Don’t think, feel (review of The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard)


One of the biggest hills to climb for any human being is actually noticing what is happening around you.

photo by flickr user paperskye, used under creative commons, see

It’s not an easy task. People are deeply, instinctively attracted to theories and legends and plans. They want to be part of a story that makes their existence meaningful. And no matter how deep or shallow that identity is–from being part of a 5000-year old religion to following the latest, greatest version of the grapefruit diet– the ideology tends to occlude as much as it explains. It makes us ignore the experience of our senses. And occasionally it makes us insufferable new converts, robotically parroting the party line, immune to any new input, whether we’re born again Christians or diehard Apple or Linux users. (Is anyone a diehard Microsoft user?)

That’s why I was so pleased with a new book about the hot-button topic of the day: barefoot running. Barefoot running has been lighting up flame wars on fitness blogs and the Runner’s World forums for the last year (where I admit I’ve been spending way too much time). The main topic of contention is ostensibly which form of running (barefoot or “shod”) is more natural or suited to our existence today, and less likely to cause injury. However, my gut feeling is that the likeliness of injury is individualistic–and the passion in this argument is not so much about medicine but instead about a clash of personality types.

My own individual experience comes down very much on the barefoot side. When I started running, in thick motion control shoes, I was trying to lose weight, and running was painful and miserable. I was injuring myself and going to physical therapy. I tried to blast through the discomfort by cranking up my mp3 player. I didn’t lose any weight on that plan. Then I learned an “alternative” running form called chiRunning, but used thinner shoes. I didn’t lose any weight this way, either but at least I stopped hurting myself. Then I dedicated myself to running barefoot, and actually started enjoying running. I found the mp3 player was a distraction; it was more fun to listen to my feet and the birds. And I stopped trying so hard to lose weight.

Here was the turning point. I had a weekend to myself, and I found myself saying, “Oh boy, a whole weekend with no responsibilities! I’m going to treat myself to 6 miles in the mud and a beer afterwards!” I looked forward to figuring out a path through the rocks; I looked forward to the feeling of mud between my toes; I looked forward to adapting and flowing by whatever obstacles were out there on the trail.

When that train of thought crossed my mind I knew I had become a different person. Running had stopped being a “workout” and started being a way I learned to appreciate my own body and notice the world around me. I don’t seem to be the only one feeling this way.

by flickr user marylkayoe, used under creative commons, see

Jason Robillard’s The Barefoot Running Book is a guide to discovering that kind of running. It’s a simple how-to guide to adapting your body and mind to run barefoot. I don’t disagree with a single sentence of his advice, so I won’t repeat it here, but I think this book is especially relevant to anyone who is an experienced runner and wants to switch to barefoot or minimal shoes. My gut feeling is that the transition will be harder for those runners, because they’ve spent years doing it a different way.

What’s remarkable about the book is what it doesn’t talk about. It’s an embodiment of the real idea of barefoot running, which to me isn’t about shoes (or lack thereof) but making running a discovery rather than a trial. Robillard doesn’t claim to be a champion runner or a martial arts master, or curiously, even claim to be very good at anything. There are no diagrams of the perfect form. There is no talk of winning. Only in the last chapter is there anything resembling a standard running training plan with mileage counts and so on. Instead there are short paragraphs about key concepts, such as running lightly and using a higher cadence. The prose is mostly plain and artless, but it is 100% clear and (this is the great thing about his style) functions as a perfect setup for an occasional jokey aside. When running like a ninja, he advises, “it is not advisable to actually dress like a ninja.” The author does not take himself too seriously, which shows that he just might be the perfect teacher.

In a world where everyone is so much holier-than-thou, telling you what’s wrong with your body and how badly you’re taking care of it, this book gives you a little glimpse of what it’s like to be free of all that. That matters a lot more than exactly what you’re wearing on your feet.

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