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The Changing of the Guard: A Sociological Analysis of the Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe Movement

Posted by on Aug 25, 2010 | 16 Comments
Human behavior fascinates me.  Human behavior in relation to barefoot and minimalist shoe running fascinates me even more.  I have been in a position to observe the progression of this phenomenon for a number of years.  The entire movement can be framed within the context of the sociological/anthropological concept of the diffusion of innovations
The concept outlines the progression of any given innovation within a society.  It is somewhat odd to consider barefoot (BFR) and minimalist shoe running (MR) as an “innovation”, but it does represent a significant change in our society’s collective thoughts on running.  After all, we ran barefoot or in minimalist shoes for tens of thousands of years.  The modern running shoe has been around for thirty. 
The idea of framing BFR/MR within the context of the diffusion of innovation came from repeated discussions with individuals within the running shoe industry.  Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss BFR/MR with shoe marketers, designers, sales representatives, and retailers.  My interactions with the general running public confirms what I’ve learned from the running shoe industry… we are in the midst of a significant paradigm shift.
For years, running form took a back seat to shoe design.  The idea was simple- runners did not have to bother learning good form, they just ran.  If they had serious biomechanical deficiencies, shoe manufacturers would design a shoe to correct the problem.  It is through this process of correcting imperfect running gait that we developed the neutral, stability, and motion control shoes that define the current running shoe industry.  We developed a set of criteria (wet test, pronation control, fancy gait analysis software,etc.) that allowed retailers to fit runners with their “ideal shoe”. 
This idea that technology can be used to solve problems is pervasive in our society.  In general, if we have a problem we would prefer to purchase a solution than resolve the root cause.  If we are depressed, we don’t resolve the underlying issues.  We prefer to pop a pill.  If we are overweight, we don’t try to reduce our caloric intake or increase our level of activity.  We have doctors remove our excess fat via liposuction.  If we have a wicked slice, we don’t work on our swing.  We purchase a 1,200cc driver that resembles a globe on a stick.  Shortcuts are our specialty.
Why?  There could be many causes.  Humans are inherently lazy… generally speaking, we save energy where we can.  It is easier to buy a solution than take the time and effort to go through a self-improvement process.  We could blame our capitalist society.  From an early age, we are conditioned to have a positive response to purchasing “stuff”.  Many of us spend our lives collecting “stuff” because we get a little bit of a rush.  To repeat this rush, we work hard to earn more money.  The result is a cycle of consumption that fuels our economy.  We could also blame our love of technology.  Maybe this is a result of our meta-cognitive skills.  We have the ability to plan, assess, and contemplate the future.  The drive to advance seems to be hard-wired in our brains.  We’re a relatively weak species.  Our cognitive ability is our best survival tool.  We have a belief that technology can transcend our biological limitations.  That belief is what allows our species to survive.
The BFR/MR movement represents a shift in thought.  For years, most of us were comfortable with the “let’s not bother learning to run, we can buy a shoe that will correct our deficiencies” paradigm.  This solution seemed to work for the vast majority of runners.  As we are beginning to learn, this paradigm is imperfect.  Some runners would experience injury despite using the latest and greatest shoe.  The idea that their running form may be flawed was not considered.  Instead, we sent them to specialized doctors that develop customized devices to correct their poor form.  Again, we’re caught in the trap of searching for easy fixes versus solving the underlying problem.
A handful of these statistical outliers that were not helped by the modern running shoe took a radical step… they ran without shoes.  This forced a change in their running form.  Unsurprisingly, better form eliminated their injuries.  The barefoot running movement was born. 
The Innovators
The diffusion of innovation concept defines the stages of any given innovation.  This small group of “radicals” are what we call innovators.  These are the people that are the risk takers of our society.  They are willing to disregard social norms in favor of finding improvement.  These people blaze the path through uncharted wilderness.
In the barefoot running movement, I consider Ken Bob Saxton, Rick Roeber, and Ted McDonald to be the innovators.  There are others I would place in this category, such as barefoot runners Victor Palma and Preston Curtis or researchers Dr. Steve Robbins or Dr. Joe Froncioni.  These people have been barefoot running for many years.  They were willing to disregard the prevailing opinion of the running community.  They took incredible risk.  They also developed a foundation of knowledge that reacquainted us with barefoot running. 
The Early Adopters
The next wave of barefoot runners followed the lead of the innovators.  Early adopters were generally unhappy with modern running shoes and found a solution in barefoot running.  This group did not have to take the risks of the innovators because the path had been blazed.
