Ten Ways to Broaden Your Concept of Minimalist Running

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Photo Credit: Naked Runner by Flickr User Tony Alter, used under a Creative Commons license

Anyone who pays attention to running to any degree whatsoever these days likely gets bombarded with talk about minimalist running.  While the concept has been hijacked by those talking about footwear (or lack thereof), it’s application is much broader than that.  In fact, taking a minimalist approach (as best advocated by Leo Babauta on Zen Habits) is a helpful philosophy for life in general – with the idea being to do, seek, or possess just enough to cover your basic needs for health, happiness, and well-being.

min·i·mal·ist   [min-uh-muh-list]


1. a person who favors a moderate approach to the achievement of a set of goals…

In a world where the pressure is always towards “doing more”, taking a minimalist perspective helps us instead ask “why do I need this?”, bringing a healthy degree of skepticism to new methods.  It doesn’t preclude making changes in our approach, but forces us to better assess such changes to make sure they are really worthwhile, and a good replacement (not necessarily an addition) for something else in our current regimen.

Assuming that running well or competitively is your primary goal – as opposed to building muscles, or just running for pure health reasons – here are seven ways to expand the concept of minimalist running to guide decisions about your training.

1. Shoes  – Why not start with the topic drawing the most conversation (and controversy)?  You don’t need to go to the extreme of barefoot running or toe shoes to embrace a minimalist approach in your shoe selection.  The goal is to improve your performance using as little shoe as possible – the lightest weight, the least stability features, and (of course) the lowest price.  Instead of starting from the heavy, feature-laden shoe and working your way down, try starting instead from something a little more moderate, and then seeking more as you find you need it.  And minimize the number of shoes you buy too – your shoes may well last longer than you think.

2. Form – While the minimalist movement is really more about finding the right running form than it is about shoe selection, the reality is that there is no one right running form.  Therefore, you should start from what feels natural, and then seek incremental, step at a time changes when driven to do so by potential performance gains or injury issues.  Focus on each change until it becomes natural, before moving to the next change (if needed).  To seek to reinvent yourself entirely risks more setbacks than the upside it promises.

3. Technology - GPS and heart rate monitors are amazing technologies, allowing you to precisely (or at least we think it’s precise) feedback your distance, pace, and exertion and thus dictate your effort.  However, it is all too easy to become reliant on this technology and to miss “hearing” the signals from our body.  If we allow it to do so, our body is remarkably adept at providing feedback on your effort and can often guide you surprisingly well to the desired results.  The minimalist approach to technology helps us avoid becoming beholden to the almighty stopwatch, and can return us to the pure joy of running while still delivering performance gains.

4. Workouts – There are infinite combinations of paces, distances, recovery times, and repetitions possible in putting together “quality” workouts, and it can be enticing to experiment.  However, often the simpler and more direct approach is the best, and one must understand the purpose of the workout and how it fits into goals for the season (or the long term) before adapting it to their training plan.  Avoid the temptation to add workouts that you see others perform without understanding their objectives, limit the number of hard workouts to avoid injury and burnout, and run each workout to your current (not desired) ability.

5. Strength Training – While strength training is an important (and perhaps even essential) element of developing as a runner, it should be employed as narrowly and specifically as possible to drive the gains you need, whether to improve performance or to avoid injury.  Some of the traditional strength-building exercises are nearly useless for runners, or even harmful if they build muscle mass in places you don’t need it.  And a minimalist approach employs the myriad of bodyweight exercises possible in driving the gains being sought, thus avoiding expensive gym fees (or personal trainers) and cutting down on the time required.  Strength training for the minimalist runner is a means to an end, not the end itself.

6. Flexibility – The natural tendency is to think that the more flexibility you have in your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, the better of a runner you will be – after all, we associate flexibility with athleticism.  However, studies have shown that flexibility is inversely correlated with running economy.  There certainly is a point where a lack of flexibility (or, better to think of “mobility) increases injury risk, but flexibility should only be developed to the point where this risk is minimized, and not beyond.  The tight-muscled runner is the efficient runner, so seek to do “just enough” stretching (dynamic, static, or by whatever other means you prefer) to avoid injury.

