Run Simple: A Minimalist Approach to Fitness and Well Being Book Review

I’ll endeavor to keep this review of Run Simple: A Minimalist Approach to Fitness and Well-Being succinct as writing much about a book embracing simplicity is ironic.

Background on Author Duncan Larkin

Run Simple - book review

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In the early to mid-2000s, Run Simple author Duncan Larkin kept a blog called Roads, Mills, Laps in which he waxed eloquent about running, philosophy, history, American culture, and the merging of these subjects inside his noggin’. (A website by the Roads, Mills, Laps name is still kept by Larkin as his hub for all things authorial, but those blogging jewels of yore are no longer online.) Larkin wrote about suffering through speed workouts, creepsters he encountered during runs, running for hours with no water or food, historical figures he wished would come alive, the future of McMansion America, and more. The quality of his writing was as high as it gets, so I reeled with excitement whenever Larkin queued up a new post.

In 2010, Larkin wrote Oxygen Debt (my review), a fictional running novel. That story read as what I imagine it would be like to watch a reality show about a psychiatric ward full of runners. I simultaneously wanted to look away so that I would spare the characters their (fictional) dignity and to keep reading so that I could find out precisely how (fictionally) insane they were. Oxygen Debt scared the pants off me — I worry there are people in this world as wonky as the book’s characters — and I remained hooked on Larkin’s writing.

Larkin’s been a freelance writer for a while, and last summer he started writing for iRunFar.

The Run-Down on Run Simple

He has now authored into the totally new-for-him genre of how-to manuals with Run Simple. Larkin argues with this book that running is the basic act of propelling oneself across the Earth and that we do not need to complexify it with convoluted workouts, strange dietary choices, music players, gym memberships, and heart-rate monitors. Like an onion, Larkin uses his and others’ running experience to deconstruct our sport to its core.

Larkin proffers lots of advice on how to simplify our relationship with running:

  • He says the first step is to recognize that the power to be a runner/better runner rests within our anatomy, not within something we purchase.
  • The human body generates much feedback when we run. If we listen to these signals instead of using technology to mask and ignore them, we will become more intuitive runners.
  • A simplified running schedule can generate better results because it may allow you to run more consistently and without injury.
  • Runners should to do a couple extra, non-running exercises to address muscle imbalances generated by running and to keep the core strong. These exercises don’t need to be done in a gym, though.
  • Eat real, clean food. Not crappy stuff that’s been refined two million times. Just a lot of fruit, vegetables, and protein.
  • You don’t need expensive running gadgets and clothing. There are perfectly good options without exorbitant price tags.
  • Invest intellectually in race day. Plan for its details so your race stays simple.
  • Try not to play head games. A runner is a runner is a runner and you are one. Larkin offers wisdom on dealing with the games that can arise in runners’ minds.

Also, Larkin calls upon the experience of several elite runners who take stripped-down approaches to running and racing, including Toby Tanser, Lauren Fleshman, Anton Krupicka, and Brad Hudson. Each of these runners is a living example of how running success can be achieved through running simple.

My Take

So, was there anything left of running when I shut the book’s back cover? Yes, the desire to put on a pair of shoes and run forever. Full confession, Larkin is preaching to the choir in me. I am far more interested in how running takes me to beautiful places and puts me in the company of like-minded people than I am in the technicalities of the sport.

Like Larkin, I am afraid of heart-rate monitors and almost as wary of GPS devices. Wearing them, I feel like I’m in The Hunger Games and someone’s about to sic a liger on me. My body gives me plain-as-day feedback on what shoes it does and doesn’t like, so shoe experimentation can be akin to stuffing round pegs into square holes. I like lots of quiet, so music playing from earbuds for too long makes me want to chuck myself off a cliff. I wear running shoes and clothing long after people have started to make fun of me for something looking tattered or “so 2006.”

To be clear, this is not a book about running barefoot or being unprepared for the variables one could encounter over the course of, say, a long mountain run. Larkin is neither for nor against barefooting/wearing minimalist shoes; he says to wear the shoes that work for your feet and not your buddy Joe’s or what the shoe reviewer in a magazine says is good stuff. And Larkin sure wants you to dress and carry exactly what you need for a healthy, happy run; he just wants you to remember that it’s your legs and heart that will make you a better runner rather than what’s in your pack.

Are there any downsides to running simple, I wonder? The only plausible one I see is that, by simplifying the kinds of workouts one does, one may be losing fitness gains that could come from workout diversity. I think Larkin banks on the fact that happier running is often more successful running and that removing some workout diversity may allow someone to run more consistently and without injury. I’ll let you be the judge on whether this is a possible downside for you.

