An Education In Losing Your Shoes

Barefoot running expert Jason Robillard tells us the right way to run with nothing on your feet.

Interview by: Mario Fraioli

Ultramarathon runner and barefoot running expert Jason Robillard knows a thing or two about shedding your shoes. An educator by trade, Robillard has been teaching novice and experienced runners the right way to run without shoes for the last two years. Author of The Barefoot Running Book, Robillard founded the Barefoot Running University website, an online information hub focused on barefoot running education.He also writes for his own Barefoot Chronicles blog and is the co-founder of of the Barefoot Runners Society, a national non-profit organization aimed at promoting and educating people about barefoot and minimalist running.

Competitor.com recently caught up with Robillard and discussed his book and website, along with his thoughts on the barefoot running movement, Chris McDougall’s Born To Run, the relationship between running shoes and injuries, along with some tips on how to run properly without shoes on your feet.

Competitor.com: Tell me a little bit about your website, Barefoot Running University.

Jason Robillard: Barefoot Running University (http://www.barefootrunninguniversity.com) started as a medium to document my transition to barefoot running back in 2006.  Since there was so little information available online, I wanted it to be used as a resource for others.  Eventually I combined it with my ultramarathon site (The Ultramarathon Store) to create the resource it is today.

And you have a book out as well, The Barefoot Running Book. How and when did the idea for this come about?

The Barefoot Running Book started as a series of blog posts and other assorted writings tossed together as a printed resource for my barefoot running workshop attendees in November of 2009.  Some of my friends started requesting the packet, so I started refining it.  For simplicity, I had some friends help me design it in book form.  That became the first edition.  It turned out to be much more popular than expected, so I assembled a team of professional book publishers and designers to help create the second edition.  I took the basic transition plan from the first edition, expanded on many of my own ideas, and added contributions from many experts in the field… people like “Barefoot Ted” McDonald, Barefoot Rick Roeber, Dr. Dan Lieberman, Dr. Michael Nirenberg, Dr. Joeseph Froncioni, Al Gauthier and Tina DuBois from The Living Barefoot Show, etc.

Speaking of books, there has been one, Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run, which has become the bible of the barefoot movement in the last two years. How instrumental, or influential, has that book become to barefoot runners?

The book has been extraordinarily influential.  The vast majority of new barefoot and minimalist shoe runners were introduced to the ideas in Born to Run.  The book is influential because McDougall presents a plausible case against the modern running shoe.  Even though it was just one of several themes, the book has become synonymous with barefoot running; unfortunately McDougall did not offer much actual advice for runners interested in transitioning to a more minimal shoe.  Many runners, after reading the book, will enthusiastically ditch their traditional running shoes without really understanding the effects it will have on their body.  The result is a rash of overuse injuries we affectionately call TMTS (too much too soon).

McDougall says that running shoes as we have come to know them are the biggest cause of overuse injuries. Do you tend to agree with that statement?

Yes and no.  For some runners, their choice in shoes definitely contributes to injury.  This could be the result of the runner not using the correct shoe.  Of course, the shoe-fitting process itself is suspect.  There have been a few influential studies published in the last two years that would suggest the modern shoe does nothing to reduce injuries.  For me, the real telling research is the recently published research co-authored by Nike researcher Gordon Valiant.  The research concluded that “…this study suggests that our current approach of prescribing in-shoe pronation control systems on the basis of foot type is overly simplistic and potentially injurious.”  I think this research firmly supports McDougall’s assertion and places Nike in an excellent position to abandon the the motion-control running shoe paradigm in favor of a simpler, more minimal shoe.

Having said that, many runners do run injury-free in modern running shoes.  While it is tempting to want to frame this as a shod-versus-barefoot debate, that’s overly simplistic.  Running is a complex movement involving many variables.  Runners should experiment with different ideas to find what works best for them.  I quote George Sheehan frequently in my book, and I think his “We’re an experiment of one” quote perfectly sums up the debate.  McDougall succeeded by convincing an entire generation of runners to critically examine the relationship between injuries and shoes.  For many of us, moving to a minimal shoe or even barefoot has eliminated many of the injuries we experienced when running in modern running shoes.

What do you feel is the most misunderstood or misinterpreted part of the barefoot running movement?

I think the barefoot running movement is sometimes perceived as a group of fanatical zealots bent on convincing the masses to burn their shoes.  For those of us that have been at this for awhile, we understand that the majority of the running population has little or no interest in running barefoot.  We are interested in teaching people how to run with good form, which will subsequently reduce injuries.  Barefoot running is one of the tools that can be used to teach good form.

There are barefoot runners that will be overly excited about barefoot running.  In almost every case, these are runners that experienced a long history of injuries and failed treatments.  They try barefoot running and their injuries immediately disappear.  I encounter this on a regular basis.  The runners understandably attribute the “miraculous” cure to running without shoes.  Wrapped in enthusiasm, they will then recommend barefoot running to anyone and everyone, even those that have no injury issues.  In reality, there may be other contributing factors such as a reduction in training volume, the introduction of rest days, and changes in gait.  Part of my goal as an educator is to fully explain why barefoot running reduces injuries.

Who can benefit from running barefoot? And who shouldn’t run barefoot?

With the exception of runners that suffer from a neurological or circulatory disability, I think barefoot running can benefit every runner.  It is an excellent method to learn good running form.  It increases proprioception and tactile awareness.  It strengthens the bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles of the feet and legs.  All of these benefits can be realized with as little as a few miles of barefoot running each week.

Some runners will choose to run barefoot the majority of the time.  I fall into this category.  I do it mostly because I love to feel the ground as I run.  It introduces an entirely new dimension to running that I find immensely enjoyable.  For some runners, it will add a new challenge to a stale routine.  It really brings a child-like joy to running.

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