7. Injury Recovery – When faced with injury, the tendency (often reinforced by sports medicine doctors and physical therapists) is to try and do everything possible to fix the root cause – to improve your form, to strengthen, to stretch, to find better shoes.  The reality is that most injuries have one basic cause – doing too much too soon, or not listening to your body.  Instead of reinventing yourself every time you get a whiff of injury, reconsider your training approach and look for signs of overtraining.  Yes, other changes may be necessary, but these should be introduced incrementally.  Otherwise you risk swinging from one cause to another while missing the underlying issue.

8. Advice – The Internet and running publications are full of advice for runners.  The sooner you accept that most of it isn’t written for you (no matter who you are), the sooner you can adopt a minimalist approach to seeking and following it.  You are your own runner, with a unique background, unique goals, and unique constraints.  To constantly lurch from one piece of advice to another will stagnate your growth as a runner, and cause frustration instead of satisfaction.  Far better to find a board of directors consisting of a few advisers you trust (the fewer the better), and to invest the time in letting them get to know you.

9. Racing – Some runners jump into every race they find, often on a whim.  If your goal is to race as much as possible without caring about optimizing your results, this is fine.  If you are instead working towards a longer-term goal, it is far better to prioritize your A race, and consider B races as your build-up (or ramp-down) from this key event.  This reduces your risk of overdoing things, causing injury to your body or wallet.

10. Diet – Runner’s World and the Internet are full of advice on how to optimize your diet for running.  It doesn’t need to be that difficult.  Whatever beliefs may drive your dietary selection, the fundamentals are simple – you need protein, fat, carbohydrates, and vitamins and minerals, in a certain range of ratios, to fuel your training.  Calories in minus calories out yields weight gain or loss.  If you enjoy trying new foods, by all means do so.  But don’t feel pressured to conform to anyone else’s perception of the “optimal” runners diet.

So don’t be intimidated by all the talk about minimalism in the running world. Instead, view it from a broader perspective to make it work for you.  Without having to invest money or time in funky shoes or developing a new running form.

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  • http://runnersconnect.net/ Jeff Gaudette

    Great post, Greg! I couldn’t agree more with all these points. I think too many runners get stressed about the little things (i.e. what pace they are running their strides) and forget to relax and enjoy the training for what it is. Finding that balance between doing everything you can and mentally relaxing is difficult, but it’s essential for long-term success. Funny, I was thinking of writing something somewhat similar for Competitor soon :)

  • http://predawnrunner.com Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Jeff – flattered that you were considering the same topic. Love the posts you’ve been doing for Competitor of late, as well as what John has been doing on Runners Connect. By the way, I really focused on running my most recent tempo run by feel & breathing rate without looking at the watch based on one of your recent posts, and it was one of the best tempo efforts I’ve had this year.

  • http://runnersconnect.net/ Jeff Gaudette

    Thanks for the compliments Greg. Finding the topics to write about is always a challenge when I’m also putting out so many articles on my site, so I am glad you like them. Particularly, I wanted to look at how Kenyans approach their running (i.e. workout done, out of mind, no biggie if it was a bad one).

    Glad you had such a great run using your breathing and feel. Definitely needed in the summer!

  • jjreth

    Great post. Truly this advice could be used for all forms of minimalism beyond running. It goes to the core of how I learned to coach, write, and live, “Train smarter, not harder.”

    Jesse James Retherford

  • http://predawnrunner.com Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Jesse, I checked out your site and see how this approach fits with what you promote as well. And you are right, one could write a post on minimalism for nearly any passion you may pursue. Take care!

  • Tracie Rodriguez

    Great post! It reminded me of this blog entry I read a while back (and that I should have bookmarked because it took me 30 minutes to find again): http://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-primal-blueprint/#axzz21lz7TpSg

    Although what you are saying is more applicable to running, I still think the basic idea is the same- don’t complicate things and listen to your body. We have a very minimalist approach to life and I am so thankful for it. We don’t have a lot of “stuff” and whatever we do have, we hope to keep for a long time. From my own personal experience, I will say that it has helped me to stay focused on the important things and worry less with what society would like me to think is important. I like minimal – it is so much easier.

  • http://predawnrunner.com Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for taking the time to find that post Tracie, it’s a good one (and I’ve recently made a commitment to get better at bookmarking and organizing good posts for future reference). The concept of taking a minimalist approach certainly applies far more broadly than running. The simpler we can make our lives, the less stress we are likely to experience (which, in turn, can only help with our running!).

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