Minimalist Running: Ditch the Technology and Run Free

by Jason Fitzgerald

Minimalist Running is Playful. Are Garmin's?

Running is one of the most popular sports in the world because of its simplicity.  Lace up a pair of shoes (and even that’s not necessary) and you can run out your front door for a great workout.  You don’t need equipment, a pool, a field, or gear. Now that’s minimalist running; it’s one of the reasons why I love this sport so much. The only thing I bring with me is my RoadID for safety.

Today, all this is changing as runners buy more gear that promises to make them faster, more resistant to injury, and stronger.  Minimalist running, or embracing the purity of the sport and sticking to basics, has taken a back seat to Garmin GPS systems, heart-rate monitors, fuel belts, and exotic recovery powders.

Instead of a running shoe that helps us run with better form, we rely on motion-control shoes with Impact Guidance Systems, Space Trusstic Systems, and DuoMax Support Systems.  Why are there so many “systems” in one shoe?  Studies have even shown that expensive shoes – somebody has to pay for all of these systems! – are more likely to cause injury than cheap running shoes.

Many new runners train exclusively on the treadmill so they can control pace, distance, terrain, and elevation.  Outside, these factors can’t be controlled so the outdoor world is avoided.  When I started running as a freshman in high school, my coach told me to go run in the woods strictly by feel.  What happened to exploring the outdoors and the new gift of running?

Our reliance on technology is replacing our reliance on listening to our bodies.  We don’t run what’s comfortable for us on that particular day – we run what C25k (Couch to 5k) tells us to run, despite how we feel.  Instead of practicing good running form with a pair of minimalist running shoes, we let our $129.99 pair of Brooks Beast motion control shoes “correct” our form.

Minimalist Running

I want this to change.  I want runners to stop spending time calibrating their GPS gadgets, leave the fuel belt and iPod at home today (that stuff is heavy), remember to run easy when you’re supposed to, and get off the treadmill and into the woods.  Let’s start a revolution.

The human body is not a machine and can’t be calibrated to a specific pace or distance every day, no matter how hard you try.  It’s important to remember this.  Just because your Runner’s World 10k training plan (that’s the same template for everyone) says you should run 7 miles today doesn’t mean you should.  Maybe you feel great and should run 8 miles!  Or maybe cut that run to an easy 5 and focus on general strength.  Either way, keep in mind that schedules have their limits and to always let your body guide you.

I have run with music in the past, probably 5-7 times in my 12 years of running.  It does not compare to the symphony of footsteps, breathing, birds, wind, and running water that you will experience on a forest trail.  Finding the perfect song and making sure the earplugs stayed in was too stressful for me.  It detracted from the innate pleasure of a good run.

The six months that I owned a heart rate monitor were increasingly neurotic – I started wearing it on easy runs in addition to tempo workouts.  I even wore it to bed to determine my lowest possible heart rate.  I’m done having a piece of technology dictate my training.

I know some runners who do most of their runs on an outdoor track!  Talk about boring.  Ditch your high-tech gadgets and the same routes in your neighborhood (after all, variety is a hallmark of a good training program).  Get off the treadmill.  Need inspiration to run the outdoors without your Garmin?  Check out the videos and images at MovNat.

The fastest runners I know don’t own GPS watches or run on treadmills.  They run outside and don’t wear motion-control shoes.  None of them wear iPods, use a generic training plan from Active, or do their distance runs on a track.

I cringe when I hear what some runners bring with them for a training run: credit card, license, keys, fuel belt (with three different types of carbohydrate drinks), iPod with arm strap, and a heart-rate monitor.  Where does it all go?

When I run, I have my watch and a RoadID bracelet for safety.  No keys, no fancy technology, and no music.  Even for longer runs of 2+ hours, I don’t carry any extra gear.  Simplicity!

Let’s get back to basics and embrace minimalist running.  Ditch the gadgets that you just don’t need.  Who’s with me?

Minimalist Running

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{ 34 comments }

Meg

All excellent points. Dig the post.

Curious, you don’t carry water with you when you’re out for 2+ hours? I rarely do myself, but that’s only because there are a couple conveniently placed water fountains on my longest runs. Do you benefit from the same, or are you a super camel?

And secondly, do you have recommendations for speed workouts if not on a track or a treadmill? I struggle with speed and am trying to bring it up, but I require either others to help pace me or a treadmill to control it. I’m not good on my own, especially with brutal summer heat.

Also, there are no woods near me. Only miles of scorched, flat suburbia. Miami = far from ideal running conditions.

