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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

To become a certified barefoot running coach? Or not...

Citizens, I've been kicking around a few questions in my head for a while now.  Of course one of those questions is, "Is Justin Bieber gay?"  Another, possibly more important question is whether or not to pony up a ton of cash and become a VIVOBAREFOOT Certified Barefoot Running Instructor (although it's debatable whether anything is more important to all of us than the sexual orientation of "The Bieb").

For those who aren't up to speed, a few months ago VIVOBAREFOOT rolled out their barefoot running certification course.  They invited 8 lucky folks to New York (including my buddy Barefoot Angie Bee) for their pilot certification program.  They got to attend a five-day certification course taught by running instructor extrordinare Lee Saxby on VIVOBAREFOOT's dime (lucky!).  All eight of them are now certified barefoot running instructors, and are out doing their own coaching gigs (check out Angie's coaching site for example) Now that the first crop of instructors has been certified, Lee is traveling all over the world to certify more barefoot running instructors.

This program has been more than a little controversial around barefoot nerd circles.  The big question: is certification a good thing?  There have been opinions for and against (and also against) whether barefoot running should be a sport that adopts a certification process.  I haven't put my hat in the ring until now. 

Here it is: I am all for coaching certification. 

Before I explain why, I thought I'd summarize the main argument against certification.  Basically, the claim is that certification tends to stifle creativity and create dogmatism.  Essentially, folks are worried that the instruction provided by certified coaches will come to be seen as "the way" to learn barefoot running to the exclusion of all other methods.  Why that might not work so well with barefoot running is twofold.  One, barefoot running instruction is still an emerging field.  Not a lot of us do it, let alone do it well.  Two, barefoot running is usually learned through self-experimentation...not instruction.  Did I pretty much sum up your article Jason?

I agree with pretty much everything Jason said in that article.  Even so, I support certification.  I support it because it's better than the alternative.  Here's why.

The way people are learning to run barefoot is changing.

When I started barefoot running, there wasn't a lot of information available on the topic.  You had Ken Bob's website and the Runner's World Barefoot Forum.  Nobody had written anything all that comprehensive on the topic.  So I figured out how to barefoot run by experimenting and figuring out what worked.  That's how I do everything.  Then again, I'm a so-called "Early Adopter" (BTW, here's a blast from the past post by Jason about how a social movement develops over time).  And the people who started to barefoot run around the same time as me generally are too.

In my opinion, that's not how most people learn to barefoot run now.  We've moved out of the "Early Adopter" phase into the "Early Majority" phase.  Barefoot running isn't the domain of a few weirdos now.  It's approaching fad status.  Everybody's doing it. 

People who participate in fads don't usually do their own research.  They latch onto an expert and believe whatever that person says.  Nobody who went on the low-carb diet bandwagon back in the last decade read all the studies Dr. Atkins conducted.  They just bought "The South Beach Diet" book and went to work.  The same thing is at work in our community now.

As evidence, I'll tell you about the first night of the NYC Barefoot Run.  That night featured talks by all the big names (the "Kudus" if you will).  Each was essentially a 30-minute infomercial on something they were selling.  Everyone there had a book, or a product, or a clinic schedule they were pumping.  And all of that stuff was flying off the shelves.  Ken Bob's book is an Amazon best-seller.  Michael Sandler's clinics are booked solid into the next decade.  And Jason lives in a trailer....on purpose.

The future of barefoot running needs consistency more than creativity

But the future of barefoot running instruction isn't Ken Bob, or Barefoot Ted, or even Jason Robillard.  Those folks did the groundwork.  They did a great job putting its message out on the internet and in books.  Unlike when I started, there's plenty of introductory information on the subject to go around.  I think the market is pretty well saturated with that sort of thing. 

What there isn't a whole lot of right now is follow-up information.  One-on-one instruction and advice for people that still have questions.  That's where Ken Bob and Barefoot Ted's reach ends.  There aren't enough of us talking heads to go around.  I know...I get the emails.  There are people out there dying for some one-on-one instruction who are frustrated because they live halfway across the country from me, or because the Robillards aren't visiting their neck of the woods. 

The future of barefoot running is your local barefoot running coach.  Someone to fulfill that growing need.  And right now the ranks of the barefoot running coach are pretty much nonexistent.  But I guarantee that they will become filled as the perceived need for barefoot running coaching services grows.  It's only a matter of time.  And you as consumers of that service need to decide who we want to fill that marketplace. 

Do you want to do it haphazardly (like we've been doing) and allow people to credential themselves?  I think that's fine right now while the marketplace is small.  It's pretty simple to compare all the barefoot talking heads and see which one you prefer.  But as the market grows a consumer's ability to discern differences between so-called experts will decrease.  A bit of quality control is appropriate at that level to keep the field from turning into the wild freaking west.

