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The Future of Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe Running: An Assessment and Summary of the Barefoot Shoes/Apple Whack Job Discussion

Posted by on Jan 13, 2012 | 38 Comments

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been discussing the future of barefoot running and proposing methods we could use to reach an audience that would be receptive to our message, but won’t have access to us.  Here’s a brief summary:

Minimalist “barefoot” shoe sales are on the rise.  I’m defining these shoes as any shoe that allows the same running form as if you were barefoot.  Vague, I know, but the exact operational definition is irrelevant.  I strongly believe the people buying these shoes can benefit greatly by learning to run with good form, and actual barefoot running is the best way most of these people can learn good form.

The problem- the changing demographics of this group make them less likely to actively research barefoot running.  They will be much less likely to find the ample resources that exist, such as websites, organizations, books, videos, or even other barefoot runners.  If we can find a way to reach this group, we have an excellent opportunity to teach a willing audience.

This group can benefit from learning to run barefoot before using the shoes.  It will help most of them learn good form and help prevent too much too soon injuries like they would likely experience if they used the shoes with no instruction.

Here’s a visual:

“A”(blue) is us- people that run primarily barefoot.  Many will occasionally wear shoe when needed, but we’re the runners that really understand the advantages of barefoot running.

“B” (green) are the people that run primarily in minimalist shoes, but look to barefoot runners for advice.  These are people that visit the forums, watch the videos, buy the books, attend our clinics, hire us as coaches, and appoach us at races.

“C” (yellow-ish) is the group I’m concerned about.  These are people that buy minimalist “barefoot” shoes, but don’t seek out advice or instruction.  These are the people that use the new minimalist shoes in the same way they used their old shoes.  This group is most likely to experience injury, blame it on the “barefoot” shoes, and give barefoot running a bad name.  This is the group barefoot runners tend to complain about the most. I want to focus my educational efforts on this group.

“D” (red) represents the non-minimal shod runners.  Yes, I believe this group will rapidly shrink.  😉

Note the upward trends- this is my estimates based on where we’re heading.  This accounts for the sales data over the last few quarters, changing opinions in the medical community, an ever-increasing body of empirical research, internet trends, and a growing acceptance of minimalism among manufacturers and retailers.  I talked about this impending trend here.

What I’ve Done So Far

My work with Merrell can be a template for an effective way to reach this group.  I worked with Merrell to develop a simple method to teach good running form (ABC’s of BareForm) which can be easily taught in clinics, videos, and inserts added to retail boxes.  A key component of BareForm- people start out barefoot, learn the form, then wear the shoes after good form is learned.  The methods we developed are purposely simple- anyone can teach the method.  This means a salesperson selling the shoes can teach the basics to a customer while they’re buying the shoes.  That customer can now go teach their friends and family, who can go teach their friends and family… you get the idea.

We travel around holding clinics for the public and the sales staff on the floor of retailers.  The eventual goal is to reach every single person that buys a pair of these shoes.  It’s a deliberate and methodical approach to teaching barefoot running to to the very audience that most needs it. Based on the early results, it convinces a lot of people to continue running barefoot and learn more by seeking out additional information.

The key lesson I learned- Merrell had a genuine interest to do what was best for their customers.  That involved reframing their previous experiences, seeking out as much information as possible, and using that information to produce a great product.  They embraced the idea of barefoot running.  Furthermore, they’ve continued to seek out more information by doing things like advocating for barefoot runners in the Down and Dirty race series and hosting the Barefoot Jam roundtable session during the NYC barefoot Run weekend.  They went from a non-participant to a leader in developing and distributing barefoot education.

My work with Merrell has affected the very group that is most in need- the “C” group.  By setting up a “running form intervention” as they’re buying the shoes, we catch almost everyone in the net.  There is no other effective way to reach the “C” group.

Merrell isn’t alone, though.  Other shoe manufactures are quickly following suit.  We have a choice- turn them away because we have a lot of preconceived ideas about the nature of shoe manufacturers, or work with them to assure our expertise is used to help as many people as possible.  This is where I need help.  LOTS of help.

What Others Can Do

The great thing about this idea- it’s easy AND effective.  Anyone can spread this idea.  It’s not incredibly complex, you don’t have to be an “expert” to make a difference, you don’t need a certification, degree, or credentials.  All you need is a desire to help others.  I won’t bog this post down with all the things you can do… I more or less summed them up in this previous post:

But What About the Critics?

I’ve been outlining this idea over the last few weeks and some great discussion has ensued.  Some of that discussion involves criticisms, including the following points:

Criticism: But “barefoot shoes” is an oxymoron!  I refuse to be a part of anything that isn’t semantically-correct!

My Response: Well, I respect people’s need to be semantically-correct, I don’t think this hang-up warrants inaction.  If you can’t get past this one issue, you probably don’t have the chops to roll up your sleeves, get dirty, and actually help people run better.

Criticism: You’re suggesting we work with shoe companies and shoe stores.  I’ve been told all shoes are bad.

