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Don’t Knock Minimalist Shoes Until You’ve Pushed Your Limits: A Open Letter to all Barefoot Runners

Posted by on Jun 14, 2011 | 30 Comments

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a few messages about the frequent shoe discussions here at BRU.  This is typical, it comes with the territory.  A few days ago, I received one that I feel warranted this letter.  A newer barefoot runner chastised me for supporting running in minimalist shoes.  This person had been running barefoot less than six months and only trained on sidewalks and a local high school track.

For all newer barefoot runners- here’s an important lesson:

Don’t knock minimalist shoes until you have actually tried running on a surface or in conditions that requires minimalist shoes.

Here’s the deal- I run in shoes for two reasons.  I am either a) running in conditions that are too technical, cold, or hot to comfortably be run barefoot, or b) I am training for an important race that will require shoes because of one of the two previously mentioned conditions.  If I don’t meet either of those conditions, I run barefoot.

I have spent several years experimenting to find my own barefoot limits.  As a trail ultrarunner living in an area of the country with a fairly long, snowy, cold winter, I’ve had plenty of opportunities.  I’ve pushed my limits of temperature (up to95°; down to 0°), terrain, and distance.  I’ve run a trail 50 miler barefoot and about 33 miles of a 100 miler barefoot.  I’ve run 50+ miles on asphalt.  I routinely do ultra-distance training runs on trails barefoot.

What have I learned?  I have limits.  In less than two weeks, I’m running the Western States 100 miler.  I’d love to be able to run it barefoot.  I could probably train to run on every surface and temperature I’d experience in the race, but it would take a ton of training on that course.  That leaves me with two options- avoid the race because it is beyond my barefoot limits or wear shoes.  I’m not the kind of person that shies away from adventure to maintain some bullshit barefoot “purity.”

If you DO avoid adventure to maintain your “pure” barefoot status, that’s great.  Just don’t preach to me.  Here’s a simple rule:

You cannot condemn others for running in shoes if they have run barefoot in more adverse conditions than you.

THAT earns you the right to criticize others.  It’s that simple.  Don’t be a preachy douchebag.  Until you earn your chops, shut up and learn from those that have come before you.

What Role Should Shoes Play

Shoes are protection, nothing more.  They’re a tool.  I always recommend people learn to run barefoot BEFORE moving to minimalist shoes.  Once they learn good form, use shoes as needed.  Listen to your body and be aware of the potential to do too much too soon without tactile feedback.

Understand what qualities make a good minimalist shoe.  Learn what characteristics you need in a shoe.  Match the appropriate shoe for the conditions.  That’s all there is to it.

Thanks.

-Jason

 

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30 Comments

  1. Mike
    June 20, 2011

    I’m a very inexperienced runner, and I’m just getting into minimalist running.

    I chose right away to use the Merrels because I run where I happen to be working and that is usually in remote non-urban areas. I can’t tell you how many times I have been running over sharp rocks and see broken glass on the ground.

    When some Tarahumara native runs a 400 mile race through mountains with home-made huarache sandals, I wonder if there are barefoot purists standing around the finish line snickering and calling him a wussy for wearing foot protection?

    Great blog!

  2. Barefoot Tyler
    June 18, 2011

    I can understand where the messenger is coming from on some issues. It is frustrating to see discussion on barefoot running websites about shoes.

    With that being said, as a blogger I know exactly what it is like to come up with new material. There is honestly so much you can say about barefoot running. So that leaves you with some other topics, such as writing about your accomplishments(a majority of people don’t care about) and posting interviews(after so many interviews the content becomes repetitive). When a shoe company offers to send you something for free if you write a review you take it for 2 reasons. A) it’s free stuff! B) it promotes the barefoot lifestyle.

    With any group there will be a few elitists. Luckily the people that lead the barefoot running movement(you, Barefoot Ted, Barefoot Ken Bob) are great supporters of barefoot and minimalist running. I try to support barefoot running, but it is mainly because I haven’t reached a point where I feel I need shoes.

    Keep up the good work Jason. If anything use this as a sign to consider posting more strictly barefoot posts.

    Take care,

    -Barefoot Tyler

    P.S. I essentially just wrote a blog there…

  3. Nathan
    June 16, 2011

    I’ll play devil’s advocate in defense of the rude messenger (yes rude because as has been previously commented it is rude to chastise any runner – just being out there running is to be celebrated). Anyway, I have two “pro-rude messenger” comments. One: I’m not sure what bike trails and oval tracks he’s running on, but I know the ones I run are are much tougher than roads and sidewalks. Two: I calculated just on today’s front page and there are 9 shoe related posts (one sock post is included in that tally) out of 25 total posts. That’s more than one third. I think that is a good amount of shoe information, however, there isn’t near that many posts about barefoot running. I am not going to complain though. Jason made his book available for download, which I did ;) and all his posts are extremely informative. And I’m trying to spread the word – and spread the site of me running barefoot in the neighborhood. I am getting to the point where I can run fast barefoot – so I feel like the site of a fast barefoot runner is a good advertisement in itself.

