SCIENCE UPDATES

So - is barefoot running good or bad?


That's harder to answer than you may realize. Numerous studies associate different footstrike patterns (forefoot vs. midfoot vs. heel striking) with different injury patterns. It's often stated in the popular press that heel strikers have a greater injury risk, but this is not consistently born out in the research results. Additionally, it seems that the assumption that barefoot running is synonymous with forefoot striking is dubious - one study reviewed by the authors found that heel striking was common among a habitually barefoot population with over 70% of them landing on their heels at their preferred running speed and still 40% of them heelstriking even when running at faster paces.

In addition it seems that some habitually shod heelstriking runners do not automatically transition from a pattern of heelstriking to a pattern of forefoot or midfoot striking and thus may experience a much greater impact peak than if they had remained shod. In fact 50% of runners participating in a 6-week minimalist shoe intervention study remained heel strikers, which again points to the fallacy of equating barefoot running and forefoot striking gait patterns. In fact the researchers determined that altering a naturally adopted gait pattern is most likely a process and requires some skill and time and that in some cases the transition may never take pace.


Finally the researchers note that localized muscle fatigue likely contributes to injuries due to the subtle alterations in gait pattern that take place and result in higher ground reaction forces. It was noted that in a marathon researchers observed foot strike patterns were different at the 10 and 32 km mark, with about a 5% increase in rearfoot striking as the distances progressed. Most of the studies on barefoot vs. shod running have been done in a non-fatigued state so it is unclear what risks and benefits there might be to barefoot running in a fatigued state.


The authors conclude with the following:


"The current promotion of barefoot running is based on oversimplified, poorly understood, equivocal and in some cases, absent research..." and "In terms of biomechanics, it is clear from current evidence that barefoot running influences the body acutely, and likely has a significant impact on kinetic and kinematic factors associated with injury. However no causal relationships, and the high variability and complexity of both injury and barefoot running make this justification tenuous."


Has this changed my opinion of barefoot running or form coaching? Not really. I think these are tools that we as coaches and athletes can use to our advantage once we understand the implications and risks of doing so. I encourage my athletes to do some of their strength work barefooted, and for some athletes I will include some limited amounts of barefoot running in their program - my guidance is to progress very slowly and carefully with keen attention on the terrain you're training on and the volume of running you're doing. I generally do the barefoot drills on groomed grass and only in limited volumes (less than 400 meters to start). When it comes to form coaching I take a minimalist approach - if there are issues with overstriding that might be contributing to high initial impact forces then often the easiest adjustment is a few simple gait drills and then a simple cadence adjustment using music or a metronome to gradually transition to the rhythm you're looking for. Sometimes all it takes is a little adjustment.


Here's the link to the review article if you're curious - it's a good read.


Barefoot Running: an evaluation of current hypothesis, future research, and clinical applications. Tam N, Astphen Wilson JL, Noakes TD, et al. Br J Sports Med 2014;48:349-355. Click to read original article


As a post-script - it's interesting to note that Vibram recently settled a class action lawsuit brought against them for making false and unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of its footwear. (http://www.runnersworld.com/general-interest/vibram-agrees-to-settle-class-action-lawsuit ) While not admitting any wrongdoing, they have agreed to refund money to consumers who purchased their FiveFingers® shoes.


If you want to learn more about how to train smart and improve performance while not increasing injury risk - perhaps you’d be interested in online webinars! If so, visit and bookmark Intelligent Coaching Education for details on upcoming classes.
To your athletes ongoing success!
Coach Janet

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Previous Science Updates -

Increasing strength improves running economy

Cadence affects Patellafemoral Joint Forces

Cold Water Immersion and Glycogen re-synthesis

Manipulating Cadence

Do we need to teach new runners "how" to run?

Temperature affects marathon performance


About the author: Janet Hamilton is the author of the book "Running Strong & Injury-Free" and she coaches runners & walkers through her business Running Strong (http://www.runningstrong.com/). She has a master's Degree in Exercise Physiology and is a Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine and a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association

Barefoot Running — The state of the research so far.

By Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS


I've written about barefoot running off and on over the past couple of years and my general take on it remains unchanged: it's not a miracle treatment for injuries, it's not guaranteed to improve your performance and it's not going to magically make you impervious to injuries... it IS a tool in the runner's toolbox however, that may or may not need to be used on any given athlete.


A recently published article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine provides a review of current research related to barefoot running and helps address the questions of "What do we know?", "What do we think we know?" and "What's still unclear?" 

First off it's important to realize that barefoot running is a very popular subject in research these days and one of the challenges of this is that the research is still in the very early stages - so drawing conclusions from small, short-term studies to apply to large populations of people is tenuous at best. Some of the challenges facing researchers include:


  • Injuries are complex and rarely the result of one single factor
  • There is a large variability in mechanics between individuals, both in the barefoot and shod conditions
  • Studies are inconsistent in their design - some of them studying runners on treadmills, others use over-ground running, some utilize minimalist shoes vs. truly barefoot conditions, etc.
  • Analysis of data that's gathered by the researchers is sometimes not analyzed appropriately.

With that in mind - let's dive in and see what these researchers found when they reviewed over 60 different research articles related to barefoot running, running injuries and running performance. (Note this is one reason I love "review" articles... they review all the pertinent studies related to a topic and summarize it for you!)


We know that running injuries are common, and although we can't make conclusions about cause and effect, certain characteristics are common in association with different running injuries. For example, bone stress fractures are often associated with high ground reaction forces, increased impact peaks, increased pronation, and weakness in the lateral hips. Once we know what things are associated with which injuries we can evaluate what effect Barefoot Running might have on those factors. The authors summarize their results in a table, but to paraphrase their findings - the biomechanical changes associated with barefoot running are in some instances theoretically helpful, while in others they're theoretically harmful. A good case in point is stress fractures of the metatarsals where the increased peak pressure under the metatarsal heads that is experienced in barefoot running may actually increase risk of stress fractures. On the other hand in the case of patella femoral pain, the decreased impact peak (at initial contact) may reduce forces experienced at the knee.