Tuesday, October 4, 2011

2 cents on "certification"

Today I went out with a friend who wants to "get into running". After years of not being very active, combined with doing something new she was undoubtably nervous - especially as I have a reputation for "running" that far exceeds my talents.

I knew it was going to be a walk/run affair, with more emphasis on the walk, but that was okay for me.  I was more interested in the company than the workout (I have a running club clinic later anyway).

So as we walked to the trails I asked her; "Do you want me to teach you a little but about good running form?".  I am not an expert, but I certainly didn't want to see her injured within the first 10 minutes.  She agreed, so I went through the "ABC's" of good running form (as shown by Jason Robillard in various books, clinics, blogs and general ramblings).  Her main issue was posture.  Years of daily life with bad posture meant that resetting the idea of how to stand was hard for her.  So foot plant and cadence went pretty much out of the window.  We just concentrated on standing and walking with good posture.

Last weekend I ran a Barefoot Runners Society meet-up downtown and afterwards a few of us went to one of the few - if not the only- minimalist shoe store in Vancouver.  I am not sure how long "The Natural Runner" has been operating, but they were new to me.  They know their stuff - it was nice to talk about form and foot/leg structure whilst in a running shoe store.  It was wonderful that they knew who Mark Cucuzella, Jason, Lee Saxby etc. were and yet didn't mention the book "Born to Run" once.  After talking to Tim (the manager) about various topics we briefly got onto the topic of certification in teaching barefoot running.

The whole topic of Barefoot Running training and certification has become a bit of a hot topic lately, more so with Vivobarefoot introducing a certification program specifically dealing with coaches who deal with Barefoot Running.

As is usual on this blog I am going to put in my 2 cents into the pot.  I only have 2 cents, so if you want anymore from me then.. umm.. tough.

To put it simply, I am not wholly convinced on the "Certification" route.  At this present moment in time I am not sure it's the best direction for the Barefoot Running community.  That's not to say in time my views may change - that's the good thing about this community of laid-back hobby joggers, we don't stress about changing our views - but currently, yeah, I don't know if this is what we should do.

I'll explain my reasoning. This is not against VivoBarefoot and their certification process.  I am glad they are promoting education and that they are doing it in a structured, carefully considered way.   This is more of a musing on the "Certification" issue in general.

Running is complex and it deals with lots of variables - mainly us; the human race.  I find it hard to believe that a training program would be able to cover all of our little quirks.  When an extensive program is put into place, so many rules and techniques are used that the whole process of teaching becomes too rigid. "Stand like this", "move like this", "visualize this".  A more formal teaching style has a tendency to be taught as a program for the masses not being taught for the individual.  I see potentially a lot of people having difficulty because they are being taught techniques which aren't structurally suited for them.  There is so much to learn - it could get very complicated, very quickly.  Okay, the "ABC - 3 rules" technique won't give everyone 100% perfect form.  However it is flexible enough that it will give good guidelines to pretty much everyone who wants to run.  It's simple, it's easy to understand and it's do-able especially for a novice.   I would rather see an 80% improvement in form over 100% of the group than 100% improvement in 80% of the group.  Does that mean there is no place for a more formal program? Actually a more formal program could be very useful for a more experienced runner or someone who is actively looking to improve the small, resistant issues in their form.  For a new runner, I think it would be overwhelming.

Why concentrate on Barefoot Running?  Barefoot running isn't a sport in itself, it's just a different way of, well.. Running.  We should be concentrating on teaching "good running form", not teaching "good barefoot running form".  I admit that developing good form is not as easy when you are in conventional running shoes.  However, some improvements can be made regardless of what you wear on your feet.  Let's not isolate Barefoot Running.  Let's just teach good running form to everyone and let people decide what they should wear.  We have to accept in the Barefoot and Minimalist community that we are not going to convert everyone to our way of thinking.  So let's concentrate on teaching techniques that are extensively used in good barefoot running form and teach everyone.  When we teach using science and good information, then people will be more converted to barefoot and minimalist running; they will switch because it makes sense NOT because it is a "current craze".  The same with "Barefoot Shoes".  Let's just call the minimalist shoes, "shoes" but explain why they are designed the way they are.

Certification does not always guarantee competency.  I am a cynic, but we have all seen it in other professions.    "Yes", you can take the coaching course, "Yes", you can do your exams and "Yes" you can have your piece of paper.  Does that mean you have the experience of teaching the hidden in's and out's? "No".  Does that make you a good teacher? "No".  However you have that piece of paper.  So when new runners are looking for an easier way to obtain information regarding barefoot running, they will look for someone "certified" and maybe will be less reluctant to question the teacher.  I personally would listen to someone who has years of solid experience, who can tailor my program and has no piece of paper, than that of a runner with little experience but the word "certified" after their name. However, I think that maybe I am in the minority.  I was brought up to question - I am not sure this is the case of the majority of the population.

