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A Barefoot Running-Related Moral Dilemma

Posted by on Apr 22, 2011 | 18 Comments

This past Wednesday, I was invited to the Running Fit world headquarters in Ann Arbor, MI.  Running Fit is an excellent running store with seven locations around Michigan.  Also, they direct A TON of races, including the Dances With Dirt series and the Woodstock Trail Running Festival.

Anyway, Running Fit was kicking off their new running form education clinics with a panel discussion about barefoot and minimalist shoe running.  They are taking the plunge and offering some excellent resources to help teach runners how to run with good form.  I was part of the barefoot/minimalist panel along with a physical therapist and a New Balance sales rep.

The discussion and audience questions were excellent.  We had great dialogue and hopefully helped more people understand the ins and outs of barefoot and minimalist shoe running.

Here are two of the videos from the event (I will post the rest as soon as they are available):

I like hearing other people’s opinions on matters, especially those that are different than my own.  One particular question and subsequent answer fit that category.

An shoe store employee asked how she should handle the following situation:

A complete novice runner is interested in running a 5k in a few months.  They have absolutely no running experience.  As a store employee, do you place them in a minimalist shoe or do you fit them in a traditional running shoe using the common fitting techniques (like the wet test?)

I did not answer first, but immediately knew my answer- put them in the minimalist shoe and teach them good technique.  Simple, right?

The other two panel members answered.  Their answer was basically along the lines of “Assess the runner’s history.  If they have good form and seem willing to take the time to learn, put them in the minimalist shoe.  If they do not have good form or aren’t interested in taking running seriously, put them in the cushioned trainer.”

I was a little shocked by their answer.  I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I disagreed.  As a teacher, the idea of not teaching didn’t even occur to me.  I never considered this situation from the shoe fitter’s perspective.  I started considering what I would really do if I were to sell shoes to someone that clearly had no interest in taking the time to learn good form.

I’ve worked many odd jobs that would place me in a similar predicament.  If I were the shoe store employee, I think I would do the same.  I’d give them the “comfy” shoe and send them on their way.  I’d probably at least attempt to convince them to learn good form and opt for the minimalist shoe, but I certainly wouldn’t waste a tremendous amount of time persuading the customer.

That brings up the dilemma- if there’s growing evidence that “natural” running form is superior, do we continue any other course of action?  As a barefoot running educator, my answer is easy.  For others in the running industry, the answer gets much more complex.

With a little imagination, this is the exact same issue facing the medical community- use the simple fix that results in apparent temporary results, or opt for a more time-consuming long-term solution that the patient/customer is less likely to follow?

What do you think?  What IS a good solution to this issue?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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  1. Jon S
    April 24, 2011

    Jason this is “THE question” when it comes to addressing the current state of buying and selling running shoes at retail. I have had many conversations with associates and retailers about this very thing. What I realized is simple… “change is hard”. But as with anything in life change starts slowly and begins to build. You mentioned at the end of your post that “there’s growing evidence that natural running form is superior” which is correct and now that books like “Born To Run” and other books/papers/websites have brought about this sort of “Runaissance Period” we are begining to address running form first and foremost.

    The dilema is store associates often times don’t have time to explain or teach propper running form on the retail floor even if they wanted too. We need to see more retailers willing to teach running form and address the idea of “barefoot/minimalism” with specific events or days of the week dedicated and marketed around this idea. So XYZ retailer is having a “Minimalist Monday” that associates can direct people who want more info to (this is a great conversation starter on the retail floor as well). Now people are really showing up to talk more,learn more, and eventually run more with this newly developed “natural” or “Chi” or “Barefoot like” or “Good Form” technique. The shoe sales are then a byproduct of this newly formed education. This is how we need to address and start to develop the relationships like the one’s retailers currently have with the guys and gals running in motion control/stability trainers.

    Once again retailers help customers connect to their local evironments in a better way. Soon “Minimalist Monday” becomes “Minimalist Month” and so forth. Then combine this with the major Brand’s in the market moving in a natural or “barefoot like” direction and you have associates who aren’t swimming upstream anymore in regards to selling minimalist or barefoot like products…Change is in air my friend…great post 🙂

  2. Brandon Mulnix
    April 23, 2011

    “I WANT IT NOW”- That is the mentality of our generation.
    The shoe salesman has a job to do… sell shoes. Personally I am a horrible salesman when it comes to selling something I don’t believe in, but I am great in selling what I do. Either option has the salesman selling shoes… If he sells Brand Soft and Comfortable the buyer has a good chance of either returning and buying shoes regularly because they love to run and they wore out a pair, or they don’t come back because the shoes they were sold hurt them.
    If the shoe salesman sells them minimalist shoes, then they better back it up with some kind of education, because if the person isn’t educated to the why, they might over do it and end up in a doctors office being told the guy who sold them the shoes was a moron.

