Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Running barefoot vs shoes

Barefoot running - new evidence, same debate

It's been a rather frantic week, and I know there is a series on weight hanging in between Part 3 and Part 4.  I'm hoping to get to that next week, when hopefully I'll have a little more time!

But today, I have to comment on this latest study, which I know will become bigger in the coming days - it is a new study that will reignite the barefoot vs. shoe debate, one of the more controversial issues in running.

I am actually planning a whole series on this topic, because I was recently interviewed by a Dutch Running magazine, Run2Day, and I'm going to post that entire interview (with additions) on the site at some point in February.

The study 

For now though, the paper is called Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners, and it is published in Nature (Full reference: Lieberman et al., Nature, 463, 531 - 535).

The scientists took five group of runners and had them run both barefoot and in shoes. The groups were: Habitually shod adults in the USA, Recently shod adults in Kenya, Habitually barefoot adults in the USA, Barefoot adolescents in Kenya, and Shod adolescents in Kenya.

Each group ran in shoes and barefoot and they measured foot-strike pattern (whether the runner lands on the heel, midfoot or forefoot) and kinematic and kinetic variables like impact force, loading rate, and joint angles.

The findings - a shift in landing, a reduction in force

It turns out that people who run barefoot, even when shifting from shoes to the barefoot condition (the habitually shod groups),  shift the landing point to the forefoot.  There's nothing new there - it's been known for many years that running barefoot changes the footstrike.  Hundreds of studies exist to show this.  The next difference is the ankle angle - the barefoot runner has a more plantarflexed ankle when they land - what this means is that the toe is pointed away from the body more (compared to dorsiflexion, when you pull it back towards you at the ankle).  Again, hundreds of studies have shown this.

Next are the impact forces.  Here's where there is some disagreement.   Previous studies have occasionally disagreed on how barefoot running affects impact forces - some say it actually increases them, with high variability between individuals.  Most suggest a reduction, particularly early on during impact (first impact).   The Nature study has found that being barefoot AND landing on the forefoot reduces both the loading rate and the peak impact force.  In fact, it's three times lower in barefoot runners who forefoot strike (which is most of them) than in heel strikers wearing shoes.  In theory (though this too is disputed), higher impact forces and loading rates equals greater injury risk, and so the study is suggesting that perhaps people who are barefoot or minimally shod have a better chance of avoiding injury.

A stimulus plan for physical therapists and podiatrists?

And here is where it gets tricky.  I must point out that the title of the paper is Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners.  I highlight the word "habitually", because it's quite important to appreciate the impact that this word may have on how you apply this finding.

I guarantee that the media are going to be all over this and they are going to tell you that you should be running barefoot or in Vibrams.  You will hear how science has proven that being barefoot will prevent injuries, and that those of you who are injured should blame your shoes as you lob them into the garbage bin.

None of these suggestions is true, yet.  And Dan Lieberman who headed up this latest study would not even be suggesting this himself.  The final sentence in the paper in fact reads "controlled prospective studies are needed to test the hypothesis that individuals who do not predominantly RFS either barefoot or in minimal footwear, as the foot apparently evolved to do, have reduced injury rates" (good science always recognizes what it DOESN'T say, and Lieberman and co fit this category).

What the Nature study hasn't measured is the long term (or even the short term) effects of the change on loading rates on different joints.  If you wish to guarantee yourself an injury, then go out for a 2km run barefoot on a hard surface, and you will be asking your calf muscles and Achilles tendons to do work that for perhaps 30 years, they haven't had to do.

And I will illustrate this with our own insight into footstrike and injury.  When the Pose research was done in Cape Town, athletes basically had their footstrike patterns changed through 2 weeks of training in the new method.  The biomechanical analysis found lower impact forces (sound familiar? Same as the Nature paper), and even less work on the knee joint.  This was hailed as a breakthrough against running injuries, because lower impact plus lower work on the knee meant less chance of injury.  Jump ahead 2 weeks, and 19 out of 20 runners had broken down injured.  Why?  Because their calves and ankles were murdered by the sudden change.  And the science showed this - the work on the ANKLE was significantly INCREASED during the forefoot landing.  

The point is, changing how you run, whether by technique training or a change in shoes (like running barefoot) will load muscles that may be very weak, and joints and tendons well beyond their means.  If however, you are a habitually barefoot runner, then you can do this, because your body has been prepared for it.  For everyone else, I think we may be underestimating the time it will take to transition successfully to barefoot running (or forefoot striking, if you're going to force that change 'unnaturally').

And there is my point - taking this kind of interesting study, and dispensing advice, is a risky business.  As a friend pointed out yesterday - the media's interpretation of this study will be a "stimulus plan for physical therapists and podiatrists".  Going from years of shoes into minimal shoes or barefoot will injure you if you are not careful. 


The Nature study provides a good discussion point.  It's intriguing, and certainly does suggest advantages to barefoot running.   It is not the last word, but rather the latest word in this debate.  Nor is it revolutionary, because for many years, we've known that being barefoot changes ankle angle on impact, footstrike and loading rates (though quite how they change is not agreed upon).

I'm sure a lot more will be written - I'll even cover some of it when I do that interview series on this topic in the coming weeks.  For now, that's the last I'll say on this particular issue, but debate is always welcome!


P.S.  Daniel Lieberman has launched a website on this topic, and it's well worth a look.  It is obviously based on his research (this study forms the bulk of it), but it's a good, clear explanation of the concepts.  Again, the same word of caution applies - don't jump from one to the other.  If there is one section of that website that you should read over and over, it is the Training tips section.  Most will not, and they'll become the statistics (and the stimulus for physical therapy), but if you manage it right, then the site will be a great help to you!


