I just read a news story about a guy who won a 10k race wearing nothing but a pair of Barefoot Ted’s Luna Sandals. This got me thinking about the hype surrounding barefoot running and minimalist footwear. At first glance, it could appear that avid barefoot and minimalist runners would have you believe that running barefoot (or going “light”) is the secret to better race times, injury-free running, and eternal youth. At times, it feels like this is an overarching theme in the barefoot running community – that all you need to do is stop wearing shoes and everything else will be taken care of. It’s as if the decision to go barefoot is the Holy Grail of running – curing every ailment, boosting all aspects of performance, and making the whole world a better place. Quite the romantic idea!
Well, I hate to burst your blister, but it doesn’t work that way. Running barefoot (or minimalist) is only a tiny fraction of the total running experience, and only a small contributor to successful running. Sometimes, going barefoot even does more harm than good. The most important thing is that people are informed of all their options and the possible resulting consequences of each decision they make.
The Four Pillars of Successful Running:
There’s a lot that goes into successful running. Of course, the phrase “successful running” is subjective and interpreted differently by many people. Some runners are successful when they win a race, and others are successful if the decide to get off their butts and go for a jog some Sunday afternoon. Every person defines successful running differently, but there are a few constants that I think apply to everyone.
1) Being able to run efficiently and therefore avoid experiencing pain or injury. Injuries from running obviously indicate unsuccessful running, no matter who you are or why you run. If you’re an injured runner, you’re an unsuccessful runner. What you’ve been doing isn’t working for you, and it’s time to re-evaluate. This also means that the majority of runners are unsuccessful (I’ve been there!).
2) Not only being able to avoid pain and injury, but also using running as a health and fitness improving activity. Running shouldn’t hurt us. It should make us healthier, fitter, and stronger – both physically and mentally.
3) Being able to run effectively, and therefore be able to achieve personal performance goals each and every run – even if that goal doesn’t involve breaking a new personal record.
Those are the logical pillars, but I’d like to add one more that doesn’t technically qualify, but I still think is absolutely important.
4) Not only receiving personal satisfaction after you’ve completed each run, but also enjoying each run in the present. If you have achieved the above 3 pillars, but still don’t enjoy running, then you’re not a truly successful runner in my book – at least not in the spirit of Physical Living.
Those four pillars can serve as a bare minimum of what must be involved in order for a run to be considered successful. There are certainly other variables that can apply, but these are the very basics. The rest are just details. Of course, some people would have you believe otherwise…
Cute commercial, huh? That guy Mars almost sold me…
Obviously, Michael Jordan is one of the best basketball players who has ever lived because of a ton of different reasons – not just because he wears Nike shoes. Let’s see here… he’s tall and otherwise genetically gifted for basketball. Oh, and there’s that very minor issue of spending his ENTIRE LIFE practicing and perfecting his sport, starting when he was five years old! There’s a myriad of reasons why Jordan has excelled.
Here’s the thing: that same commercial could have been done for the guy who won the 10k race wearing Luna Sandals – or for any successful barefoot or minimalist runner. Just swap Sweeney for Jordan, and have Mars say “It’s gotta be the Sandals!”
There’s so much emphasis on footwear selection that it’s easy to forget the rest of what makes running successful. Things like running skills practice and running-specific conditioning, incremental progression, good joint range of motion and strength in extreme ranges, no excess tension in and around the working joints, a low-stress lifestyle, adequate sleep, excellent nutrition, and personal satisfaction from running. The actual equipment used while running is only a small piece of the puzzle. Footwear selection is like the last 2% of the equation, though anyone who sells said items would never admit it.
The truth is that there’s no secret to superior performance in any physical activity, and especially with running. It takes a lot of discipline, hard work, and persistence to succeed. Success is not something that can be purchased, but something that must be practiced.
Let’s not forget the big picture. In the fitness industry especially, we have a tendency of looking at issues through a microscope, when we should really be using a telescope to view the whole landscape. The secret to successful running is not summed up in footwear choice, or the lack thereof. Successful running is built upon a diverse foundation with many different aspects of varying importance. It’s not as simple as “go barefoot and everything else will fall into place.” That advice is short-sighted and can even be dangerous. Yet, it’s being proclaimed on barefoot running blogs and forums all over the Internet!
Shoes vs Barefoot: It’s not black and white
Some people can and would benefit from running or walking/hiking barefoot, and a lot of people absolutely love it – myself included. In fact, I think most people would benefit. However, some people definitely should not be going minimalist or barefoot at all because of pre-existing conditions or special circumstances. The issue is not simple, and it’s definitely not black and white. Regardless, anyone who decides to go barefoot or minimalist should be extremely cautious when making the transition over several weeks, months, and even years.
The Bottom Line
We should view shoes in two different lights. On one hand, shoes protect our feet and allow us to do things that we otherwise couldn’t do (or couldn’t do as well). On the other hand, shoes also make us dependent on wearing shoes – they’re a crutch that supports our own inadequacies. This is also true of other common fitness equipment such as gloves, straps, wraps, lifting belts, knee and elbow braces, and weight lifting chalk among other things. Using items like these makes us dependent on them, and therefore less able to perform without them. In some cases, it’s clearly better to use a crutch, but it always depends on your intended goals.
So, it’s important to weigh both the costs and the benefits when choosing so-called performance or health-enhancing equipment, and especially footwear. We should ask ourselves, “will this really help me more than it will cost me?” Another good question to ask is, “what’s the absolute minimum I need to successfully achieve my goal?”
As my friend and minimalist footwear expert, Damien Tougas, points out so well: Shoes are neither angels nor demons, Shoes Are Tools.
CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT
Barefoot Runner Since 2009