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Friday, April 1, 2011

MGBG on TV! And a rant about barefoot runners attempts at "marketing"

Well it didn't take long for the news media to be alerted to my presence.  It was never my intention to hide in my community anyway.  I understand that a superhero, even a local barefoot one, is a public figure.  So I wasn't surprised when my local TV news, Channel 12, contacted me for an interview.

I'll post the video here when it becomes available.  The interview just got me thinking about the way that we barefoot runners reach out to society. 

Now a large part of my blog is devoted to one gigantic "LOOK AT ME!"  But I also have something important to say.  One of those things is "give me free stuff!"  Another is "find me a paleo donut!"  But still another, probably the most important one, is about the benefits of barefoot running. 

I took on the task of writing a blog in part to heighten awareness about barefoot running in my community.  My hope was by making myself more visible in the community as a barefoot runner, that people would become interested in the sport and want to learn more.  I want people who find my site to continue on to find more out about barefoot running, either through the resources I link on my page or elsewhere.

I know that people usually get involved in barefoot running after hearing about it somewhere.  It's not something that they just go out and do one day on a whim.  So I'm always happy to do pieces like this about my favorite sport, because it's just one more way that people can get plugged in.

Overall, I think they did a good job.  I've done a few interviews now, so I know what to expect.  For the most part, the questions that they asked were pretty standard for a basic piece on barefoot running.  I thought the interviewer was well-informed on the topic, and although he didn't go very much in depth, I think he asked the right questions.   

I was a little worried during the interview that it might become more of a "hey, look at this weirdo" personal interest story.  He asked me a bunch of somewhat personal questions, like how my wife and co-workers feel about my little hobby.  I don't know that I would have agreed to participate if this was going to be a story that focused on me, and not barefoot running in general.  That's just an editorial comment, and doesn't have much to do with the point of this post.  I just want anyone who looks at the video to know that I didn't steer the interview in that direction...the interviewer did.

What got me on this train of thought is the last question the interviewer asked, which was "What else do I need to know?"  To that, I usually respond with something to the effect of "if you want to start, start slow."  This time I answered completely different.  Instead I said essentially, "Buy lighter shoes!"  I know it's not the message I'm supposed to have as an ambassador to the sport, or even as the President of the Minnesota Chapter of the Barefoot Runners Society.  But it is...and here's why.

I'm not one of those people who thinks everyone needs to go around barefoot because that's the only correct way.  Far from it.  I don't have a big problem with shoes.  Other than for running, I really don't go barefoot in my daily life.   

In fact, I think shoes are good for lots of things.  Paperweights, doorstops, dog toys...whatever you want.  Occasionally they are even good for their intended purpose.  But what barefoot running teaches us about footwear is how its design can interfere with our natural movement. 

In the context of running, my goal is to show people that "less is more".  If barefoot running does nothing else for you, it should tell you that you don't need all of that foam and rubber nonsense on your feet in order to run properly.  On the contrary, it's interfering with your ability to run.  It makes running harder, and consequently less enjoyable.  So even if you don't buy a "minimalist" shoe, you will enjoy your running more if you select a lighter shoe with a lower profile.

That's my main message to the general public.  Not barefoot is best (even though it is).  Rather...

Buy lighter shoes! 

I've mentioned this in other posts, and I will again.  I think we barefoot runners do a lousy job marketing and promoting ourselves.  That has a lot to do with our message to the general public, which as I understand it is "barefoot is best", or "barefoot first to learn proper form, then shoes".  I don't disagree with those statements.  I think they are 100% true. 

I also think that from a marketing perspective, that message is crap.  You might get through to a very small handful of people...mostly uber-handsome, hyper-intelligent people like myself.  But for the most part, the average person doesn't want to hear it.  I do these interviews and end up answering the same questions like, "Don't you worry about stepping on broken glass/hypodermic needles/orphaned puppies?"  And there's a reason for that.  The vast majority of people in this world view barefoot running as gross and dangerous.

So leading with the message "barefoot is best" is selling iceboxes to Eskimos.  I understand that this message is correct, and we're only saying what is best for people.  But people don't want what we're selling, so they aren't going to listen.  It's like when you tell people in a destructive relationship "what they need to hear".  They go running back to Johnny Douchebag because they're not ready to hear what you have to say yet.

