Honestly, it’s getting hard to tell all these barefoot running books apart nowadays – and sometimes it seems like authors need to have either a remarkable story or some eye-raising claims in order to get noticed. Michael Sandler has both, and his Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth is probably one of the most interesting reads on the subject that I’ve encountered so far.
First, the backstory: Sandler was a professional-level cyclist and inline skater before suffering a freak accident during a training session that quickly developed into a near-death crisis. Several surgeries and an extensive rehab process later, he was left with a titanium rod in his femur and a significant leg length discrepancy, and he was told that he’d never be able to run again.
Sandler defiantly tried to run, but had multiple recurrent injuries that couldn’t be solved by orthotics or modern shoe technology. It wasn’t until he started going barefoot that his pain dissipated, and he gradually increased the frequency and duration of his barefoot running until he no longer had any use for shoes.
Today Sandler runs 10 to 20 barefoot miles per day, on all kinds of terrain. He also founded a website called RunBare, which has become one of the best online resources for novice and experienced barefooters. He has coached elite level athletes for more than 20 years, and continues to instruct athletes of all abilities who want to improve their efficiency through natural running techniques.
In other words, there aren’t too many more dedicated or authoritative barefoot advocates out there. And when it comes to the pure mechanics of barefoot running, his book is probably the best overall manual I’ve seen. The central focus of Barefoot Running is several chapters that explain the anatomy, biomechanics, proper technique, progression, and complimentary drills and exercises associated with starting or refining your barefoot running. All of them are simply excellent.
I also mentioned some eye-raising claims, and there are plenty to choose from in the beginning and closing segments of the book. Some of Sandler’s positions I very much appreciate, while others I find quite far-fetched.
We may as well get the bad parts out of the way first: in his book, Sandler makes a lot of claims that strike me as either pseudo-scientific or way too New Age-y for my liking. For example, he spends a lot of time talking about becoming “grounded”, and how the simple act of taking your shoes off can have a tangible impact on your overall well-being by equalizing your body with the polarity of the Earth. Among other things, he claims that being barefoot can help you sleep better, regulate your hormonal cycles, accelerate recovery from trauma, decrease chronic inflammation, decrease chronic pain, and prevent musculoskeletal injury. He says going barefoot connects us to Schumann Resonances, and throws around terms like electro-pollution and geopathic stress to explain how going barefoot keeps our bodies healthier by becoming synchronized with the planet.
Knowing Sandler’s experience, it’s easy to see why he believes in the all-healing capacity of going barefoot, but it seems like a step too far in terms of what’s actually provable. Sandler also voices a strong spirituality in his barefoot exploits, but it’s along the lines of simply being meditative in the moment or tapping into “The Source” of energy and life. While I completely identify with the spiritual impact that running (barefoot or otherwise) offers, my own beliefs differ from Sandler’s, so these spiritual allusions mean something completely different to me than they do to him.
However, there are a lot of things I like about Sandler’s philosophy of barefoot running. First and foremost, he preaches the need to progress extremely slowly and cautiously, and emphasizes the risk of injury and the importance of frequent rest periods to let your body accommodate to the new stresses placed upon it. He’s also very blunt about just how much a moderately fast shod runner will have to slow down in order to properly run barefoot, and acknowledges how frustrating and potentially deal-breaking this aspect might be. From personal experience, this was one of the biggest obstacles for me in my barefoot progression, so I always cringe when I read books or articles suggesting that going barefoot is a magic bullet, and if you just get rid of your shoes, your running will quickly or automatically improve. It's not nearly that easy or certain, and Sandler points both of those caveats out.
Sandler also scores high marks with me for recognizing that there are times when barefoot running isn’t safe or appropriate for the conditions, and that there are some runners who will be just as content and satisfied by wearing minimalist footwear. He is clear that his own preference is to go barefoot, but he doesn’t have any problem with runners who stick with minimalist footwear without any interest in losing the shoes entirely. He realizes that going completely barefoot doesn't have to be the end destination for everybody - but this contradicts some other barefoot gurus (e.g., Barefoot Ken Bob) who believe that going “naked” is superior in every way, and that even minimalist shoes like Vibrams are agents of destruction.
In fact, there’s a whole chapter devoted to considerations of using minimalist footwear; it's one of many aspects of Sandler’s book that I’d recommend. Even though I found some portions objectionable, there’s far more to like here than not. Barefoot Running is available for $12.40 from Amazon.com and is also available in Kindle format, and it would be a standout selection in your expanding inventory of barefoot instructional books.
Additionally, in conjunction with this review, the publisher has agreed to provide a copy of Barefoot Running to one lucky reader. Leave a comment below this post to enter, and I’ll announce the winner on Saturday, October 22. Thanks very much to Random House Publishing, and good luck to everybody!
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