioxidant berries are perfect for getting your body moving, and in the mornings I'll sometimes throw in a handful of rolled oats and some greens. Half an avocado and a handful of spinach can add a burst of nutrients, without altering the flavor much. Post-run, I like to throw in a scoop of protein powder to pump up the recovery value.
Of course, any flavor combination is possible... from the classic banana strawberry, to cherry pineapple, to berries and peanut butter. It doesn't get much easier than to throw a few handfuls of fresh fruit into the blender, add some milk, or yogurt, or substitute, and blend to perfection.
But... I don't always have fresh fruit.
(I don't always have fresh fruit, but when I do... I freeze it!)
That's right. When I have a bunch of fruit, and it's nice and ripe but I don't think it will get eaten before it goes bad, I slice it up and freeze it. Then, when a smoothie calls, all I need do is open a bag, dump it into the blender, and I'm good to go.
Simply wash, slice, core, peel, or otherwise prepare your fruit. If it's prone to quick oxidation (like apple slices that turn brown very quickly) you can toss them in a small squeeze of lemon juice. If your fruit is a little on the sour side, toss with a bit of sugar.
Lay the prepared fruit in a single layer on a parchment-lined tray or baking sheet, and freeze until solid, or overnight. Remove the fruit from the tray, break up any clumps, and store in freezer bags until ready to use. You can store combinations of fruit together for ready-to-make smoothies, or bag them separately to create your own flavors as you like later on. I like to have extra bags of bananas, strawberries, and avocado, to sweeten or green any smoothie I'm making.
I also freeze yogurt and coconut milk in ice-cube trays, so I always have some on hand. I add a few cubes to my smoothie, then all I need is a splash of water or juice to thin it down. You can customize this even further by freezing flavored yogurt, or making your own with a splash of vanilla, maple syrup, or other sweetener. Since those things are easily added later on, I usually keep mine plain when freezing.
I started my day with this Skinny Pear and Ginger Smoothie - made with these hilariously fat-bottomed pears.
1 1/2 - 2 pears, 1 wedge of ginger, peeled (about the size of the tip of my pinky finger), handful of fresh spinach. Slice and core the pears, peel the ginger, and add everything to your blender or food processor - thin with water or fruit juice as needed. Optionally, add a drizzle of agave or other sweetener to taste.
Just a touch of heat from the ginger, and not too sweet. This really woke me up and got me ready to move!
After my run, I was feeling a bit tropical. And, since I didn't have any on hand, I didn't have to worry about what flavor would go well with protein powder.
I grabbed a bag of mango/coconut/kiwi, threw it in the blender, and with one sip I was transported to a beach, squishing sand between my toes. Okay, not really, but I certainly closed my eyes and imagined it!
1 mango, 1 kiwi, 4-5 coconut milk ice-cubes (1/4-1/2 cup), water or juice as needed to thin to desired consistency.
Tell me - what are your favorite smoothie flavors?