    I believe and trust barefoot, minimalist, and good form running. Why- Because I had a desire to learn more about why I needed to do something different. I questioned it at first, but quickly accepted it (like in 10 minutes) because it made sense. I learned enough to discuss it with others.

  3. Ben S
    April 23, 2011

    As a zero-drop purist (or snob) and occasional barefooter since re-learning to run in 2010 I could never in good concience gain prosperity from the sale, marketing, or sponsorship of any shoe with a heel drop greater than zero. I don’t believe in “transitional” shoes. In Jan. 2010 I had a hard time running 30 minutes. 5 months later I did okay in a 5 mile race despite garbage form, at least I wasn’t heel striking. My form now is great and I would not have gotten here had I taken baby steps in transitional shoes and I would probably not even be running had I tried to get back in shape with traditional training shoes.

  4. KittyK
    April 22, 2011

    Our local running store is also hosting a “Good Form” clinic which I help out with. I think the issue we have is that we are dealing with adults here.

    In my -admittedly limited experience- it is clear that not everyone WANT’s to learn good form and not everyone feels comfortable in shoes that have no cushioning or support. It’s good to extoll the virtues of running minimal or barefoot especially to new runners, but any move in this direction has to come for the runner themselves.

    One thing I have noticed with our weekly “Good Form” clinics is that only a few people feel comfortable reducing the support and cushioning. Even newer runners are caught in a midset where they see more as better. This idea is changing but it’s more due to “leading by example” than forcing an opinion. When people at the club see me running barefoot or minimal and I answer their questions thoughtfully but with no agenda, then are more inclined to see alternatives. More of a “look she’s doing it”, than a “they said I should”.

    In this situation I still advocate learning good form, but will accept that if a person is more willing to learn better form whilst they are still in their own “comfort zone”, then the minimalist/bare will come later. It’s NOT ideal, it’s not the way it should be done and personally I hate it, but as a (previous) educator, I know that someone retains more knowledge when they are learning voluntarily than if they are forced into learning.

  5. L.H.
    April 22, 2011

    Ha Ha, I’m that customer! I’m planning on starting the C25K learn to run program, and just bought VFF Sprints to wear. Why? Because regular sneakers hurt my feet – they pinch my ankles, bite my Achilles, and crush my instep. Having never run before (actually whole-heartedly hated running in school), I’m not worried about learning proper form – I’ll be lucky to run for 30 seconds before I’m winded. Therefore, I’ll take it slow, and let my body decide how to move as it does naturally. As a stay-at-home mom, I spend most of my time in moccasins or barefoot anyways, so I think minimalist footwear is only an extension of what I’m already doing. Hopefully several years of yoga practice will help me listen to my body, and I think VFF’s on the trails will be a great experience. They already feel wonderful just doodling around in the house and on the lawn.
    As far as running 5K race in a few months, I would think any novice runner with that ambition would benefit from training regardless of what shoe/non-shoe they wear. My goals are not so lofty – I just want to try running.

  6. Allan
    April 22, 2011

    My personal take is that store employees are business people and ultimately should sell people what they want to buy. A good sales person should know their product and know how to sell it. But if the customer already knows what they want or doesn’t agree with you then you sell them what they want. In the long run your efforts to educate will have an effect in selling better shoes without running off those that disagree.

    As a business person you need to be inclusive so that you can afford to fund your educational objectives and fill any niches that you are trying to fill that you perhaps couldn’t support themselves.

  7. Sam
    April 22, 2011

    I struggled with this a little when I used to work in retail in various ways, like when I worked at Meijer (competitor with Wall-mart in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) I wasn’t able to sell their in-house credit card because I didn’t have one and didn’t want one. At a camera store I wasn’t able to sell Cannon cameras because I prefer Nikkons. At Sprint I wasn’t able to “up-sell” customers add-on packages because I only had basic service. It’s a common problem and to be honest I don’t know how anyone sells ANYTHING they don’t 100% believe in without feeling like a horrible hypocrite.

    • James
      April 25, 2011

      I love your answer Sam, and many of the other comments. I would have to say, however, that this ethic you possess does not represent the prototypical sales professional in the USA. In fact, in runs counter to much of how sales is taught, or so I conclude based on my experience as a consumer who is 53 years old. I say that with many friends in sales. I just couldn’t do it, personally, because of dilemmas like this. No easy answers.

