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The Future of Barefoot Running: An Increasing Need for Simplicity

Posted by on Jul 23, 2011 | 21 Comments

Things are a’ changin!’ As the barefoot/minimalist shoe running movement matures and expands, several important things are happening which will invariably shape the future.

First, the type of person experimenting with natural running is changing. Back in the day, the early adopters spent considerable time doing research to master the skills required to successfully transition. Today’s new barefoot/minimalist shoe runner (the beginnings of the early majority) isn’t as concerned with expensive research. They rarely seek out external advice on websites, in books, or from “experts.”

Second, the people that currently teach barefoot/minimalist shoe running are facing an ever-growing pool of competition. A few years ago, there were probably about a half-dozen of us teaching clinics. Today, there are at least several dozen individuals and institutions teaching some form of barefoot or minimalist shoe running.

Under normal circumstances, having more teachers is a good thing. Unfortunately there’s one serious drawback- the increasing competition is forcing barefoot and minimalist shoe teachers to differentiate their approach, even if what they used previously worked exceptionally well. When trying to etch out their own corner of the teaching market, all seem to be taking the “more is more” approach and making their teaching progressively more complex.

This move towards complexity causes a serious problem given the newly-developing pool of new BFR/MR runners: Information overload. With the early adopters, too much information wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. By virtue of their personality, they were well-prepared to handle excessive incoming information, use the useful stuff, discard the unnecessary, and blaze their own path.

This next cohort of BFR/MR runners, in many cases, does not possess this ability to filter. This is going to cause great confusion and frustration among this crowd.

Barefoot running is inherently a pretty simple activity on the surface. If you delve into the fine biomechanical details, it can become extremely complex. I see too many barefoot proponents heading down a path of introducing that complexity for no apparent reason other than separating themselves from the others that are doing the same thing.

I’m taking the opposite approach. The next generation of barefoot runners aren’t interested in learning every conceivable detail. They are not interested in spending months, weeks, or even days trying to perfect a new way to run. They want simple directions that they can implement immediately to make running fun again. Furthermore, they want something they can share with their running friends.

My newest clinic format was designed with this very idea as the guiding principle. The idea was originally created by Jon Sanregret, a friend and Merrell rep. He distilled barefoot running form to its simplest elements, then packaged it in a quick, fun package. The entire clinic can take as little as 30 minutes, gives the opportunity for individual feedback, and can easily be shared.

We’ve tested the new format several times with non-English speaking international crowds with great success. Jon has also used the format for a series of clinics at various retailers. I should be rolling it out publicly in the next few weeks- stay tuned for the schedule.

As soon as I get the clinic on video, I’ll share it here.

What do you think? Is the barefoot running movement unnecessarily heading toward excessive complexity?

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  1. John
    July 27, 2011

    Introduction, saturation, evolution.

    General synopsis of any kind of science/physical culture/life, etc. There will be a veritable explosion of information. Some good, some not so good. There will be those, mind, that will try to capitalize ONLY to make a dollar. That is why I’m here following Jason and the Hobby Joggas. He does it. He lives it. He pushed to have a monster shoe company listen, and with that kind of pull, he and Merrell have evolutionized minimal running. There is a simplicity that the Hobby Joggas preach because simple is easier to grasp/digest/implement. Pick foot up. Put it down (not on the heel!!!). Repeat til satisfied or out of Gu. Do it again tomorrow. I am not too concerned about the inevitable saturation situation (as is occuring now) because running in itself is a physical distillation of simplicity. And I simply want to avoid the birthing of the inevitable complexity that is sure to follow. If you would excuse me, I’m gonna go pick up/put down my feet for a bit.

  2. Brandon Mulnix
    July 25, 2011

    I still think there is a huge market out there to be gained. The biggest problem with anything new is that after a period of time it isn’t new to those that started it. There will always be an audience of new people that want to listen.

    Simple is better, but I am still in favor of more teachers teaching it to get the word out. When it comes to each teacher being different, well that is what makes for a constant evolution of the subject. Look at Religion, if it were not for the vast number of teachers and perspectives on the subject, there wouldn’t be any need for two religous estabolishments being contructed right next to each other. This competition of sorts makes each teacher become better. It makes them stand behind what they teach believing they are teaching the best content.