Unknown said...

Its interesting to hear you say that the tops of your feet hurt, when I first started the transition happened really fast, but it left me only able to run in Vibrams because my shins would hurt in anything else. This meant that I had to run in only Vibrams for about 2 weeks until the Adidas light weight trainers I ordered came in. During that time the second toes and second metatarsals on my feet were hurting almost non stop because they were being stretched out and used in ways that they weren’t used to. After about 2 weeks though the pain went away and everything has been fine.

cheap pro duo karte

Oliver said...

What would be interesting to me is whether the landing/impact difference results in greater or less energy return, more effecient or less effecient gait cycle and ultimately faster or slower distance runners, etc etc...all other things being equal.

Because if it is on the negative side on those parameters and you ultimately run slower for the same power output, and tire easier over the same pace/duration...then it doesn't matter whether it decreases injuries to the people who are interested in running faster or competitive.

Because all we will get is just more uninjured runners who don't run as fast as the used to.

Which is fine if your goal in running is just running for running sake, for weight loss, to maintain fitness etc.

For many,myself included...that is not the case.

Adam said...

I think it's important to note that part of the funding for the study came from Vibram.

Nancy Toby said...

One also needs to point out that in interpreting this study, they looked only at a 6:42 min/mile pace (2:55 marathon) or faster. Nothing slower. And very few female subjects (2 habitually shod).

Beware of extrapolating outside the data, journalists.

Nick Flyger said...

Hi Guys, great blog and good article.
I wondered if you had heard of any studies looking at barefeet vs racing flats vs trainers? Anecdotally when I was coaching runners I found barefoot warm-up and cool-downs helped people with 'shin splints'. I know a few people who train exclusively in racing flats. Along that same train of thought do sprinters suffer the same overuse injuries that runners complain of given they tend to sprint on the mid-foot and have no heel cushioning?

Anonymous said...


I notice your line:
The Nature study has found that being barefoot AND landing on the forefoot reduces both the loading rate and the peak impact force. In fact, it's three times lower in barefoot runners who forefoot strike (which is most of them) than in heel strikers wearing shoes (italics mine).
I'm guessing this comment comes from the 3rd paragraph of the 3rd page (below eqn 2). When I read this paragraph I wasn't sure they compared barefoot for FFS to shod RFS. Based on what they write in the manuscript:
Using equation (2) with kinematic and kinetic data from groups 1 and 3 (Methods), we find that Meff averages 4.49 6 2.24 kg for RFS runners in the barefoot condition and 1.37 6 0.42 kg for habitual barefoot runners who FFS.
So I assume they are comparing barefoot RFS to barefoot FFS. Did they not report Meff data for shod RFS. I would think impact would change with a some cushioning. Full Disclosure: I didn't read the supplement.

Austin, TX

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with the advice to transition slowly from padded shoes to minimalist or no foot coverings. Great advice BTW and totally in agreement with your previous posts.
Unfortunately, I didn't follow this advice after I switched to vibrams and Nike Frees because of plantar fasciitis (PF). The PF went away but I have an extremely sore right calf and the balls of my feet swell after running barefoot or in vibrams. I'm backing off to the 10% rule but find that I still run (and walk btw) in padded shoes just like I run and walk barefoot--forefoot strike. The padded shoes feel clumsy and lead weighted compared to barefoot.
Time will tell if I get faster but the thrill is back in running after more than 35 years of regular run exercise. Barefoot or minimalist running requires constant attention and I think of the Tarahumara Indians' mantra: Easy, Light, Smooth, Fast. Mike

Ralph said...

I suffered from glute injuries for years - I only resolved the problem when I read about a New Zealand physio who reckoned it came from running in modern shoes. Whilst he didn't advocate throwing them away necessarily, he suggested "bushman running", which means clenching the glutes "as if" you were running barefoot. A way of getting the action right was actually running barefoot for a few metres - trust me - your glutes clench!

Anyway, after resolving the last injury with physio (and finally starting a stretching regimen - which admittedly creates an obvious experiment hazard!), my bushman running style has kept the glute problem away.

Not sure this is of any interest or related to this post... His website is: http://www.easyvigour.net.nz/fitness/h_gluteus_max_piriformis.htm

JonR said...

Nice post. I think the finding shows that footstrike might be more important than barefoot or not.

There have been some interesting takes on this research. I don't know if you've seen this or not but I highly recommend the following links that I came across from runner's world of all places:

Why Running shoes do not work: pronation, cushioning, and barefootin':


MJ said...

This is from an accompanying editorial on the article, "They find that FFS (and some MFS) reduces the effective mass of the foot and converts some translational energy into rotational energy; the calf muscles control heel drop, and the FFS runner can take fuller advantage of elastic energy storage in both the Achilles tendon and the longitudinal arch of the foot"

So it looks like a low profile increases the elastic potential, also a possible reason why wearing spikes is beneficial on the track when calf strength is maybe not limiting.

Also, I really think Daniel Liberman is a great researcher. As pointed out by Ross his last line and website suggests he is willing to put his findings in perspective. Also, even if his work is not really extending current knowledge all that forward, I am estatic that he can get exercise research into Nature. It is a good thing for the exercise research community as a whole. Maybe it helps open the door for an exercise science researcher without the Harvard title will be able to publish in Nature. So maybe he sells it as part of his evolution theory, but I still appreciate what the study used (ie exercise science).

