New Study May Turn Barefoot Running On Its Head

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When I ran the Seattle Marathon in 2005, a handful of guys wearing ponytails and matching green t-shirts — but no shoes — sped past me. The shirts advertised their membership in the Barefoot Running Society, which I made a mental note to Google when I got home. In the meantime, I was worried about these people. I expected a bloody scene at some point down the (urban) course. Instead, they were grinning and adjusting their ponytails when I finally crossed the finish line well after them.

In the next few years, as the barefoot tribe grew, many running traditionalists like me thought they were, well, wackos. “It takes more than recommendations from… a Runner’s World forum to convince me to lose my shoes,” Megan Gambino, a former cross-country runner and current marathoner, wrote in a post on Smithsonian’s site in 2010. But by then, Christopher McDougall had waxed enthusiastic about barefoot running in his bestseller Born to Run, and the tide was starting to turn in barefooters’ favor.

Then something big happened. Something that freed the skeptics and legitimized the believers. Harvard researchers published a study that showed barefoot running was healthier.

The scientists analyzed the foot strikes of a group of lifelong barefoot Kenyan runners and noticed that they landed on their forefeet, rather than their heels. “Fore-foot- and mid-foot-strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes, and may protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners,” the researchers concluded. (The below video shows a shoe-less forefoot-striker.)

If humans had evolved to land on the forefoot rather than the heel, then using traditional running shoes—which tend to reinforce rear-foot running—was definitely not the way to go anymore. Soon bare feet were everywhere. In a 2011 article in the New York Times Sunday magazine, McDougall reported that barefoot shoes had skyrocketed into a $1.7 billion industry.

But to a group of researchers at George Washington University, this whole barefooting phenomenon, and the fact that an entire industry had sprung up around a single study of a single group of runners, didn’t sit well. They decided to conduct their own study using a different set of Kenyan runners.

Of the Harvard study, they wrote, “[T]his research was conducted on a single population and we know little about variation in running form among habitually barefoot people, including the effects of running speed, which has been shown to affect strike patterns in shod runners.”

The new GW study was published last week in the journal PLos ONE, and the results contradict the central piece of now-conventional wisdom about barefoot running established in the Harvard study — namely that habitual barefoot runners don’t land on the rear foot.

The researchers had 38 volunteers run down a hard-packed track with a pressure sensor located midway down the route. Each runner crossed the pad at least three times at a their own endurance pace, and then at least three more times at a faster sprint pace. The results showed that the majority of barefoot runners in the GW study were actually rear-foot strikers.

“Our results indicate that not all habitually unshod people prefer a [forefoot strike] or [midfoot strike] at their preferred endurance running speeds,” the scientists wrote.

Yet some of their other findings were in line with the previous research. “Our data support the hypothesis that a forefoot strike reduces impact loading,” they noted in the study. But, they added, that doesn’t really matter when it comes to long distances. “[T]he majority of subjects instead used a rearfoot strike at endurance running speeds.”

Where does this leave the barefoot converts among us? Probably exactly where we were two weeks ago. The GW study doesn’t claim to be definitive. “It is not clear which experimental sample, if either, represents a better ‘model’ for the distances and frequencies of running in early humans,” the researchers wrote. No doubt the debate will rage on anew.

Photo by Shutterstock

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{ 11 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Lucy

    I’d Definetely run a round barefoot more if i could trust the groud was running on… at home and on running tracks (i run to keep fit nothing more) i run with no shoes… i feel lighter and quicker and more comfortable as well. No amount of research will make me change my mind as it is more of a comfort thing.

  • philly runner

    If we evolved to run barefoot on the African Veldt, then yes, run barefoot on the lush grass of the veldt. But I’m running on concrete/asphalt/pavement. I need a little something between that extremely hard and unyielding surface and my bare foot.

  • Bob D

    Not sure I’d ever go all-out barefoot in the city, but I’m never going to buy over-engineered, high-dollar, motion-control running shoes. I’ll stick to a basic shoe or a minimalist shoe. These force your feet to get stronger, as well as your legs, and after a time, your gait will change to something more sustainable than the typical heel-strike form.

  • Trudy

    I agree with Bob D., I didn’t start running until I was 64. I hated running as an adult, choosing other activities for fitness because when I tried to run with a heel strike, my knees hurt. When I started working with a science based exercise physiologist trainer and moved to minimal shoes, I found that I really can run with a natural forefoot strike, consistent cadence and no knee pain. Oh, and my feet are stronger, too!

  • Christine

    I was a barefoot runner in the early 80s… when Zola Budd (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JziXi_NS3YY) was the talk. I was 13-17 years old. During that time I sustained a femoral stress fracture attributed by the docs directly to running. Women have a different strike pattern and adolescents bones react differently. Be tremendously careful and watch out for your kids.

  • JaydenAnker

    You have to realise that swapping from shoes to barefoot style your running style isn’t going to change instantly. You have to transition it and get used to using different muscle groups. Therefore you see a lot of people not adjusting right and therefore still hill striking causing damage.

  • Kate

    When I made the switch and started running in my Vibram Five Fingers, the knee pain I had developed disappeared and running became more effortless. I had to hold myself back from running too far too fast. My feet are stronger and I can move my toes now more than I used to. As an Exercise Scientist, I feel barefoot running makes sense with the Biomechanics training I received. Everyone does need to try to see what works best for their bodies and properly transition if they wish to make a change. Personally, I’ll never go back to any kind on non-minimalist shoe.

  • LizetteRod

    When I first started barefoot running, I had many issues about getting hurt because I read that its different muscles and stepping on something, but my friend sent me this link about barefoot running that totally helped me with all these issues! I hope they help you as much as it helped me. If i had this at the beginning i know the transition would have been so much better. :)

    http://teamdoctorsblog.com/2012/04/12/video-tutorial-173-can-you-run-barefoot-on-rocks/

    hope it helps my fellow barefoot runners!!! :)

  • Mike

    I’m still in the camp that barefoot is the way to go. Mind you, I’m not taking about skin to ground, but rather the holistic approach to running that is embodied in barefoot running. Whether it’s in barefoot/minimalist shoes or sandals, or running to catch up in hiking boots or work shoes, for me barefoot is far more about your body’s form, transitioning from pushing off to spring off with your calves, a rapid cadence, etc. than it is about what’s between your feet and the ground.

    It took me about 6 weeks to learn to run barefoot, and that was during a time when I was running 4-5 times a week, so there was a lot of practice involved. Only one I had transitioned my form did I switch to a barefoot shoe.

    My heels touch, sure, especially when I’m tired. But I think that where you strike, as in hit first, is what’s important. Since I “learned to run,” I’ve transitioned to midfoot strikes, with my heels touching as I come down and spring forward. All the pains I used to have while running (annoying, not serious/debilitating) have gone away since I made the switch.

    For winter running (in Alaska), I have to admit I’ve gone back to a non-minimalist shoe… winter upper (built-in or smeared with caulk), screws/spike under the front for a little traction, etc. Of course, I’ve also modified these shoes a bit: I’ve cut-out sides to open up the toe box (with duct tape to keep the snow out) and sawed off (literally, as in with a miter saw) heel to create a zero (really, it’s probably negative…) drop. Ha!

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