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Some Taboo Truths About Barefoot Running

Posted by on May 25, 2011 | 15 Comments

Barefoot and minimalist shoe running is a lot like parenting.  Overall, the experience is absolutely wonderful.  Ninety percent of the time is awesome… but it’s not always muffins wrapped in rainbows.

I’m a big believer in full disclosure.  If you talk to Shelly and I about the parenting experience, we’re just as likely to talk about the bad as the good.  We’re realists and see no need to sugar-coat the experience.  We have no problem reciting the time Ava, our oldest, made us a “Hobby Jogga” poster because she knew it was something we’d love.  She showed genuine selflessness, which is a powerful experience for a parent.  We also talk about the time she took her diaper off in her crib, pooped, and spread it everywhere in and around her room.  Full disclosure.

BFR/MR is no different.  The vast majority of the experience is great.  It has worked especially well for me.  It has worked exceptionally well for the vast majority of people I teach.  It has allowed us to run farther and faster than we were able to in traditional shoes.  More importantly, it made running fun.

Just like parenting, BFR/MR does have some negatives.  These negatives aren’t usually discussed for a variety of reasons.  As humans, we have a tendency to justify every decision we make.  We emphasize the positives and downplay the negatives.  Barefoot runners are no different.

There’s a potential danger in this tendency- if you make a decision and experience any degree of negativity, you may feel like you’re doing something wrong.  You may feel alienated.  Worse, you may not seek a solution even though many others have experienced the exact same thing.

Here is a list of a few of these drawbacks to barefoot running that rarely if ever receive attention.  Most of these tend to be exceptions rather than rules, so they are not universal.  If you experience these, be assured you are not alone.

  1. Your feet are sensitive in the beginning, and that sensitivity registers as pain. We like to code this with the term “discomfort” or “unique sensation”, but most people will feel pain.  This is a good thing as most of us are pretty adept at avoiding pain.  This is what makes this form of learning so effective.
  2. The transition is rarely smooth; you will probably experience setbacks and it will be frustrating. Some people have a flawless transition.  Most of us had some serious setbacks due to overzealousness, bad advice, or just plain bad luck.  At any rate, there will be times self-doubt enters the picture.
  3. Listening to your body is hard. We live in a society that likes to numb sensations.  For some, receiving, interpreting, and reacting to the sensations from the soles of your feet is a foreign concept.  We may spend years covering our feet in thick socks and shoes.  It may take weeks or even months to fully redevelop the ability to listen to your body.
  4. You lose the ability to wear traditional shoes. I don’t think this a negative, but it may be significant for some.  Losing the raised heel for any length of time will make raised-heel shoes unbearable.  This is usually an issue with work shoes.  It may be wise to at least consider the possibility of replacing all your shoes with minimal shoes.
  5. Some people will make fun of you or be too embarrassed to be seen with you. Bare feet at the beach is cool.  Everyone expects it.  Bare feet in Walmart… not so much.  Any time you abandon society’s norms, you run the risk of standing out.  While some of us welcome this attention, others avoid it like the plague.  While this idea is changing somewhat, shod is still the norm in almost every social situation.  Being barefoot will draw some attention.  Your friends and family will also feel that attention.  The good friends won’t care.  The insecure friends will have a problem with it.
  6. Some conditions can be dangerous. The “all shoes are bad all the time” philosophy is dumb.  Shoes are appropriate in some conditions.  Extreme heat and cold are two examples.  If you cannot see the ground, shoes are warranted.  The dangers of being barefoot are dramatically overblown by some shoddies, but they are right some of the time.  Some shoes, by design, are good.  They will not significantly alter your gait.  Think of them as tools.  Use them when appropriate.
  7. People will give you bad advice. There are a lot of divergent opinions floating around out there.  Many of us that have been doing this for awhile have more or less settled on some ideas that could be considered “best practices.”  Even then, we may be wrong.  Worse, new barefoot runners may try giving advice simply because something worked for them.  When seeking advice, always consider the source.  Avoid people that do not seem to understand that there is no single right solution, rather there are many means to the same end.   Be a skeptical consumer of advice, even from me.
  8. If you make the decision to use minimalist shoes, finding a pair that fit perfectly can take a long time. Fit is the key to a great minimalist shoe.  This makes selecting good shoes very difficult.  Each one of us has very different feet.  As such, it is impossible to recommend a specific shoe that will work for everyone.  It is up to you to try various models to figure out what works for you.  Don’t automatically trust reviewers (like me), store clerks, shoe company marketing, or anyone else claiming to be an expert.  Take control and make your own decisions.
  9. You may not be as fast as you were before; you may not be able to run as far as you could before. If you do, it may take a very long time.  Personally, running barefoot allowed me to run farther and faster than I could before.  Most people eventually get to that point.  Some will get there immediately; some may take a year or more.  However, some do not.  If you decide to do this only for the sake of improved performance, be weary wary (thanks to William Garabrant for catching that error  😉 .)  There is a chance you may be disappointed.

