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Where Do We Draw the Line? Barefoot Running versus Minimalist Shoes

Posted by on Jun 9, 2012 | 26 Comments

A debate sprung up recently on the Barefoot Runners Society forums regarding BRS support for a company that used questionable marketing to promote their minimalist shoes. This is a tricky issue that springs up on occasion. For barefoot runners, how much do you support minimalist shoe companies?

Some people choose to take an idealist approach and demand all companies acknowledge the superiority of barefoot running, never use marketing that promotes their shoes as being better than barefoot, and even demand companies stop using the term “barefoot shoes.”

Some people choose to take a cynical approach to barefoot running and will do anything to “sell out” win the favor of a shoe company, including things like requesting sponsorship or posting their race results on a company’s Facebook page.

The idealists, while taking what they believe to be a morally-superior position, tend to alienate anyone and everyone that may have a differing opinion. In regards to barefoot running, they tend to alienate those that have no interest in actually running barefoot full-time or may run in conditions that are not conducive to barefoot running. This group is almost always new barefoot runners that don’t have enough experience to understand the limitations of barefoot running. This is the group that inspired my “Apple Whack-job” post a few months ago.

The sell-outs, in an attempt to win the affection of a company that will provide them with sponsorship, dilute their message too much to matter. It becomes clear barefoot running is a means to an end, and that “end” is usually material gain. They will change their message or beliefs at the drop of a hat if they believe it will result in their own gain. Interestingly, this group is also usually made up of newer barefoot runners.

Neither of these individuals are terribly effective at actually spreading the ideals of barefoot running.

The rest of us land somewhere in that vast gray area that is the middle. We understand the advantages and disadvantages of barefoot running, but also see the advantages and disadvantages of good minimalist shoes. We constantly walk a fine line between these two extremes. We continually adjust our position as new information and situations arise.

The goal is always the same- how do we reach a point of peak effectiveness?

In this case, I’m talking about effectiveness in regards to teaching or spreading the word about barefoot running. How much should you support barefoot running? How much should you support minimalist shoe running? This is a case I encounter often, and have been able to find the middle ground by educating myself as much as possible. I strive to understand all of the pros and cons of both conditions and how they relate to individual situations. I try to gather as many teaching tools as possible, then work on the methods used to use the tools to help others.

The issue of peak effectiveness can also be re-framed as running performance. How much barefoot training do you do? Should you run a race barefoot? The goal is the best race possible. The variables are time goals, terrain, temperature, our current physical state, etc. If we’re running a casual 5k in San Diego in February, the decision is pretty easy. If we’re running a 100 miler in the back country of Montana, that’s an easy decision, too. Anything in between becomes more difficult. For me, experience in both conditions helps determine what you can and cannot do barefoot.

The peak effectiveness discussion can also be re-framed to involve the running of a website or other organization. How much real estate (writing, ads, etc.) should be dedicated to barefoot running? How much should be dedicated to minimalist shoes? Here at BRU, the decision is easy. The site is dirt-cheap to run. I do everything myself most of the time, so my overhead is incredibly low. I purposely choose to not show ads because I don’t need the extra cash right now. If I someday need the cash, that may change. Likewise, if I get around to having a pro redesign the site, I’ll likely need ads to pay for the changes. as far as writing, I don’t really worry about it. I write about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes it involves barefoot running. Sometimes it involves shoes. Most of the time it’s about something only tangentially related to running.

So what happens if we occupy one of the extreme positions? Let’s take a look at a non-running situation:

There was a news story recently about a school that wouldn’t allow cell phones during graduation practice. One of their graduates was a baseball phenom that was expected to be drafted in the first round. New baseball draft rules require draftees to essentially negotiate a contract as soon as they’re drafted, so the kid had to have in phone with him. The school wouldn’t bend on the policy, so the kid skipped practice. As a result, the administration wouldn’t let him participate in the graduation ceremony.