Tucker Goodrich said...

Very nice summary. Unfortunately you're right about media hype, many will miss the cautions and wind up hurting themselves from the big downside in converting to barefoot-style running: Too Much Too Soon.

People need to understand that when you switch, you have to start from ground zero. You are re-learning how to run, and your milage should be appropriate to that fact.

Unknown said...

I am a co-author on the paper discussed and would like to offer some comments.

Ross, first off, thank you for your fair, intelligent, and well-thought-out commentary on the study.

As human evolutionary biologists we asked the question, "how did humans and our ancestors run for millions of years, apparently safely and effectively, before the invention of running shoes?" This study gave us a well-supported answer to that question. HABITUALLY BAREFOOT RUNNERS tend to forefoot strike when running. In addition, when running barefoot with a forefoot strike gait, runners are able to generate minimal impact forces and a comfortable foot strike on various surfaces. Impacts generated during forefoot strikes are reduced compared to heel striking in shoes, which is what most HABITUALLY shod runners do in shoes.

My first issue with your commentary is that you point out that there are many studies that have investigated the effects of barefoot running. First of all, our study one of the first to investigate HABITUALLY BAREFOOT RUNNERS. In previous studies of barefoot running, the investigators asked HABITUALLY SHOD RUNNERS to take off their shoes; yes, this is barefoot running, but is it the natural gait of a HABITUALLY BAREFOOT RUNNER? The answer is a strong no. These habitually shod runners do not have the technique or the musculature of a habitually barefoot runner. I realize that you do point out the importance of us studying HABITUALLY BAREFOOT RUNNERS, but you do so in application of this finding to runners today. It is an even more crucial point that we studied habitually barefoot runners in terms of the validity of our findings on impact forces and on foot strike types in habitual barefoot running.

In terms of application to modern runners, you have hit it spot on (almost). The headlines that some, not all, reporters have used are potentially dangerous. We DO NOT argue that barefoot running reduces injury (as you recognize). The findings on impact forces compare FOREFOOT and HEEL strikes, NOT barefoot and shod foot strikes. I agree that runners today (grow up in shoes and run in shoes all their lives) in general have weaker muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the lower leg and foot and cannot transition into forefoot striking barefoot or in a minimal shoe quickly. But strength in these soft tissues can be increased over a LONG time. Even still, some people will truly not have the ability to improve their strength enough to be able to forefoot strike. I suspect that your example of the 2 week POSE training session is FAR TOO LITTLE TIME. Apply this idea to weight training and 2 weeks sounds ridiculous. Consider a person who does not weight train, should he/she expect to see large increases in strength in 2 weeks? This is what happens when someone transitions to forefoot striking. An example is the triceps surae (gastrocnemius and soleus, aka calf muscles), which is engaged much more than in heel striking. This muscle group will require months to strengthen to the point when it can handle significant distances of forefoot striking without fatigue and damage. There are many other soft tissues in the lower leg and foot that need to strengthen in order to forefoot strike. We emphasize that people should start with around a quarter mile every other day when they first forefoot strike. This may sound extremely little and conservative, but from personal experience and anecdotal accounts, this is appropriate.

This is the way that I have applied our research personally and I emphasize that this is just my own experience. I am an ex-college runner, 23 years old, who was a heel striker in standard running shoes all my life. I chose to transition to forefoot striking at the end of the summer of 2009. It took me 3 months to fully transition from heel striking in standard running shoes to forefoot striking in racing flats. I continue to run in racing flats and have no plans to switch to barefoot or anything more minimal than racing flats.

Best, Adam Daoud

Steven Sashen said...

I've become a BIG fan of barefoot running and lately, thanks to my new huaraches business, I've had the pleasure of chatting with hundreds of new and experienced barefoot runners.

The only ones I've heard from who've had problems have simply made the transition too fast... by running too far, too fast, too soon, without enough recovery.

And, once they toned it down some, the people I've heard from have all become barefooting converts.

Regarding the argument that some (e.g. Road Runner Sports) make about "oh, you could step on something!"... well, yeah, you could. Not a big deal.

Or, if you're on a surface that worries you, wear the most barefoot-like sole you can -- huaraches.

Unapologetic plug to follow: you can get free "how to make huaraches" videos, huaraches kits, and custom made huaraches running sandals at www.InvisibleShoe.com

Anonymous said...

I am a sixty year old male who has run barefoot for the last three years on average 50kpw on most terrains and in most weather. (snow, rain, sun, fog, temperatures from 4F/-16C to 104F/40C) I run barefoot simply because previously running in shoes gave me aches and pains mainly in my knees. I have high arches and bow legs.

When I read or hear the discussions on BF running, I think most folk are missing two points.

The first of which is to run gently. Regardless of which part of the foot touches first and whether one runs with boots, training shoes, racing flats, minimal shoes or barefoot, make sure the foot caresses the terrain (Read Gordon Pirie's book which is free on the net.) instead of striking or pounding the pavement. The cushion is in bent knees and using leg muscles to lighten the touchdown instead of relying on the pads of the feet or shoes.

The second point is barefoot running is for those who find it fun and challeging much like climbing Everest without oxygen or free climbing El Capitan.

After three years of barefooting I have no doubt I could go back to shoes and not have a problem because I have now learned not to rely on the shoes for protection from injury. But what I do now is free and better yet, much more enjoyable.

Fe-lady said...

