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

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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 the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.

View Comments (79)

  • the simplest, most minimal thing i've done to make me a more successful runner was to stop considering myself a runner. About a year ago, i tried getting into running and ended up hurt and disappointed. I had some concerned "i told you so," speeches from family members and friends since i have cerebral palsy on my right side and most think i shouldn't be running. I brushed most of that off and took a step back to really consider how to get better. I decided walking a lot in minimal shoes might be the gateway. I don't drive and walking always came easy to me, so why not see how far i can take it? I started walking every single day, long or short, it didn't matter. i just wanted to do something outside every day. After a great spring, i started being able to add in a run every now and then this summer. i thought that was awesome! Now i can run whenever i want, really, but i don't consider it a necessity since walking can keep me in just as good a shape. I'm hoping next year i'll be able to get into some really long walk/runs over 25 miles. People around town swear they see me running EVERY DAY, but i honestly run less than a week a month -- and usually i don't string together running days. When i do run though, i wear cheap beat up shorts from walmart, cheap bulk buy hanes tshirts and a lot of the time, no socks. I've even been seen running in a pair of "flip flops" (xeroshoes). I think with the base i've laid down this year that i can start experimenting with different shoes to see what my bad foot likes and doesn't like. Altra's instincts have been pretty good, but a bit of a raised heel may solve a few issues i have. i can't wait to find out.

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    • Great stuff Kev!

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  • Thanks for sharing.

    That´s what I believe.

    I sold my garmin, just cause of that, to start to hearing my body.

    Go simple is the main issue of running, for me.

    I´ll try to buy this book at amazon.

    See u, bye from Brazil.

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  • Last month I ran the Haliburton 50m wearing a garbage bag because it rained the whole time and I wanted something light and waterproff. It worked and everybody eles was wearing like $100 plus jackets. Every time I ran by somebody I would say "hear comes the garbage man" and I got lots of people laughing.

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  • easy: I just started leaving the ipod at home, so I could listen to my body, and what's going on around me.

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  • 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.

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  • Keep it simple! dont get attached to a schedule, if you feel like running: RUN!

    Short run: go for it, feel like you want to keep going: do a second lap!

    Cheers!

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  • My running started to improve when I ditched the schedules and pace charts and just started running by feel and only ran when I felt like it. If I feel like hitting a spin class or elliptical workout or even weights than I do and I'll save the run for another day.

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  • I agree with all of these points. I especially benefit from the whole foods stuff as opposed to synthetic 'sports foods'.

    One point though: I recently got a coach for 3 months, and I have to say it was great and it corresponded with the period with the least body tweaks, most training, and I consistently loved the workouts.

    So there's more than one way to skin a cat.

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  • Love that philosophy - run simple.

    It jives very well with the quote "Running is a lifestyle and an art. I'm far more interested in the magic of it than the mechanics." -Lorraine Molle

    :)

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  • Thanks for sharing, Meghan.

    For myself, I stopped worrying as much about specific workouts and focused more on what I enjoy: trail running, mostly up and down. This has led to me running more consistently and getting more joy out of the runs.

    Every time I used to try and stick to a schedule, or use a coach or training plan, I ended up injured. But once I dropped that and ran for myself, other than a sprained ankle or two, I haven't had to deal with any injuries for several years now.

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    • Oh, and I never, ever wear headphones. I will occasionally sing on my runs, but I never listen to music that's outside my head.

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  • The simplest thing I've done is to start an outdoor fitness class incorporating simple stretches and strengthening exercises. We do this circuit-style, making our way through a large park with hills and steps, and stopping at informally designated "exercise stations" --really just park benches or stone walls that are in an out of the way spot and/or with a good view. We never use any exercise equipment, but rather choose from a menu of exercises on a videotape I made for a nonprofit park group, "101 Things to Do on a Park Bench." By this simple strategy of adding upper body, core, and lower body strengthening and flexibility movements in 360 degrees (all directions) we make running or walking complete, and counterbalance any overuse that occurs by moving in just a single plane. Keeps everyone coming back again and again, after 8 years!

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  • One of the reasons I love running in the summer is running in short-shorts, a barely-there t-shirt (I like running with a shirt most of the time), a hat, my watch, a running vest for water and "food," and that's it. Over 30 years I have tried running with music a few times--I hate it. The heart-rate monitor seems a little silly to me, and GPS doesn't work in our southern hardwood forests. The real truth of running is running--

    That said, do I really need to buy a book to teach me how to keep my gear to a minimum? Kind of like buying a heart rate monitor to see if I'm working hard.

