Barefoot Running – Owen Anderson Ph.D.

I am so pleased that Owen Anderson has allowed me to post his wonderful discussion on  barefoot running – especially in the light of my recent post. DMH

The running pot is simmering in the popular press these days, and the heady vapor which is emerging proclaims that barefoot running provides the pathway to salvation for a large fraction of the running population.

You’re familiar with the claims by now: That barefoot running erases existing running injuries.  That barefoot running reduces the risk of future running maladies.  That barefoot running is healthier and more natural than shod running.  That barefoot running diminishes impact forces and the rate at which those collision forces are transmitted up the legs.  That barefoot running can even improve performances.

Soon we will hear that barefoot running lowers the risk of some forms of cancer.

The acute hubbub surrounding barefoot running is the result of the publication of both Christopher McDougall’s New-York-Times-bestselling book, Born to Run, and a paper entitled “Foot Strike Patterns and Collision Forces in Habitually Barefoot versus Shod Runners,” which debuted in the prestigious journal Nature on January 28 of this year.  Aided by seven colleagues from a variety of institutions, Daniel Lieberman of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University was the principal investigator in the Nature study.  Lieberman et al looked at the kinematics and kinetics of running in five different groups: (1) Habitually shod athletes from the USA, (2) Currently shod runners from the Rift Valley in Kenya who grew up running barefooted, (3) Runners from the USA who began running in the shod condition but have now adopted a barefoot-running lifestyle, (4) Adolescent Kenyan harriers who have never worn shoes, and (5) Adolescent Kenyan runners who have run shod for most of their lives.

Ironically, the popular press has been using the Harvard study as a launching pad for the idea that barefoot running is healthier than shod ambling, even though Lieberman’s paper provided no data at all to test the idea that barefoot running lowers the risk of running injuries!

Here’s what Lieberman et al actually found:

(A) Habitually shod runners (groups 1 and 5 from above) who grew up wearing shoes are usually rear-foot strikers (RFS), meaning that their heels make the first impacts with the ground during running, right at the beginning of the stance phase of gait.  This is not new information.  The strong link between running in shoes and heel-striking has been known for many years.

(B) Runners who grew up running barefooted or who switched to running barefooted (groups 2, 3, and 4) are generally fore-foot strikers (FFS), meaning that they tend to land initially on the balls of their feet while running, after which their heels drop down to make contact with the ground.  Again, this is nothing new – the tight connection between barefoot running and FFS (and also MFS, mid-foot striking) has been general knowledge for years.

(C) Impact forces transmitted through the foot, ankle, and leg immediately after impact with the ground are about three times greater in shod runners using RFS, compared with barefoot runners with FFS.  Some – but not all – previous studies have shown this same relationship, with RFS producing greater impact force during the first portion of stance, compared with MFS and FFS.  The sudden rise in force with RFS, immediately after ground contact, is known as the “impact transient.”  The disparity in impact transient between barefoot and shod running represents a “foundation” for the belief that barefoot running is “safer” and less injury producing.  While this appears to be logical thinking, it is important to know that no study has ever shown that greater impact forces during the first portion of stance magnify the risk of running injury.

(D) Rates of loading of impact force are actually quite similar between shod RFS runners and barefoot FFS athletes (Figure 2b from the Nature paper).  The rate at which impact force is loaded into the leg has also been suggested to be a risk factor for injury, although convincing proof of this notion does not exist.

(E) During the early stance phase of barefoot FFS running, there is greater knee flexion, greater dorsi-flexion at the ankle, and a 74-percent-greater drop in the center of mass, compared with shod RFS running.  “Vertical compliance” is defined as the drop in the runner’s center of mass relative to the vertical force during the impact period of stance, and it is obviously greater in barefoot FFS running, compared with shod RFS.  Vertical compliance varies as a function of running-surface hardness, and this is why force-loading rates are similar for barefoot FFS runners over a wide array of running surfaces (the runners adjust compliance according to surface).  This is not novel information, however.

(F) During barefoot FFS ambling, the ground reaction force torques the foot around the ankle (and therefore increases the amount of work carried out by the ankle, compared with shod RFS running).  With shod RFS running, the ankle converts little impact energy into rotational energy.  Potentially, this could spike the rate of ankle-area injuries (for example in the Achilles tendon and calf) for barefoot runners, although this hypothesis has not been tested.