I am a forefoot striker while wearing shoes-which is why I am probably still running after 40 years of it...so my deduction would be that my achillies tendon and calf muscles are well developed and could "take on" barefoot running. I doubt may arches could however as women's feet/arches change with pregnancy and I am now wearing orthotics.
And I agree with Oliver...the guys and gals winning races all over the world are wearing shoes, because of what they have to run on and how they have to train. And Nancy-because females ARE different!
In the research, they don't mention how far the individuals ran both with shoes and barefoot, but I bet as they tired, footstrike and cadence and body positions changed.

Gareth said...

It is nice that I can now use scientific justification for my Vibrams rather than just 'they feel great and look cool'. Hahaha.
I have built up to about 5 hours ADLs at work in mine but only 8x200m running outside [over 4 weeks]. Why don't Vibram ask all their buyers to log training & injuries, or is that too simple and innocent a question?

Anonymous said...

Great Blog! Your blog is to me a valuable source of inspiration to which I love to get back every time a new article is posted. I wonder where you take the time to write almost every day...
Thanks a lot for sharing all these information.

Frankly I do not understand how anybody with some common sense can think or believe, that you can learn a new technique perfectly (like running on midfoot oder forefoot when you come from half a lifetime rear foot striking) within two weeks or just by a weekend workshop. IMO that is utterly ridiculous. Nobody would think of such a short training period when it comes to swimming, golf, gymnastics, skiing or whatever else kind of sports. Why with running?

I do not need to be a sports scientist to know that it doesn't work. I just need some common sense.
Maybe it is the absence of common sense in people and especially journalists that make these misconceptions possible?

I changed my running technique from RFS to MFS/FFS with the Pose Method of Running and it took me approximately four to five months until I was able to run a 10k with this technique (I am only a recreational runner. But even an elite triathlete took three months.). For me it was like starting running all over again from zero.

IMO all you can learn in a two weeks time of training (instruction) or a weekend workshop are the basics and (hopefully) how to apply the drills etc. But the transition itself takes time. And definitely more than only two weeks or four. And IMO it is recommandable to have someone experienced at hand (like a coach) to watch out for mistakes while learning a new technique.
(I apologize for any mistakes as English is not my native language.)

Oliver said...

The other issue I have, and perhaps "Skeleton" (Adam) the co-author can elaborate, is:
How many sub 3hr runners (if study was done of such group) actually run with a 'heel'strike??
In my 33 yrs of marathon running (obviously I am not 23 :-))at a fairly high level once, coaching etc, I don't actually see many that do.
I also don't see many in the elite groups (look at any video) that do either.
However, looking at <3hr ruuners, and even elite like Wanjiru, or even Bekele on a 62 sec lap during 10,000 m at WC ...very few of the FFS either?

Without getting into the physics of the gait cycle, it is no accident that these midfoot strikers -not heel, not forefoot- are efficient and fast runners. (high backlift, pendulum swing, land under body etc).

We all suspect that heel strike is bad- we get tht message(and I agree...at that pace) but we don't yet know about FFS.
So if the most efficient runners at moment(as above) are not RFS, but MIDfoot strikers (physically impossible without heel touching)and nor FFS...then please explain why studies keep trying to make a good case for FFS by comparing it against RFS.

I'm sorry, if there is a good reason for doing that then I miss it and my apologies,.... otherwise it is nothing other than a disengenous attempt to prove a) is better than b.) by comparing it to c) which is known to be worse.

Now if were to you look at a cohort that runs >4:30 then quite obviously these runners have a stride length 1 metre or less in order to have a cadence of around 150 (as average). This is not much more than walking stride for most...now my contention is that at that stride length you are either going to have to touch with the heel first...and more so the slower you go...or if forced to FFS you could imagine yourself how a 5hr(93cm stride at 150, 77cm/180) would be running.

So we are actually making a case for FFS (by virtue of what barefoot does) by comparing the style of slower runners but using it on faster runners.

Why not compare FFS (or BF) against the accepted MFS of <3hr runners (or better still elite runners) or against RFS of >4:30 runners.

Or won't that prove what the sponsors of the study want?

[oh and if speed and efficiency of locomotion is not important, then we may as well suggest that just walking briskly being less injurious would be better than going for a run]

Adam..please take it as a genuine question rather than a put down...and I hope the post is understood the way I meant it..sorry for ramble.


Jeff said...

I tired to read through the comments to see if my question was answered, but I didn't see it. I also don't have access to the actual report. What is really meant by "habitually barefoot"? I typically walk around my house and even workout (Cardio and Resistance) barefoot, but when I go running, I wear shoes. I try to take note of how and where my foot lands and I'm pretty sure that I do not land on my heel. So where does this leave me? Just Curious I guess.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi all

Wow, thanks for the response. I wake up to 35 emails in my inbox, 90% on this topic, and I can't possibly do justice to them all, so rather a big thanks to everyone!

A special word of thanks to Skeleton, for your visit and comments. Thank you for adding to the post with your insights, and congratulations on the paper! Apologies if I didn't do it justice when I compared the finding to previous research - you're quite right that the uniqueness was the "habitually" component. I guess the point I was emphasizing is that the impact force question had been studied, but I may have glossed over the key issue that you've raised in your post.

To the rest, please forgive me not responding to each individually. I'm "in transit" right now, on the way to New Zealand, and so I have a LOT of time to respond, so I'll try to get to some in due course!



MichaelMc said...

