Barefoot running – Is it better? Part 1

by | Mar 18, 2015

Part 1

You may have heard the claim that barefoot running is more natural as it promotes a front-foot strike (FFS) pattern. The idea is that shoes are a modern invention that interfere with the normal foot-strike pattern and mechanics.

Is it true?

With respect to the research that is out there, the jury is still out on the positives and negatives of barefoot or minimalist running. The systematic reviews1 that have looked at barefoot runnings only find research that is of low to moderate quality. The moderate quality evidence does suggest differences such as less maximum ground reaction forces, less foot/ankle dorsiflexion at contact, less ground contact time, shorter stride length, increased stride frequency, increased knee flexion at contact when barefoot running. However, there is no evidence that clearly says these differences make barefoot running better or worse. There may be some conditions/circumstances where barefoot running may be helpful but research has not yet made them known. However, the well-respected exercise physiologist and runner Dr. Peter Larson suggests that there may never be an answer and we should use the footwear that feels comfortable/works for us.

Should I try it?

Barefoot PictureI think that it is certainly possible to consider barefoot running if done cautiously and progressively, but there are still many unknowns. We do, however, know more about foot strike, and this may be something more appropriate for you to adjust in certain known circumstances.

FFS is not necessarily more natural. Research shows that the majority, ~90%, of runners use a rear-foot strike (RFS) pattern2-3. A not dissimilar number, ~70%, was seen when a habitually barefoot Kenyan tribe was studied4.

If this is the case, what has pushed people to recommend FFS and barefoot running? One reason may be a highly-publicized study of elite athletes that found RFS running to have twice the injury rate of FFS running5. But this study had two major limitations: it was of a very small sample group – only 52 athletes, and they were elite track athletes. This means that we have to consider the results with caution when giving advice to the much larger and diverse populations of recreational, youth, and even competitive runners. Other studies that have been more representative of the general population do not show any difference in injury risk or performance between foot-strike.

If your normal running pattern is comfortable for you, why change it?! Stay tuned for Part 2…

Reference List

1. Perkins KP, Hanney WJ, Rothschild CE. The risks and benefits of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes: a systematic review. Sports Health. 2014;6(6):475-80.

2. Larson P, Higgins E, Kaminski J, et al. Foot strike patterns of recreational and sub-elite runners in a long-distance road race. J Sports Sci. 2011;29(15):1665-73.

3. De almeida MO, Saragiotto BT, Yamato TP, Lopes AD. Is the rearfoot pattern the most frequently foot strike pattern among recreational shod distance runners?. Phys Ther Sport. 2015;16(1):29-33.

4. Hatala KG, Dingwall HL, Wunderlich RE, Richmond BG. Variation in foot strike patterns during running among habitually barefoot populations. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(1):e52548.

5. Daoud AI, Geissler GJ, Wang F, Saretsky J, Daoud YA, Lieberman DE. Foot strike and injury rates in endurance runners: a retrospective study. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012;44(7):1325-34.

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