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Barefoot Running Dogma… Things I Need To Avoid

Posted by on May 21, 2011 | 21 Comments

Sometimes I get a little overzealous in my support of the natural running/barefoot running movement.  This usually manifests itself in openly stating my goal of killing the modern motion control shoe.  Sometimes it is important to take a step back and evaluate our own positions relative to the rest of the world.

Before I dive into the details, I should clarify my position.

  • First, there is a right way to run and it does not involve landing on the heel. If you NEED a shoe to run properly, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Second, shoes can provide valuable protection IF they allow you to run with the same form you’d use if running barefoot. Technology cannot improve the function of the human body.
  • Third, the fastest, most efficient way to learn to run with good form is to lose the shoes and utilize the skin-on-ground tactile feedback. Adding ANYTHING to your foot during this learning process slows progress, though it is possible.
  • Fourth, there would be no need to “learn” good form if we didn’t put our children in raised heel cushioned foot coffins shoes. Good form is the default setting; bad form is learned.  As a result, it must be unlearned.

Okay, now that I have that established, here are some common mistakes I make when dealing with others:

  1. I sometimes forget there’s a huge number of runners that have used modern running shoes for years without injury. This is the reason I came up with the “there is no single right answer” principle.  If somebody is doing something and getting satisfactory results, they should not change.  Furthermore, I shouldn’t try convincing them they need to change.
  2. I’m unnecessarily hostile toward the medical community. While some people in the medical field are openly embracing the natural running movement, others are either remaining silent or speaking out against it.  Over the last 30 years, the current “prescribe a shoe/orthotic that will fix flawed form” paradigm has been the norm.  This paradigm has helped people, even if it just alleviates symptoms.  This is the paradigm the medical community has embraced and taught for decades.  It would be irresponsible for them to suddenly change course because of anecdotal evidence.  THIS WILL CHANGE!  As the body of empirical data supporting natural running grows, the medical community will be able to safely recommend different solutions to problems.  I need to do more to support those doing the research and spend less time attacking the medical profession.
  3. I need to be more realistic about the limitations others have regarding barefoot running. Even though I am a pretty big supporter of minimalist shoes, I sometimes get a little pious about barefoot running.  I need to remember that some people simply do not have interest or a suitable environment to run barefoot.  If these people are making a choice between learning in minimalist shoes or staying in cushioned shoes, I’d rather see them in minimalist shoes.
  4. I have to chill out about minimally-raised heels. This is a biggie for me.  I’ve spent years talking about the stupidity of “easing into” minimalist shoes by moving to a reduced shoe like the Free or Kinvara.  Unfortunately, this option is very attractive to others and I don’t have the educational reach to change people’s minds.  I can’t influence the marketing machines of Nike and Saucony.  This is a good example of me needing to take a step back and looking at the situation objectively.  A lot of people have made a successful transition to minimalist shoes or even barefoot using this method.  I don’t think it is necessarily best practices, but it does work.  I need to realize this still accomplishes my goal of improving running form for the masses.  I can’t bring myself to openly embrace these shoes, but I can tolerate them as an alternative means to a desirable end.
  5. I need to do more to support local running stores that support the natural running movement. This was the motivation for my last post.  Some stores are doing a phenomenal job of educating the running public, especially brand-new runners.  The leaders of this trend are the minimal-only stores like Jill and Tim Murphy’s Good for the Soles in Northampton, MA and Mark Cucuzzella’s Two Rivers Treads in Sheperdstown, WV.  There are more of these popping up around the country, and I need to support them.  Also, I need to support the more traditional stores that are making a similar paradigm shift.  Shelly and I will hopefully get to visit many of these on our big adventure starting in July.
  6. I need to be a little sympathetic to the economics of running stores that still sell traditional shoes to new runners. This is another tough one for me because it goes against everything I believe.  Here’s the situation- a brand new runner enters a running store and wants a “comfortable shoe.”  The store employee recommends they try a minimalist shoe or take a running form class or clinic, but they have zero interest.  I believe they shouldn’t sell the cushioned shoe.  HOWEVER, the shoe store owners and employees are just putting food on their table.  I cannot fault them for selling the cushioned shoe.  My responsibility has to be to educate the consumer so they don’t ask for the cushioned shoe, then send them to a store that will teach good form.
  7. I need to step up my efforts to educate retail sales associates that sell shoes. I think this is a bottle-neck for expanding the natural running movement.  Shoe store employees have likely learned everything they know from people and companies that sell foot coffins.  If they do recommend minimalist shoes, they usually do not offer good advice on changing form or exercising patience.  If they are taught the principles, they become a powerful tool to expanding the natural running movement.
  8. I need to concede that the industry has adopted a different vocabulary. I’ve mentioned this before, but it is worth mentioning again.  The entire outdoor industry now refers to minimalist shoes (Vibrams, Merrells, Minimus Trails, Kigos, etc.) as “barefoot shoes.”  They refer to reduced shoes (Minimus Roads, Frees, Kinvaras, etc.) as “minimalist shoes.”  This bugs the hell out of me because it is an oxymoron, confuses new runners, and creates a barrier for eduction.  I’ll have an entire conversation with someone where I’m giving them advice on form and such.  At the end, they’ll say something like “Thanks for the advice, this will definitely help me run barefoot in my new Bikilas!”   GAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!  As annoying as this is, it is a lost battle.  I could either dig in my heels and bitch to the small group of people that agrees with me and continue to be frustrated, or I can use this as an opportunity to teach people about the benefit of actual barefoot running.  To quote Storm Shadow, “Never fight a battle you cannot win.”  Yes, I’m quoting the fictional ninja from G.I. Joe.

