Since the publication of Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run”, barefoot running has become a popular topic in the endurance athletic world. There have been many claims made that barefoot running is healthier, faster, and leads to less injuries in long distance runners. But what does the evidence say? So this week we will be looking at research related to barefoot running and long distance injury prevention.
The first question that should be brought up in this debate is, “What are the mechanical differences between running in shoes versus running in barefeet?”
A study from the journal Nature published in 2010 looked at this question and used advanced biomechanical measuring techniques to evaluate the two running styles. This experiment was performed with 5 different groups running on a track at endurance running speeds: (1) Habitually shoed athletes from the USA; (2) Athletes from Kenya whom grew up running barefoot, but now use shoes; (3) US runners who grew up running with shoes, but now run barefoot; (4) Kenyan adolescents who have never worn shoes; (5) Kenyan adolescents who have worn shoes most their lives.
The results of this analysis demonstrated that runners habitually used to wearing shoes (Groups 1 & 5) primarily landed on the heel of their foot (“rear-foot strike”) while running. However the runners with barefeet (Groups 2 and 4) landed more often on the front of their foot (“fore-foot strike”) or the middle of their foot (“mid-foot strike”). They also found that during running, the peak force of impact between the ground and foot was three times higher in habitually barefoot runners with fore-foot strike. The significant force differences result from increased ankle motion, knee flexion, and medial foot arch cushion during impact with a fore-foot strike.
Therefore, this study concludes that there is a significant difference in the biomechanics of shoed runners compared to habitually barefoot runners. These differences lead to varying rates and magnitudes of force on the body during long distance running. The role these force differences may play in injury was not examined in this study and the authors conclude that controlled prospective studies are needed to test the idea that barefoot running can decrease injuries.
- Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, Daoud AI, D’Andrea S, Davis IS, Mang’eni RO, Pitsiladis Y. (2010) Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 463: 531-5.