I consider myself to be a member of this group.  There were a bunch of us that wrote about our experience on our blogs or websites, we participated in Ken Bob’s Yahoo group, and we communicated via email.  We did some innovation, but mostly relied on the teachings of those that had done the “heavy lifting”. We helped expand the ideas of barefoot running, and we helped set the stage for the rapid expansion we see today. 
The tipping point in the BFR/MR movement came with the publication of Chris McDougall’s “Born to Run” in early 2009.  This engaging book presented a convincing argument that the modern running shoe was fundamentally flawed.  “Born to Run” was the conduit for the information gained by the innovators and early adopters to the larger running community.  It planted the seed that would bloom into a discussion on the nature of running shoes.  
Interestingly, I think Nike could be considered among the early adopters.  The Free line came about prior to the wave of publicity generated by Born to Run.  While I do not think the past or even current Free lineup qualifies as true minimalist shoes, Nike DID begin exploring this market well ahead of their competitors.  
The end of this stage was marked by the widespread creation of online communities.  There were a handful prior to Born to Run (Ken Bob’s Yahoo group, Rick’s Yahoo group, Ted’s Huarache/minimalist shoe group via Google, etc.)  I consider the creation of the Runner’s World barefoot running forum to be a watershed moment in the movement.  Runners World, long known as the champion of the modern running shoe, took a leap of faith and created a haven for barefoot runners to connect.  Unlike the existing communities, this community drew tremendous traffic from non-barefoot runners.  TJ Gerken, the person responsible for initiating the creation of the forum, deserves tremendous credit for this initiative.  This particular forum became the meeting place for the group, spearheaded by TJ and Cameron Guthrie, that eventually created the Barefoot Runners Society.  This national non-profit organization has already proven to be an instrumental force within the running world, and has become a valuable resource for new barefoot runners that make up the next wave of innovation.
This stage also brought about the greatest degree of criticism of barefoot running.  Since the theories were largely untested, many of the “old guard” took the offensive and criticized barefoot running as a dangerous, foolish endeavor.  The arguments were mostly topical and often entertaining.  Who can forget the CEO of Road Runners Sports warning of the grave dangers posed by pea gravel?
The Early Majority
This wave seems to have begun around summer or early fall of 2009.  Traffic on my website and blog saw a significant increase.  Sales of minimalist shoes like Vibram’s Five Fingers began accelerating at a rapid pace.  Interest in barefoot and minimalist shoe running was spreading like wildfire.
Prior to this wave, new barefoot runners tended to be injured runners looking for a solution after the more traditional routes failed.  While many in this new wave fit this category, it also attracted uninjured runners, runners bored with their normal routine, and novices with no running experience. The BFR/MR movement began attracting people that had more aversion to risk than the innovators and early adopters.  The numbers of barefoot runners enjoying the benefits began to swell, which was enough to convince more to begin experimenting.
By this point, many people were aware of barefoot running as a viable option.  New research was being conducted.  Shoe manufacturers were working to develop “minimalist shoes”.  News stories about barefoot running were widespread.  
Criticism continued, but some of the former critics began to shift their understanding.  The shift in opinion of some of these thought leaders brought about an even greater acceptance of BFR/MR.   Of course, critics remain.  The content of the criticism has shifted, however.  No longer are most critics blindly attacking BFR/MR with silly arguments.  The critics have initiated logical, intelligent discussion on the merits of barefoot running, minimal shoe design, and the role of the modern running shoe. 
I believe we are still at the early stages of the “Early majority” phase.  Clearly, the majority of runners are NOT running barefoot.  However, a sizable number of runners are beginning to experiment with some barefoot running, trying more minimal shoes, or at least doing their own research on the practice.
The current state of BFR/MR is debatable.  Some would say this is merely a fad that will end soon (usually those most aversive to risk, having a financial stake in traditional running shoes, or the cohort of runners that firmly believe running form is not important as long as you have shoes to correct the problems).  Some will say this will remain a small subgroup of the larger running community.  Finally, there are those that believe the BFR/MR movement will cause a wholesale change in the way we think about running in general and the role of shoes in particular.  
I am firmly ensconced in the latter category.  I have considerable contact with the running community.  I also have contact with many individuals that have tried BFR/MR and enjoyed considerable relief from chronic injuries.  While I think we need to continue dialogue and research on the exact causal relationship between shoes and injury, the evidence that the gait used by the vast majority of BFR/MRs helps reduce injury is becoming progressively more indisputable.  
