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Monday, October 31, 2011

My Take on the "Lack" of Female Barefoot Runners

In a perfect world....they would....

In the last couple of weeks, a few of my friends have written blog posts about how barefoot running is disproportionately composed of male runners (find Kate's post here, and Krista's post here).  It's a topic that we covered during the Merrell Barefoot Roundtable in NYC last September. 

It's also an important topic.  According to the latest statistics, there are actually 8% more women runners hitting the trails than men nowadays.  Women are the future of running...let alone barefoot running. 

I guess I didn't realize it was a problem.  Most of my barefoot running friends are female.  The most active members of my local Barefoot Runners Society chapter are female.  The first time that I had even heard the issue brought up was during the NYC weekend.  This was all news to me. 

And after that conversation in NYC, I really didn't think much about it.  I just accepted it as a fact.  I mean, do I really have much to offer in the debate?  Citizens, you may have not so recently noticed....I am not a female.  Although I did at one time have long hair that rivaled the Hanson brothers (Do people still remember Hanson?  Mmmm bop?  Anyone?).  I certainly don't have any insight into the female brain.  Frankly, I don't want to go there.  I'm worried I might end up doing weird things like watching Oprah, or sharing my feelings.

That all changed this week while I was doing some housekeeping for the BRS-Minnesota facebook page.  At BRS-MN, we do a group run every month.  We also take a group photo before every run.  As I was organizing the photo albums of those runs I noticed something.  A lot of times, especially within the last few months, the women participants outnumber the men.

Of course it wasn't always that way.  In the early days of the club, BRS-MN was a barefoot running sausage-fest.  Here's a picture of one of our first group runs:

Hey look!  A bunch of dudes! 

Now here's a picture of the last barefoot running clinic I held last July:

Hey look!  A bunch of chicks!

Then I looked at the photo of the group run we held last weekend:

The attendance was 6 men and 4 women.  60% to 40%.  Pretty close to the gender composition of runners overall.

I got to thinking.  Is there really a lack of female runners in this sport?  Has anyone ever checked the hard data? 

Now there aren't any official statistics regarding the gender of barefoot runners.  But we have had a few recent large gatherings that can serve as sufficient samples from which to draw conclusions.  For example, how about the gender composition stats of the NYC Barefoot Run 2011?  Possibly the largest gathering of barefoot runners anywhere this year.  It's probably the best cross-section of the modern barefoot community we currently have available.  I messaged the race director John Durant (also the operator of Hunter-Gatherer) to give up the goods.  He reported that the gender breakdown was 64% men and 36% women.  Again...around 60/40.  Not bad if you ask me. 

What about another big barefoot running event...The Naked Foot 5K race series? According to race directors Scott and Lauren Jones, the split was 51% male and 49% female.  Over 900 runners participated in the series overall.  Holy gender equality Batman!

Of course, that's just the stats on the people that show up to these events.  What about the community in general?  Well, the biggest community of barefoot runners online is the Barefoot Runners Society.  So I asked TJ, the BRS President, if she had a gender breakdown on her membership.  Note that the difficulty with obtaining a number here is that not everyone shares that information on their online profile.  But she gave me a rough estimate of 60% male and 40% female.  Again...60/40.  Interesting.  Veeeeeeery interesting.

So is there a problem here?  I would say that from what data we have...not really.  I think the number of female runners in this sport is growing exponentially.  As TJ remarked to me yesterday, when she first joined the Runner's World Barefoot Forum in 2009, she was the only girl.  Now two years later she runs a club with a membership of approximately 40% women?  That's a pretty dramatic increase.  I bet that within the next few years, you will see more female barefoot runners than male. 

But I do agree with Kate and Krista that getting more females into the sport presents its own unique challenges; ones that likely are not being addressed by current efforts.  As Kate points out, women don't really respond to the traditional plugs for barefoot running.  They are drawn more to the social aspect of barefoot running rather than any potential health benefits.

Here's my two cents.  If there is any problem in the female barefoot movement, it's the perception that female runners don't barefoot.  It's just a perception ladies!  As you can see, the gender split is almost equal.  It may appear when you look around you that you are the only female barefoot runner in your area.  Thing is...you probably are.  I'm one of two barefoot runners in Maple Grove.  I feel alone as well.  It's natural to think that way unless you come together in one of these big events (of which there are not many).   

The most important thing you leaders of the movement can do to overcome that perception is what you're already doing.  You are putting yourselves out there as confident female members of the barefoot running community.  You are  leading by example.  People see what you are doing, and get to thinking that they can do it too.  I especially applaud the work that folks like Caity McCardell are doing in featuring the stories of women barefoot runners that might not have a big platform like a blog to tell their story.  

Keep up the good work ladies!  Get out there and run naked!  Please?


  1. You say "Hanson brothers" and then out of two choices (both having long hair, mind you) go to the MMMBop ones instead of the "Slap Shot" ones. ::Shakes Head:: I expect more from such a beacon of manliness

  2. I wish I had glorious hockey hair like those Hanson brothers. Unfortunately it was very Zach Hanson. I don't have good mullet genes I guess.

  3. It's funny that you mention Hanson. In fact, they have been organizing barefoot one-mile walks for charity since 2007. http://www.takethewalk.net/

  4. Christian, I was surprised the percentages quoted at the Merrell Roundtable. Looking at my FB list of "running friends" the ratio was about 60/40. I didn't see it is as much of an issue before.

    Saying that, after speaking to some friends (mainly those that are starting out), there is a BIG nervousness about barefoot running among the women and it was their comments I was citing. I think getting women to try minimalist shoes will be easier than getting them to run barefoot. At the running groups I was in, women are more receptive to learning good form than the guys are, which was kind of interesting.

  5. I can tell you one reason why I hate being the sole female barefooter in my area: guys won't leave me alone. They can't wait to make stupid (or insulting) remarks. I run barefoot because I enjoy it, but other males (runners/bicyclists/passerby) take away a lot of that enjoyment and ruin a lot of my runs.



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