While I sincerely believe all the principles I teach, I have to recognize the beliefs are not universal.  Many people see it as dogma.  I have to be more careful in my efforts to reach my goals.  I have to know my audience.  Sometimes it’s okay to stand on my soapbox and preach to the true believers.  Other times I need to take a more pragmatic approach.  I have to work to understand other points of view.  More importantly, I have to concede that others may have correct answers, too, even if they contradict my own beliefs.

 

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Quick personal note- Tokyo Dad, I apologize for my repeated reference to this as a “movement”, I know it annoys you.  I like the terminology too much to abandon it.  :-)

 

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21 Comments

  1. Richard
    May 26, 2011

    Haha, thanks for the personal mention, Jason! I agree with what you say. Apart from the ‘movement’ part, obviously… ;-D

  2. Oscar
    May 24, 2011

    Jason,

    Sun Tzu also said “never fight a battle you can’t win”.

    Anyway, I’m an Army officer with decades of running in what I was always taught were the right shoes for overpronators with low arches – heavy motion control “foot coffins” (how appropriate!).

    I accumulated injuries, and while suffering from stress fractured shins in Afghanistan, a friend introduced me to Crossfit, which gave me a great cardio workout without running. Crossfit recommends barefoot running, but I wasn’t ready to go that far, so I started working out barefoot and wearing light shoes for running.

    I now wear VFFs for Crossfit (no splinters from box jumps!) and Merill trail gloves for running.

  3. Running links for your enjoyment | The Running Bran
    May 24, 2011

    [...] Barefoot Running Dogma… Things I Need To Avoid [Barefoot Running University] – Last Place Jason gives some of his recent thoughts on barefoot running, etc [...]

  4. Pure_sole
    May 23, 2011

    Great post. One thing I’d add that those in this sphere are prone to is making sweeping statements that can verge on hyperbole and risk making the “movement” vulnerable to criticism from those who prefer a little more evidence with their hypotheses (eg in this post “Technology cannot improve the function of the human body.”).

    There is a difference between being anti science and anti bad science. And it is hard to argue that there is no technology that has improved the function of the human body (laser eye surgery, titanium hips etc.).

    Still your manifesto is spot on!