And that was pretty much it!  The Nature investigation did disclose some interesting information about the effective mass of the foot and shank (which we won’t discuss here), but it offered no other information about the potential links between barefoot running and either injury or performance.

And that’s why it’s too early for you to consider changing from shod to barefoot running, unless such a shift would be a lot of fun for you.  There’s just no proof that barefoot running will reduce your risk of injury or make you faster.

In fact, it’s important to remember that most injuries in running are caused by an imbalance between the strain and micro-damage experienced by a muscle or connective tissue during training and the tissue’s ability to recover from such stress.  This imbalance can occur when training is conducted shod – or barefooted!  A weak or overly tight hamstring muscle which has been undone by excessive mileage won’t care if its owner was running barefooted or wearing shoes – it will still feel the pain.

Now it is certainly true that barefoot and shod running are different from kinematic and kinetic standpoints, and this may have a bearing on injury rates.  Shod running, at least shod running in big-heeled modern running shoes, almost automatically means RFS. With RFS, the ankle plantar-flexes immediately after impact as the bottom surface of the foot moves downward to make contact with the pavement.  This places the shin muscles under strain immediately after heel impact, as they have to control this significant plantar flexion.  In contrast, during barefoot (FFS or MFS) running the ankle immediately dorsi-flexes after impact, placing eccentric strain on the Achilles tendon and calf muscles as they attempt to control dorsi-flexion.  Thus, it’s possible that shod RFS might be linked with a higher risk of shin injuries, while barefoot FFS and MFS could be connected with a greater rate of Achilles and calf maladies.  This notion has not been tested yet, however.

One thing is for certain: If you throw your running shoes in the trash bin and embark on your usual training program in the barefoot condition, you will probably soon be calling your sports-medicine physician (and perhaps looking for that trash bin).  This is because if you have been running in shoes you are probably a RFS runner, and when you change to the naked-foot condition you will most likely become MFS or FFS.  This will change the forces applied to various parts of your lower limbs, and – specifically – your Achilles and calf will come under pressures which they have not encountered before in your lifetime as a runner.  So, please proceed cautiously if you decide to let the skin hit the road.

What does EducatedRunner recommend?  The use of very comfortable, relatively minimal running shoes which permit actual proprioception, protect the bottoms of the feet from rough surfaces, and are conducive to mid-foot striking (MFS).  From a performance standpoint, this overall strategy should eliminate the braking action commonly associated with RFS (the foot tends to land out in front of the center of mass, creating a slowing effect with RFS) and thus should upgrade speed and enhance economy.  A shift from RFS to MFS will also eliminate the “impact transient” which might be a cause of running injury, and it will heighten the compliance of the leg, fostering the ability to run on surfaces of increased hardness without amplifying the impact forces experienced by the legs.  MFS also tends to lead to an increased cadence while running (> 180 steps per minute), which EducatedRunner believes is a good thing.

When you make this shift from RFS to MFS, however, be sure to do it gradually.  Abruptly changing from 40 miles per week of RFS to the same volume with MFS is a sure way to find the Achilles heel in your running program.

—————————————————————-

Owen Anderson’s running camps are beautiful, fun, and open to everyone, and they offer gait analysis, a full program of running-specific strength training, and vVO2max testing and training.  Sign up for a transforming week – and an over-the-top running vacation in Oregon or Vermont – by going to http://www.educatedrunner.com/Camps.aspx.

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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17 Responses to Barefoot Running – Owen Anderson Ph.D.

  1. run4change says:

    Love the article. Nothing like plain good ‘ol facts of research. Thanks.

  2. Tuck says:

    “And that’s why it’s too early for you to consider changing from shod to barefoot running, unless such a shift would be a lot of fun for you. There’s just no proof that barefoot running will reduce your risk of injury or make you faster”

    There’s no evidence that running shod lowers your risk of injuries either. Yet you accept that premise (seeminly) without question. The natural condition is barefoot, obviously, people have been running barefoot (according to Lieberman’s research) for 2 million years, and have only been running in cushioned sneakers for ~40.