Minimalist shoe companies on the other hand are doing a great job of marketing their products.  They take our message and spin it by saying, "These shoes are like barefoot, but better!"  They make the claim that their shoes have all the benefits of barefoot running, with none of the downsides (i.e. no contact the icky, dangerous ground).  We in the barefoot community know that this claim is a small dose of bullshit.  It's not all false.  Minimalist shoes do promote better form than normal trainers.  But barefoot is best to teach you  correct form.

The problem is that "minimalist is good...barefoot is better" is a nuanced point.  People generally come to barefoot running with two conflicting lines of thought.  On one hand, after researching the topic they are beginning to realize that heel striking is bad for them.  On the other, they still have an irrational fear of the ground.  In the vast majority of cases, it seems those lines of thought lead people to believe that minimalist shoes are their best first option.  They might recognize that barefoot running would lead them to absolute 100% perfect form.  But who needs perfect form?  They'd rather make a trade-off in perceived comfort. 

This is exactly what I thought as a noob by the way.  So I don't think I'm completely off base. 

So despite our nagging voice in their ear, these noobs go out and buy a pair of Vibram Fivefingers.  Maybe they go barefoot eventually, maybe they don't.  All the while, we continue shouting "barefoot is best!" from the rooftops and end up looking like a bunch of hippie purists.  We turn off the vast majority of people to our message, and only half-convert the rest into buying a pair of ugly toe shoes.

I'm just wondering if we need a new approach.  My suggestion would be to embrace the marketing strategy of these minimalist shoe companies.  Not by saying "minimalist shoes are best".  That's dishonest.  Rather, I suggest that we stick with our message of "barefoot is best", but that we not lead with it.  Rather, our first move should be to put ourselves on one end of a spectrum that runs between barefoot and Brooks Beasts.  Then we should tell people, "BUY LIGHTER SHOES!"  We should tell people that any move towards lighter and lower-profile shoes will increase natural movement, which in turn will increase ones enjoyment of running.  The more you move toward barefoot, the better. 

Once they make the first move towards a lighter shoe and want to learn more about barefooting, that's when you hit them with the end message.  At the same time, we should qualify that even if you land short of barefoot running, that's okay as long as you're happy with it.  They should still be treated as a member of our community and respected for their choice.          

End of public service announcement.... 

If you have thoughts on this issue, I'd love to hear them. 

Anyway, I'm excited to share this video with you soon, and I hope that you find it entertaining and useful.  And if not useful, then just entertaining.  And if not entertaining, then I just hope you're not mad at me for taking away several minutes of your life.  Not that you had anything better to do :)

Cheers folks and have a great day!


  1. Excellent points. You can't force big changes in people. You encourage small changes and those will hopefully snowball into big changes. "Buy lighter shoes," might mean go from your pillow to a Nike Free to Minimus' to VFF/Pace Glove to barefoot. But its important the runner does this on their own, because them they own the transition and believe in it.

  2. I get you on this!!
    I personally love shoes and always have. My tastes have changed towards minimal shoes but I LOVE TRYING SHOES for my blog :)
    I prefer to run barefoot but I still wear flipflops in the summer and I totally love combat boots and winter boots and running shoes if they are minimal for everyday wear.
    I am not a purist either and when I first started my blog I deliberately didn't post much on barefoot but more on my total running experience so I could make friends with other running mamas first before alienating myself more than I just do naturally :)
    Shoes are fab if they don't hurt your feet!

  3. I came at barefoot running from what I am starting to think might be an unusual angle - I've been barefoot for more than a decade for walking and hiking but am just now learning to run. I was never a runner with shoes, at least not since I was a little kid.

    While I want to like your advice and I agree with your assessment of minimalist shoes, it wouldn't have worked for me. I quit wearing shoes because they didn't fit my feet, and having lighter shoes wouldn't have helped (although maybe if I'd had the money for wider shoes it would have).

  4. @ikkinlala: I agree that my proposed "marketing effort" wouldn't be appealing to someone like you. Then again, I think you are a person who would have come to barefoot running eventually regardless of how it is presented. The vast majority of people on the otherhand, won't be trying barefoot running...ever. I want those people to know that we barefooters still have something to teach them.



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