My Response: Same deal as above- I respect some people’s decision to always remain barefoot.  However, I’d at least ask you to consider where your strong anti-shoe company and shoe store feelings come from.  They’re not a faceless evil corporation greedily vacuuming up unsuspecting customers’ money.  How many of these people have you actually talked to?  Are you just parroting something you heard from someone else?  Did you have one single negative experience that has skewed your perspective?  If you did talk to them on a regular basis, you’d find almost all are staffed with open-minded people that want the best for their customers.  They’re people, just like you and me.

Criticism:  You’re just doing this to gain followers, get shoe contracts, or get media attention.

My ResponseWarning- angry rant ahead!  There’s a growing number of , coaches, bloggers, club leaders, forum participants, etc. that have accepted the challenge of spreading the idea of barefoot running to minimalist shoe runners.  Several people have dismissed what we’re trying to do by either implying (cough cough Ken Bob) or outright accusing (those of you that have sent emails or commented on forums) us of doing this for other reasons besides education.  I would hope my long-time readers understand us a bit better and get that we’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives.  I’d normally shrug off criticisms, but this round felt a little too much like the “greedy teacher” bullshit we used to get when Shelly and I taught high school.  The criticism is interesting considering the ideas I continually support, like:

  • Motivate others to think critically and avoid the trap of extremism (thanks to the influence of people like Pete Larson, Mark Cucuzzella, Jay Dicharry, Jesse Scott, Tucker Goodrich, and others),
  • De-centralize knowledge from the hands of a few to the hands of the entire community (my anti-barefoot coach cert rant),
  • Avoid blindly following me or anyone else,
  • Motivate others to become active leaders and teachers by holding clinics and starting blogs (I don’t want to be a leader with a bunch of followers, I want to be a teacher that motivates others to become leaders),
  • Argue against my own self-interests and promote other people’s works (like when I tell people to buy Ken Bob’s book instead of my own…),
  • Strive to listen more than I talk and engage in conversations with everyone on all sides of this issue, and
  • Look at everything we do through a lens of skepticism to determine the absolute best practices.

Personally, I’ve made a tremendous number of sacrifices to tailor my lifestyle in a way that I can do this full-time.  I’m perfectly comfortable with that as the ends justify the means.  The critics can criticize our methods… THAT’S GREAT!  It’s what I want- spirited, intelligent debate that ultimately solves problems.  Don’t question our motives, however, unless you’ve taken the time to read enough of our writings to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.  And Google the terms “Freud and projection.” 😉

That’s all I have to say about the issue. End of angry rant.

Criticism:  I’m just a runner.  I don’t want to help spread the word or teach anyone anything.  After all, nobody likes preachy fanatics.

My Response: No worries, not everyone has to be an advocate.  If you truly have no interest, don’t feel pressure to help.  HOWEVER, if you want to help but feel you don’t have the necessary qualifications… GET OVER IT!  Everyone has something of value to contribute regardless of experience or knowledge.  NEVER DOUBT YOUR ABILITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE!

Criticism: There’s no need to do anything.  What we’re doing right now is enough.  After all, we’re growing!

My Response: While the number of barefoot runners is growing, it’s being out-paced by the number of people that are buying minimalist shoes and have no idea what they’re doing.  As Shelly and I travel around the country, we purposely engage in conversations with anyone and everyone from barefoot runners to shod runners, from the employee on the floor to the owner of stores, from the designers of shoes to the people that design the marketing campaigns.  Trust my assessment of where this trend is going.  😉

Criticism: Supporting shoes will just lead to confusion.  People will think they’re running barefoot when wearing “barefoot” shoes, get hurt, and blame it on barefoot running.  This will ultimately hurt our cause.

My Response: While this argument seems completely valid, these critics seemed to miss my main point- that population that is getting hurt is the EXACT group I’m targeting.  Furthermore, I’m trying to get them to run barefoot before they use their shoes.  The key is to develop a systematic way to educate this group so they don’t get hurt.  So far, several people have offered suggestions to make my approach better, but nobody has really offered a different idea to reach this group with our barefoot message.


Look at the graphic above again.  The “C” group represents a rapidly-growing group of people that would be open to our message but do not actively seek us out.  There’s a simple way to change this, but it will require us to be more open-minded than we have in the past.  Not everyone will agree; many will still prefer to promote their barefoot only/shoes are always bad ideas, which is cool.  That “A” group is only growing and new barefoot runners will need the dedicated expertise of the purists.  I’d just caution the purists to temper their message against shoes… you’re inadvertently turning away people that would otherwise be open to the very ideas you promote.

As I’ve mentioned before, every person reading this has the potential to play an important role in making a difference.  No matter what your level of experience or knowledge, you have a place in this shifting paradigm.  You can help spread the ideas of barefoot running to that “C” group!

I have a feeling there’s no need to ask, but what are your thoughts?


Thank you to Pablo Päster for the help correcting my poor proofreading and editing skills.  😉




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  1. When to use the term “Barefoot Shoes” « Running Barefoot
    January 23, 2012

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  2. Bob (Downtown Runner)
    January 14, 2012


    I still 80 percent with you. I just have some disagreement with how to reach the ‘C’s. I just don’t think we should be strongly promoting shoes or calling them what they are not.