  4. The Running Mike
    June 15, 2011

    It’s over 100 degrees in Arizona today. As much as I like being barefoot – pavement will burn feet at this temperature. If you want to be outside, shoes are a necessity :)My only problem is that the more I run barefoot, I have a hard time wearing most shoes (even minimalist ones). I hope that Merril will make some wider sizes!

    • Scott
      June 15, 2011

      How do the Merril’s compare with New Balance Minimus? I’ve got the NB minimus trail running shoe and its got quite a wide toe box.

      • Joshua
        June 15, 2011

        I have just compared the merrells with the NB minimus throught a couple of try-ons. I have wider feet, and there is definetly more room for me in the Merrells.

        • The Running Mike
          June 16, 2011

          Scott/Joshua, thanks! I’ll have to check out the Merrells.

          I also have a bright orange pair of NB MT10s. The toe box on the NB MT10′s is great. There is a small formed arch support that is part of the Vibram sole. It’s fine when I’m walking around or even running in them – but If I wear them for more than an hour casually (or for example, sitting at my desk at work) I start to feel it on the edge of my arch. Hesitant to try putting serious miles on this shoe until I can at least wear around the house for a couple hours.

          Can’t wait to try on some Merrells!

    • Mo
      June 17, 2011

      Amen, bro! I love being in my “air flintstones” as much as possible, but have no desire to burn (or freeze) my big xxxwide paws… I hope merrell will realize that there are a few of us out here with hobbit-like appendages that would appreciate being able to wear something a little less freaky than VFFs when the need arises to cover our “lower hands”.

  5. Kevin W. Schell
    June 15, 2011

    I’d like to take the sentiment of this post even further. Don’t knock your fellow runners, especially for something as superficial as their choice of footwear. Encourage people to run, shod or unshod.

  6. Aaron
    June 15, 2011

    I’m curious; what are you planning to wear for Western States?

  7. Diggs
    June 14, 2011

    Shod runners-Unshod runners, lets just agree to disagree:There is no right or wrong answer, its what works for each individual. Somedays I wear shoes to run in, somedays I dont. To each their own…

  8. Angie Bee
    June 14, 2011

    amen.

  9. Brant
    June 14, 2011

    People that have been barefoot their whole lives have built up an immunity against potentially dangerous bacterial and viral infections. Personally, I think the risk of infection (from 100s of possible organisms affecting dozens of tissues and organs) is too high to go barefoot. The neuromusculoskeletal benefits of barefoot running can still be obtained with minimal footwear.

    I guess this doesn’t apply to those of you that have a chalice that is as thick as a your shoes’ soles.

    Just another reason minimalist shoes are not bad.

  10. Rob
    June 14, 2011

    When looking at it from an event point of view you can either choose to “participate” or “compete”. These days events have changed more towards the participate spectrum and away from the competition end. This can be seen in the fact that average race times have slowed dramatically. Not being critical, it’s great that there is a running boom going on now, however it’s effected the personal perceptions and expectations about the purposes of events. To this end I know that I could participate in an event whilst running in VFFs, but if I want to compete I know that I’ll need a bit more substantial shoe. Saying “your almost there” is sort of a cop out to me. Who are they to say what my goals and reasons for attending an event are? Sometimes I like to compete, sometimes I just like to participate. To each their own…

  11. Chadisbarefoot
    June 14, 2011

    It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect in full….effect! Of course, we can all say that catch ourselves biting our tongues when the opportunity presents itself to share the gospel of barefoot running to others. If you are enthusiastic about this awesome practice, shouldn’t everyone else be too!?!? Objectivity and humility often times goes right out the window. Newbs need to keep things in perspective – just like everyone else, myself included.

    Great post, Jason.

  12. Jesse
    June 14, 2011

    This reminds me of when I raced my second 50 miler in minimalist shoes(NB minimus). I later read the report of a guy who ran a 50k on the same course, but barefoot. He mentioned seeing people in minimalist shoes saying that they were “almost there.” My time was nearly the same as his, but my course was 19 miles longer. (Jason and I were on the course in minimalist shoes, feeling a bit of shame for not being the “brefoot dudes.” This guy refers to me as “almost there?” Let’s take a step back and look at barefoot running for what it is- Running.