    The flood of sorts that is sweeping the nation or world for that manner is still micro in nature. Until the mass media takes hold and ignites a fashionable movement of BFF runners, there is room for competition.

  3. Diggs
    July 25, 2011

    As a society we tend to overcomplicate simplicity. Look at traditional footwear, the general public has no idea what is good, what is bad. There is too much info-online,books,magazines,so-called experts.Hopefully BFR brings us down to the roots of running and that is-just run. Simple as that!

  4. Tom B
    July 24, 2011

    I think we will see more complexity. We are already seeing it with the shoes companies as they continue to expand and roll out the shoes. The varied selection will confuse many people.

    I know when I started running again less than a year ago, and changed my form and type of shoes, my training was getting more complicated, I was swallowing more stuff from more sites. Eventually, my training had become so wallowed in complexity while I ran (are my knees bent, posture, foot-strike, cadence, etc), that I had stopped enjoying my new-found love.

    Sooooo, I relaxed, smiled, and let my body just go. I stopped worrying and started enjoying again. As a result, my form improved and it felt great.

    Keep it simple!

    • Nathan Matthews
      July 25, 2011

      The same thing happened to me until I read some of Ken Bob’s comments. He inspired me to relax and it made an immediate difference.

  5. Angie Bee
    July 24, 2011

    My coaching is based on simplicity. Too much information leads to stress which goes against the fundamental relaxation part of barefoot running.

  6. Nathan
    July 24, 2011

    Not sure about the analysis of the problem, but a shorter simpler training course sounds great. Most of the comments agree that the basics of barefoot are simple.

    The problem you describe sounds to me like you’ve got habitually shod runners that are used to high heel shoes and cushioning coming in for barefoot training without every going online or to the book store to do any research. Like they want to learn barefoot to improve their time or how they feel in their next race, but aren’t fully committed to running without shoes or even zero drop.

  7. Jamoosh
    July 24, 2011

    I think the problem is going to be patience on the part of runners.

  8. KittyK
    July 24, 2011

    There really isn’t much to learn, although putting the parts into practise is probably the hard bit. I think in the end there are only 3 important things you need to know:
    1) Cadence – get the cadence right and your form will probably follow
    2) Pick up your feet
    3) Listen to your body. If it hurts you need to check what you are doing and/or you need to chill out and slow down a bit

    I suppose there is also, start off barefoot. I was making the assumption that people were doing that. Oh and have fun. If you are having fun, then you are relaxed which makes EVERYTHING easier.

    There you go, 5 mins and a pamphlet..;) Okay, I know that’s NOT quite true, but still.

  9. JamesBrett
    July 23, 2011

    i live in tanzania, so there are no barefoot running clinics being offered. [and everyone thinks it’s funny that the white guy runs in his “socks.”] so i don’t know much about how BFR training is becoming more complicated. but it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

    we humans have a tendency to overcomplicate things. sometimes it’s to set our teachings apart from others’, as you’ve suggested. sometimes it’s because we want to stress a reaction to what someone else is doing (which we perceive as wrong). others want people to learn everything exactly their way. still others just want to offer the best explanation of a thing as possible.

    and we do this with everything. barefoot running, any sport instruction, act prep, how to be successful at blogging… anything that can be taught, we complicate. i won’t waste a bunch of you guys’ time talking about religion (i’m a missionary and development worker), but this is what i see as one of the greatest problems in christianity today — we overcomplicate the gospel we’re giving to others.

    the result of all this over-complication is that movements slow. reproduction necessarily shifts from multiplication to addition. now, that’s not to say the movement doesn’t still occur — or that it doesn’t look to be fast. once a movement reaches critical mass, addition looks quick. but multiplication would have been faster. sustainability and faster reproduction require simplicity.

  10. David
    July 23, 2011

    What, POSE and Chi and Evolution aren’t the only ones trying to make a buck off natural running form by making it… unnatural?

    Each new expert has to justify their expertise by uncovering something new.

    The world needs to realize that there really isn’t anything new. And any one trying to tell you different is reaching for their wallets.