  5. Paul
    May 22, 2011

    Jason, I agree with most of what you said, except for when you say “It would be irresponsible for them to suddenly change course because of anecdotal evidence.”. Please forgive me if you’re including this in with anecdotal evidence, but don’t we at *least* have a theoretical model of why people can run barefoot? I’m speaking primarily (and forgive me if there’s more I’m not including) about the research about early human development done by Bramble, and Leiberman as outline in the book Born to run. This evidence makes sense to me given the characteristics about the human body. I try to imagine how the data (that humans are a running animal, and that we survived for millions of years without shoes) can line up otherwise and I just cannot fathom any other scientific explaination.

    • Jason
      May 22, 2011

      Paul, I agree there’s great research out there. However, there still has not been what would be considered conclusive evidence this form of running is quantitatively better (reduced injuries, etc.) to the point where to medical community can change course. I think this is changing as more people in the “fringe” of the medical community adopt our ideas, but it will take more time for the average podiatrist to start prescribing barefoot running versus orthotics.

      I think the change is inevitable and I think it will occur much quicker than most expect. Still, that change will require more research and more of a consensus within the medical community.

      • Horseman42
        May 22, 2011

        I agree again Jason. A theoretical framework does not imply necessarily conclusive evidence. Sometimes I wonder what could be the case if the evidence doesn’t lead to barefoot running being the norm, given what we know now from Dr. Bramble. I think what your saying is good and we (barefoot runners) need to keep this in mind, and not be overzelous. Good post by the way, you always have a good way of summing things up nicely.

      • Au Natural
        May 26, 2011

        As far as medical professionals’ acceptance goes, one should consider that runners with running-related problems make up a tiny percentage of the average podiatrist’s practice.

        The BFR movement is carried primarily by avid runners; people who have already been running for awhile before switching. That means we are looking at a group of people who were already in at least somewhat decent physical condition. Any clinician will tell you that not all patients are athletic. In fact, most patients are on the sedentary end of the spectrum. Take for example a “typical” 50 year-old lady who has worked indoors for 30 years, doesn’t exercise, is overweight, has osteopenia and perhaps diabetes. This is a more likely patient encounter than a marathoner who trains five days per week mixed with cross training.

        Besides the lack of overwhelming scientific evidence, I think this factor is from where at least some of the reluctance of clinicians to embrace minimalist footwear and BFR comes. It’s hard enough to get people to exercise regularly at all, much less become “a runner” and even more unlikely to get them to transition slowly to BF running.

        A typical overweight, sedentary patient with heel pain isn’t likely to fare well with an exercise prescription to spend the next year slowly transitioning to BFR. It would work for some patients but not the majority. If doctors were to start telling all patients to start running barefoot it would result in an epidemic of foot injuries related to the advice. A dedicated athletic patient might be a different story but he’s not the typical patient.

  6. Brant
    May 21, 2011

    Amen, brother.

  7. Nathan Matthews
    May 21, 2011

    Don’t flog yourself too much Jason.

    I think #5 and #6 go against each other. The home page of Two Rivers Treads web site states right at the top, “Welcome to the first running store to abandon the modern running shoe”. They are just not interested in selling anything like that. That said, they sell Sacony’s and New Balance that have about a 4mm heel raise. Their biggest seller is the Newton which has a lot of cushion. However there is nothing in their store that would encourage heel striking. If people want that, they have to go somewhere else. Since I was out there last year, Mark has started doing half his training miles completely barefoot. So he may be even more strident about zero drop and less cushion than even a year ago.

  8. C. Beth
    May 21, 2011

    Good post, Jason.

    I agree that barefoot runners need to be careful about that pious attitude. I brought my mileage way down last summer and ran barefoot all summer as I very gradually increased my mileage. It was fun and very useful! But at the end of that time, the ball of one of my feet started really hurting, like I’d gotten a stone bruise. After using minimalist shoes during the cold months, I tried to go barefoot again recently–and realized that issue wasn’t gone. I’m not sure if I just have less padding on my feet or what, but right now they just aren’t handling being barefoot.

    So minimalist shoes are just wonderful for me right now. Yes, I do have to think more about form in my KSOs than I do barefoot, because I can heelstrike in KSOs. But it’s sure a heck of a lot easier to have good form in them than it would be in my old Asics. I think barefoot running is awesome, but if my feet (for whatever reason) aren’t allowing it, that’s okay. I’m a runner, and I’m going to run in whatever way I can. I’m just so grateful for the growing options in the minimalist shoe market so that I can learn to run more and more naturally without injuring the balls of my feet.