The shoe industry is taking notice.  Almost all major manufacturers are developing or have already released at least one generation of minimalist shoes.  Some are good, most are bad.  The key, however, lies in their willingness to develop and market these products.  Over the last six months, I have been contacted by several manufacturers seeking input.  I see that as an incredibly positive sign.  The old guard that continually churned out clunky “high tech” shoes is losing momentum in favor of the “new guard” that is actively investigating the role shoes play in running injuries.  This new guard understands a deceptively simple idea- shoes that allow good form will always out-perform shoes that inhibit good form.
Evidence of this shift in manufacturer design is apparent throughout the industry.  The single best example may be this article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  Pete Larson did an excellent job of assessing this research, check it out here.  Essentially, one of Nike’s researchers coauthored a study that cast doubt on the “old guard” method of shoe design.  Is Nike preparing a wholesale abandonment of the neutral/ stability/ motion control paradigm?  I believe they are.  Nike is in an excellent position to be the innovator of the shoe manufacturers.  The marketing geniuses in Beverton, Oregon could be preparing to position Nike as the leader in true minimalist shoe development.  If this happens, I believe we will see another substantial wave of runners exploring the BFR/MR movement.  
This next wave will signal the fulfillment of the “early majority” phase.  We could see up to half of all runners using a true minimalist shoe within a year.  Once that shift occurs, it will user in the next phase- the late majority.   
The Late Majority
If the Nike prediction comes true and we see a wholesale shift in the shoe market, other manufacturers will follow.  Market forces will dictate this shift.  Those that follow will likely survive.  Those that continue to cling to the Mesolithic “old guard” ideas of running will die a slow, painful death.
By the time the late majority phase is in full swing, research will have thoroughly explored the issue of running gait.  We will likely have found a strong correlation or causal link between injuries and the “old guard” style of shoes.  Most of the critics will have accepted the new ideas based on overwhelming empirical and anecdotal evidence.  A few critics will remain as they will be unwilling or unable to abandon their antiquated beliefs.  
The incidence of running injuries will go down as we begin focusing more on prevention than reactive treatment.  The BFR/MR paradigm will have infiltrated the medical ranks led by a cavalier group of physical therapists, podiatrists, and other such specialists.  While this industry will be somewhat slow to change, they will ultimately accept and internalize the principles of the importance of proper form over corrective shoes and inserts. 
By the end of this stage, the vast majority of runners will be using true minimalist shoes.  We will probably see most using some barefoot running as a training tool, but full-time barefoot runners will remain a small minority.  
There will be a tiny group that stubbornly clings to the archaic “old guard” way of thinking.  Maybe they were the most vocal opponents of the BFR/MR movement.  Maybe they represent a shoe manufacturer that refused to change.  Maybe they have a very strong aversion to change.  Regardless, they will eventually come around.
The Laggards
This is the group that were using rotary phones in the early 1990’s.  They refused to purchase a computer until 2008.  They still have mullets.  There will always be the group that refuses to change despite being presented with overwhelming evidence that their way of thinking is undeniably wrong.  These people exist in the running industry.  Maybe it is the CEO of a shoe company that continues to produce heavily-padded foot casts.  Maybe it is a track coach that enjoyed success in his glory days anchoring the community college relay team while wearing Nike Shox.  Maybe it is your neighbor that still has orange counter tops, olive green appliances, and Marmaduke wallpaper. 
Some of this group will eventually come around.  Some will not.  Those that do not will continue to loudly voice their criticisms of the BFR/MR movement.  Unfortunately for them, their rants will fall on deaf ears.  The rest of us will be having too much fun smiling, laughing, and running injury-free.
Maybe this analysis and subsequent prediction is a pipe dream.  I could be wrong.  The BFR/MR movement could fade as quickly as it surged.  Those of us that have worked to develop and fully understand the BFR/MR movement could be wasting our time.  It’s a chance I will take.
I sincerely believe the “old guard” way of thinking is fundamentally flawed.  I sincerely believe the BFR/MR movement will continue to be the impetus of change within the running community.  We will continue to see more and more people explore a new, less injurious style of running.  We will see manufacturers quickly shift development and production to meet a growing demand.  We will see a surge of injured former runners returning to the sport after being disappointed by the offering of the “old guard”.  The perception of running will change from a painful, difficult activity only enjoyed by a minority of “biomechanically gifted” individuals to a healthy, fun pastime enjoyed by the masses.  Who knows, maybe this is the potential cure to the obesity epidemic currently plaguing our society.  
I love running.  My only goal is to spread that love to as many people as I possibly can.  It saddens me to see so many people that have a love/hate relationship with this wonderful sport.  Hopefully the BFR/MR movement can fundamentally change the “old guard” way of thinking.  Hopefully others will rediscover the simple joy of running without the specter of pain and injury.
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  1. Vibram Chris
    September 4, 2010