One of the troubling things in this debate becomes the definition of "heel striker" vs midfoot vs forefoot. By the definition of "touches down first at the heel" MOST Elite marathoners heel strike (including Geb). There is lots of video evidence to back that up.

Once we get to the point of allowing a "mid-foot" strike into the equation, where most of the weight is absorbed with a realtively flat foot, then it all becomes shades of grey. It is extremely hard to establish where the landing impact is being taken on fully. Most "mid-foot strikers" actually touch FIRST with their heel, but land softly and roll across their foot. If we try and divide this into people who land lightly and smoothly vs those who "crash" onto their heel we are really contrasting poor landing vs good landing, not different landing points.

Forefoot striking is relatively rare in Elites. That it promotes a softer landing is unsurprizing: walk across the floor as quietly as possible, I'll bet you'll be "on tip-toes". In spite of the fact it is clearly a softer landing than walking on your heel, should you switch styles for your walk to the store?

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone

The winners of the marathons are landing on their forefoot not their midfoot. Forefoot runners take advantage of the leaf spring action in their feet. This is free forward movement on each foot strike. Mid foot and heel strikers do not take advantage of the leaf spring action. Maybe western runners land on their midfoot, but they are not winning the majority of races even though their VO2's, leg lengths, arm length, height and weight are comparable to western runners.

BTW The winners grow up racing each other bare foot to school, ever heard of Kenya, or Morroco? When they put shoes on they take off. A barefoot runner will quickly stop landing on their heel and overtime adjust to a 90% / 10% forefoot to heel landing if not a 100%/0%. Regardless of who they are everyone is a forefoot runner uphill.

There is study on this subject conducted by Ken Mierke (2 time ITU Triathlon Champion and an Exercise Physiologist)who did it before this blog exsisted. He also taught Chris McDougal running technique before "Born to Run" was published. Ken is in McDougal's Book and has met with Ken to do book signings in the Washington DC area where Ken works.

Ken has scientificly developed his theory, by using metabolic an metabolic analyzer in the lab and racing as well as field results to determine running form along with intensity to produce the best overall performance and reduce the injury. If you are interested read Evolution Running, you will find out more.

erin said...

So this comment is based on nothing more than anecodotes, but I think that Ross' blog could use a minor counterpoint. There are a few runners out there, like myself and a few people that I know, who have had chronic, debilitating injuries that disappeared after switching to minimal shoes/vibrams. I suspect this is because it forces you to become a forefoot or midfoot striker. I gave up the sport before finding minimalism, and then hit some new PRs because I was finally able to run 50-60 miles/week and not get what the docs called "anterior tibial stress syndrome," but what was essentially, "heel striking syndrome". I have had plenty of aches and pains in the transition to vibrams, and still struggle with some achilles issues from time to time. But none of those problems has been debilitating like a stress fractured tibia.

I think that "Born to Run," and the study in Nature and the surrounding media hoopla is bound to result in some injured runners who jumped on the bandwagon too fast, and for many, Ross' warning is well taken. But I think it's great that more runners (and ex-runners) will find out about the padded shoe-heel striking connection and the possibility that changing footwear can help change footstrike patterns, which might, for some people, make a really big difference in how much they're able to run. It's a good counterweight to the running shoe orthodoxy that says that someone with my arch type must wear motion control shoes. That orthodoxy really messed me up, and I sure wish the minimalists and the pose people and the scientists studying barefoot runners had come on the scene a lot sooner.

Will said...

This is a really interesting discussion. Perhaps the answer is that some runners are best off shod and others are best off barefroot or in a more minimalist running shoe. I mean, one size does not fit all, now does it?

I ran barefoot in high school and never had injuries. I did have lots of callouses on my feet. I've been running over 35 years since then in running shoes because I figured that running without shoes was only for when I was a kid.

I've been running in Newton's for a while now and find much less strain on my ankle, and a much lighter and more comforatble run. They seem to be a good middle ground for me--not too much shoe and not barefoot.

But I am tempted to go out for a barefoot run now that you mention it...

Have a good running day, all.

Unknown said...

To any of the commenters suggesting that "the winners of marathons are forefoot strikers," the published data do not support that statement. If you look at a paper published by Hasegawa et al. in 2007 in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (and cited previously on this very blog), they report that 74.9% percent of runners filmed in an elite-level half-marathon were rear-foot strikers. Even among the top 50 runners in the race, 62% were rear-foot strikers.

Ross and Jonathan, I agree wholeheartedly with your post - the recent Nature paper is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of running biomechanics, but I fear what the media response will bring about in the way of injured runners doing too much too soon. Thanks you for adding a word of caution to the debate.

Unknown said...

Link to a post on this topic I found very informative:


Seems to answer a lot of questions I was going to ask here about different variables - speed, surface, speed & surface.
Where do they measure impact forces? In the joints or on a mat on the ground? If using "a mat on the ground" option - running shod, does the force on the ground not change significantly to the actual force on the joint by the foam in the shoe?

I've been running barefoot/ in VFF's for 4 months now and I am barefoot most of the day. I started all-or-nothing - the first week I did 6x1000m and 3x2000m barefoot on the track, and then a 21km road run and 5km timetrial in my vff's the day I bought them. And yes, my calves were very sore the whole week!

I had the same problem as Brad - when I tried to race a triathlon in shoes after not running in shoes for two months, my shins were burning so badly that I couldn't run faster than 4min/km. I've done a 10km race and a 30km race in my VFF's, and find that I can't go as fast on the road in VFF's as I can with shoes (I did do a downhill 3min km which absolutely killed my legs for the 2nd half of the 30km). I do my speed work barefoot on a grass track and can go the same speed barefoot or shod. I am now doing half my running barefoot and half shod.

