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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Making new barefoot friends and influencing people

An interesting thing happened to me about a week ago. While driving my daughter to daycare, she said, “Daddy, when I get big I want to barefoot run. I want to run far!” Now I certainly don’t discourage my daughter from going barefoot in everyday life (a good description of how I feel about kids and barefooting can be found here). But I don’t force a barefoot lifestyle on her either. We let her pick what she puts on her feet. And I’ve never really done anything to encourage her to run (she’s three…a run for her is down to the end of the driveway and back).

That moment of cuteness reminded me of an issue that comes up in the barefoot community every now and then. That is, how to convince others that barefoot or minimalist running is better for you than using cushioned trainers. Usually the issue comes up when a newer barefoot convert asks something like, “How do I convince my spouse/coworkers/mailman/whoever to start barefoot running?”

My answer to this question: you don’t.

When I blog about barefoot running, I practically gush about the subject. But you might be surprised to learn that if someone asks me about the topic in everyday conversation, I’m pretty tight-lipped. I’ll do my best to answer peoples’ questions, but my answers are usually quick and to the point. I don’t volunteer information beyond a few stock responses unless I’m pressed to do so. And you’ll never find me trying to convince people that it’s what they need to do.

Yet quite frequently, I’ll get a note from a friend telling me that they started barefoot or minimalist running because of me. It’s been that way since before I had a barefoot running website (with oodles and oodles of useful information might I add). How? Because I set a good example.

You are an ambassador, whether you like it or not

When I first started considering barefoot running, I did what many newbies do. I went online and started researching. I read tons of articles over at Ken Bob’s website and the Runner’s World Barefoot Forum. I even nerded it up by reading through the summary of the Harvard Barefoot Study. All of that information was compelling. It made minimalist running sound like the sensible thing to do. But I still didn’t do it. I sat on the issue for several months. It had to do with something about the ground being littered with glass…or something like that…

That is, until I found out one of my good friends had purchased a pair of Vibram Fivefingers and really liked them. I was running in my own pair that night.

My friend didn’t set out to be a salesman for Vibram or anything. He may or may not have known that I was at a tipping point over the subject prior to that conversation. He was just telling me how much he liked his shoes.

And that’s how I find someone’s conversion goes nowadays. Sure, some people still come to barefoot running the old-fashioned way: through self-experimentation. But today it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by other barefoot runners to some extent. Barefoot and minimalist running isn’t the domain of a few weirdos with blogs anymore. According to the internet (reliable source!), it’s one of the top 12 fitness trends of 2011. It’s very likely that most people know someone who is a barefoot runner or owns shoes with individual toe pockets.

I know some of you don’t like the idea that barefoot running is a movement. No offense, but I think you folks have your head firmly implanted in your ass. When the Huffington Post is writing about how Five Fingers are the hottest trend in footwear in 2011, it’s a movement. Time to sell that rock you’ve been living under. Or get what many refer to as a “clue”.

Barefoot and minimalist running is growing all around you. People are curious about it. They want to know more. But at the same time, it’s still in its infancy. There aren’t many of us. So when you are approached or seen by someone who is interested in the subject, you may very well be the only contact that person has with the barefoot/minimalist community.

People will form their impression of barefoot running largely by what you do or say. Congrats…you’re an ambassador for the movement…which does exist, and which by the situation you find yourself in you are now responsible for promoting. That person could be at a tipping point like I was. So you have a decision to make. You could be the person to help them out. Or you could just be an asshole. What are you gonna do?! WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO!!!

Sorry about the Speed quote. I usually don’t do Dennis Hopper impersonations in my posts.

I hope everyone chose the option that does not involve being an asshole. And in that case, here are some tips that I’ve learned through experience on how best to assist. If not…well, you’re an asshole.

Tip #1: Lectures are for college

Now I’m not suggesting that you all carry around a soapbox on the off chance someone asks you a question. In fact, I would say that sort of thing is counterproductive. It’s kind of like when someone asks, “How are you?” They don’t really want to know how you’re doing. They want to hear you to say, “Good”.

Similarly, if someone asks you whether you like your toe shoes, they don’t want to hear you recite studies on forefoot striking’s effect on impact transients and vertical impact loading rate from memory. If you can do that…that’s really cool…to the three people who care (which I believe are me, Pete Larson, and Dr. Irene Davis). Everyone else wants to hear you say, “Yes”.

Of course, not everyone wants to hear a simple yes or no answer. But if you are approached by some random person on the street, you might not know that. You don’t know where that person is in the process of learning about barefoot running. They might not be interested at all. We don’t need any help looking like a bunch of weirdo nerds. Don’t make it worse folks.

I think it’s best to let that person dictate the flow of conversation. People learn best by discovering things on their own. Let them ask questions about the issues they are concerned about. And do what I suggest in my next tip.