As a former teacher, I saw this happen A LOT. Some people completely ignore the big picture and focus only on the policies, rules, or some morally-superior position. Here’s a kid that was about to be drafted and sign a million dollar-plus contract. The school should have been celebrating the accomplishments of their soon-to-be alumni. Instead, they chose to “stick to their guns” and follow the policy. They wanted to be right, not effective.

I simply do not understand this line of black-and-white thinking. The argument the admin probably used was along the lines of “If we change the rules for one, we’d have to change the rules for all.” BIG F-ING DEAL… THIS KID IS A FIRST ROUND DRAFT PICK! This would have put the school on the map. If they hadn’t pissed the kid off, he likely would have donated money. The school could have turned this into a huge press conference to get tons of positive press which would have made the school a desirable destination in the area. Instead, the admin looks like a bunch of arrogant a-holes that see the world as black-and-white. I’d never send my kids to that school.

The stance the admins at that school took simply doesn’t make sense. Yeah, they made a point. That’s great. But at what cost?

My best advice- avoid both extremes. It’s easy to take on of the two positions at the end of the spectrum. It’s far more difficult to find that point in the vast middle ground where peak effectiveness lies. Do that work, though. You’ll appreciate the results. ;-)

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26 Comments

  1. John
    June 12, 2012

    I would consider myself (almost)splat down in the middle ground. I run maybe 75% shod (VFF Seeya, Komodosport LS, Trail Glove) and 25% fully barefoot. I understand that hot asphalt does not agree with my feet. Frozen asphalt does not agree with my feet. Asphalt (frozen or searing) that has been covered by a copious, heaping helping of very sharp gravel does not agree with my feet…so I use the shoes. There are conditions that are clearly not BF friendly, and I’m not enough of a zealot to suck it up and take the pain. Besides, I’ve discovered in my 41 years that pain is an indication that something is (horribly) wrong and should be curtailed or stopped completely. I used to follow the Pose method until coaches there kept haughtily yelping at me that “Barefoot is not Pose”. No S**t Captain Obvious!!! So in that respect I got a good dose of Zealotry of the Highest Order. Use your feet to run! Just protect them when conditions merit a bit of protection. And when conditions are ripe, kick off the kicks and let the toes (s)play!

  2. kddubb
    June 10, 2012

    As I’ve continued to run barefoot over the years I have to agree with you more and more. I have to admit that I resembled the remark about the “new barefooter” zealots. I’m much more balanced in my approach now when talking with others.

    However, I believe sometimes that it takes the extremes for people to see what is possible and push past the status quo. I’m so glad that I stuck to my “shoes are cheating” guns for long enough to push past many of the limits I never would have if I’d transitioned directly to minimal shoes. Luckily for me, I pre-date the “craze” so there were only make-shift minimal shoes out anyway.

    kddubb

  3. Angie Bee
    June 10, 2012

    I do what makes sense for the situation. As far as barefoot goes, it’s te best way to learn good form. After that the it’s up to terrain and circumstance. It’s not bloody rocket science but we silly little humans make things difficult. Relax, keep trying to better oneself and try not to be a douche.

    I have adds on my blog but monetizing a blog is a learning experience in itself hat is worth more than the money. I am a barefoot runner that digs shoes. Meh.

    Hell I think I might turn this comment into a blog post :)

  4. niki_in_france
    June 10, 2012

    I love how this post starts out about running, then in true Jason style, transcends that. Also makes me think of the Buddha, who taught that the way to enlightenment is the middle way ‘as a path between the extremes of austerities and sensual indulgence’. Thanks Jason for pointing out we should be applying this to running shoes (or not)!

    As a reply to the topic of the post after years of struggling with runner’s knee I ran in VFFs. Fixed the knee and for the first time in my life I could run as much as I wanted! I came down with a very severe case of Barefoot Running Exuberance Syndrome, fractured my cuboid, didn’t stop, got a horrible case of posterior tibial tendinitis. I haven’t been able to run much since. I am sure that in barefeet I wouldn’t have over done things that much because the skin on my feet wouldn’t have let me. I am slowly starting again, and am trying to run as much truly barefoot as possible.