My conclusion is that barefoot and shod (minimalist racing shoes) both have their time and place. From what I've read many elites & track athletes have used barefoot running as an integral part of their training for many years, but I don't think you'll see any of them winning races barefoot, because as far as I can see shoes are faster (and no, I don't think they wear them just because of sponsorship deals). The problem is finding the right shoes for the job. I've been training with (behind) some elite athletes for the last 5 years and they seem to use only racing shoes for training (and they think that this whole barefoot thing is crazy!).

Gabriel said...

What about people with foot pronation? How they can possibly run barefoot?

I still have pains running midfoot/forefoot thanks to my severe pronation, although it got better after using orthotics. Without it, I have debilitating pains in my ankles, feet and tibial muscle. My recommendation to people who are willing to try barefoot running or changing their running style to midfoot/forefoot is to be very careful; see first if you don't suffer from pronation and go easy in the first six months.

You also don't need to get rid of shoes neither to run landing on your midfoot or forefoot. I know of people, myself included, that run that way naturally, with shoes or without, so there is no reason to drop them.

Chris Wilson said...

Just a suggestion for those interested in transitioning to minimalist shoes and/or barefoot running. If you've always been a heel striker, I think your best bet is to pick up some well-cushioned shoes designed for midfoot striking. Examples are the Newtons and the New Balance 800s. The idea is that you can adopt the new strike and develop the muscles and tendons slowly from the top down.

I speak from experience, having tried to jump right in by running with racing flats, going too far too fast. The result was injury. However, when I backed up and focused on getting rid of shoes that either forced me to land on my heels or forced me to point my toes awkwardly to avoid landing on my heels, I was able to start building the upper calf muscles and the upper part of the achilles tendon.

I didn't really notice any changes in my lower calf, achilles, or feet muscles. I suspect this was because the shoes were still think and cushioned enough to avoid engaging those muscles significantly despite the change in strike.

Then, after a few weeks of that, I started running occasionally in flats and doing some short barefoot runs on grass. This is when the lower leg muscles and tendons really started getting worked. This is also when I started noticing foot soreness - since the arch was now getting engaged due to the flexibility of the soles. I did that for a few weeks and am now to the point where I can go 9-10 miles at about :30 sec slower than what I used to do for the same distance as a heel striker.

But I'm still getting faster. And - perhaps most important - I don't feel worked over after a run like that. Before, my quads would ache and my knees would feel sore. Now, I feel absolutely nothing in my quads.

I fully expect to overtake my previous speed with a few more months of this. It's truly joyous to run like this, too.

PS - the shoes I run in all the time now are the NB 100s. Even though they're trail shoes, I run them on streets and absolutely love them. There's almost nothing to them, and I have no pain whatsoever.

For what it's worth...

Chris Wilson said...

Also - @Gabriel - there are many who believe that pronation is totally natural and that it should have no bearing whatsoever on your choice to run barefoot/minimalist or not. The idea is that your foot, lower calf muscles, and achilles tendon are more than sufficient to handle any forces placed upon them if you land either midfoot or forefoot. You just have to build them up to be able to handle it. If you're getting injured, it may not be your pronation. It may just be that you're not strong enough yet. If that's the case, then you just back off and take more time to build up.

Look at Eric Orton's site - www.runningwitheric.com. He's the guy who coached Chris McDougall in Born To Run. He has all kinds of info on strength training and form.

Bottom line - Don't let some Orthopedic Surgeon or specialty running shoe salesperson convince you that your injuries are due to pronation.

Go watch a video of Geb on Youtube. That dude is pronating LIKE CRAZY!

Just sayin...

jamesmarvelous said...

I'd love to see the pressure plate readings for elite distance runners.

steve.d.runner said...

This blog is very interesting. Thanks Ross!
If someone posted this then excuse me,
it is a video from Lieberman's study on NPR showing the shockwave from RFS vs FFS (or MFS?)

As they say, A picture is worth a thousand words.


Oliver said...

Why do the FFS proponents keep saying that elites also FFS. Haven't they ever watched any of them?

Wanjiru doesn't FFS...have look here
There are freeze frames in that video, but you can pause as well if not convinced. Have a look at where his heels are at backlift...right up against backside...this is impossible with FFS
Even Bekele at sub 60 sec lap pace in spikes doesn't FFS. ...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=---LOIB8idE

Let's have scientific studies by all means, but do it by comparing what is currently being effectively and efficiently done without trying to distort the reality.

Unknown said...

Marathon Time:
The marathon time of the subjects in the study is actually an entirely unimportant point for the questions and purpose of this study. We were driven by a question about running safely and effectively prior to the invention of shoes. We looked at endurance running speeds in endurance runners, not marathon pace in elite runners. And we did so for good reason.

There is evidence that endurance running played a role in human evolution (http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/pdfs/2004e.pdf). Whether or not you agree, our ancestors and humans tens of thousands of years ago were not running with the goal of besting 2:03:59. Running safely and effectively has nothing to do with marathon time. Why not walk briskly? The most economical walking speed is not brisk, it's around 1.5 to 2 m/s depending on leg length. Faster walking speeds than this have higher costs per km. Whereas in the endurance range of running speeds the cost of transport does not increase with speed (figure 2b, http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/pdfs/2004e.pdf). So if you want to get somewhere fast, walk 1.5 m/s or run 5 m/s? Those interested in racing performance should not look to this study for insight (and as an ex-competitive runner I also think this is intriguing and hope more research is done here).

