I’ve never been a sporty person. In school, I was part of the “alternative” crowd, more interested in music, sarcasm, and less wholesome pastimes than sport. I have a vivid memory of taking a shortcut during a cross-country run only to be spotted by the teacher and sent back to the beginning to start again. I’d deliberately hold myself back so I could run the 1500m with my friends, and I’d avoid batting and bowling in cricket by lounging on the outskirts of the field, catching more sun than balls.
The intentional act of exercising for fitness had never been a part of my life—so it came as quite a surprise when it became a pillar of my daily routine.
When I discovered minimalism, I started evaluating what I wanted from life and realized that being fit and mobile into older age was really important to me. But that wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t do anything to stay healthy now. So, to improve my health in the present and in later life, I began running and swimming on alternate days.
Every morning, I forced myself out of bed ninety minutes earlier than usual to exercise before work. At first, finding motivation was a struggle, but over time I began enjoying the exercise more than the comfort of my duvet. Starting each day this way meant that whatever else happened I’d already achieved something meaningful.
On the days when I found it harder to roll out of bed, I’d think of two future selves: the one immediately after completing the exercise who would appreciate the mood-enhancing endorphins, and the one in thirty years who would be grateful I invested in his health now. This “why” was the fuel for my exercise—and it felt infinitely renewable.
Until I got injured.
I began suffering from excruciating pain in my left knee, diagnosed as ITB syndrome. Even after months of physiotherapy and strength training, the pain would flare up without warning, forcing me to hobble home with my head held low. Life’s unpredictability was messing with my intentions. However, I was unwilling to accept that my running days were over before I’d barely left the starting line.
Shortly after embracing minimalism, I heard about minimalist shoes. I dug a little deeper and found a number of advocates of barefoot running claiming that modern, maximalist running shoes, with all their padding and support, actually weaken our feet and change our natural gait and can cause more injuries. My fancy running shoes might feel like running on clouds, but could they actually be thwarting the one thing they were designed to do?
As I was already onboard with minimalism, I was happy to extend the philosophy to my feet, so I ordered my first pair of barefoot shoes.
The first few months were spent getting used to my new way of walking. It’s quite a different sensation and my stride had to adapt so that I wasn’t hammering my heel hard on the unforgiving city streets. Then it was time for my first run. A short 20-minute jog should be fine, right? Wrong. When I woke the next day, my calf muscles were so sore I couldn’t walk for two days. I therefore returned to day one of the Couch to 5k app to slowly get my legs and non-existent calf muscles accustomed to the new technique. There was some initial discomfort as my feet and ankles were being bent in unfamiliar ways, but my flexibility slowly increased until I could consistently run 5k with no unpleasant after-effects.
That was almost a year ago. I haven’t experienced any pain since and am running further than I ever have before.
Minimalism provided a new perspective and encouraged me to ask questions of the norm. What was actually essential and what was a hindrance disguised as a necessity? This is an important question to ask of everything in our lives and, by asking it of my running shoes, I was able to actualize my intention of keeping fit into middle-age and beyond. A small, practical adjustment could have life-changing consequences.
I asked this same question of the technology I used on my runs. I used to listen to music or a podcast to distract me from the effort of running. I used to track my runs to measure my pace and compete with myself. But now, both running and swimming are opportunities for me to detach from technology. When I run, instead of distracting myself from my body, I focus on it. I pay attention to my breath, my leg movements, and the ground beneath my feet. I listen to the birds, I take in the trees, and I watch out for snakes and lizards. Now I feel free from the tethers of technology but more connected to myself and nature.
If there’s a broader message to this story, perhaps it’s that by adding so many unnecessary elements we’ve made life more complicated than it needs to be. Marketeers are always trying to convince us that, despite living happily without something for years, suddenly there’s a new product or upgrade that is “essential.” This is how raised heels on running shoes came into existence: it was never because we actually needed them. By stripping back my running shoes to the truly essential, I was able to experience the joy of running again. This is an underpinning philosophy of minimalism: sometimes subtraction is more powerful than addition.