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How Should One Start Barefoot or Minimalist Shoe Running?

Posted by on Aug 25, 2011 | 11 Comments

This last weekend, I had the opportunity to hang out with The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy, Christian Peterson.  You probably know him as the eight foot caped superhero that oozes awesomeness from every pore.  At some point, we discussed the methods used to teach barefoot running.  There’s a good chance this occurred after several beers as the exact nature of the conversation is a little fuzzy.

At any rate, Christian is a vocal critic of the methods used to teach barefoot running.  He believes there’s too much focus on specific methods and techniques, and not enough emphasis on listening to your own body (e.g.- start by taking off your shoes.)

I completely agree.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve analyzed my own methods.  I found I was moving in a direction toward complexity.  That inspired me to help Merrell develop a simplified teaching method, which resulted in Jon Sanregret’s “ABC” method.

Interestingly, Christian seemed surprised that I was critical of my own prior methods.  I always assumed all of us go through a process of self-reflection and improvement.  The moment we stop trying to improve is the moment we stop progressing.  I’m finding there aren’t a lot of people that do this.  That’s too bad.  It shouldn’t be a big deal to admit you were wrong and take steps to correct course.

Anyway, even though the ABC method is simple and easy to understand, I don’t think it should be the first thing people try.  If someone wants to learn to run barefoot or in minimalist shoes, the first step should be to actually go barefoot for awhile.

For a large chunk of the population, this will be sufficient to learn good form.  Even if a new runner needs more guidance via something like the ABC’s, developing the body awareness from being barefoot is invaluable to fully capitalizing on the lessons.

So how should an aspiring barefoot or minimalist shoe runner start?  This is my latest recommendation:

  1. Take off your shoes.  Spend time walking barefoot.  After about two weeks, add in a little running every other day.  The key- listen to your body.  Repeat what feels good. Stop what doesn’t.  This step is about feeling, not thinking.
  2. If you’re not feeling it after a few weeks, try a simple “how to” method.  Of course, I recommend the ABC’s. Practice those three points for a few weeks while still listening to your body.
  3. If you still can’t get it after the first two steps, you’re probably one of those folks that has a difficult time interpreting the signals from your body.  We’ll try another simple method- mimicry.  Go to YouTube.  Search for “barefoot running.”  Watch a few people actually run barefoot.  Mimic what they do.  The key- you’re still not thinking too much.
  4. If you still can’t get it, maybe you need to think a little more.  We all have different learning styles, don’t sweat it.  Do some reading about barefoot running.  I always recommend the free route first, so download the pdf version of my book here.  If you want a dead tree version, I’d recommend Ken Bob’s book first, then mine.  Ken Bob’s pictures are in color.  :-)
  5. If all that still doesn’t help, I’d recommend getting some help from other barefoot runners.  Going with the “free first” theme, I’d recommend checking to see if there’s a local chapter of the Barefoot Runners Society in your area.  If not, try doing a Google search with your city and “barefoot running.”  Odds are pretty good there’s at least a few barefoot runners in your neighborhood.  If all else fails, try contacting a barefoot running coach.  The BRS can help with this, too.

There you have it- my latest “flow chart” of the progression of barefoot running.  Thoughts?  Additions?  Complaints?

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11 Comments

  1. Jon S.
    August 26, 2011

    Jason- Great post and I believe in my heart of hearts that to truly learn to run correctly, us non athletes and “slowbies” a combo word i use for slow/newbie is to take off the shoes totally for awhile and then “progress up” back up the chain of running product until you find what works for your feet, body, terrain, mileage, climate etc…how else will you learn, develop, and know “your form”?

    This idea of aspiring to “work your way down” from a cushion shoe into a minimal shoe is starting to bug me. I understand the logic of slow adaptation for the calves and achilles and the idea that some people don’t want to take the time to decrease mileage or work through a transition in time for their next race or adventure. I get all those things, but last time I checked over 65% of the running population is going to be sidelined this year with a traditional running injurie (ITBS, Plantar Fasciitis, Shin Splints etc) so in my mind who has time not find thier correct form and make it an itergral part of their running process?!

    Anyways, great post brother! JS

  2. Tyro
    August 25, 2011

    There are those people (like me) who try all of these steps and still fail. I had a problem with my ankle joint which, unbeknownst to me, greatly reduced my flexibility and made barefoot running difficult or painful. Other people have bone spurs and other problems.