Why am I sharing these things?  I’m a strong believer in the idea of setting realistic expectations.  If you enter any new endeavor with full knowledge of the pros and cons, you’re in a better position to deal with potential cons.  The result- more enjoyment and more effectiveness.

I have enough confidence in the stuff I teach to point out the potential negatives of following my advice.  By highlighting the potential negatives, more people will successfully make the transition to barefoot and/or minimalist shoe running.  That’s my goal.

What do you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Have anything to add?

 

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15 Comments

  1. Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton
    May 30, 2011

    Jason,
    would it be okay to repost this at The Running Barefoot website?

  2. John
    May 27, 2011

    Still a work in progress. Posterior tibial tendon problems, top of foot soreness (VFF straps), stepping on large chunks of sharp gravel, stubbing toes against curbing, circumnavigating broken glass, hot asphalt, you name it, I’ve probably done it doing minimal shoe/barefoot. Every so often you get a scathing, “That’s bad for your feet!” accompanied by finger pointing and a definite hint of a burgeoning unibrow…these kinds of folks require you to just keep running along.
    I don’t run the mileage I used to, I don’t run as fast as I used to. I’m only up to 32 miles a week now vs. 50-80 in college. But I have not had knee problems. Or back problems. That’s a trade I make gladly. I get to enjoy running again, and I get to enjoy learning about runnning and WHY I really run…because I can feel the ground.

  3. Patton Gleason
    May 27, 2011

    I think it is this kind of dialogue that can make natural running more accessible. One the whole people hate to be wrong, or worse yet not good at something in front of other people. There are some many stories about people dropping their shoe and having these magical epiphanies. What isn’t written about so much is the trials and tribulations to adapting to unshod life in a super shod world. This piece and pieces like this make BFR/MR much more accessible. Well done!

  4. Why your wife hates your barefoot running « Vanessa Runs
    May 26, 2011

    […] wife have a problem with it? I was naïve in my barefoot bliss and I hadn’t yet learned one of Jason’s cold hard truths about running barefoot – Not everyone will be […]

  5. Richard
    May 26, 2011

    You missed number 10) Barefoot running is not a movement. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

  6. The Pain of running Barefoot - reaction to Jason Robillards post | Brandon's (and his family's)Big Adventures
    May 25, 2011

    […] var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};After reading Jason Robillards post today “Some Taboo Truths About Barefoot Running“  I feel it is okay to mention that my foot still hurts from running Mind the Ducks.  I […]

  7. Dave
    May 25, 2011

    3, 4, & 5 are my favorite, good points there!

  8. Woody
    May 25, 2011

    Great post! I love running barefoot and I love running even more now that I run barefoot or in minimalist shoes. When I tell people about my experiences running barefoot and what it has meant to my running, the phrase “no pain, no gain” comes to mind. It is a big transition that includes lots of muscle soreness, bruises, blisters, calluses, and funny looks just to name a few “negatives.” I don’t really see these things as negatives since they were, and are, necessary to overcome in order to experience the enjoyment and freedom that is running barefoot. I am proud of my callused feet and the pure joy they enable me to have.

  9. Chris
    May 25, 2011

    Great post. We all need to be transparent and realistic. Barefoot and minimalist running is fantastic…and we don’t need to hide the negatives. Of course, we need to defend and advertise the positive side too. Keep up the good work!

    -Chris

  10. Nora
    May 25, 2011

    What I remember in the beginning is how tingly my feet were, it was weird. I luckily only sustained one blister because the road I ran on was too hot. I got way more negative comments than good ones that’s for sure!!

  11. Jason Robillard’s taboo truths about barefoot running | The Running Bran
    May 25, 2011

    […] barefoot/minimalist ultra-runner and the guy behind BarefootRunningUniversity.com. In his article, Some Taboo Truths About Barefoot Running, he sheds some light on the struggles you may encounter on your journey to becoming a barefoot […]

  12. Brandon
    May 25, 2011

    Great post Jason. At the moment, I assume that #5 plays a HUGE role in tons of runners out there not even giving barefoot running a try. Hopefully with time though that can change a bit.

  13. David Sutherland
    May 25, 2011

    Higher profile barefooters (i.e. you, Chris McDougall, MGBG) are put in an especially difficult position. God forbid you ever experience a running injury; doubters will use this as fodder for the ridiculous barefoot/shod war being fought on the interweb. But of course you will get injured because sh&*$ happens. We’re all humans and we make dumb mistakes due to our egos or inattentiveness.

    Chris McDougall broke a pinky toe on a nighttime run, and the next thing you know, newsgroups were whispering about him suffering a metatarsal stress fracture. Perhaps he should have been actively blogging about being such a clutz, but instead the rumor mill took control of the story. This is hardly fair, but is part of being a more public persona.

    A lack of full disclosure can lead to distrust. If your audience doesn’t trust you, then you’ve lost them.

  14. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    May 25, 2011

    Full disclosure is essential, and something I need to add along with my normal advice to noobs. Not necessarily so that they have a complete picture of barefoot running before they make the decision to do it. But it is important that they know these points once they start so that they know that their difficulties are completely normal. Otherwise they aren’t as likely to stick with it.