Certification takes out the need for self-evaluation. This leads on from my previous point.  We are all lazy - the human race is always looking for an easy way out.  Taking a training course is useful, but it is an easy way out.  Years ago when I started Barefoot and minimalist running, we didn't have books, manuals or training courses.  If we wanted to learn about good running form, we asked questions, we tried new techniques and we listened to what our bodies was telling us.  We worked it out for ourselves.  Would we have done all of that if the information was handed to us?  Would we question what was working if we were held by the hand from beginning to end?  I am concerned that if someone took an extensive "certified" training course that the ability to self-evaluate what was and was not working for them would disappear.  We would listen to the teacher and follow all of the steps without questioning if the information was applicable to us.  A good teacher would be able to understand if something was or was not working for their student, but you can never guarantee good teachers in a new "field". The "ABC" program is basic enough that there is still a need of the student to self-evaluate and investigate.  The onus is on the student to tweak their form.  The student needs to work for that 20% to obtain perfect form.

Certification divides a profession or sport.  It's sad, but kind of true.  When you start implementing a documented way of doing something, you start creating divisions.  It starts becoming a case of "This way is better than that way".  You get zealots who believe their way is the ONLY way something should be taught.  New programs that are introduced have to find a "quirk" or a "spin" on how they teach so they can stand out from the rest.  Certification creates competition which ultimately divides the industry it set's out to standardize.  It's true of ALL professions. Look at Doctors, lawyers, or engineering - you need the degree from the "right" university.  It also means that a certain way is taught religiously, even if there are techniques from other educators that may work better for your student.  In my early days of Barefoot running, I revelled in the fact that we were all working on a common goal.  Okay our education techniques had a lot to be desired, but still, our only aim was that people ran well - how they did it was up to them.  It makes me a little sad to see how this unified objective may be destroyed.

I want to clarify, I am not against training programs or education.  Teaching people how to run well and with less injury is a GOOD thing.  I think the work done by Vivobarefoot, Merrell, Vibram, Skora, New Balance and all of the other minimalist shoe manufacturers out there (many of whom I should remember, but the coffee hasn't kicked in yet!) is amazing.  The "Good Form" programs that are currently out there are an excellent way of gaining information.  The books and magazine articles as well as the forums and web-site/blogs, all have a role to play.  My concern is the attempt to make one program appear better than all the rest.  This change I know is inevitable.  It's already in progress and the changes it will have on our little freaky community will be felt.  In 12 months time, I may lament this stance and wonder when I re-read this post, what all the fuss was about.  I may be a convert - who know's? But, at this time, I am uneasy.  I am not a certified running coach - I don't even count myself as a good running coach.  However, when someone comes to me and asks for advice, I do try to ensure the information is taken from multiple sources. is easy to understand and is individual to them.  My aim is to help them understand how their body moves and make them move better.  My payment is a coffee and a chat afterwards.  Until someone gives me a piece of paper, verifying me as being a mediocre coach and a very good coffee drinker, I think I will leave "certification" where it is. 


  1. I had a running coach once (high school track/xc) and I HATED every minute of it. What I love about running now is that I just go out my front door, do as much or as little as I'm comfortable with, and then I'm home. It's cheap, it's fast, it's completely relaxing.

    I'd maybe be interested in doing a clinic sometime, but I admit, the strongest draw to running for me is that I can get some quality alone time out of it. (Well, alone with the dogs, but that's ok.)

  2. I think you're right, especially on the part where you ask why we should be teaching good form techniques to only barefoot runners. By calling it "barefoot form" you're separating from and alienating those who choose not to run barefoot, when you could be including them and giving every runner a chance to learn better running form and avoid injuries.

  3. "I was brought up to question - I am not sure this is the case of the majority of the population." I am sorry to have to agree with you on that.

  4. Geez, I had no idea that we had a store like that in Vancouver. Thanks for the head's up, I'll have to go find it (didn't see an address on the link before it bounced me for being Facebookless.).

  5. They don't have a full web-page up yet. Just the FB page. Their details are:
    The Natural Runner.
    Address 1637 West 5th Ave. (2F), Vancouver, BC V6J 1N5
    Phone 604 754 3393
    The Manager is Tim. Tell him I sent you. Won't get you any deals unfortunately, but it's nice if we spread the word around!

  6. I am also rather against clinics, why spent a lot of money and not find out for your self what's the best. Enough youtube films to get example and just adapt it to your own possibilities. Undergoing clinics of shoemanufacterers, might get you away from the ultimate thing, which is runing without shoes.