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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review of "The Barefoot Running Book" by Jason Robillard

I don't do anything for free.  So here's my opening disclaimer for this review: I received a copy of this book for free from Jason Robillard.  I have also agreed to be an affiliate to distribute this book on my blog, and make a whopping $2 off of each book sale that goes through my site.  As this will be very lucrative for me, I have already quit my job and bought an ocean-front mansion right next to Harrison Ford.  I figure he'll be a great neighbor. 

I owned this book book before I reviewed it, and paid the retail price.  There...full disclosure.  On to more important things...

Back when I first started barefoot running, there wasn't a lot of information out there on the topic.  Pretty much the only one who you could go to with your questions was this guy:

Now I'm not above getting advice from a Furbie with feet.  In fact, Ken Bob Saxon's website (high school class picture above), The Running Barefoot, has an encyclopedia's worth of information on the topic.  If the barefoot running "movement" were every to anoint its Godfather, it would probably be him.  However, I was always turned off by his website because it is horrible to navigate.  Also, his writing style came off as kind of holier than thou. 

Then, in early 2009 I stumbled upon the blog of Jason Robillard, which at the time was called The Barefoot Chronicles.  For those of you who don't know Jason, he is a thirty-something high school teacher and barefoot runner from Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He has been barefoot running since around 1992 (with most of his serious barefoot training coming after 2005), and a minimalist/barefoot ultrarunner since 2007.   

I identified with Jason immediately, mostly because he is like me in a lot of ways.  No, he's not as good looking, charming, or as talented as me.  That's just a given.  But he is an aspiring ultra marathon runner in his 30s.  He has a wife named Shelly and three children.  He has a penchant for running with goofy facial hairstyles and costumes.  And, posts like his Ultramarathons for Lazy Runners series, shows that he puts the same "B- effort" that I do into everything he does. 

Jason Robillard: the man, the mission, the sideburns...


Behold!  The man who will help you get funky with your barefoot running. 

If Ken Bob is the Godfather of the barefoot running "movement", I feel like Jason is Godfather, Part II.  He is Vito Corleone without all the hair gel and ridiculous pinstripe suits.  Now don't get me wrong, he still has questionable fashion sense.  Just look at that profile picture.  But if Ken Bob started the barefoot movement, Jason has done the most to make it popular. 

Okay fine.  Christopher McDougall is probably responsible for making barefoot running wildly popular.  But try calling him up with a question about running form.  It's not going to happen.  Jason isn't necessarily the foremost authority on barefoot running, but in my opinion he's done more than any other popular figure to be accessible to the barefoot community and provide information on the subject; many times free of charge. 

I don't think you have to look very far on the interwebs to discover that this is true.  Jason is a regular contributor on the Runner's World Barefoot Forum.  In fact, he answered my very first question about barefoot running back in early 2009.  He is a co-founder of the Barefoot Runners Society.  He has done dozens of interviews and articles on the subject, most recently for The Competitor.  And he recently helped Merrell launch a new line of minimalist running shoes and a website designed to help people get started in the sport he loves.

All right...end of ass kissing.  Onto the book...

The Barefoot Running Book, First Edition

So I'm not reviewing the First Edition of Jason's book.  I'm reviewing the Second Edition.  But I think an explanation of how the Second Edition came to be is important to understanding the content, so shut up and deal with it.  I also like the cover art better than Mr. Lanky Big Ears they have on the cover of the Second Edition.  What's that you say?  That's Jason?!  I didn't recognize him without a skirt on...

Back in the Barefoot Chronicles days, Jason began a short series of articles detailing the basics of barefoot running that came to be housed in a website called Barefoot Running University (which now also serves as his blog).  These included tips on form, a plan for beginners just starting out, and advice on how to deal with common problems like injuries.  Eventually, he fleshed out these original articles and packaged them up into a book called, ever-so creatively, The Barefoot Running Book

The result was a 60-some page book that covered everything that you needed to start barefoot running.  It sold for $14.95, and was available in paperback and eBook formats.

The Barefoot Running Book, Second Edition

Buy Now

The biggest objection that I heard to the First Edition was that it was too expensive.  People said that for the $14.95, they wanted to see a lot more.  Personally, I'm happy to support Jason's endeavors, so the price point of the book isn't relevant to me.  Not to mention that I'm a lawyer, and therefore I have vaults of money to throw around at pretty much anything. 

Anyway, Jason answered that criticism with an 180 page Second Edition several months later at the same price point.  The new edition expanded upon the First Edition by covering several issues more in-depth.  Most notably, whereas the First Edition included a brief summary of the science behind barefoot running, the new edition expanded upon that with articles by podiatrists and other experts. 

Jason also added sections dealing with more advanced topics such as racing, crosstraining, ultramarathons, and other common issues that may come up as one develops as a barefoot runner.  Finally, to round out the book, he includes contributions from prominent barefoot runners Barefoot Ted McDonald and Barefoot Rick Roeber; as well as stories from his own experiences with barefoot running and ultramarathons. 