That's where certification can be handy.  It assures a high and consistent quality of coaching across the board.  I think the VIVOBAREFOOT certification is top notch.  I don't think anyone disagrees with me.  Frankly I'd be thrilled to take a flock of VIVOBAREFOOT certified coaches over the alternative.

Capitalism = continued creativity

But I agree with Jason.  Certification will stifle creativity in favor of uniformity.  And I'm okay with that, because it's better than the alternative.  I also know that stifling creativity doesn't mean eliminating it.

One of my more entrepreneurial friends has a joke that goes like this:

Him: "How do you outsell 8-Minute Abs?" 
Me: "How?"
Him: "You make 7-Minute Abs!"

I don't envision a future where VIVOBAREFOOT's cert is the only one out there.  I envision one where there are multiple certifications developed and offered.  Also, as is the case in the personal training field, I think that coaches will likely get certified in more than one.  And after obtaining multiple certs, they'll probably go off and develop their own way of doing things.  Creativity still happens.  It's just not going to happen in the same way it does now.

Let's settle for "good enough"

I also agree with Jason on another point.  We don't know enough about barefoot running.  We don't know if it prevents injuries.  We don't know if a forefoot strike is superior to a heel strike.  We don't really even know what good form looks like.  If we did, we wouldn't have "POSE Running" and "Chi Running".  We'd just have "Running".

We haven't come to the point where we can say there is a definitive method on how to do this stuff.  Are we ever going to get there?  Probably not.  Humans are pretty horrible at figuring out our own health.  It's really complex.  That's why eggs alternate being good for us and bad for us every couple of years.

Folks, someone was bound to come up with a certification for barefoot running sooner or later.  Certifications = money.  Every fitness hack is trying to make money.  It was only a matter of time.  I'm  happy that Lee Saxby came up with the cert, and not some shady douchebag.  His methods are great.  They get people running better quick.  A vast majority of people are going to be thrilled with his results. 

Is it the best, most optimal way?  Who knows.  But the alternative is nothing.  And that's not going to cut it.  We're losing a ton of people who try barefoot running and give up because more help isn't available.  So they give up and go back to shoes.  That's not cool with me.

Besides...if Lee Saxby is barefoot running's "good enough", I think we've done well for ourselves.

End of rant. 

So what do you think about the VIVOBAREFOOT certification?  Do you agree with me?  Do you think I'm a complete a-hole?  Let me know in the comments below.

Cheers to different opinions citizens!


  1. It'd be the quickest way to get the newbies on board. The rest of us already know who's in the know.

  2. I was very dismissive of the idea at first. I think you may have changed my mind. That sucks. One less thing for me to be snarky about.

  3. The ultimate compliment to a lawyer is that they persuaded you to change our mind.

  4. I can't really go against my own post that you cited ;)

    I accept that this is something that IS going to happen whether I like it or not - as I mentioned in my post. Doesn't mean I like it.

    I am coming from a background in education - yes, I admit it is a while back. I just see what "formalising" can do in the way of education and it's sucky. I am an idealist. I admit it. This is why I really won't make any money from this game. I am not in this for anything other that moving running (barefoot in this instance) forward.

    I am also coming to conclusion that we are segregating "barefoot running" from "running" to much and that in the end this is what could the movement. I think to get "Barefoot running" accepted we need to remove the "barefoot" from the equation. This is just a different form of running and we should concentrate our efforts on that. So I don't think we should teach barefoot running skills. I think we should teach running skills. I don't think we should sell "barefoot shoes", I think we should sell "shoes". Our aim should be showing the difference between "conventional" running and what we are doing.

    Look I found an additional 2 cents.. wow, I am rich today ;)

  5. A comment from a reader who emailed me:

    I mostly agree with you. Let the market decide. If people want to pay someone to teach them to run, then yes, there probably should be some standards. But who decides this? Vivo? Inevitably, there will evolve more certification programs, and they in turn will develop reputations, and people will be able to make semi-informed choices about which one is best for them. But I wonder. As you say, now that it's a full on fad, a lot of people will try it without reading up on it. Are they any more likely to seek out a trainer, or properly evaluate their services, if they're too lazy to Google 'barefoot running' and read up on the plethora of material already out there? I think the main advice that helmsmen like you need to stress is to not transition with minimal shoes. From what I've read, that's the main cause of 'barefoot' injuries—which like you said, is probably the key issue right now. If you actually run barefoot, then proprioception takes over. I ran barefoot once or twice a week as part of my karate training in Japan 20 years ago, on asphalt and on dirt trails. No one told us how to run, we just did it, and no one got hurt (of course, our feet were already fairly tough from the training at the dojo). This time around I read up on some of the barefoot material that was already out there, read that landing on your forefoot was key, and then ran like a kangaroo until I got top-of-the-foot pain. Moral of the story: A little knowledge is dangerous. I needed to read further, or nothing at all. A trainer would’ve told me not to exaggerate the forefoot strike, yes, but then you still need to do sufficient research to find a good trainer or the right certification program. Which is kind of the same as simply doing sufficient research on the internet, or joining a local BRS chapter—no trainer necessary. Plus, I doubt any trainer will have anything equivalent to the varied experience of online bloggers, who can tell you what it’s like to run on gravel, in snow, on trails, in ultra-marathons, etc., or, if minimalist shoes are your thing, which type and brand best serves which purpose.