    Institutions that track injuries find that the running injury rates are through the roof. The army reports that running injuries are their #1 problem, and yet a large army study from before the invention of the sneaker on foot problems for new recruits and experience soldiers never even mentions running injuries as an issue.

    The sneakers companies have been conducting a 40-year experiment on the benefits of cushioned running shoes, without bothering to record the results. Some of us are deciding to opt out.

    I do believe that’s the right of any participant in a scientific study, correct?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Tuck,
      Indeed opt out if that is what you want. I agree.. it’s a personal choice… I advocate an Experiment of One. But, to promote barefoot running as some cure-all is erroneous.

      You comments about millions of years… barefoot… versus 40 with sneakers… is the biggest non-argument that is posed. Millions of years has to do with humans. We however are products of only our 20, 30, 40 50 or whatever years we’ve been on earth. I do not speak for Kenyans… but I can for most westerners… we spend more time shod than unshod. By Far. Therefore, OUR bodies have accommodated – muscles, ligaments, tendons etc. – to footwear.

      This is NOT to say we cannot re-adapt to barefoot. It however is to say, to simply jump on a bandwagon in defiance of shoe companies is unwise and is not necessarily a better solution … at least yet.

      I am not PRO footwear nor ANTI barefoot running. I simply won’t follow blindly. I have been very critical of many running shoes. And I always take with a very large grain of salt any statements from anyone who has a self-interest at stake (i.e. selling a product to take a stand). That is why I don’t buy into running shoe company “research” either.

      • Tuck says:

        That’s a completely fair position to take. Thanks for responding to my post.

        I’ve done enough research since reading “Born to Run” in June to have completely convinced myself that sneakers are not a good thing.

        But barefoot/minimalist shoes are not a cure-all, although I’ve found many unanticipated benefits to the change.

        And the point about people getting injured making the transition is an excellent one. It’s a fact that supportive shoes weaken your feet, and that habitually barefoot people have stronger feet than habitually shod people do. But, just as learning to walk and run isn’t done overnight by and infant, so you cannot take off your sneakers and run a marathon without injury. You will get hurt if you try it.

        Back to the 2 million years of barefoot vs. 40 years of sneakers: there’s ample evidence that converting from badly designed and fitting footwear to naturally-designed footwear will provide immediate benefits to an individual within his lifetime. Our feet DO NOT accommodate to shoes, they get deformed by them. And deformed feet do not work properly.

        If you are interested in reading more on the subject, you can start with the report of the Army Shoe Board, on the effects of badly-fitting shoes on soldiers, published in 1915. It’s titled “The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe”, and it’s available for free in Google Books.

        If you’re of a scientific bent, and you go through all the research that’s been done, I’m pretty confident that you’ll come to the same conclusion that I and Prof. Lieberman at Harvard and many others have come to.

  3. The truth of the line “If you throw your running shoes in the trash bin and embark on your usual training program in the barefoot condition, you will probably soon be calling your sports-medicine physician” is hidden within the sentence itself.

    “embark on your usual training program”

    No barefoot running coach suggests that you do that. Clearly making the switch will result in using your muscles, ligaments, and tendons differently. And, clearly, if you do too much too soon, you’re looking at an overuse injury… the same as if you took a non-runner and had them start “your usual training program” in running shoes.

    The argument made by barefoot runners is that IF you start using and strengthening those previously underused muscles/tendons/ligaments, that’s what will lead to relieving previous injuries and preventing new ones.

    Clearly this hasn’t been studied yet.

    But to say that the barefoot runner’s position is “just take off your damn shoes!” is inaccurate and makes it harder to investigate this issue with clarity.

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    Steven,
    Your comments are well-taken.. but given pecuniary interests… I’ll err on what independent research says. The biggest issue for me personally beyond what research supports or does not support is that barefoot proponents pose this as a panacea for running injuries. As I have always advocated… it is an Experiment of One. It MAY reduce SOME injuries for SOME people SOME of the time. To sell it as something else… is wrong.

  5. Just as one wouldn’t go into the gym and try to bench press 350 pounds without working up to it, abruptly switching to barefoot running after a lifetime spent in shoes probably is not a very good idea.

    Barefoot hiking is a good way to work up to barefoot running, if that’s what you want to try. Click on the words “barefoot hiking” above to see an original report on the subject.

