Are you sharpening the wrong running tools?

Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Michael Williams of rerunning.co.uk. This post is part of a series looking at how minimalism and barefoot has affected people. Interested in telling your story or guest posting?


I've been running most of my life in some capacity and am one of the many people who have jumped (out of my shoes) on to some kind of "barefoot running band wagon" in the last year or so.

The more it comes up in conversation the more I get a feel for the current climate of opinion towards it. Some people are intrigued and some are sceptical or even critical of it. Those most sceptical or critical people are very often...runners!

Accomplished running friends of mine have remarked things like "but I won’t be able to run as fast" or "I tried barefoot / minimalist running but it just hurt my feet".

This isn’t too surprising to me as I have seen it all before within the martial arts world. (Stay with me on this if you are a runner and you’re wondering if you have clicked on the wrong blog!).

I have always run, but used to cross train a lot previously and studied & practiced Jeet Kune Do for many years. You may not have heard of JKD but I will be amazed if you have not heard of its founder - Bruce Lee.

If you pick up a martial arts magazine today (some 40 years after his death) it will almost certainly have an article somewhere discussing Bruce Lee’s impact on the martial arts world!

The reason for this is not his iconic charisma or because his body fat count was off the chart, or because he could punch and kick so fast that he was accused of speeding up his film footage.

It is because he reevaluated combat from the ground up when he created an improvisational martial art. JKD worked on primary realisations common to all martial arts and thus common to humanity.

It was not bound by set techniques or moves but was interested in cultivating attributes: speed, timing, strength, efficiency, distance judgment and a knowledge of the mechanics of the human body. He was only interested in what worked. Anything else was embellishment.

The up-shot of this was that he was met with huge resistance, mostly from the most accomplished people in the martial arts community. Why? Because they had the most to lose if he was right.

People who, to paraphrase Bruce Lee, would be described as having: "spent many years sharpening the wrong tools" (e.g., training the wrong skills).

The runners whose comments I mentioned earlier are better runners than me (in the traditional sense of being faster or running further). They have more to lose.

It is not just that they do not have the patience to re-learn running again, it is that to do so is an admission that much of what they have been doing all these years may have been 'sharpening the wrong tools'.

Bruce Lee was also after getting back to something primal.

JKD was not a utopian martial art built from all martial arts – it was the idea of getting back to the theoretical origins of hand combat. Something about the way humans are built to move, to express themselves physically.

Just as barefoot running is ultimately concerned with a pure form of running as part of the human condition. Bruce Lee wrote that "the height of cultivation runs to simplicity. Half way cultivation runs to ornamentation" [1].

Running has been embellished: The latest shoes, the latest techniques, the latest training methods.

Primarily, mankind used to run due to need – because it had a purpose (and if the likes of Peter McAllister are to be believed; most of mankind used to run a lot further and faster than most of us do now).

Personally, I’m happy with the debate.

It is interesting to note that it probably takes a certain kind of personality trait to be drawn to take up barefoot running – an open mindedness.

People entrenched in their training regime, people who are measuring their achievement in the main by race results and people who do not have the long term patience to re-learn most of what they have achieved are much more likely to be the ones digging in their (well padded) heels.

Mostly because it is a fundamental paradigm shift in thinking on what running is about. I might also fall into a category of reasonably accomplished (PB 36.06 for 10k in my mid 20s), yet not overly competitive runners who have less to "lose".

I love running, but my life is not built around competitions. I run for the love of running. It is no longer merely about not how hard I can push my lungs and heart. Or even not just how FAST I can run, but how WELL.

[1] Tao of Jeet Kune Do p.24