When Jason's First Edition first came out, I was somewhere between a newbie and an intermediate barefoot runner.  I could hold my own on a run, but I still had a few kinks to work out.  I purchased the book immediately after it came out, hoping it would hold the magic bullet. 

Well, it wasn't the magic bullet.  I was still a sucky, newbie barefoot runner.  But then again, I shouldn't have expected it to cure all my problems.  There isn't a book on the market that will instantly make you into a great barefoot runner.  And this book is no exception. 

Barefoot running is something that needs to be practiced and learned.  So don't read this book expecting that right after you read it you'll be able to go out, pound out a few barefoot miles, and live happily ever after.  It's not going to happen.  What you will be able to do is to sit down, finish this book in an hour or two, and start working on your barefoot running immediately.

That's why, more than any other barefoot running book I've ever read, I like Jason's the best.   

Let me explain.  Now if you've already been researching the topic of barefoot running for some time now, most of the information contained this book will be old hat to you.  You don't need to buy this book to become a good barefoot runner.  After several months of hanging around the Runner's World forum like Norm on Cheers, and Googling "barefoot running" every other day, I found this to be the case.  So I didn't learn a lot of new information in Jason's book. 

That was fine back in 2008 and 2009.  Nowadays, the problem with that approach is that every dingbat with a modem has written something about the subject.  So the information out there ranges from excellent to completely moronic.  For every great article you find about how to start barefooting, there are three websites like this, that tell you that only Kenyan cavemen with pillows taped to their feet running on the beach can go barefoot safely.  It's easy to see how a newbie could get confused. 

So in my opinion, you need to get your information from a reliable source.  No doubt there are a lot of reliable sources out there nowadays.  Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five major books that have been written, or will be written on the topic. 

What makes this books stand above all the others for me is that it gets straight to the point, gives you the information that you need, then lets you get on with life.  Instead of wandering aimlessly around the Internet, filtering out and piecing together information, a new barefoot runner can find it all in one place in Jason's book.  If that new runner is like me, they can read the book cover-to-cover in around 2 hours.  Then they can get hit the ground running on the training plan outlined in the book in the same day!  Can't beat that!

Can you find other books out there with a more robust discussion of the topic?  Sure.  There are books all over the place nowadays that will go more in-depth on the science of barefoot running, or provide more discussion of particular topics (Michael Sandler's book for example has an entire section on "meditation").  What you'll get from Jason's book is exactly what you need to be successful in the sport.

But I don't think this book is helpful only for beginners.  I've often used my copy of Jason's book as a handy reference for problems I develop along the way.  That's not just due to the convenience of having all that information in book form.  Jason's writing style is as thorough as it is easy to read. 

Again, you can find a dozen "barefoot experts" telling you to lift your feet, keep your cadence up, and not to push off.  Something about the way that Jason explained it made that advice finally sink in.  Maybe it's, as he claims, he writes at a sixth grade level.  I'd like to think that I'm smarter than that.  But then again, I don't do so well playing the home version of "Smarter Than a Fifth Grader".  It's probably because his discussion of these essential points is more detailed than I've seen elsewhere.

Second Edition added material

So for those reasons I think the above material sells the whole book by itself.  The first 80-some pages are worth the price of the book by itself. 

But after you finish the first 80-some pages, you still have another 100-ish to go.  The remaining pages are devoted to discussions of advanced topics like racing, crosstraining, and ultramarathoning.  I've read reviews of this material that critique it as disjointed.  Well, I'm not an editor, but I don't know how you could make these topics flow together.  They don't have anything in common, except that they are all things that all runners should do as they grow in the sport (okay...maybe not the ultramarathon part).  I like that Jason has made the decision to include this material in the book to help runners who are not only new barefooters, but also new runners, become well-rounded. 

That a collection of ultra marathon material, and personal stories, is a little out of place is a stronger argument.  The final section of the book details some of the experiences Jason has had with ultra marathons, and tips to get started yourself.  I see the target market for this book as beginner and intermediate barefooters.  Ultra marathoning is at least a distant dream to these folks.  As such, I think this information will go over most people's heads. 

Not that this material is wasted space.  One thing I thought that the First Edition lacked was a sense of Jason's personality.  Jason has a very light-hearted running style, and that comes through in his book.  What you don't necessarily get is that he's just an ordinary guy.  Not everyone who buys this book will have followed Jason's blog, and chatted with him on a barefoot running forum like I have done.  For those people, his advice hasn't come like it has to me; mixed in with stories about his personal life, ultra marathon adventures, and other silliness.  That sort of thing helped to endear him to his blog audience, since that's what most people like about him.  He is a normal guy who just happens to know a lot about barefoot running. 

I think that this section of his book serves the same purpose, whether intentional or unintentional.  And that's a good thing.  Again, if readers are anything like me, they are more apt to take advice from someone they can identify with. 


I have always recommended this book to folks as "the book to own" if you want to get started barefoot running.  Now that I've read the Second Edition, that opinion hasn't changed.  You can't beat it in terms of price, clear and concise content, and writing style.  I highly recommend it.



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