Barefoot Running: The Science Behind the Fad

Running magazines would lead you to believe that barefoot running
reduces injury risk and potentially maximizes performance. However, it
appears that, as this is a new trend, there is simply insufficient
prospective data to say otherwise.

Rami Hashish, DPT has been doing quite a bit of research into barefoot running. Unlike Daniel Lieberman, who looked at experienced barefoot runners, Hashish has been researching novice barefoot runners.

The article links to a number of papers, not all of which I’ve read, but the conclusion seems to be that barefoot running requires a completely different form to shod running (heel strike vs. fore-or-mid-foot strike). This shifts the demand from the knee to the ankle. Novice barefoot runners will not have a sufficiently developed calf to support this. As a result, many new barefoot runners with injuries including plantar fasciitis, stress fractures and calf pain.

Hashish’s research supports a lot of the anecdotal evidence I’ve been reading and hearing from people who have tried minimal shoes, stuck with their regular training plan and found themselves injured.

My interest in barefoot and minimalist running is to improve my form and avoid injury. Other research I’ve been reading lead me to believe that barefoot and minimalist running will help me do that, so I’m willing to put in the time to cut back on the running and retrain.

His research is a good reminder to that retraining is going to take some time, and that I need to take it slow.

Barefoot Running: The Science Behind the Fad

Barefoot walking form

There’s plenty online about barefoot running form, but I’ve found it a real challenge to find much on proper barefoot walking form. I have found a few resources, which I though I’d summarize and share.

Everything I’ve read boils down to the following, and these are the things I’m trying to keep in mind while experimenting with barefoot walks home from work.

  • Align your posture. The best advice I’ve read on this is to imagine that the top of your head is attached to a balloon. I have horrible posture and this has helped me a lot.
  • Land softly on your heel. If barefoot walking has done one thing, it’s made me realise just how hard I usually slam my heel into the ground.
  • Use your toes. As the salesperson at the Vivobarefoot store told me, “Press your big toe into the ground.” Where the big toes goes the rest of the toes follow.
  • Flex your feet. Pressing your big toe into the ground helps with this, but it also helps to remember to flex.
  • Shorten your stride. So far, this seems to be happeng when I focus on landing gently on my heel and pressing my big toe into the ground, but I also find that at times I have to consciously reign in my stride.

Read more from people who know better than me

All you need is feet

“We have this idea now that all you need to run is a pair of shoes. It’s a common statement, right? Well, it turns out that’s not true. You don’t need shoes. All you need is feet.”

I’ve been researching barefoot running as one way of improving my form. Much of my reading, references Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, which I have yet to read.But there are also a lot of references to the research done on barefoot running by Daniel Lieberman of Harvard.

His hypothesis is that humans evolved over two million years ago to run barefoot when the African forests gave way to the savannahs. Much of the research he’s done seems to support this hypothesis, showing that a forefoot strike—which is much more common among barefoot runners—generates less impact than a heel strike.

The video is a great place to start getting an understanding of how barefoot running could help contribute to an improved running form. The Nature paper he coauthoured is also fascinating, but is much more technical. I had to get to grips with a lot of vocabulary that I hadn’t encountered since studying biology in college.