  5. Tyler Hurst
    June 10, 2012

    Wear what works best for your feet in context of the surface you are running on.

    Period.

  6. Shane
    June 9, 2012

    While I think of myself as a barefoot runner, I mostly run in Trail Gloves.

    Why? In Texas, where I am, when running weather comes along so does the Texas sun, which turns every running surface around me into something that melts skin. Seriously, I burned the bottoms of my feet walking from pool to pool at a waterpark in the last week of May. I can usually get a few sessions out in the spring before it gets really hot, but after that I need something.

    Not saying it can’t be done, but it requires more time and effort than I have at the moment, so its easier to slip the gloves on and go for a run.

    And that’s the crux of it. Most of the people I run with don’t want to be bothered with dogma, we want results. I found what works well for me, and there is no shame in that.

    There is something to that “different tools for different terrain” line of thinking.

    • Tyler Hurst
      June 10, 2012

      I’d love to run barefoot all the time, or even in my Vibram sprints.

      Living in AZ prevents that for about half the year.

      So if I wear my Skoras (8.5mm total sole vs 3.5 for the Vibrams, but also zero drop), am I selling out or am I just wearing the most appropriate shoe type for the running surface?

  7. Wiglaf
    June 9, 2012

    I think what a lot of people don’t realize today is that the argument they use for their logic is fallacious. The slippery slope argument IS a fallacious argument.

    Anyway, ran my first Trail Double Marathon- the Yankee Springs race (my first Ultra race). I started in vivobarefoot breathos. Feet were really sore after 26.2, so I switched to New Balance MT20v1 which have a small heel drop and a bit of cushioning. Wow. My feet thanked me, were no longer sore and my achilles thanked me too. If I took the zero tolerance approach to minimal shoes, my suffering would have been more awesome. Instead, my last lap was my fastest.

  8. Barefoot Josh
    June 9, 2012

    I’ll post race results on a shoe company’s facebook page (well, Merrell’s anyway), but not because I’m trying to be effective or land a sponsorship deal. I just assume, in my absurd little fantasy world, that the world is dying to know my race times.

    • Bare Lee
      June 10, 2012

      Nice web page Josh! I think I will start following your race times . . .

  9. Bare Lee
    June 9, 2012

    Great post, as always. I continue to be amazed at your prolific output and insight.

    I don’t think there’s any problem with supporting minimalist shoe companies, as long as they do not engage in questionable marketing to promote their minimalist shoes. But that’s true for all companies. Sell your vitamins, but don’t say they’re better than an apple, rather, ‘supplemental.’

  10. Tim
    June 9, 2012

    Where do those of us in the barefoot is great but may not be for all people land in this? One of the comments in the BRS discussion really bugged me: ‘anyone who discourages bfr should be banned [from the BRS].’

    I ran barefoot, 99% exclusively for a year. I did all the steps, followed all the advice, etc. I got hurt in a way that was totally barefoot related (huaraches would have likely helped that day), and cannot run bare or even minimal any longer. God knows I’ve tried for the last 6 months, with nothing but pain as a result. I’ve returned to ‘foot coffins’ with a keen focus on good form and have been able, finally, to string together weeks of running without pain or injury. When I mentioned it on BRS, one of the first responses was along the lines of ‘you just need to work on your form.’ It isn’t that simple; I know me, I know my body and I know what feels right for me and my body. I love the community of the BRS, and I get that it is a bf/min-centric place, but stuff like this makes it hard to support that community sometimes. Does it have to be all or nothing?

    My belief is that barefoot and minimal running can be great, but it is not for all. My voice of experience may be helpful to a burgeoning barefoot runner, and could prevent injury from feeling they have to keep pushing to meet an ideal. I would hope all perspectives would be welcome, as long as the points are made in constructive and respectful ways. If that position makes me unwelcome in the circles of the BRS, I can live with it; it just seems a sad way to go.

    I still seek the middle ground….

    Lomad

    • Bare Lee
      June 9, 2012

      Lomad, my brother,

      You said:

      “One of the comments in the BRS discussion really bugged me: ‘anyone who discourages bfr should be banned [from the BRS].’”