I’m headed out for my afternoon run shortly. It’s a recovery week for me, so today I’ll run a couple flat, slow miles. I know the route well and I don’t care my pace, so I’ll leave the watch at home. It’s a chilly October day, so I will need a pair of tights and a jacket. I’ve got the trusty shoes I always wear; they look a little worse for the wear but they run well. I’ve got my head, legs, lungs, and heart fully attached and ready to go, though my quadriceps are still tired from a recent race. I’m taking with me one more thing, a thought from Larkin in Run Simple, “Running may seem like a complex activity; it’s not… Keep at it.”

Call for Comments and a Giveaway

[Contest Closed] We’re giving away three copies of Run Simple! This is a book about going simple, going “old school.” To enter the contest, leave a comment in the comments section of this post by November 12 at 11:59 Mountain Time, answering the following: What’s one simple/minimalist/old-school thing you’ve done with your running that’s led to success or a breakthrough? The three best comments we choose will win a copy of Run Simple.
Here are the three winning comments.
Kristin
i just run. sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, lots of times up and down hills, in the mountains as often as i can. i love the ups, tolerate the downs, and don’t enjoy the track at all (so i don’t run around them). I seek to do my best in races, but when the best isn’t a PR, i find ways to be happy with the performance i gave that day. then there’s yoga, ultimate, toddler walks, and alllll the other things… :)
Trail Clown
If you give me a copy of the book, I will renounce my blog name (Trail Clown) and simply post comments under my real name. I know everyone is tired of the nickname and the comments that go with it. If that is not enough incentive to give someone a free book, I don’t know what is!
And if you need a real, serious excuse, I definitely went old school this past year. I gave up my sponsorships (Nike,McDonalds, etc.), my coaches (I am now coached by a pantheon of gods), my toe shoes (I now run on cinder blocks tied with organic string), my gadgets (no more watch, I use a sundial taped to my chest) and my bad diet (I only eat unrefined weeds from my garden). I still fly to races, but I only fly on Fed Ex cargo planes, sitting between boxes.
-Charlie M.
Jeremy
One thing that I have done to simplify my running is to smile. I know that sounds a little strange but I remember always running when I was a kid and I loved it. It never hurt or felt awkward it simply felt joyful and free. Now as I run, I smile and bring back those feelings. When there are boulders in the trail instead of following the path around like most people I adjust my stride so I can leap off the top like a kid would. Since I have started smiling and stopped worrying so much about everything else they have become easier and more joyful. When I get home I have a perma smile and I have had many more of “That run was totally AWESOME” type moments!!
Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 79 comments

  1. Steph

    For the past few months I've stopped using gels and chews for long run nutrition. I don't like them and lots of the time they're full of stuff I don't want to be ingesting. So I've started to incorporate more "real" food on runs.

  2. Sam Jurek

    "Ultrarunning, what a funny sport, you don't need to understand it; you just need to feel it." -Tim Olson in his 2012 WS100 race report

    Although I fail to put simplicity into my own terms, Tim's words sum up my viewpoint. My fortunate (and relative) recent running success has be a function of bringing back the simplicity of the sport. I had typically concerned myself with weekly mileage, speed workouts, tempo runs, and hitting my "30-minute post-run window" for refueling. When you stop comparing yourself to others and your previous PRs and focus on doing what you love, success – and more importantly – happiness, flourish and ultimately lead you down whatever path you are supposed to be on. Whether that's a track athlete, marathoner, or trail runner doesn't matter, what matters is that you are exercising yourself in the things which bring you happiness.

  3. Gydle (aka Mary)

    I never wear a watch, even in races. No heart monitor, no GPS. I run as I feel, don't know how far I'll go until I'm a couple miles in and see how it's going. My favorite attire is a cotton t-shirt and a pair of 10-year-old Patagonia baggies shorts. It's only when I enter a race and see everyone in their technical fibers, with their iPods and heart monitors and GPSs and watches that I realize I run "minimalist". I agree wholheartedly with an earlier commenter – that running is my "break" and my renewal time. Not another thing to "work on"

  4. Tim

    I'm not sure whether I'm a simple runner, but I've found that training plans don't work for me. With a life with a full career and a large family to tend to, I've found that the only running I can do is simple running: run commutes and morning or evening exploration runs around the most beautiful citrus, avocado, field crops and, recently, pumpkins anywhere. Like others, I seldom have a set plan but just go, depending on whatever is in bloom, flower, or bud, whether the stars, moon, sunrise or sunset beckon, or whether a particular hill calls my name as I approach. Eventually I end up where I intended, sometimes earlier or later, bit usually refreshed and better for it.

    Then in youth track season this is all out the window and intervals replace the lot for a few months.

  5. A. Pace

    Robin & Carolyn hit on it, but I think running with dogs informs the feel tremendously. I mush too, so I see that pure dog joy daily in either pursuit, & in it there is no pretense & no dissemblance, no stress & no abstract contemplation– it is among the purest things I've ever seen. Can't think of a better thing to strive for in running than that.