    I will chime in my enjoyment of this article.
    I believe if what you say about Nike comes true then the "fad" will be over and the norm will be established.
    I have explored bf running since February and have focused more recently on minimalist running in Vibrams. I have completed one marathon (Sprints) and a lengthy 22.5 mile trail run (Treks) so far. I love the shoe. But what has been amazing, and troublesome at times, is the continual learning invlolved in developing my stride. It is the patience in developing a healthy stride that I believe will always be the toughest issue for runners transitioning to a minimalist style. But if the Nike prediction comes true then you will have a flood of information and marketing hammering the need for patience during this transition. That should increase the numbers of those who will try, and remain bf/minimalist runners.
    Thank you Jason.

  2. barefootrunner
    August 29, 2010

    Great post. As a barefoot runner since 2002, I will always advocate barefoot-style running to reduce or prevent injuries. That said, as runners we want to run, but don't always have the ability to train exclusively barefoot (only way to toughen up the soles). Traditional running shoes are over-cushioned and restrictive. Barefoot-style running is possible with the right minimalist footwear. Skora will launch just such footwear next year – bridging the gap between barefoot and barefoot-style. Run Real. Happy running, David, Founder

  3. Mike
    August 27, 2010

    What does this all mean….I hope? That minimalistic shoes will come down in price!

  4. Lynette@ A Hodge Podge Of Randomness
    August 26, 2010

    Thanks for a well written article! I've been in minimalist shoes for almost a year now and am trying to increase my barefoot ruuning (pavement in TX is hot this time of year =)). My Dh went from hating running and all the injuries to *almost* enjoying it.

  5. Avocational Singer
    August 26, 2010

    Great article. It's great to have all this information on one page. It will be a good place to refer people.

  6. Scott Mumford
    August 26, 2010

    Note to self: Must get T-shirt that says "Early Majority"

  7. Michael Shane Helton
    August 26, 2010

    A: I will never shop at Road Runner Sports in my life after that asshat of a CEO posted his barefoot running letter.

    b: What's wrong with Mullets?!

  8. Nathan
    August 25, 2010

    I'm watching the movement grow in my rural backyard, a bit of a microcosm of your explanation. Globally, I believe that momentum is growing just as you suggest. It seemed to be a major theme at the Outdoor Retailer this year. Thanks for the great write-up.

  9. russ138
    August 25, 2010

    Man, it had been a long day driving around and I thought about putting off reading this post until the morning… glad I didn't. After a mind numbing day it was really nice to read something so well thought out and written. I think you're right about barefoot and minimalism continuing to grow. It will probably take a while but it's just too easy and makes too much sense for people to continue to ignore it. Anyway, thanks for the great post and thinking material.

  10. Pete Larson
    August 25, 2010

    Interesting stuff Jason – I hope you're right!

  11. Katie Kift
    August 25, 2010

    Fantastic Article Jason. I think the next couple of years are going to be very interesting 🙂

  12. Bob
    August 25, 2010

    I credit the BFR/MR movement with allowing me to run again and for that I am thankful to all of you who have helped push it along or re-introduce it. Even though a lot of people think I am crazy for running barefoot as much as possible, I am seeing more pairs of Vibrams, water shoes, Nike Free's and other minimalist footwear in Winnipeg then ever before. For example I ran a 12 km trail race last weekend and there was 52 runners and 11 were wearing minimalistic footwear or barefoot, that's 20%. It is spreading and it is fun to see.


  13. Barefoot TJ
    August 25, 2010

    You nailed it again, Jason!

    I'm inclined to believe that most people will never run barefoot, and I am fine with that. I do, however, believe that barefoot runners are the ones responsible for the "minimalist footwear movement." I'll take that any day over the "traditional boat anchor movement."

    Yes, you called it Shellerz!


  14. Viper
    August 25, 2010

    This movement has been interesting to observe. Count me among the bored. I started experimenting with barefoot and minimalist running early last fall, going full bloom this year with all my running in minimal racing flats and a small portion barefoot.

  15. shel
    August 25, 2010

    who called it?! that's right- shellerz called it! bf running is not a fad, it is the pebble dropped into the pond. only the pond is an ocean of runners, and barefoot running is a boulder. the ripples that ken bob, ted and rick made were small ones, but they are rapidly resembling tidal waves. i run barefoot weekly, but categorize myself as a minimalist runner. i think that everyone should be and i am absolutely certain that in 5 years times we will not see an entire fall lineup of shoes from each manufacturer that consists of 15 supportive shoes and 1 minimal shoe, but 10 minimal shoes and 3 or 4 supportive ones. let it be so, and let the injured masses run free again!

  16. nelipot
    August 25, 2010

    Good summary of the movement, Jason! As someone who's been running barefoot for several years, I believe your analysis of the past is accurate and I think your hopeful prediction for the future has a good chance of becoming a reality. I'm not sure the majority of runners will go barefoot (at least not for many more years), but bf running will continue to gain popularity as well as minimalist footwear. I base this on 1/ the obvious increase in the number of barefoot runners, 2/ the many reports I hear of doctors endorsing barefoot running, and 3/ the actions of Nike moving in that direction. As this happens I'm hopeful that social acceptance of barefooting (running or not) will increase.