Foot Strikes in Elites:
Again, elite level speed is not a concern, but for the fun of it. A lot of people are discussing the foot strike type of elite runners based on videos. There are a few issues with this. An easy one is frame rate. Most video cameras record at 29.97 or 59.94 frames/sec. At 60 frames/sec, your resolution is 16.7 milliseconds which is ages on the scale of the foot strikes in running. With this frame rate you will miss the moment of foot strike most of the time. Many forefoot strikes will look like midfoot strikes since you miss the actual moment of impact (usually by a lot). We recorded at 500 frames/sec; our resolution was 2 milliseconds. Try to land with your forefoot and midfoot within 2 milliseconds of one another. Oh, and distinguishing a midfoot strike from a forefoot strike by eye? Hah, good luck.

Another issue is that you need a lateral perspective near ground level (less than ~0.5 meters) because of the ankle inversion at foot strike typical of forefoot and midfoot strikes. In an inverted foot, the lateral aspect of the foot is lower than the medial. If you are viewing from too high, you will focus on or only be able to see the lateral border of the closer leg and medial of the farther leg. This will cause you to consider the angle of the foot striking the ground with a bias for each leg (if the strike is nearly horizontal, the leg that you see laterally will look more like a forefoot strike and the leg viewed medially will look more like a heel strike). This often leads people to conclude that the left and right foot are striking the ground differently. For example, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5x6V48IIQRQ, many people have said Haile is forefoot striking on his left and heel striking on his right. I have no idea what he does but I'd guess he's not doing something drastically different on each leg as it appears (unless he has a leg length discrepancy). I would love to see him run by in the other direction and see everyone conclude that he forefoot strikes on his right and heel strikes on his left. Check out this video and notice that the right and left leg appear to have different strike angles, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjrEyfQC5NQ. Then watch this and notice the effect of foot inversion, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6YhVN_YIUk.

I know this was a terribly boring post, but it is important that this study not be thought of as important in consideration of elite level running and foot strikes.

I would recommend to anyone who wants to comment on this article or any other article on our study, that you first read through our entire website or entire paper for our conclusions and the implications of this study.

Best, Adam Daoud

Unknown said...

Important missing word:
"I know this was a terribly boring post, but it is important that this study not be thought of as important in consideration of elite level running and their foot strikes."

Farhad Kapadia said...

I’ve just gone over the abstract of the paper & the website & am trying to get a copy of the full text.

It appears to me that the principle hypothesis being tested is that barefoot running results in forefoot strike. In that context, it is mainly an interesting physiological note. It then makes some projections that this form may be of some advantage.

It also appears to me that the paper is not actually testing any hypothesis which looks at the advantage of barefoot running or forefoot strike in terms of either injury prevention or enhanced performance. So any interpretation which suggests an advantage in either of these two endpoints is neither proven nor disproven by this study.

Waiting to read the full text article

Unknown said...

Hi Skeleton,
Thanks for the interesting post that helped clarify a few questions.

Landing impact force:
Do you use a pressure plate on the ground to measure impact force? Does the cushioning in a shoe decrease the ground impact force that is actually felt at the joint?

Unknown said...

Ok, sorry for the stupid question in my previous post. Your website explains everything very clearly. Thanks.

Mark said...


Seems the research was partly funded by VFF.

cool videos though..

Linked thro' the Friel blog to the video's. I may have missed something but what I don't understand is the Peak Force x Body weight was:

Heel strike (barefoot) 2.50 x bodyweight
Shoes (heelstrike) 2.50 x bodyweight
Forefoot (barefoot) 2.70 x Bodyweight

So your body, leg, muscles, conective tissue is subject to a greater maximal force through forefoot running. For a 70kg person that's a 14kg greater impact force - every stride!

I'm no expert but that would appear to be bad. I can run landing heel first and subject my body to less force or I can forefoot run and take more force. Magnify that by 90+ strides per minute over a Marathon, and doesn't that mean a forefoot striker will suffer more fatigue.

I take the point about the initial landing force being higher when Heel striking but the videos show a higher peak force on the FFS?

The reason I bring this up is in the Lore of Running Tim Noakes talks about fatigue and loss of muscle/tendon elasticity. Surely additional peak force will bring that on faster?

Chris Wilson said...

@Mark -
I'm not the expert here, but I think the issue is less about peak force than about impact. Consider a hypothetical...

You're laying on your back on a workout bench with your arms straight up, elbows locked. I stand above you with a 15lb weight and drop it from say 12 inches. If you keep your elbows locked, then you're absorbing a good amount of force all at once right down the length of your arm.

Now, let me drop a 20lb weight from the same distance. But this time, you get to bend your elbows and absorb the force.

The overall amount of force in the second scenario is certainly higher than in the first (F=MA), right? But the fact that you can distribute the impact of the force over time and across flexible muscles means that the outcome will be very different.

The first scenario will probably hurt and may even injure you. The second scenario probably won't.

I'm sure Adam or one of the other researchers can describe this better, but I just thought I'd throw that out there.

Marcos Apene do Amaral said...

Reasonable, not to say brilliant, discussion! Keep on bringing new thoughts on the subject, Marcos

Ron Wolf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron Wolf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron Wolf said...

Did you see that National Geographic has entered the fray - Running Barefoot Reduces Stress On Feet.

