Monday, August 23, 2010

Check It Out: The Barefoot Running Book

It's been a while since Jason Robillard was kind enough to send me a review copy of "The Barefoot Running Book: A Practical Guide to the Art & Science of Barefoot & Minimalist Shoe Running" -- an excellent primer on running unshod.* My review, however, has been delayed -- and not because it took me a long time to get through the slim, 61-page volume. The truth: I'd wanted to try out Jason's running program before writing about it, but with CrossFit dominating my exercise time of late, I've not been doing much running (outside of my WODs). I'm feeling slightly guilty about writing about something I've not managed to put into practice lately. But my feelings of guilt over procrastination finally prevailed over my feelings of guilt over not doing more barefoot running, so at long last, here's my review.

In a nutshell: Regardless of whether you're a lapsed, current or prospective runner, you'll find a lot of useful information about barefoot running crammed into Jason's book. And if you're serious about running without footwear, Jason's book may just be the best single resource on how to transition from a tentative barefoot walker to an expert barefoot runner.

In case you're not familiar with Jason Robillard, he's a Michigan-based teacher, author and ultramarathoner (who somehow also finds the time to run the Barefoot Running University website, a motherlode of resources on footwear-free running). Here's how he describes his running workouts:
I routinely train on a variety of terrain, including asphalt roads, concrete sidewalks, sandy beaches, woodchip trails, dirt trails, and a few other varied surfaces. I train in a variety of conditions, ranging from the heat of summer to the bitter cold of winter. So far, I've been able to run in snow as long as the temperature stays above 20 degrees. My training mileage peaks around 100 miles per week about a month before major goal races. Almost all of this training is done barefoot.
In his book, Jason covers virtually anything one could ever ask about barefoot running (including which minimalist shoes to buy, and how to handle everything from blisters and bad weather to cross-training and hecklers). The book is organized according to a 12-week, four-stage training progression: "Pre-Running," "Starting to Run Barefoot," "Intermediate Barefoot Running," and "Advanced Barefoot Running." In each chapter, Jason gradually adds layers of technical skills and training concepts in bite-sized chunks, and before you know it, you've added fartleks and hill training to your shoe-free runs.

And unlike a lot of barefoot gurus who may come across to some as crazy-eyed, bearded hippie cultists, Jason is anything but. His everyman persona is reassuring even to those who find the concept of running without shoes faddish and bizarre. Plus, Jason's writing style is entertainingly wry and engaging: Instead of a dry instruction manual, "The Barefoot Running Book" reads like a casual (but super-informative) dinner conversation, sprinkled with lines like "[t]here is as much research supporting the use of modern running shoes as there is supporting the existence of unicorns, Sasquatch and funny Pauly Shore movies."

Jason lays out a structured training plan for those who are curious and intrepid enough to venture out without shoes, but instead of focusing solely on different activities to master, he takes frequent breaks to educate readers about concepts to keep in mind while running barefoot. (My favorite: "Run Like a Ninja.")

Finally, it's kind of awesome that Jason gives a shout-out to his local CrossFit affiliate in the final pages of his book, and shares a number of CrossFit moves that add variety and intensity to his training. (With the exception of Olympic lifting, I try to do just about all of my CrossFit workouts in Vibram FiveFingers or barefoot, and I definitely recommend giving it a shot.)

If you're mesmerized by Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run" and contemplating going barefoot on your training runs, I can't think of a better starting point than "The Barefoot Running Book."

*Full disclosure: Yes, I got a free review copy of the book from Jason, but trust me: My review is unbiased. When it comes to criticism, I'm not known to hold back, but I would have given "The Barefoot Running Book" a thumbs-up even if I'd just happened across it on Amazon.)