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  • Well for me it was simple, I run with my dogs. Ever notice how much fun they have running? They don't care what time you get up to run, how far you run, in fact the farther the better for them. They don't complain about the weather - oh snow great! oh rain and mud, even better!!! They put everything back into perspective for me while running....and I run farther, faster, and happier!!! Love my girls Roxie and Berkeley.....

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  • When I simplify my running, I run like my dogs. 1. I start off slowly. This is when the dogs get a chance to sniff every bush, pee and poop without me telling them to hurry up. I get a chance to notice what's changed on the trail or in my neighborhood since the last time we ran the route. 2. I'll run like my younger dog Gifford. He likes to run fast and then stop, look around and start off again slowly, then sprint ahead again only to repeat the sequence. The lengths of speed and slower running is varied and untimed. I follow Giff in this pattern until I can't run any farther. 3. My other dog, Buddy likes to veer off in all directions to explore. So when I take his lead, we might begin on one trail or street, but then change directions "just to see" what might be around the next corner or in another neighborhood. Running like my dogs takes the pressure off and provides freedom to enjoy the moment. It helps me listen to what's going on in my body and get reacquanted with my surroundings.

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  • After leaving college and the not-exactly-structured-but-certainly-not-unstructured context of the running club, I moved to Seattle and threw out any semblance of training plan and schedule leading up to the White River 50. Every weekend and many weekdays I'd get out onto the trails. If I thought I'd be out for 3+ hours, I'd bring along some water and food, but otherwise I'd head out with shoes, shorts, and happiness -- a couple times I'd leave the shoes and at one trail 5k I left the shorts.

    More importantly, whether out on the trails or on roads closer to home, I'd do what the day presented. Feeling good with some extra energy bubbling over? How about a fatlek in the true sense of the word; not a structured 3 minutes on, two minutes off, but running fast for a while until I didn't feel like running fast anymore, taking a break, and picking it up again. Feeling playful? Take a turn down that trail there to find the most technical descents to bounce down. Feeling like some pain will do me good? Get to that high point as quickly as possible. Feeling tired? Take it easy and enjoy some good recovery miles.

    Maybe I didn't hit race day at peak fitness, but then again, maybe I did. I finished with a PR and after a bit of knee pain in the middle miles had a surge of energy and ran the last 13 miles. Above all, I was happy in training and racing, and that, to me, is success.

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  • 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!!

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  • Simple Running Haiku:

    First: Start out naked.

    Second: Maybe add some shoes.

    Third: Run like a kid.

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  • After stripping things down - minimal shoes, rarely socks, occasional barefoot runs, no music, vegetarian diet, ditching the GPS - I've been able to run happy and healthy 7 days a week. Not saying the diet or barefoot/minimal style is for everyone, just found what works for me.

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  • Foot games! After watching how Kilian Jornet almost dances down the trail, I periodically add my own whimsical jigs to my runs. I skip, I sidle, I run backwards, I do little tap dances down and up technical sections. It's good for leg strengthening, but it's also great fun! In the end, it's why most of us run.

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  • Simple running, what a concept…2 years ago, I was engaged in the Battle of the Bulge, my bulge, that is, aka, my evenly distributed fatness. A couple of my friends told me they were doing a ½ Ironman triathlon. I was like, “wow!!!” 70.3 miles of self-induced hell, that sounds awesome, I’ll do it… So, I did, I ran, biked, and swam what seemed endless miles. 4 months later…I did it! What happened along the way were lots of minor injuries, and they started adding up. See, I started running unable to run, having 2 bad knees; my doctor said that I wouldn’t be able to run without surgery…yikes! So, I bought the braces, the expensive shoes, cool clothing, and name brands, of course. None of that helped. However, along the way, I starting running with old-school natural runners, mostly shod & some un-shod (barefoot), and little by little, I stopped worrying about PR’s, brand-name stuff and focused on my form, one mile at a time. Soon after, I didn’t need the knee supports, pronation control, etc…Flash forward, I no longer run with pain, I run with joy, by keeping it simple, less shoe, sometimes no shoes; eating real food, plenty of water, lots of fruit, veggies and protein [and lots of PB & J’s, plus, the occasional pizza] and I’ve reduced my personal circumference by 28 lbs. Simplify, simplify, simplify…is where the credit is due; less is more. Thanks for letting me share my story.

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