  6. Dawn L

    The act or running itself is an act of simplicity when approached as such. One only has to put shoes on their feet (or not if you prefer barefoot) and then one foot in front of the other to experience the pure joy it can give. It is the "extras" that can rob you of connecting to that joy and the freedom that only running can give. We can all have this experience if willing and able to turn off our obsession with monitoring our bodies and just experience "getting lost" in the run and nature- which is really what it is all about.

  7. Will H

    As a simple training maxim… when in doubt, do less. If you're wondering whether to run a couple more miles, run an extra 400m rep on the track, pick up the pace today, etc… Don't. This gets back to the idea that consistency is key to long term success and injury prevention that Meghan mentions. This isn't to say you should never run long or run hard, but if you have any doubts about whether or not it's a good idea to do something more or faster I think it's wise to "just say no." Now, do I actually follow this simple advice? No comment.

  8. Marcus

    The minimalist thing that I've done that has improved my running and increased my enjoyment was spawned by a race-partner's complaint toward me. During an adventure race, I was transitioning with my camelbak hose in my mouth. My partner shouts, "what are you doing!?" and I said, "I'm hydrating."

    He then tells me, "let's go! you can drink when the race is over!!"

    I think about that incident often when I'm over-gearing for a long slow run and then, remind myself to not worry about running without some things. Not only has this improved my enjoyment, but it's also improved my mental toughness.

  9. jracecar

    I think about water, and I run until I see something that interests me. I look at that thing until I am done, and then I run more and think about water.

  10. Johnny

    After a year of trying to meet training plans for specific pace goals and stay in certain heart rate parameters for different types of runs I realized I was losing my passion for the sport. Apparently my furry running companion noticed this too so she decided to eat my Suunto heart rate monitor and foot pod. Although I was mad at the mangy mutt I quickly realized how freeing simply stepping out your door and exploring the mountains on foot is. (something I realized when I started running but had forgotten) Although I love improving my abilities I decided to make the switch from training plans to running streak. Instead of worrying about times and heart rate I now just focus on consistency. Get out the door and running at least a mile everyday has both increased my passion for the sport and my abilities. I’m going on 1 month but I can already fill the effects of consistency on my ability to both preform and recover from my most grueling mountain adventures. Perhaps my dog knew she would be getting some extra trail time when she destroyed my gear.

    1. Bartman

      Johnny,

      To you goes the honor of receiving my vote for the "best comment of the month". And a high paw to your four footed loyal companion. Made my day!

      Bartman

  11. nick w

    I left the heart rate monitor behind and started to run "free" by feeling with my body and listening to my breathing to determine when I am going fast enough.

  12. Anthony Waller

    My biggest running breakthrough came when I started running more miles.

    Plain and simple.

    Always enjoyed reading Duncan's writing. Remember laughing out loud at some

    of his descriptions on his great Indian running adventure…

  13. Stephanie Suvak

    I'm sitting now at my podiatrist's office. My
    frostbitten ankles from a 100 mile race a month ago has prohibited me from running
    since. Running was my stress reliever, my time for myself. I feel mentally running's absence. All I want to do is feel the thrill of bombing a downhill again. Once I am back on the trail, I will never again take a day for granted. One foot in front of the other keeps me sane and secure like nothing else.

  14. Mic Medeska

    The one thing that has dramatically improved my running is one day a week I run at a local fun run. I never know what to expect when I get there, from mileage to whom I will be running with. It means that midweek I get a complete shock to the system of planning runs/route/pace/trail. Will I run 3 miles as fast as I can to keep up with Darrin? Or will I be running 7 miles at an easy pace to chat with Susie? I'm a solo runner and trainer, but running once weekly with a group has made me faster, made me get out there when I normally may skip a day, but has also made me only run 3 miles (if that's the run for the day) when I could probably have run 12. I love it.

  15. Stephen Purdy

    My simple/ minimalist/ old school thing that has led to a 'minor' breakthrough is focusing on the weight transfer from side to side. Starting with a small, quick hip turn that allows more of your weight to be transferred from foot to foot, thereby landing with more force on the ground, and resulting with more spring in your step.

    Thanks for the articles …

  16. Gavin

    Hi Stephanie,

    How are your ankles? In my last ultra, I was afraid that my feet were frostbitten because they felt as hard as rocks (It was raining). Any thoughts on how to avoid getting frostbite ?

  17. Meghan Hicks

    boisean, thanks for your comment.

    In case you missed it in the book, among Duncan's advice for 'doing running on the cheap,' he recommends that we only wear 'cheap' clothes if they are comfortable for us. His example was cotton socks and t-shirts, as some people can wear them without issue and some people can't. He tells folks who have problems with said cotton to use an appropriate-to-them alternative.

    I, for one, can get away with wearing cotton t-shirts on runs of less than a couple hours, so I sometimes do. But cotton socks would be the death of my toes on any long run. I, thus, wouldn't touch the things, ever.

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