  11. Janice Nicholls
    July 23, 2011

    I agree that the newest adopters are likely heading toward complexity. I think it’s because runners are in love with their gear. They want to talk about it, buy it, tell people what that innovation is doing for them. It’s the same with barefoot. If it’s not technical and complex, they have nothing to talk about. Perhaps that’s why I find it hard to be an ambassador for BFR. I just take off my shoes and run. I don’t worry about form. I figure my body and feet know what to do. So far they have not failed me. I even had someone comment that I had excellent form. Who knew! I responded that it must be the bare feet.

    I love BFR because it’s so simple. I don’t need fancy gear either. I go with what’s comfortable. And cheap. Ah. Another reason to love BFR:)

    • Barefoot Gentile
      July 23, 2011

      Nice post Janice! I think the new people are more concerned about being an ambassador more than learning the craft of barefoot running.

      Just take off your shoes and run, i love that, that’s what i did and never looked back.

  12. Kelly
    July 23, 2011

    This post sounds like BS. Give examples of the barefoot teachers who are making their teaching too complex. Are there really that many? And how exactly are these teachers making it too complex? Adapting a new running form takes time and patience, and so it’s not so easy like snapping the fingers. Its kinda complex for a newbie.

  13. Barefoot Gentile
    July 23, 2011

    I think there is too much information out there, and people are comparing themselves to others, and not to their own limitations. When I started i ran barefoot first, then did some research to fine tune things, but it was very little. Most Americans are pretty lazy, and when something hits the market, such as PX90, or something that will guarantee 20 inch biceps in 48 hours, people jump at that. The true grit and grind of the craft gets lost. It’s fast results, fast food, and fast cash, for some.

    I doubt KenBbob had books, clinics, websites, etc. back in his day. He figured it out. I think it’s all about making money, and the shoe/minimal companies are taking full advantage of barefoot running, you can’t blame them though.

  14. Nate
    July 23, 2011

    I don’t do clinics…I just invite people to run with me, and tell them to listen to their own bodies.

  15. Nora
    July 23, 2011

    Hmm never thought of this.. I guess I just assumed that we all are in this endeavor to spread the information together. I thought it could be put forth with simplicity and without competition. If and when I can ever have some kind of platform it will grow on that.. simple!

  16. Garrett Bartholme
    July 23, 2011

    I see a lot of parallels between BFR/MR movement and the organic/local food movement. In both movements there are the those that really live it and adapt it wholeheartedly. However, as the market expanded the meanings of the movement are bent and twisted to drive sales. An example would be organic Oreos and Nike Free’s. As the market opens more providers will come in and fill the void weather there product is of quality or not.

  17. Jan
    July 23, 2011

    It’s the “getting on the bandwagon” thing – & also the challenge of teaching something that you have perhaps self-created, self-discovered – & the rest of us come along without that long journey of discovery & expect to simply ‘pick it up’. I truly don’t know what the best approach is …. I have similar thoughts around the field that I am in (Feldenkrais Method), where I did not learn from the creator – but all my teachers did … but they all have their personal take, & so it get expanded, expounded on & diluted. Learning something from an external source can never take the place of living something, especially in your BODY/MIND, for decades.

    BF running is a “natural activity” – if you have done it all your life. But it does need to be learned when you start older – & there are SO MANY different experiences out there, & different feet & legs/hips/backs/heads – & different sensitivities.

    Don’t have an answer, but it’s a good question, especially as I wonder if I could ever feel knowledgeable enough to share with others. And especially as I seen have others try to do little talks on this when they don’t even have some of the basic understandings ……

  18. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    July 23, 2011

    I totally agree with this approach. I’ve been trying to boil my clinics down to as little Info as possible. My next one might only be one drill done over and over. Really, we’re not teaching rocket science. Let’s not turn it into that.

    What i’m worried about is that barefoot experts might become motivated by money. It has happened with other former workout systems like Crossfit. I charge a pittance for coaching and clinics to pay for gas money. I fear the “P90X-ification” of barefoot running

  19. Jim B
    July 23, 2011

    I think as the culture/movement/industry expands, we are going to inevitably have a larger portion of less prepared/educated/dedicated people in said culture. This is true of anything that has happened throughout our history. The first people that were really good at hunting (or gathering) taught others and had a nice little piece of the world for their own. As other people, those more interested in helping them selves as opposed to their fellow man, came along, the pool of available experts became diluted and thus the activity suffered. We will see the same thing happen here, until enough people become frustrated then split away and form a new sub-culture within the BFR/MR culture…
    Too much thought into this???