      I’m buying into minimalist ideas. Shoes designed to make me more of a natural runner have me running pain free, with no orthotics, for the first time ever, and I started running (badly) in the mid 1970s.

      I’m still working on my form, but gone are the super-long strides (I’m 6’2″) and bone-crunching heel strikes…

      Great discussion!

  8. Janice Nicholls
    April 22, 2011

    I found when I switched my daughter to a minimalist shoe (Vibram Five Fingers & she’s a 10-year-old), her form naturally changed. She was a heel striker and an awkward and slow runner. I gave her no instruction other than to tell her to land more on her forefoot/midfoot. She tripped and fell flat (literally) on her first run, but she got up and tried again. Her form changed naturally after that first run. You should see her now! She shaved 5 minutes off her 5K time. I found it was the same for me when I went minimalist and then barefoot.

    I would put someone in a minimalist shoe always. Both of my girls run in them as I believe it’s best for their feet. I wish my husband would & here he is developing shin splints and ignoring my cries of “bare your feet!”

    We don’t give children high heels and later switch them to something more appropriate when they’re learning to walk. It’s best to start off on the RIGHT foot:)

  9. mark lofquist
    April 22, 2011

    my profile: first race that wasn’t jogging a 5km was an 8km race in 2008. that year i completed two half marathons and needed physical therapy after each! oh yeah quite the runner, eh? after meeting with ortho surgeons, chiropractors, PTs – i surmised that humans weren’t meant to run. i didn’t believe them at first and spent TOP dollar on the best running shoes, insoles, etc. seeking out all the expert advice i could get. that allowed me to run only~1 mile until i limped home and took weeks off.

    so i biked all the time. years later i read ‘born to run’ and realized my heel striking was the culprit. you see running stores, a sideways view of someone’s stride will reveal all you need to know yet you still point the cameras at our heels…. oh well, whatever.

    anyway, after a partially successful marathon i decide i’d need coaching to retrain my stride, so at the tender age of 39.5 years old i hired a coach, ran 6 days a week for a year, competed in marathons, three ultras, etc.

  10. mark lofquist
    April 22, 2011

    funny i just wrote this quick ‘about me’ in my new traingpeaks profile. kind of a summary of what to expect of me as an athlete.


    in summary, !!!!YES education is always better than masking a problem!!! – that orthopedic surgeon that i’d met when i was 33y.o. whining why i ‘cn’t run’ suggested i have my shin bones shattered and reset more straight! yet….. now i’m training for the western states 100 and have two other 50milers i’m signed up for… and tow more marathons this years and etc etc….

    • Melissa
      April 24, 2011

      Oh my gosh how I wish someone had told me when I bought my first pair of shoes that if I continued with my current heel striking I would be sorry. I built up to ten mile long runs before my knee got sooooo sore I couldn’t run more than a mile without walking home in pain and tears. I tried different “stability” shoes to no avail. Finally I turned to the internet and while researching knee braces I stumbled onto a site about natural running.
      I spent a month changing my form by running barefoot and then running in my stability shoes for my long runs. Finally I switched to minimalist shoes and fell in love. Now, a year I’ve been told by several people that they are jealous of my running form. That is perhaps the greatest compliment I have ever received. My response is always “Take off your shoes and you can have great form, too!”

      • Melissa
        April 24, 2011

        oops my comment seems to have wound up in the wrong spot. Sorry about that!

  11. Angie Bee
    April 22, 2011

    I think that a few months is long enough to trail for a 3.1 mile race barefoot. If this is a novice runner then I would think suggesting training barefoot first until that 5k has been run and then reassess if they actually need shoes. If they absolutely NEED shoes then go with the minimal shoes.

    They are going to get hurt in either the minimal or the cushioned trainer if they don’t run properly so try to minimize the damage by dramatically emphasizing how important learning to run properly is and then let them know that the minimal shoe supports that form better than the cushioned shoe.

  12. Barefoot Josh
    April 22, 2011

    If I were the shoe salesman I would tell the runner to go barefoot. I’d then sell him a bunch of shirts, shorts, compression socks, and Stinger Waffles (sooooo addictive – 100% sure customer will return for more) and hope the boss doesn’t notice my subversions.

    To answer the spirit of the question, if cushioning sucks then why would I sell it? A shoe retailer is in no position to judge the learning capability of a customer. Plus, a brand-new runner has no experience running with cushioning anyway and won’t know what he/she’s missing.

