The Psychology of Transitioning to Barefoot or Minimalist Shoe Running

Blog entry posted by Last Place Jason, Aug 27, 2010.

In a blog post from last week, I discussed the brief history and future of the modern barefoot and minimalist shoe movement in the context of the diffusion of innovation model. Given my background is psychology, I prefer individual analysis to group or societal analysis. As such, I decided to assess the route many people take to becoming a barefoot or minimalist shoe runner.

Exposure

In the beginning, we are exposed to the idea of barefoot (BFR) or minimalist shoe running (MR). This may come from an article we read, an interview we see on television, or a book we read. Perhaps we see someone runing barefoot. Maybe we see a pair of Vibrams in a shoe store.

Regardless of the source, this first stage is marked by awareness. We do not have any information about the practice, but we are aware it exists. At this point, most people will have no interest in the practice, nor will they make an effort to seek more information.

Curiosity

At some point, we develop a curiosity about BFR/MR. For some, this may come immediately after the exposure phase. For most, this will occur at a later time.

In my experience, a person's personality characteristics can accurately predict when the curiosity phase begins. The "Early Adopters" I discussed in my previous post are good examples of people that are naturally curious about new ideas. These people do not need a good reason to investigate BFR/MR; they do so simply to satisfy their own curiosity.

Others will take much longer to reach this phase. If most people are generally happy with their running experience in modern running shoes, they will have no reason to explore BFR/MR. For these individuals, some crisis is needed for them to be sufficiently motivated to explore a new style of running. For many, this comes by way of injury. The injury may or may not be remedied by traditional methods (RICE, new, more supportive shoes, custom orthotics, etc.). If the injury is not corrected or the injury is chronic, the runner may consider BFR/MR.

The key feature to this stage- persuasion. The runner will undergo a process of persuading themselves that this is a good solution to their problems. This usually involves reading articles online, communicating with other barefoot runners, or seeking out empirical or anecdotal evidence. After sufficient evidence is collected, the person will move to the next stage.

Making the Decision

Once evidence is collected and weighed, the person will make a decision. Do they try BFR/MR, or do they continue as a shod runner? Again, personality plays a role in this phase.

Many people will make the decision to try BFR/MR. These people will have been sufficiently convinced that the risks are outweighed by the rewards. Once a person reaches this decision, they will move on to the next stage.

Some people will decide BFR/MR is not for them without ever trying. This group may or may not come back to the idea in the future. If they do, it usually involves a regression back to the second stage to collect more information.

Starting

Once the decision is made to give BFR/MR a try, an individual will usually do some research to determine the best course of action. in my experience, there are really two possible routes people take.

Adventurous individuals usually make the all-or-none decision to begin immediately. This is the person that fully commits to becoming a barefoot or minimalist shoe runner. This is the group that is most likely to suffer from "too much too soon" injuries, but also transition the fastest.

More cautious people will decide to take the plunge, but may approach it as a gradual transition. This group commits, but does so in a safe manner. It will take them much longer, but the risk is minimize

During this stage, some individuals may experience setbacks or the process may result in little enjoyment. These individuals may stop BFR/MR and return to shod running.

Full Commitment

By this stage, the individual has made the decision to continue as a BFR/MR. Think of it as the point of no return. In most cases, the runner will have successfully transitioned and is working towards some goal. That goal may be a race of a particular distance or reaching a particular pace. Maybe the individual was searching for relief from injury. Some people may become involved in BFR/MR for the social aspect.

Regardless of the reason, the new BFR/MR will begin identifying themselves as a BFR/MR. Many will become at least passive advocates of the practice, while some will become vocal ambassadors supporting BFR/MR at every opportunity. This is critical as these individuals provide the knowledge base for future potential BFR/MRs reaching the second stage of this process.

Other Thoughts

The route all of us took is probably strikingly similar. Once we make the transition, I believe we have at least some responsibility to help others. Maybe it's my "pay it forward" outlook on life. Anyway, our goals as BFR/MR ambassadors, educators, or community members should be:
  • Represent BFR/MR in a positive light to capitalize on stage one. Always remember- you could be the first BFR/MR a person is exposed to. I devote considerable space in my book to the idea of being polite, thanking race volunteers, and smiling often.
  • Contribute to the collective body of knowledge to increase the quality and quantity of information available to people in stage two. I also recommend people begin blogging about their experiences or participate in online communities. This helps improve the knowledge base for all of us. No matter how long we have been doing this, we can always learn something new.
  • Provide some degree of intelligent guidance to those that seek you out. Not all of us are comfortable teaching others. Still, we should be minimally prepared to provide basic guidance to new BFR/MRs so they can make a safe, enjoyable transition. If you are not comfortable providing guidance, at least familiarize yourself with available resources so you have a place to send new BFR/MRs.
Together we will make a difference. We have already changed the landscape of the running world. Through our combined efforts, we can continue to make a difference. The best way to make an impact is to make it easier for those that come after you.

"In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody."

-Emerson