I am so skeptical, NG as a source of fitness info??? This is nothing more than an irresponsible drumbeat for sliver bullets and new product. I'm very concerned that this craze will backfire - like they all do. For an experienced runner to try something new - fine. For a newbie to somehow think that this will be THE thing that makes the difference (instead of hard work, focus, caution, etc) ... that's very not good.

Its so hard to watch these patterns repeat. You would think that 40 years into the fitness 'craze' that people would be more sensible. But no. What did you say in your other post that 16,000 new diet books were published last year... Ugg...

Anonymous said...

Do whatever works for you as long it is legal.

Unknown said...

I think two discussions are mixing now. The first is about barefoot vs. shod running and the second is fore foot vs. rear foot strike. Fore foot strike is not synonymous with barefoot running. Shoes change our normal running movement and rear foot strike is just one example of it, the top of the iceberg. And now my fundamentalist point of view. Shoes are pieces of rubbish destroying our natural movement, 6 million years of evolutionary perfection, destroying our joints in knees and hips and our pleasure in running. For the sports scientist, is it not surprising that an evolutionary biologist (Dan Lieberman) now is coming with evidence that we can perfectly run barefoot? You may guess, I run barefoot.

Anonymous said...

Andre Lombard Medical Dr GP 52yo
Gradually weaned myself off shoes over 4 years, after 9 years of achilles tendinoses. Legs/feet/soles healthy +strong. Runing on mixed surface+tar constantly lifting the feet instead of putting them down.
Using Vibrams for long(> 90min) poor surface tar runs ,did 1st marathon in VFF's without sore feet, and recovered in 3 days.The future of running is barefoot !
Please get the youth to go barefoot and the obese to start barefoot-walking.BAN SHOES.Anybody can run barefoot through gradual barefoot-living and barefoot walking lifestyle.Stimulating your sole is the most relaxing thingyou can do on grass/sand/tar.....this is going to hurt the shoe-companies and podiatrists
Andre Lombard

Anonymous said...

Too true - I know to my cost.

I got a pair of Vibrams: ran 20 minutes easy one Sunday, then 30 minutes easy the next Sunday, then 35 minutes a little quicker (still pretty easy) the next Sunday - then nothing for a month whilst my incandescent bilateral Achilles tendinitis calmed down.

2,5 months later and my tendons are still not right, and I haven't touched the Vibrams since.

But they were a joy to wear (at first) and I hope to come back to them - once fully recovered - for the odd easy off-road jog.

Tablet PC accessories said...

I want to thank you for the fine work you have done. Yours is one of the better organized and thorough presentations of this difficult subject

therealmince said...

great article, and responses. lots of clever people offering great advice.

now, for a light-hearted take on the debate...


Angela said...

Wow, I wish I'd seen this a month ago. I have been trying out the Vibrams, and found them the most wonderful and comfortable shoes ever! And as our post mentioned, my knees LOVED me for it (I have had recurring knee issues in the past).
BUT I am currently sitting at my desk with painful tendonitis of the achilles and peroneal tendons in my right leg as a result of the extra stress on my ankles. EXACTLY as your article mentioned.

I have been running for 4 years now, and over the course of the past year have gone from stability shoes to neutral, very slowly increasing my neutral mileage, and finally reaching marathon distance after a full year in neutral shoes. I wanted to take it a step further and go the barefoot route. All was going well until I started increasing my barefoot mileage beyond what turned out to be my current limit (2x 10km in Vibrams instead of alternating 1x 10km Vibrams, 1x 10km regular shoes). Quite clearly a case of ‘too much barefoot too soon’

I still plan to phase in my Vibrams, but I’m going to be re-evaluating my ‘pace’, as I have obviously been doing it too fast for my personal biomechanical situation.

First step, recover from tendonitis and run my next marathon in April, then start planning a much slower phasing-in of the Vibrams...

Anonymous said...

i love this website i am doing a project and this web place helped me so much i have spent this whole day looking for a website and i guess i got luck

Dr Foot said...

I'm a Podiatrist with 35 years experience dealing with all nature of clinical conditions from the feet up, so I'm old enough to remember when athletic shoes had no support at all! Like all things, if you wait long enough, "everything old is new again". For 6 years,I have been utilising "anti-shoes" as a critical part of treatment for many patients recalcitrant problems, which defied the best (and worst!) of orthotic therapy, splints, shots etc. These work not only by muscle activation but by reduction of peak forces. So in effect, the technology in them aims to get all tissues working as nature intended - essentially BAREFOOT and on a yielding surface. What seems to be missing from your discussions is aknowledgement of the disasterous effects of the uran-built environment on our muscoloskeletal systems. Hard flat floors and pavements need to be counteracted. A shorter stride is now being talked about for running. But the best results are achieved if you also WALK this way. When you master this first it is then easier to change your running stride. Also, these "active orthotic" soled shoes are not good for running times, but are great for rehabing injuries. Equally, "barefoot" shoes(5Fingers,Free etc are great for building long term strength BUT NOT

Büyü said...

Its interesting to hear you say that the tops of your feet hurt, when I first started the transition happened really fast, but it left me only able to run in Vibrams because my shins would hurt in anything else. This meant that I had to run in only Vibrams for about 2 weeks until the Adidas light weight trainers I ordered came in. During that time the second toes and second metatarsals on my feet were hurting almost non stop because they were being stretched out and used in ways that they weren’t used to. After about 2 weeks though the pain went away and everything has been fine.