Tip #2: Tell them about my website

Okay fine…you don’t have to tell them about my website. But when answering questions, I do suggest that you not ramble on too long before pointing them to some kind of resource on the internet. The reason I keep my answers to questions short and sweet is that people don’t remember most of what they hear. So the steaming knowledge dump you just laid on that poor person isn’t going to do much. It’s better to get straight to the point.

And because of the wealth of information that is on the internet on the subject of barefoot running, I think the best information you can give is some kind of web address. People will be much better served by less information now, with a chance to get more information somewhere else later. For example, my response to, “Does barefoot running hurt?” is “No, because you soften your foot strike. Here’s a great place to learn to do that .” Besides, those people probably have done some research online before talking to you anyway. They are probably going to research online after talking to you (because unless you’re a local celebrity slash pillar of the community like me, you’re just that random barefoot person). At least point them in the right direction.

Tip #3: Let them see you succeed

Not everyone who becomes interested in barefoot running will be a random person on the street. You are influencing people every day just by going out and running. If you are reading this post, you probably also have a facebook account. If you use it more than once a year like my mom (also known as MGBGM…it’s a palindrome!), people see what you doing almost daily. They see you post your runs to dailymile (or at least talking about it in your status). They see you post pictures of your last barefoot race. They see you meeting and exceeding your fitness goals; all the while doing it with a smile on your face.

Whether you post it on facebook or just talk about it, that sort of stuff provides small but frequent motivation for folks to try something drastic like barefoot running. People tell me all the time that seeing me post my workouts from dailymile every day “guilts” them into exercise. Whatever works I say! Actions speak louder than words folks. People might doubt the results of studies about the benefits of barefoot running, or the ramblings of folks like me. They can’t doubt the results that you experience and share with them.

Tip #4: Introduce them to other weirdos

You know when your mom gave you that scolding, “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?” Well mom…for one, that’s a rhetorical question. Also, yes…of course you’d jump off a bridge if your friends did. Bungee jumping is expensive. If you’re going to go, at least get the group rate.

Humans are social creatures. We like hanging out with people, and we like what the people we hang out with like. The problem with barefoot running is that at times it feels like no one else likes doing it. That can be a huge barrier for someone who is on the fence about the whole thing.

Now unless you have an ultra-active and successful chapter of the Barefoot Runners Society like the all-mighty Minnesota Chapter, there probably aren’t a lot of barefoot running meet-ups in your area. But that doesn’t mean you have to feel isolated. I wouldn’t be the barefoot running superhero I am today without the help and support of people on internet forums like Barefoot Runners Society and the Runners World Barefoot Forum. On the forums you can get answers to your running questions at any time of day. You can share your experiences. You can make new friends. Some of my best friends I met on the Runners World forum. It makes the whole barefooting world feel a little smaller.

Keep up the good work and keep spreading the good word citizens! Cheers to 2012 being even bigger for barefoot than 2011!


  1. I really agree with most of this post MGBG. I still hate the word "movement". For me it's the word that makes me cringe. I know barefoot and minimalist is getting more mainstream and more common, but the word movement makes me think we are a bunch of hippies who are going to protest the use of normal thick soled shoes and block traffic and all that. Bad connotations with that word is all.

    After running barefoot almost a year now, I have come to the conclusion that I am an ambassador as you say, for barefoot running. I've had people stop me and question me and tell me they've seen me running all around the neighborhood barefoot. I to try to keep it short and sweet and recommend the BRS website. I also try not to say shoes are bad or anything like that, I just tell them about my personal experience with it. I am a very fact based person but I know a lot of people don't care about the facts and they just want to hear personal experiences. I too was one who cares and has read Dr. Liebermans study, apparently there is 4 of us now.

  2. I don't necessarily like the word movement either Nick. I'm just not sure what else to call it. Phenomenon? Paradigm shift?

  3. Yah, I cringe at using "movement" too. How about simply "trend" as in "fitness (or health, or lifestyle) trend"? Use of the term "early-adopter" for people who began running barefoot in 2009 is another pet peeve. For me, early-adopter would be someone who began BFR before the trend began, like Barefoot Ken Bob, or Jason.
    As for persuassion, I've found forwarding biomechanical explanations (Liebermans and others) to be most effective among my friends and family.

  4. chris from maple groveJanuary 3, 2012 at 1:30 PM

    This was a very long post.

  5. Its not a movement, its a revolution! I come to that conclusion by relying on the wisdom and philosophy of action movie quotes:

    "Yes, of course! Hence the name: movement. It moves a certain distance, then it stops, you see? A revolution gets its name by always coming back around in your face."

  6. I like it! I can certainly get behind constantly being in people's faces.

  7. I told my friends my first business was 'Barefoot Sandals'. You should have seen their look! I asked, "Do you know what they are?" The answer was a definite 'No!' The laughter was amusing! So I told them what they were and how you wear them.



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