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When Shoes Attack (Me): ITB Pain Caused by the New Balance Minimus Trail?

Posted on December 27 2010

Today I ran 10.3 miles in my Saucony Kinvaras and it did not hurt – in fact, it was one of the best runs I’ve had since I ran the Manchester City Marathon in early November. This statement in and of itself may not seem all that significant – I run a lot of miles, and the vast majority of them don’t hurt. That was not the case when I ran last Friday night.

Last month I put up a first look review of the much anticipate New Balance Minimus Trail shoe that is set to hit the market in early 2011. In that post, I proclaimed after having run in them two times that the Minimus Trail was near perfection in a running shoe. I meant it. I was quite smitten with the shoe – it looked great, it fit like a glove, and it handled beautifully on the road and trail. I was convinced that it was going to be the perfect hybrid shoe, one that would be wearable in almost any type of conditions. Unfortunately, as can sometimes happen in relationships that start with a bang, things turned sour quickly.

New Balance Minimus Trail

It started just before Thanksgiving. My family and I were traveling to Maine, and I was going to bring the Minimus Trail with me since there was a chance of snow and I wanted something that would provide decent traction in case it got slick. I opted to wear the Trails on the car ride up, and upon putting them on I noticed a sharp, painful sensation at the base of my pinky toe on my right foot (in the region indicated by the red circle above). I thought nothing of it at first as I hadn’t felt it on any of my earlier runs, but the pressure never went away. Upon inspecting the shoe when I arrived in Maine, it looked like there was a manufacturing asymmetry (see photo below) that had caused the black band across the metatarsal heads to be tighter on the right side (indicated by the yellow line in the photo above). The intersection between this band and the black strip that holds the laces was pushing into my foot, right above the joint between my pinky toe and the 5th metatarsal head. I thought about trying to trim some material from inside the shoe, but opted not to since I didn’t want to destroy it in the process.

Minimus Asymmetry

Manufacturing asymmetry in the Minimus Trail? Yellow arrows show how the upper material appears to be pulled down further in the right foot shoe (on left in photo), and the black metatarsal band seems pulled down as well. The right foot shoe is significantly tighter than the left foot shoe.

I thought maybe a bit of breaking in would stretch the metatarsal band out, so I decided to go for a treadmill run in the shoes while in Maine. It was at that point that things really began to get ugly. About 15 minutes into my run, I noticed a burning sensation just above my left knee (opposite side from the pinky toe pain). The pain got progressively worse, eventually to the point where I cut the run short for fear that I might do some damage. I knew this pain. When I was in graduate school I had experienced the exact same thing, which I self-diagnosed as iliotibial band syndrome. Yes, the dreaded ITBS. Back then a simple change of shoes made the pain go away (they were a half size too large and probably not meant for running), but I was puzzled by what was going on with the Minimus Trail since I had run in them previously without any issue, and I’d had no signs of ITB pain on previous runs (or in recent memory for that matter). I thought maybe the treadmill was to blame since I hadn’t run on one for some time, but the memory of my bad shoes from grad school lingered – the shoes had caused it then, and perhaps they were causing it now.

Two days later I somewhat fearfully decided to test the knee out with a 5 mile run in my ever-trusty Saucony Kinvaras, and to my surprise I was totally pain free. No issues whatsoever. The cause of the ITB pain was either the treadmill or the shoes, and being somewhat cautious, I opted to wait a bit before taking the shoes out again. About two weeks later I decided to try out a treadmill again, this time in my own basement with only a pair of thin socks on my feet to help reduce belt friction. I like to do slow runs “barefoot” on the treadmill from time to time, and this one went just fine. No pain at all.

Fast forward to last Friday – Christmas Eve. I had the opportunity to get in a quick run, so I decided to bring the Minimus Trail back out and was going to go for an easy 5 miles. Sure enough, just over 2 miles into the run, I felt that familiar pain begin to develop above my left knee – my ITB was definitely not happy. Once again, it got so bad that I almost had to curtail the run. I managed to really focus on my form, and exaggerating a forefoot strike allowed the pain to subside just enough for me to make it home and complete the five miles without walking (it was cold and getting dark, I was sweating, and the thought of walking 2.5 miles home did not excite me very much). This was the first run since the treadmill run on Thanksgiving weekend on which I had experienced the ITB pain. Maybe it was the shoes.

Jump ahead to earlier today. I’ve been slacking on my long runs lately, and I was determined to get in a 10 miler before our first big snowstorm of the year hit (we’re in the thick of it as I write this!). The Kinvaras worked well for me last time I had the ITB pain, so I opted to wear my old faithful’s once again. After lunch and a bit of shopping with the family, my wife dropped me off about 7 miles from home, and I improvised a very hilly 10+ mile run back to my house, paying close attention to my knee the entire way. Just like on the previous occasion, I felt no pain on the entire run. Quite honestly, it was one of the best runs I’ve had in over a month, and I felt I could easily have gone another 5-10 miles. So, two days after hobbling to finish a 5 miler because my knee was screaming, I ran 10 miles at a faster pace and felt no pain at all.

At this point, I’m fairly certain that the NB Minimus Trail caused the ITB pain, but I have no idea why. Two runs seprated by an entire month’s time, both on very different surfaces (treadmill vs. road), both resulting in significant ITB pain. The runs before and after each of these runs (in different shoes) were pain free, and as far as I can recollect I have not had any ITB pain on any run for the past 3+ years. I simply don’t know what else to conclude.

My goal in this post is not to bash the New Balance Minimus Trail shoes – in fairness, I should point out that others have reviewed them very favorably after running a lot of miles in them (e.g., Jason Robillard at Barefoot Running University). However, for me to maintain credibility I need to be honest, and I would hope that New Balance would like all types of feedback, both positive and negative. I hate to say it, but I think I’m going to have to give up on this shoe – I simply don’t want to risk a lingering injury, and the only real commonality between my two bouts of ITB pain is the fact that these were the shoes on my feet when they happened. I don’t yet have any idea why this problem might be occurring, or whether it has any relation to the tight metatarsal band on the right-side shoe. It’s hard to see how this might cause ITB pain on the left, but balance in running is a funny thing, and small deviations can sometimes cause unforeseen problems. It’s also entirely possible that despite my initially glowing thoughts about the shoe, the Minimus Trail may just not be the right shoe for my foot.

At the end of all this, I’m fairly well convinced that shoes can in at least some cases cause injury – add me to the list of anecdotes. Both times in my life that I have experienced ITB pain have been resolved by changing shoes. I don’t know if the pain would persist if I kept running in the Minimus Trail, or if I restricted myself only to trail runs in them, but it’s an experiment that I’m not all that excited about conducting. I may have to do a bit of filming to satisfy my curiosity, but for now, the shoes will be resting in my closet for the foreseeable future.

Update 12/27/2010: Also wanted to add that I am running in the New Balance Minimus Road with no trouble at all (it’s breaking in well), and I have now also done a few trail runs in the NB MT101 with no problems.

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