  9. Tyro
    May 21, 2011

    I too was initially against the transition shoe but since these were the only ones I could find near my house which would let me run on the harsh rocks and gravel while still enabling a forefoot strike I figured it was a necessary evil. When the NB Minimus arrived in the spring, I was first in line and a few weeks later happily (and comfortably!) ran a 50km race. I think that the transition shoes helped to build the right muscles and enabled good technique so they do have some good features.

    Now that I have both and I also do some runs barefoot and with VFFs, I find I still enjoy running in the “transition” shoes and use them for many of my long trail runs. I got injured while using the Minimus when, I think, the pounding on rocks became too much and I had a bout of TOFP. I see now that the transition shoes have a stiffer sole and spreads the force across more of the foot so impact force is spread across all five toe bones, rather than just on a couple.

    I think I might be much happier in a shoe with a stiffer sole and a low/zero heel drop but I don’t see them anywhere. The Trail Glove and Minimus are too soft for all of my runs right now and the shoes with more protection have heels. Given the shoes on the market today, my transition shoes let me run comfortably and relatively injury-free. When there are more choices I’ll take a harsher stance but we don’t yet have a lot to work with :)

    • Jason
      May 22, 2011

      Thanks Tyro, comments like this help me clarify my own thoughts and opinions on things like transition shoes. Much appreciated!

  10. Joe
    May 21, 2011

    It’s great to be passionate, but being overzealous can scare people away. Not everybody is ready to jump to barefoot or zero-drop. Recently, I helped a friend with knee pains out of her standard cushioned running shoes into some Free 3.0s and she loves how light and small they are. She would never have agreed to run in Merrells straight away. It’s too scary for some people who’ve done something a certain way for a long time or been taught that what they were doing before was the accepted and correct way to do it. Think of these other ‘reduced’ shoes as a gateway drug. “Whoa, these shoes make me feel better. I wonder if those even smaller shoes will make me feel even better than that?”

    As a (now former) teacher, I’m sure you have a healthy amount of patience. It’s fine to be evangelical about barefoot running, but also make sure you’re giving a little space to your students so they can discover it on their own just like you did.

    On a different but similar note, have you ever read Jon Kabat-Zinn? I bet his teachings on mindfulness would really amplify what you do for the running community.

    • Jason
      May 21, 2011

      Joe, I like the gateway drug idea. :-)

      I haven’t read Kabat-Zinn; I’ll add it to my short list. Thanks for the recommendation!

  11. Kevin
    May 21, 2011

    Well done! Rare to see this kind of thing on the internet. Know thyself.

    • Jason
      May 21, 2011

      Kevin, I’ve been inspired by Shelly. Taking an honest look at my own beliefs is very useful to help understand myself and those that have differing opinions. Now if only I can kick the habit of referring to cushioned shoes as “foot coffins”…

  12. Nora
    May 21, 2011

    I loved this post.. all of it!!!!!!! I have had many conversations with people on this topic and I almost never meet reisistance. Only once.. I was attending a barefoot symposium put on by a local running store and I mentioned that kids should not be in supportive shoes.. Holy cow you should have heard the GASPS!!!!!!

    • Jason
      May 21, 2011

      That’s a great message coming from a running store… hats off to them!

  13. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    May 21, 2011

    I have pretty much conceded every point here already as well. I still will probably rail against the “transition shoe” as long as it is used for that purpose. Especially when there are studies out there showing that folks tend to heel strike even in minimally raised heels. Therefore, transition shoes do nothing for one’s transition.

    On the other hand, I do support them as a movement towards “less shoe”, and encourage folks who have no interest in minimal shoes to try them for that reason.

    • Jason
      May 21, 2011

      CP- That’s the major beef I have with the “transition shoes”… they still hide bad form. As of right now, I see no good solution to the problem other than continued education.