  6. And another one:

    I think in general the idea of Certification is fine in principle - though I do agree with some of the point Jason makes in his article. I think what many people are really looking for is a person they can physically speak to and ask questions of and how can demonstrate certain things to them in real life rather than via forums and emails etc.
    My biggest thing to counter those who say one thing which will be stifled by the accreditation process - I see so many people who are taking to the minimalist running concept but are going about it really badly - I see so many people running in VFF's for example but still heel striking massively. This invariably will lead to people getting injured and blaming it on minimalist/barefoot running rather than their reluctance/inability to look for instruction , ask questions or basically do due diligence on this serious undertaking.
    I for one do not want those statistics to skew what I believe to be a real help to those for whom running has been painful/and a chore and generally un-enjoyable - that is the joy of running barefoot.

  7. Kate, I love your point about not segregating barefoot running from running itself. I do think making it a certifiable skill takes us down that road, and that's not a good future for us.

    I think Vivo's certification is a little deceptive in it's naming because it's really not a barefoot certification. You are learning to teach proper form for whatever folks are wearing on their feet. Barefoot is just the main teaching tool.

  8. Ted: That's right. That's - that's good. That's good. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Abs. Then you're in trouble, huh?

    Hitchhiker: No! No, no, not 6! I said 7. Nobody's comin' up with 6. Who works out in 6 minutes? You won't even get your heart goin, not even a mouse on a wheel.

    Ted: That - good point.

    Hitchhiker: 7's the key number here. Think about it. 7-Elevens. 7 dwarves. 7, man, that's the number. 7 chipmunks twirlin' on a branch, eatin' lots of sunflowers on my uncle's ranch. You know that old children's tale from the sea. It's like you're dreamin' about Gorgonzola cheese when it's clearly Brie time, baby. Step into my office.

    Ted: Why?

    Hitchhiker: 'Cause you're f@!$*in' fired!

  9. I'm all for certification, especially with Lee Saxby at the helm. My problem enlies with the amount of available coaches, and the cost to become a coach. Just as the upper elites of the barefooting world are well known to the community, they are still few and FAR between. Most people don't live in a barefoot sort of Mecca, and with the exception of the handful of coaches(who received their certification for free)I don't see the number of certified coaches rising to meet demands. Sure, it would be nice to have a certified coach in Dallas (I'm 4 hours away from there), but it would be even better to have one in OKC(an hour away). I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the oodles of dollars these folks are asking to train new coaches is, in my broke opinion, too HIGH. I love running, but I don't have 3000 simolians to throw at learning how to teach someone else. If it spreads as a pyramid scheme (in essence, the free coaches charging a small fee to teach others to coach) that would be, in my opinion, a better way of getting coaches out there. However, we'd run into the issue of watering down the coaching among other things. While I'm glad the certification is taking place, I wish the entry price wasn't so high. Although being the Uber attorney that you are...I'm sure you have the cash to throw at it haha. :)

  10. So what we learned in class and the basis of class for that matter is that BAREFOOT IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE YOUR RUNNING SKILL. Not everyone is going to be a barefoot runner but barefoot running as a tool will make you a better runner if done right. A coach will provide perspective and experience to get there.
    Its about time someone else agrees with me!!!

    Its not just Lee supporting it. We all got signed copies of McDougalls book welcoming us to team barefoot and Lees ideas are largely based on his buddy Dan Lieberman work. It was more than just one man behind it. Lee has been a high ranking Pose coach and decided he had found a better way. That's progression.

    I was feeling a bit of loneliness from the whole early adopter of coaching thing and being the only one on this side of the coin it seemed.

    Oh and there were 10 of us in class that were the guinea pigs :)

  11. Angie: That's not fair - guinea pigs don't wear shoes anyway.

    Re concerns of uniformity, I don't think that's going to happen. Barefoot running requires a lot of adjectives, which are going to be chosen by the individual and will vary accordingly.

  12. I've been thinking about this quite a bit, and it has a lot to do with a morning pain where my achilles meets my heel.

    Is it TMTS? Is it me pushing off a bit? Is it my using the Trail Gloves much more than actually running barefoot? Achilles tendonosis? Do I scale back? Stop completely? RICE? Ice? (baby...)

    According to whatever book or Internet site, its all to none of the above. Nothing or everything to worry about.

    So it would be good to have someone local who is experienced and actually has a bit of coaching training to take a look at what I'm doing, right wrong or indifferent.

    That's one instance where I see the value in having certifications.

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