      That’s my comment, as you know, and what I meant by it is that any society supporting BFR should do nothing to discourage its practice. That’s different from telling people it’s the only one true way to good running. That’s something I believe everyone has to determine for themselves, for whatever reason or motive (health, aesthetics, pleasure, performance, etc.). Barefoot running is already a big conceptual leap for most people (although some of us jump right in at the first chance), so I do believe it’s important for it to be given a fair hearing. I would never argue for sweeping some of the risks or drawbacks inherent to BFR under the carpet. That would be just as detrimental as exaggerating the dangers of puncture wounds.

      • Bare Lee
        June 9, 2012

        Also, I read somewhere that heavily cushioned stability shoes might actually be an excellent way to heal some of the stress reactions people get from barefoot running–they have been afterall, compared to soft casts–so even if you have no intention of trying barefoot running again, or simply can’t, someone who may know a little more than us (wish I could remember the source) endorses your return to a bigger shoe.

        • Tim
          June 9, 2012

          I remember reading that somewhere (ahh..the proverbial somewhere of my memory banks)as well. It may well be true, and my experience is supportive 9bad pun) of that idea.

          I’m getting itchy feet, so I may be making brief forays into barefoot as my foot feels better on a regular basis. Very cautiously, of course…

          • NickW
            June 10, 2012

            Be careful Lomad, no need to set yourself back again… Better to just enjoy running and quit beating yourself up about bfr or shoddie running. Kinda leaning more towards minimalist running myself lately. By the way, I hurt my foot while barefoot running yesterday so am now back to shoddie for a few days or more again. Same injury as before I started bfr I think, possibly arthritis, not sure but hurts like hell.

          • Bare Lee
            June 10, 2012

            Maybe just try walking barefoot from time to time, and see how that goes?

      • Tim
        June 9, 2012

        sounds good, Lee. it just caught me ‘off’ as i read it. As always, things make more sense with further discussion.

        • Bare Lee
          June 10, 2012

          I’m a big believer in giving all blog/forum comments a charitable interpretations. We write fast when we should be doing something else. But for BRS to endorse a company that discourages BFR seems like a pretty obvious no-no. That fails on purely logical grounds, no purism necessary. It’s like a free weights strength-training society telling people free weights are too dangerous, better to use Nautilus machines. If you really believe what you’re doing is too dangerous, or that there’s a better alternative (for everyone, all the time, everywhere), why bother forming a society?

          • Tim
            June 10, 2012

            I get it completely on the basis of advertisers who don’t truly encourage barefoot running. That’s a core value of the site/organization. I think we agree in spirit, which is all that really matters in the end:)

    • Bare Lee
      June 10, 2012

      BTW, the exact quote was: “I would ban anyone who discourages people from trying BFR.” Note I only asking that people ‘try’ it, see if they like it, like green eggs and ham. Sorry for obsessing on this, but after my criticism of IS’s ‘better-than-barefoot’ slogan and scare tactics, I feel like I’ve somehow become pigeonholed as some kind of barefoot purist.

      • Bare Lee
        June 10, 2012

        I.e., you tried it, gave it a chance, it didn’t work out, I’m satisfied.

      • Tim
        June 10, 2012

        You’re right. I did over-personalize your comment. No need to defend this with me:). I totally get it and I don’t find you to be ‘purist’ at all; I get your concern with the marketing of ‘better than barefoot’ on a pro-barefoot site.

  11. Chris Yow
    June 9, 2012

    Nice article and good points. I’m guilty of being a little too anal-retentive at times, and can fall into the trap of being right about something while losing sight of the bigger picture.

    But I was confused by your closing point.
    “It’s infinitely more difficult to find the point of peak effectiveness in that vast middle ground.”

    Isn’t the middle ground between the two extreme positions exactly where the peak effectiveness lies?

    • Jason
      June 9, 2012

      Chris- thanks for the comment. I changed the last line to make it a little more clear. ;-)