Fitz

Meg – thanks for the comments here. To give you some rapid-fire answers…yes, I’m somewhat of a water camel. I start my runs very hydrated and only occasionally use water fountains during long runs.

My favorite workouts that don’t use the track or treadmill are simple tempo and fartlek workouts based on effort level. I should post about this…

Suburbia isn’t ideal but I used to do it for years. Better than city running!

Meg

Yes please! I’d love a fartlek post.

City running is def tough. Lived in NY for years, whoa baby. It also means that I have zero trail running experience to speak of.

elaine!

I hadn’t heard of the RoadID before. I just ordered one. I’m training for a half marathon this year, and hopefully a marathon next year, and plan on doing a fair amount of trail running. Carrying ID is a no-brainer, glad that there are companies that make them especially for athletes! Even in a worst-case scenario, at least they’ll know my blood type and that I’m an organ donor…

I also hear you about getting fixated on the numbers. I don’t do a heart rate monitor anymore, but I do like bringing my Garmin. I’ve stopped checking it constantly during my runs, though, so I can focus on enjoying myself more. I like reviewing the data after I get home, though, and it makes it easy to keep a training log.

Fitz

Elaine – I totally get you about fixating on numbers. Even with just a watch, I find myself checking my stopwatch every few minutes at certain landmarks to make sure I’m “on pace.” It’s a bad habit and definitely not true to running by feel.

David Csonka

I always use to wear an iPod for running because I needed the music to distract me from the discomfort and boredom. Now that I am more into trail running I don’t need it anymore. In fact, I like the peace and stillness around me in the woods, with the only sound my breathing and quiet steps. Well, quiet when there aren’t any magnolia trees around. Those leaves are nature’s burglar alarm!

Fadi

I have just started running on the C25K program. I have no sport experience and definately no running experience. My plan is to stay on the program till i can consistantly run 5km without walking intervals and THEN ditch the program for a “run as you feel” kinda thing.

the issue though is that i can’t seem to run except on treadmills! i tried a trail once.. it nearly killed me! VERY tough! tried the road one, made it.. only to fail on my last running interval (made half the last interval)

What do you recommend!? should I keep training on the treadmill till i have it down correctly and then go for outdoors?

Fitz

Hi Fadi – I’m going to shoot you an email with my thoughts…stay tuned!

Rich mcAllister

I like the idea of running with no technology or anything. My neighborhood is mostly woods, but my route takes me near a beach and throuh a couple of other places andI would miss seeing some of the animals (deer, foxes, and hawks have all been spotted on my runs)

I would like to asks though, are those specialized running shoes good or would you think of that as technology. I just got a pair after suffering some shinsplints on my track and xc teams, and wanted to know

Fitz

Thanks for the comment Rich. Which specialized running shoes do you mean? You may be interested in this post: http://strengthrunning.com/2011/02/spectrum-minimalist-running-shoes/.

Chad

Great article and I share your thoughts. I too was caught up in the numbers and shoes game early on. Until my knees started hurting anytime I ran more than 40 miles a week or any long runs.

I ditched the ice packs for a copy of “Born to Run” and “Chi Running”. Started focusing on my form and less is more approach. It took some time for my feet and calves to gain their strength back. All those years of being shod had withered my poor muscles away.

Now I enjoy the free falling experience running and understand why it’s so enjoyable getting back to what we were designed to do. I’ll never forget the first time I leaned into a downhill and literally flew down it. Let gravity take over and just lift my legs as fast as I possible could. It’s the first time I’ve felt like a kid again in way too many years.

I believe if we build up our muscles in our feet and lower legs back to the way they were designed, run as if we are barefoot, we’ll have many many years left to run.

One more note and I promise I’m done. In reality my 2 year old son taught me how to run again. Just watching him glide across any surface and never get tired or winded amazed me. And to see him just lean forward and take off without pushing off or using his legs to propel him forward opened my eyes. Someday I’ll tell him that he taught me to run again!

Cheers!

Fitz

Thanks for the comment Chad! I think Born to Run and Chi Running have valuable lessons to teach runners. It just gets murky when you’re running for performance (as in, you have to push off if you want to run fast), but overall the principles are great. I saw a group of elementary school kids playing soccer a few months ago and they have that effortless style of running that you mentioned. It’s inspiring.