  13. KittyK
    June 14, 2011

    Yep totally agree. I had a big fancy reply but then couldn’t be arsed.

    I know I am not as hard arse as most, but I would rather wear minimalist shoes and run happy than run miserable barefoot.

  14. Greg
    June 14, 2011

    Excellent stuff. Sharene’s last sentence says it all. The “elitist” barefoot attitude is tiresome and one of the only things that gets me down about this truly awesome direction we are all headed in…. Even those who have done LOTS of real and substantial barefoot running sometimes feel the need to boast and try to belittle those of us who wear minimalist shoes. Does there really need to be strict definitions and categories of runners and shoes that separate us into tough-tougher-toughest? I don’t think so. The ones who are really tough are the few humans out there still running long distances for food instead of glory. The guys who run down antelope in Africa or deer in Mexico do it wearing foot protection (sandals in Mexico and shoes in Africa). That tells me something. It is all about function. If you are running naturally and are healthier because of it, regardless of your footwear, you are doing the right thing. You are closer to being essentially human like our hunter ancestors. Nobody needs to know how tough you are. I applaud Jason for trying to spread all things positive about natural running and also for speaking to the insecure folks who start negativity. Nice work. For those that want to be unique and exclusive because they are barefoot runners… that time has already passed. Accept others and know that they don’t take away from what you are doing and have done as a barefoot runner. Not sure if my rant will do any good but it makes me feel better! Thanks for listening.

  15. Tyro
    June 14, 2011

    I’ll give the anonymous barefoot track runner some props. It takes some effort to build up to doing any distance barefoot, so good for him. If that’s what he enjoys and he’s comfortable with his distance and terrain then more power to him.

    Based on Jason’s leadership, with enough persistence I believe I could toughen my soles and develop the strength to do ultras barefoot, even on my local trails. Is it worth the time, effort and discomfort?

    For myself, I’ve wanted to believe that there was One True Running Style, but each has let me down. Right now I am focused on a couple ultra races in the fall and I’ll try whatever lets me get in the training distance with as little pain and injury as possible. That means barefoot on occasion, MRs for shorter training runs and stiffer soles for distance and gnarly trails. Maybe this gets me excommunicated from the barefoot community but I’m happy, my knees and hips are working and I get to do what I enjoy best: running.

  16. Chris
    June 14, 2011

    You go girl…or guy! You got it right. Shoes are tools and need to be used when they NEED TO BE USED. Nothing more, nothing less. I love barefoot running, but haven’t worked my way up to doing a full ultramarathon barefoot. So I use minimalist footwear for my long races or in tougher conditions. There are so few barefooters in my area, I get all the props from doing a simply 5 mile trail run barefoot…or a 50K race in FiveFinger shoes. It’s good being me.

    I do feel I’ve earned the right to mock others that won’t even try 1 mile barefoot on tame grassy trails or smooth bike paths…but I’d never criticize someone for doing WS100 in shoes! Good luck.

    -Chris

  17. Jim B
    June 14, 2011

    wow…well said. unfortunately, there are people like that in every aspect of our culture…shod and barefoot. I am told almost daily that my Vibram’s, Merrel’s and/or barefoot running is bad, will lead to injury, has caused injury etc…from both sides. I think that what you said needed to be said however, I am not sure that the crowd it is aimed at is ready to hear it and/or accept it yet.

  18. shel
    June 14, 2011

    shoe bigotry.

    • Jason
      June 14, 2011

      *like*

      :-)

  19. Tim Kresler
    June 14, 2011

    I think you mean condemn, not condone, in your rule. Otherwise, I agree 100%. Really, what business is it of anyone’s what people wear when they run. If someone wants my opinion, they will ask me I’m sure.

    • Jason
      June 14, 2011

      Thanks Tim! Somehow that one made it past the editing department. They were out late last night celebrating a birthday or something, and were a bit off their game. ;-)

  20. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    June 14, 2011

    This guy had six months experience, all on track and blacktop? Sounds like he knows it all. No doubt he’s in a position to lecture folks who have written a book on the subject.

    • Dave
      June 14, 2011

      That was exactly what I was thinking!

  21. Sharene
    June 14, 2011

    Amen and Amen!! When I first started running barefoot about 6 years ago, there were NO suitable choices in footwear, so I went bare. Now there are so many sensible minimal shoe choices, which enable me to compete in and complete events which otherwise would have been almost impossible.

    Barefoot is not a cult :) Run free and enjoy