Study finds barefoot runners have less foot stress than shod ones (w/ Video)

January 27, 2010 By Rebecca Hersher
On the left, a habitually shod Kenyan who is heel-striking; on the right, a Kenyan who has never worn shoes and who is forefoot striking in the way most barefoot runners land. Below are representative force traces (in units of body weight) showing how the two styles of running differ in the force generated when the foot collides with the ground. The barefoot runner lands with no collisional force. Image: Daniel E. Lieberman

(PhysOrg.com) -- New research is casting doubt on the old adage, "All you need to run is a pair of shoes."

Scientists have found that those who run barefoot, or in minimal footwear, tend to avoid "heel-striking," and instead land on the ball of the foot or the middle of the foot. In so doing, these use the architecture of the foot and leg and some clever Newtonian physics to avoid hurtful and potentially damaging impacts, equivalent to two to three times body weight, that shod heel-strikers repeatedly experience.

"People who don't wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike," says Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human at Harvard University and co-author of a paper appearing this week in the journal Nature. "By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike. Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world's hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain. All you need is a few calluses to avoid roughing up the skin of the foot. Further, it might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes."

Working with populations of runners in the United States and Kenya, Lieberman and his colleagues at Harvard, the University of Glasgow, and Moi University looked at the running gaits of three groups: those who had always run barefoot, those who had always worn shoes, and those who had converted to barefoot running from shod running. The researchers found a striking pattern.

Most shod runners -- more than 75 percent of Americans -- heel-strike, experiencing a very large and sudden collision force about 1,000 times per mile run. People who run barefoot, however, tend to land with a springy step towards the middle or front of the foot.

"Heel-striking is painful when barefoot or in minimal shoes because it causes a large collisional force each time a foot lands on the ground," says co-author Madhusudhan Venkadesan, a postdoctoral researcher in applied mathematics and human evolutionary biology at Harvard. "Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing, avoiding this collision by decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land, and by having a more compliant, or springy, leg."

The differences between shod and unshod running have evolutionary underpinnings. For example, says Lieberman, our early Australopith ancestors had less developed arches in their feet. Homo sapiens, by contrast, has evolved a strong, large arch that we use as a spring when running.

The video will load shortly
Heel Strike when Barefoot

The video will load shortly
Heel Strike in Running Shoes
"Our feet were made in part for running," Lieberman says. But as he and his co-authors write in Nature: "Humans have engaged in endurance running for millions of years, but the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970s. For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as sandals or moccasins with smaller heels and little cushioning."

For modern humans who have grown up wearing shoes, barefoot or minimal shoe running is something to be eased into, warns Lieberman. Modern running shoes are designed to make heel-striking easy and comfortable. The padded heel cushions the force of the impact, making heel-striking less punishing.

"Running barefoot or in minimal shoes is fun but uses different muscles," says Lieberman. "If you've been a heel-striker all your life you have to transition slowly to build strength in your calf and foot muscles."

In the future, he hopes, the kind of work done in this paper can not only investigate barefoot running, but can provide insight into how to better prevent the repetitive stress injuries that afflict a high percentage of runners today.

"Our hope is that an evolutionary medicine approach to running and sports injury can help people run better for longer and feel better while they do it," says Lieberman, who has created a web site, www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu, to educate runners about the respective merits of shod and barefoot .

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Baby teethers soothe, but many contain low levels of BPA

December 7, 2016

Bisphenol-A (BPA), parabens and antimicrobials are widely used in personal care products and plastics. The U.S. and other governments have banned or restricted some of these compounds' use in certain products for babies and ...

12 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

LariAnn
1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2010
In fact, there is already a company making running shoes designed for the barefoot running gait - it is http://newtonrunning.com Having used standard running shoes for about 40 years, I have just recently transitioned into using Newtons and the difference is significant. Amazing to me that scientists are just now finding this out.
Skepticus
1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2010
If anybody bother to do some deep digging, it will be obvious that various special techniques for running/leaping/jumping in all sorts of martial arts all based on moving with the toes and the balls of the feet. The arched construction of the feet in conjunction with the padding of the ball near the toes are natural springs for nimble, springy and stealthy movements. Enough said.
mongander
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
I'm 70 and in order to lessen the chance of joint injury I only run uphill. For 35 years I was unable to run until I discovered cheap plastic clogs.
dmia5
4 / 5 (2) Jan 27, 2010
Running shoe companies have strung us along by marketing the big, soft heel. Because, the average middle age beginning runner who is oft times overweight has heard one must run "heel to toe" and could't muster enough calf strength, anyway. As Brooks Johnson (former Stanford and Olympic coach) observed many years ago, "The person who said we should run heel to toe should have been shot."
Simonsez
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
It is very interesting to me to read this information. I was born with slightly shorter achilles' tendons than "average" person, resulting in a natural forefoot gait, further resulting in abnormally dense calf muscles. My parents had me see a foot doctor at an early age to be fitted for inserts that gradually conditioned me to walk "correctly" but I still find it more comfortable and not at all uncomfortable to walk with a forefoot gait. Without really testing it, it's always felt as though I can run faster/easier without shoes than with, and climbing/jogging up stairs is a breeze compared to the difficulty a lot of coworkers first saw in the task when we began regularly doing so.

Food for thought!
Milou
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
Shoe companies (Nike, et al) and basketball stars don't care about your feet. Never did care. Besides what does a basketball star know about feet??? But, they sure did convince us. It is all about money. Let see how Nike will respond to this research!
Fakeer
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
So what's new?
RahKnee
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
Milou, Nike has been selling Nike Free running shoes for several years. They are actually ahead of the curve on this one. I personally prefer Vibram 5 Finger shoes, but the Nike Free work on the same principle.
michaelick
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
Don't forget that these Kenyans were running with bare fett all there life. And additionally, our feet are made to run on soft surfaces and not on hard ground. So you need a lot of training until something like this is possible:

http://www.youtub...ULFLHUO0
googleplex
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
If you look at the standard spiked sprinting shoe it is designed exclusively for ball of the foot running.
Simonsez
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
I love how PhysOrg's Google Ad on this page is "GravityDefyer.com" shock-absorbing shoes - for heel-striking.

Google Fail
LeftHandedGraffiti
not rated yet Feb 01, 2010
This article is misleading. They should've compared barefoot forefoot striking to shod forefoot striking and then shown us the force graph. I guarantee the conclusion would have been different. Not all non-barefoot runners are heel strikers so you're comparing apples and oranges. Headline should read "Forefoot striking runners have less foot stress than heel striking ones."

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.