Robillard, The Barefoot Running Book

Jason Robillard’s The Barefoot Running Book is a primer on the “art & science of barefoot running.” At seventy-some pages, this first edition amounts to a relatively informal extended essay, every bit as minimalist as the running equipment it advocates. Robillard, a psychology teacher from Grand Rapids and blogger at Barefoot Running University, recommends a slow-buildup approach to barefoot running that moves predictably from pre-running (foot strengthening and sole toughening) to barefoot exercises concerned with footstrike (“foot kiss”), cadence, and relaxation to intermediate and advanced training. The book also offers cautionary advice about blisters, minimalist shoes, avoiding debris (a basic assumption being that this barefoot running happens on hard surfaces, such as pavement). All of this guidance rests on a premise I largely accept as reasonable, which is that running shoes, or “foot coffins” as Robillard calls them, muffle many of the foot’s potential sensitivities, resulting in weakened, hobbled feet.

I am no barefoot runner as of yet, but the emphases Robillard places on falling forward and on processing foot lifts rather than foot falls are instructive to me as a novice. And will probably continue to say “novice” for many more years because I don’t run often or far or with much desire to identify as a runner, much less a minimalist runner. These ideas from Robillard come more as reminders than as new ideas; the running I’ve been doing lately (just under 3.5 miles three mornings each week) has been relatively stress free, as stress free as any running I have done before. That is, I don’t think of this as hardcore training or even exercise but as something more like meditation.

So why should I be reading a book on barefoot running? This is due entirely to my brother’s influence. The book arrived Kindle-lent as an experiment between us to understand how Kindle book loans work. That this was a lent book meant I could have it for fourteen days (expired today). I wanted not only to read the book in that time, but also to add a couple of annotations and disconnect my Kindle from the network to learn whether, when the loan period expired, it would remain on the device. So far, it has. I received the expiration notice via email this morning from Amazon, but I have been able to access the book and annotations the same as before (note: I have not connected the Kindle to the network; when I do, I suspect the status of the book will change. What of the notes? I don’t know yet.). Here’s one of them, on scanning a few steps ahead: “In either case [smooth asphalt or rugged trails], you eventually develop foot-eye coordination. Your eyes will scan the terrain in front of you. Your brain will create a cognitive map of that terrain” (Loc. 951).

I’m intrigued by barefoot running, but the extent of my training in the near term will be to end the morning loop by removing my shoes and walking a little less than a half mile barefoot while cooling down. Maybe by October I will try to jog it. That’s probably going to be the end of it before winter (although Robillard says he runs barefoot in temps as low as 20F). And I will, of course, have my brother to thank (or curse), considering he is nowadays running upwards of three miles barefoot on asphalt. That he doesn’t seem at all miserable about it—quite the opposite!—makes it harder for me to dismiss as lunacy.


  1. Interesting post (both for the discussion of barefoot running and the Kindle).

    I’ve been running in Five Fingers since late April, I think. Unlike most of the folks I know who run barefoot or in minimalist shoes, I really didn’t have a reason for doing so. I needed new running shoes, and I thought I’d give these a try.

    I worked up slowly (as they recommend), but it’s only just now, after 4 months of running, that my feet, calves, and hamstrings have adjusted to the point where there’s no soreness or tightness the day after a run (I usually run a 5k, three days a week. I hate running.).

    Pretty nuts that’s it’s taken so long to adjust. I know nothing of the science or the arguments in favor (or against) barefoot running. I did it on a whim, basically. But there’s this bit of speculation: one of my hips used to get very sore when running a lot (“a lot” for me—say, a 5k per day). No pain since I switched.

    I suppose it’s this kind of anecdotal apocrypha that’s fueling the trend?

  2. Glad to know about the Five Fingers. My brother runs in them, too, switching between those and barefoot. I haven’t picked up minimalist shoes yet, but the Five Fingers come highly recommended from everyone I know who uses them (Robillard recommends them, too).

    I’ve never been much for running, but that’s changed a bit this summer. In basketball, it was too often used as punishment–tough to really enjoy. I also found myself prone to muscle and knee pain when running anything over three miles. I’ve taken a different approach this summer. I keep rest days between running days and mix in a little bit of swimming and walking. I haven’t played basketball since last December. The pick-up games don’t fit well with my schedule, and injuries seem more common (a broken finger caused me to give it up in November). And the important thing–to my mind–about injuries is that the anecdotal oftentimes trumps the universal. That is, if I know that doing something differently reduces my own pain, then it’s an easy decision. So, yeah, I suppose these injury-reduction anecdotes pique the attention of anyone who feels pain when they run in shoes or who has endured injuries in the past.

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