    With the cushioning of shoe-coffins, we can often run through this without even noticing there’s a problem but barefoot can often expose dormant issues.

    Not saying anything is wrong with your list but maybe somewhere in your steps you add a sanity check: if there’s still pain, if things still don’t feel right, consult a podiatrist or another expert.

    It took a long time to seek out help but when I did, the change was quick and dramatic. It was also nothing I would have considered on my own. It was also nothing that was mentioned in any of the several books I read.

  3. Sally Hulbert
    August 25, 2011

    so sorry this posted twice!!

  4. Sally Hulbert
    August 25, 2011

    Jason-First thank you so much for coming to Mn. The naked 5K was a blast and I was starstruck to get to meet you and MGBG! Thank you so your ABC method.There is way too much verbage out there. It is great to hear simple concise advise from you and MGBG.I run on chip and seal pavement everyday and nothing teaches you faster.As runners,our biggest problem is pushing too far too fast.This morning ( I was in a huge hurry)just when I thought I was in the zone-I stubbed my toe for the first time=ouch! The about 10 minutes later -I did it again!!Of course blood gushed all over,but my first thought???= oh good it’s on the top of my toe! At least it is not on the bottom of my feet! I didn’t even slow down-just kept running.
    Lesson learned= PICK UP YOUR FEET DUMMY!
    Moral=LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!! MGBG

  5. Sally Hulbert
    August 25, 2011

    Jason-first thanks so much for coming to Mn-the Naked 5K was a blast and was awe inspiring to meet you and of course MGBG.
    I am so thankful for your ABC approach and MGBG approach. Too much verbage out there…and not enough common sense until now. Listening to your body should be first and foremost. The biggest problem all of us have as runners is probably pushing too far too fast. Running on rough surface is the best teacher!
    I run on chip and seal road every day. Just when I thought I had it all together this morning bfing, I stubbed my toe-ok-once was ow and then about 10 min later I did it again!! I was in a hurry to get done and not focusing. The second stub (on chip and seal while running fast) busted the top of my toe open. My initial thought-oh good it’s just the top of my toe, at least the bottoms are fine!! I didn’t even slow down! It bled all over of course.Lesson learned: Pick up your feet dummy!!! So,yes your body will teach you !! (ps/I am notoriously klutsy when in a hurry)
    LISTEN TO YOUR FEET….by MGBG

  6. Janice Nicholls
    August 25, 2011

    The method that worked for me: take off your shoes and run. Now that I’m in my second season, I’m reading more about form. I’m trying to practice some of the ideas in Barefoot Ken Bob’s book & that’s helping me to go longer on rougher roads. At the end of the day though, I believe we learn best by doing. Taking off our shoes. Going for a run. Enjoying how it feels. Stopping when it hurts (that’s the part I usually forget!).

  7. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    August 25, 2011

    That’s a very accurate description of me Jason.

    Despite heavy drinking, I do recall our conversation. As I said, I like where you’re going with the “ABC” thing. I know it’s a work in progress, and I think you’re almost there with a great system.

    I intend to make a similar acronym that spells out something like “BOOBIES” and make it my own. It’s a great memory device that way ;)

    • Jason
      August 25, 2011

      I’m just glad someone agrees that we need to simplify how and what we teach. The responses to my last post about the need for simplification we’re resoundingly supportive. :-)

      Given that I’m a fan of breasts, I fully support your development of the BOOBIES acronym.

      At any rate, I’ll continue to work on distilling and refining the message. Thanks for the help!

  8. tuck
    August 25, 2011

    I agree with this totally. When I first started running barefoot, I was engrossed with learning the correct form. It tied me down.

    The eureka moment came one fine morning run, when I told myself to stop thinking and just run. The feeling was amazing.

    Since then, I am a believer that there is no one form that suits everyone.

    • Jason
      August 25, 2011

      Tuck- it’s a tricky issue because we need open dialogue, research, and more people experimenting. The conundrum, of course, is that increased chatter seems to lead us down the road of complexity. As humans, we have an innate need to add to solutions instead of subtract.

      I think your last point is spot-on… George Sheehan’s “experiment of one” idea has never been more appropriate.

    • Brandon
      August 25, 2011

      +1 The same thing happened to me.