Mark

When my son was five years old his running was not smooth at all kinda of clumsy etc., except when we stayed at hotels and would go to the pool then we noticed when he ran down the hallway he flew——in barefeet. Now we think of ourselves a pretty smart but it took us years to make the connection until I started looking at barefoot/minimalist running. My question is what is the best shoe for a 12 year old to dun in, all of the ones I have seen have a significant heel.

Fitz

GREAT question Mark. In fact, I have something you’re going to love coming up Tuesday. Stay tuned!

Brian Barber

No keys? How do you get back into your house when you’re done?

Seriously now, great article. I aim for a gadget-free run every week. (I don’t consider my RoadID a gadget; it’s a part of my shoe.) For my long runs, since I live in a very rural area and our winters are cold, I carry a cell phone and water (for runs over 90 minutes) purely for safety reasons. I think the aim of your article is to keep it as simple as possible… and still be safe.

Fitz

Absolutely. Great to hear you agree that “less is more!”

I hide keys outside my door so I don’t have to carry them. Easiest solution I’ve found!

Arturo

Hi, I’m interested in this concept. I have been a runner for 3 1/2 years, I ran my first and only (to date) marathon that first year and kinda did it on my own, with one of those runners world training programs you mention, although I think I didnt pay too much atention to the pace it wanted me to run. I’ve kind of learned to run on my own and my aproach to most things are similar to this idea of less is more, although I do have a garmin and run with music. I am from Mexico, and live in the desert, have a couple of running routes to shake it up, but no real nature trails around. Thers a couple but its hard, rough, pointy rocks kind of terrain. My biggest problem has been the shoes, i have a low arch and get blisters, we dont have the same amount of options for shoes here, though theres a fair amount, and much less some expert at the store to help you find the right ones (my idea of less is more solution is that rather than go out and buy new shoes, i run until the blisters become calluses and then its easy sailing). What got me about you r post was that it reminded me of when i lived on the beach and once a week i would run barefoot on the wet part. Those are still my happiest and most fullfilling runs ever and i do remember foregoing the ipod, so i could hear the waves. What kind of minimalist shoe would you recomend for getting started, and remember that here in mexico theres probably more dangerous objects on the ground than in an american suburb. I do have some good, evenly paved and safe routes though, and im also concerned that these thin shoes might not be meant for scorching mexican desert asphalt. Any sugestions?

Fitz

Hi Arturo – the Saucony Kinvara is a good starting point because it has a fairly thick sole but a 4mm heel-toe drop. Also here are some suggestions: http://strengthrunning.com/2011/02/spectrum-minimalist-running-shoes/. Good luck!

Arturo

Hi, checked out the link for minimalist shoes, found the Brooks green silence here, broke them in today, they are fantastic, they have virtualy no arch so I got no blisters, they are light and flexible with decent cushioning. Ive changed my stride to a “barefoot stride” or “midfoot”, have to take shorter but faster steps now. My calves are killing me (in a good way) but ive knocked 15 sec per Km off in 1 week! and went for 16K last sunday with this stride succesfully. Still like to run with music, but the changes ive made are great! I have a half marathon coming up on th 26th and decided to go for broke: new stride and new shoes. thanks

Fitz

Great, sounds like things are going well for you! Just be careful about switching to minimalist shoes too quickly. Think in terms of months/years instead of days/weeks. Also, your goal should be increased strength and better form, not just running in less shoe. Good luck!

Fadi

I just got a notification over email since I asked a question last year. Fitz, thank you so much for this blog, it has really shaped my running and i went from just starting and struggling with a C25K last year to running 5-6 miles and preparing for my first half (hopefully by the end of this summer)

In other news, Arturo, I am with Fitz, i got the Kinvara 2, and my running has benefited a lot after the move (from a Pegasus 27). Striking midfoot with ease and feeling like i’m running free :)

I would give it a few short runs as said above just to get used to them. But in my case I felt better running in them from day 1. my transition was seamless.

Joel

I like the spirit of this post, a lot. I’ve heard Anton Krupicka say similar things in interviews, most notably in the film, Indulgence. And I’m in total agreement, with one important caveat.

I live and train in Tucson, Arizona. I won’t go into a lot of details and different scenarios, but the bottom line is, you have to be very careful about your water plan here, especially in the summer, and especially when the sun is on you. Usually that means carrying water, assuming you’re going somewhere interesting and not circling city blocks near water fountains. That means gear to carry water, especially a hydration pack. I’ve found that, in the summer, even if the sun isn’t on me, I need about 4-6 ounces of water per mile to stay minimally adequately hydrated.