    When people (probably 5-10 a day) ask me about my VFFs they often ask me if I run in them. I tell them that I prefer to run truly barefoot and that I got a stress fracture running in them. I make sure to stress that MINIMALIST SHOES are great but you need to learn how to run “correctly” first, and then transition to them over time.

    I still feel that if I call them barefoot running shoes it would take away from the message I want to convey:

    1) Best way to learn is to let your feet feel the ground
    2) Best way to maintain good form once you learn is to feel the ground
    3) If you need shoes, make sure they are minimalist, transition to them slowly, and continue to practice what you learned from feeling the ground

    This method may not be for everyone. But I still feel it would work for the vast majority of the ‘C’s.

  3. Barefooting 2012 : Objectifs Courir Pieds Nus | Courir Pieds Nus!
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    […] collaboratif. Faire parler les enthousiastes, donner aux ambassadeurs les moyens d’aborder de nouveaux publics. Moins dire “Je”.  Remplacer “Je” par “Nous”. En 2012, je vais nous allons rencontrer […]

    • Erik
      January 14, 2012

      Mais c’est très joli, ce mot ‘barefooteur.’

  4. Ken Bob Saxton
    January 14, 2012

    P.S. I will concede that I too am using the term, but I do so in a derisive manner *as should be the case for deceptive terminology). case in point: the other day when I was explaining to a younger fellow of 54-years who had a knee replacement several years back from running, that the important thing about barefoot running IS the tactile sensation and how it teaches us to run gently, and let’s us know immediately, with each and every step whether we should continue or not (at least until we figure out how we can move comfortably and safely) and that if he is curious and wants to try barefoot running, not to start with the “BAREFOOT SHOES”! … then I clarified why they don’t work for beginners, and the dangers – so, I am conceding that I agree that for educational purposes the term is useful (people understand what we’re talking about, and I don’t need to get into a long discussion about the terminology – though they can find a short discussion about “Language” in my book and of course, there will be more on my website).

    So, I do understand that we will be using the term as a reference to what is becoming a popular term… Much like my argument for the term, “jogging” doesn’t apply to barefoot running. As I’ve said many times, barefoot runners do not “jog”, they move smoothly, gently, no jolting, no jarring, no striking, no pounding, no “jogging”.

    I use the term, but often, I make a point to educate people as to why it is a misuse of the term, and especially, as in the case I mentioned, point out that they are not a substitute for barefoot running.

    At least with food, the law won’t allow bread to be sold as “whole grain” unless it contains at least a smidgeon of actual whole grain, that’s why marketers use the term “wheat” bread (which they know will convince most people that the bread is “healthy” for them), and why you shouldn’t buy anything sold as “wheat” bread because without the whole grain, you don’t get the whole nutrition, and you may as well be eating white bread (which at least doesn’t have artificial brown coloring).

    And, of course, I often refer to terrain as being on a spectrum of nutritious to dessert, and how without the whole sole being bare, you don’t get the nutritious information about how well, or how poorly each of your steps (or miss-steps) are. Likewise if we run barefoot on “Just desserts” (surfaces, like groomed beaches, that are comfortable barefoot, no matter how we run). Not saying not to have dessert, but get your nutrition first!

    Have fun,
    -barefoot ken bob

    • Erik
      January 14, 2012

      Ken Bob,
      You continually miss the point Jason is trying to make. How do you reach the ‘C’ category? Jason has proposed a strategy. You just keep going on about the merits of barefoot running and denotational precision, of which few of us, whether As or Bs, need to be convinced. How do you propose to reach the Cs? I’m pretty sure Jason is open to suggestions.

    • Brian G
      January 14, 2012

      Ken Bob, I’m curious whether you think having anything on the soles of your feet is inferior, from a tactile sensation perspective, that having nothing at all.

      Is having a malleable but non-cushioning substance, say very hard, smooth rubber from a car tire, strapped to your soles that much different from a tactile perspective than pure barefoot?

      • Erik
        January 14, 2012

        Brian, you didn’t ask me, but allow me to bud in and say yes, there’s a huge difference. Once in a while I have to run in 2mm soles when it’s really cold out, and I miss the earthly sensuousness of bare feet dearly.

        • Erik
          January 14, 2012

          I should mention that the 2mm soles are attached to Soft Star’s excellent Moc3s, one of the best minimalist shoes in terms of ‘ground feel.’

      • Bob (Downtown Runner)
        January 14, 2012

        I agree with Erik. Anything under my soles reduces feedback, and is inferior. That doesn’t mean I hate shoes. I wear them when needed. But when I do it IS a less satisfying and less of a “teachable moment” for my body/form.

  5. Chris
    January 14, 2012

    Great post Jason.

  6. Tim
    January 13, 2012

    Can I just say I’m tired of the “Jason’s just a shill for Merrell shoes” response? Anyone who looks at that “relationship” can clearly see you’re not saying everyone should buy Merrell shoes. You have consistently said barefoot is best. The connection you’ve made with the shoe devils (ha!)does not make you a heretic. It makes you our inside man…