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November 2, 2010

The Barefoot Running Book Review

I think it’s safe to say that barefooters are becoming more recognized in the running community, even if we’re still regarded as the weird nonconformists of the family. However, a couple of years ago it was considered complete lunacy by mainstream observers, which caused barefoot practitioners to seek security in each other’s company, often through online forums.

The most popular of these was the Runner's World barefoot forum, which is where I turned when starting down the road (so to speak) of my own barefoot journey. Like any forum, members came and went, and it was often hard to discern meaningful information amongst the chatter, but there were a few people who emerged as reliable sources of in-depth, practical and effective advice about starting as a barefoot runner. One of those people was Jason Robillard.

Jason was the author of several “start here” threads with comprehensive information to frequently asked questions about getting started as a barefoot runner. He also teaches barefoot running clinics in and around his Michigan hometown. When the volume of inquiries he received increased, and the level of detail needed for proper answers expanded, he began communicating similar information through his Barefoot Running University website, and eventually through The Barefoot Running Book.

Now in its second edition, The Barefoot Running Book is basically a very long “start here” thread for someone who has never run a step in his life, someone who has never cast off his shoes in public, or anybody who has never done either. Jason takes you by the hand and explains in great detail nearly every consideration of becoming a barefoot runner.

His approach is extremely methodical, which can be a plus or a drawback, depending on your point of view. My own experience with starting barefoot running was pretty simple – I just took off my shoes and tried it one day. Jason takes beginners through a veeeeeery gradual buildup, with a whole series of “pre-running” activities such as foot exercises, deep breathing awareness, wall drills, and walking in place. If you’re somebody who likes to read step by step specifics in the instruction manual before trying your new camera or smartphone, you’ll really love his approach; if you’re someone who just turns the gadget on and figures it out on the fly, you can probably skip a few of these early lessons. (Yes, I’m in the latter group.)

I did find two points of instruction that were extremely helpful for me: the idea of a “foot kiss” on the ground instead of foot strike - or visualizing a very gentle touchdown and immediate liftoff of each step - and focusing on increased cadence to improve running speed. This second item was of particular interest for me, as I’ve been experimenting lately with improving my baseline speed in minimalist footwear (separate post coming later), a process that has been very frustrating at times. Keeping these two thoughts in mind seemed to help me through some of my recent speed workouts.

One of the things I appreciate most about Jason’s instruction is how reasonable he seems to be in the context of the whole “barefoot or minimalist or shod?” debate. By now we’re probably all aware that there are some crazies on either side of this issue who have no tolerance for anyone who differs with them: barefooters who will scream at you for even mentioning Vibrams, or shod runners who call you a lunatic for following the “fad” of downsizing your footwear. (It gets even crazier: even among barefoot purists, there’s debate over which method of running is correct – Chi, Pose, Evolution, Alexander and so on. You wouldn’t believe some of the nuances people go to war over sometimes.)

Thankfully, Jason recognizes that what works best for one person might not be best for another. He doesn’t preach adherence to one particular method, and expresses understanding for those who prefer minimalist running to going predominantly barefoot. He even concedes that for some people, there may be no reason to give up your shoes in the first place. I know this seems like common sense, but believe me, it’s a precious commodity among some barefoot advocates.

The second half of the book revisits Jason’s accomplishment of running a 100-miler, and dovetails into basic training advice for anyone who wants to get started in trail running and ultras. Then you’ll find an assortment of running and cross-training programs for various road or trail racing goals, and several excerpts from other prominent barefooters’ books and websites. As with the barefoot instruction, Jason’s overall training approach is very methodical and would be effective for a novice runner – but I have to say I found this portion of the book somewhat disjointed. It seemed like the barefoot topic was set aside in favor of a general training guide that wasn’t necessarily related.

I suspect (although I’m not certain) that this was the material added to the second edition, and it’s not grossly out of place – after all, ultrarunners and barefoot runners are actually kindred spirits in many ways. However, the second half of the book jumps from one topic to another rather incongruously, somewhat like walking through a nice little house that’s had a lot of new rooms built onto it here and there. No individual component is particularly objectionable, but the parts don’t flow very smoothly into a cohesive whole.

That’s a stylistic objection on my part – but on the whole, Jason has very sound, practical advice to share, and The Barefoot Running Book would be an effective tool for anyone interested in starting from scratch to become a barefoot runner. It is available from BarnesandNoble.com as well as directly from his website.

*Book provided by Jason Robillard
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Fitz 11/3/10, 6:23 AM  

With its focus on barefoot running, trail, and ultra running, it sounds like a companion book to "Born to Run" by Christopher Mcdougall.

If the barefoot sections are only half of the book and then it transitions to his ultra experience and a training guide, does that mean he only had barefoot running material for half of a book? Nonetheless, it sounds like a very complete guide for a beginner runner. Thanks for the review!

Laurel 11/3/10, 2:39 PM  

I don't want to step on anyone's toes (ha-ha) but I never imagined that barefoot runners felt like non-conformists. I think of barefoot running as rather trendy! My husband runs in Timberland work boots and I don't think he feels like a non-conformist. It's just what works for him. Good book reveiw, I'll check it out.

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