I also just wanted to say I’ve had the exact same experience regarding music and headphones during my brief tenure carrying an ipod. Totally stressed me out. They would always pop out of my ears, and I even got to where I would start fussing about which song was playing during certain parts of a run, especially the home stretch.

I will often go without a watch of any kind if I’m running a known route, but I do use a gps watch to know how far I’ve gone when I run on trails / new routes (and I’m often trying new trail routes). There’s just no other way to keep a training log.

Fitz

Thanks for commenting Joel! I’m lucky that wherever I’ve run in the past 13 years there’s always been at least two water fountains along my route so I haven’t needed to carry any gear. And most of my running career has been in MA and CT – so no 100+ dry heat days there! Way to stay safe and know your body’s hydration needs. Since I’ve written this post, I received an iPod as a gift and use it maybe once a week. I was wise to buy Yurbuds so I don’t fret over the headphones. But I still prefer no music :)

Lee

I’m right with you! I used a HR monitor for years and was way too caught up in remaining in that zone for the entire run–didn’t matter what kind of run I was on. In the nearly 40 years that I’ve been a runner, I’ve only run with music about 3 times and I don’t know how people do that regularly either.
Last year, I began trying barefoot running and have adjusted to some barefoot, minimalist and old running shoes–best thing I ever did. There is no more freedom than stepping out the door without shoes!
Fortunately I live in Colorado, so I have access to quite a variety of road and trail runs, and I also do my long runs without water.
I agree that runners have become too obessed with carrying lots of water–sometimes on short runs. I have a hydration pack, but have only used it once in the past year–even for 2 hour runs. The only exception to that rule is if I’m headed for the mountains–then I pack plenty of water!
Great advice! Thanks again!

Fitz

You’re welcome Henry :) Glad to see you’ve found what works for you!

daniel

hey dude im new in this sport and i recently bought a pair of shoes free run by nike are really comfy………. what do u think about this running shoes? are good for long races ?

Fitz

That’s a broad question Dan. Check this article out: http://strengthrunning.com/2010/03/using-minimalism-as-a-tool-not-a-way-of-life/

Greg

that was good, i hate running on the track for running during track practice, its so boring, I like running in the woods better!

Scott

Thank you for the site, I’m a new runner and appreciate the information. I’ve been Century Cycling for years and will be doing my first TRi this summer. I note that you mention trail running over road which I understand. The challenge for me on trails is they arent even and I feel like my old knees and ankles are moving around a lot with little support. As if the uneven surface is causing more injury than the road flat surface. I understand the uphill and downhill benefit, I’m just speaking about how the surface of the trails seem to contribute to my knee and hip issues. Any thoughts? Thanks

Jason
Kevin hodges

I like to run with a light weight knife as well, more for sense of security than anything . Just make sure it’s stainless, the spyderco manix is my preferred carry.

Ibrahim

Hello . . .

I am a senior (over 60), and am considering getting into light running – well, actually something between a brisk walk and light jog to be more accurate. I’ve started a very light program where I switch between the walk and light jog (and I mean light). I haven’t gotten any running shoes yet, and my son, who runs quite regularly mentioned to me about letting the front of the foot land first.

I ran track in high school (before the metric distances) and the only time we let our front land first was in sprints, so naturally I was a bit confused. I found out about minimalist running when I went to buy a pair of those five-toe running shoes. Fortunately, the sales person gave me a ton of advice about learning more about barefoot running technique.

So, I am here asking about any tips . . . running . . . . shoes . . . beginning . . . etc. Right now I am running in a pair of trail boots (kind of like a boxer would train), and I am using a heel down technique for obvious reasons. . . . I’ve tried to land the ball of my foot first, but am a bit hesitant for fear of landing incorrectly and causing some unknown-and-difficult-to-recover-from injury in my foot or ankle. Remember I am a senior . . .

Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks
Ibrahim

P.S. I am mostly running on pavement for the time being . . . until I get home to a park.

Jason Fitzgerald

First I would get a pair of running shoes – a regular pair, not Vibram Five Fingers. Then I’d focus on landing underneath your body and increasing your steps per minute to 170-180 instead of worrying about a heel strike or forefoot strike. You can have a heel strike and still be a good/fast/injury-free runner. Also try my Beginner’s Corner here: http://strengthrunning.com/how-to-start-running/. Good luck!

Billy

Just love this kind of focus. I was born in the city but grew up in the country and that made all the difference. Just went out the door and ran wherever my feet took me. As a result, I loved cross country and simply “endured” track season until the fall when we once again ran in the country. Thanks for posting this!
~Billy Dean

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