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!