  13. Patton Gleason
    April 22, 2011

    My how are lives are crisscrossed ( I just wrote about this). This was one of the dilemmas that ultimately led me out away from the traditional running model. I saw too often people who wanted different result of their running experience weren’t being educated about efficient running form. There are a number of reasons why this doesn’t happen, but the end result is wasn’t happening.

    At least in my experience, form should be the primary tool a runner uses to learn or improve the running experience. Form comes first even before a minimalist shoe (or any shoe for that matter). A shoe is purely and environment, but it is the role of the runner to dictate the action.Whether it is running or life, you can change to environment all you want, but until you address the action, then nothing will change.

    Great post Jason. Way to put it out there.

    • James
      April 25, 2011

      I never had form training that I was aware of until very recently. We did do some form drills without explanation back in High School in the 70’s, or at least I never got the memo explaining the goals. Many years later I helped coach an AAU/USATF kids team (mainly by being a gofer and cheerleader and measuring ling jumps) and the real coaches had the kids do form drills. I did all the drills with the kids but never understood them. Then, I went to a natural running clinic three weeks ago (yes, just three weeks) though I’d been running in good shoes for three years. Finally, I understood the form drills I had learned with the kids. I think that most of the kids “got them” based on how well they ran (some were national champions and I couldn’t beat the top 4th graders, though I’ve never been fast at all), but not all did. I think that verbalizing the ideas now and then would be a good approach, or would have been for me if less so for the kids (though I’m not sure about that), because I couldn’t connect A and B without the story (balance, forward lean, footstriking, feeling the ground, etc. etc.). Maybe I’m on a good road now, finally. Finally.

      • James
        April 25, 2011

        I wanted to clarify one point from my comment immediately above. Regarding the AAU/USATF team that I referred to above, the senior coaches and most of the other assistant coaches had outstanding running form and had all performed at very high levels though college, the Penn relays and the like, so in my mind they were only a step behind Olympians (you can decide how big a step that is). The clarification has to do with teaching good form to kids. These coaches, collectively, were able to demonstrate brilliant track & field form for every discipline (they had their specialties, of course, and were great at handing kids off to the right co-coach for the appropriate techniques). I believe that the examples and daily exposure to this kind of talent and form, as well as the insistence on form drills and safe flexibility training, were among the aspects of the coaching that led to such great success for the kids. I think that my problem was not being able to learn by watching the way most or all the kids did. It just isn’t a talent of mine to be able to learn complex, integrated athletic maneuvers without intellectualizing the process and bringing in a large verbal component (and words don’t guarantee I’ll get it right by any means). This is just the way my mind works, or not, with my body. I didn’t want to imply any criticism of those coaches because I think they were and are brilliant, as well as dedicated and incredibly giving of themselves to the process of coaching… and of course it wasn’t their job to coach me, their responsibilities were to the kids, including making sure that I was a help and not a hindrance. It worked out very well for the kids, I just didn’t understand what they were teaching the kids until years later. Which is not to say I get the whole picture yet…

        I feel a bit different about my HS coaches back in the day (mid-1970s and I ran in Adidas SL72s), but not a whole lot. I probably didn’t seem worth much effort, but a little attention to detail, if they knew what details to emphasize, could have helped me avoid a host of injuries over the following four decades. In spite of that, I learned to love running in HS (in my own way) and I’ve been able to return to it many times throughout my life as a way of maintaining some serenity and spending time with friends. I failed at getting my kids to like it, at least for now, but they are not me, to state the obvious, so they don’t have to like it (maybe they HAVE to dislike it).

        Regarding orthopedic surgeons, the last time I saw one was after tearing my meniscus by hyper-extending my knee playing soccer on a bad field- I stepped into an invisible hole while trying to “cut” and that was all it took. The surgeon wanted to operate and said after rehab it would probably be OK to run a little, eventually, as long as I skipped hills. !! In stead U skipped the surgery and love running hills to this day (love-hate may be more honest). I understand the point of running on a flat track, as much as there is one, but cross country and roads are what I really love. In my mind, I love trail running, but I haven’t really done much, and some of my running at altitude has been pretty labored, but that was the idea.

        The natural running movement has been so inspiring that I dream of ultras now, even though I hadn’t even dreamed of marathons for a long, long time. Still, reality is that goal #1 at present is just a 10K that isn’t slower than the last one I ran and doesn’t aggravate my plantars fascia, hoping to reverse a trend that started at about age 45…

        Peace, chi, a safe place to run barefoot, and chia for all. J