    BTW, I used to run in shoes and battled recurring issues with shin splints. That was in the 1980s. I actually quit running for 20 years. But I began running barefoot (at a track, just as when I ran in shoes) in 2008 and the results in my personal “experiment of one” have been outstanding. No injuries, no pain and an eagerness about exercising that I haven’t felt in 20 years. Happy feet, happy body.

  6. Seoirse says:

    I never knew so many people where passionate about barefoot running vs. shod running.
    In the end its all about choice and I choose to keep my shoes.
    I have yet to receive any injury that will hamper my running capacity while wearing them so I will continue to do so.

  7. Dean Hebert says:

    All very interesting indeed… I’m glad it works for some people…

  8. Craig Nevin says:

    The false science of biomechanics is exposed in my PhD thesis, Initiation and control of gait from first principles.

    Biomechanics studies often contain graphs of forces, but these are never accompanied by a free-body diagram. Lieberman study, for example, reports the existence of a heel impact transient. This is not however measured at the heel, but at several sites centimeters below a flat piece of steel buried in the ground!

    In my PhD study, I measured the pressures directly under the heel in 270 heelstrikes in 54 barefoot subjects. I quick glance at the average forces on the heel reveals no impact transient at all.

    The data shows that the phenomenon described as a “impact transient” is in fact due to the very rapid spreading of the forces under a wide area of the heel.

    Direct measurements show that no actual biological location in the heel experiences a force spike. The force spike in the graphs that is associated with heel strike develops from a summation of the forces.

    The spike in the summed data clearly arises from a lowering (NOT RAISING) of the local forces under diverse components of the actual heel.

    So much for that piece of science…

  9. Dean Hebert says:

    To all.. here is a wonderful thread on the whole topic. It’s a great debate with professionals far beyond my expertise in this topic.

    http://www.podiatry-arena.com/podiatry-forum/showthread.php?t=43282

    This dude impresses me with his analysis and knowledge of sound research itself. And it appears that for the most part the “science” that promotes barefoot running is quite lacking. Everything from the techniques of measurement and data collection are most certainly in question.

  10. Mike says:

    Interesting. As someone who’s been barefooting it now for nigh on 9 months, and approaching my 1st marathon, I love the fact it’s become a mainstream debate.
    I can’t help feeling though the real message has got lost somewhere down the line. Trainers aren’t bad for you, it’s bad running style that’s bad for you and will cause you injuries.
    You can run with perfect form and wear trainers, and you’ll have no bother. The real reason for barefooting it is that it’s much harder to run with bad form; you literally can’t run on your heels, which, for the most part forces you into a better, more natural running style.
    The science is lacking from both sides, but what interested me was that podiatrists, who had been adamant what I needed were increasingly banked orthotics to cure my shin splints, appeared to be working off the same lack of research as barefooters. I chose barefoot, and glad I did. Another sample of one…

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Mike,
      Thanks for your comments. The science may not be perfect but it is more in favor of footwear of various sorts.
      It is just as easy to have bad form barefoot as shod… it is a leap of logic that because form change unshod that it is somehow more biomechanically sound.
      Running style is highly variable and in fact is not the main reason for injuries. Too much too soon is the #1 cause… regardless of form.
      The biggest confounding thing in all this debate is that each side sees things only through their own lens and interprets the same data differently. It’s like the person whose only tool is a hammer… everything looks like a nail.

  11. Owen McCall says:

    Dean,
    Its not true that “It is just as easy to have bad form barefoot as shod.” When running barefoot, poor form simply hurts too much to do it for very long. All this theory is interesting and fun but the only way to find the answer is to just go ahead and do the experiment. I’ve been running exclusively barefoot for the past nine years. For the fifteen years before that I had some typical runner’s injury roughly every six months. The past nine years have been injury free. As far as I’m concerned the debate is long over.

    Owen McCall

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Owen,
      The debate will continue since there are no definitive answers. Your assertion that you cannot have bad form while barefoot is simply far off base. The fact that form changes while barefoot does NOT make it improved or better. It makes it different. To jump to the erroneous conclusion it “improves” form is the problem. I’m glad YOU personally found an answer. That is important. You are right, experiment. In my much broader experience with many runners – you are a minority of whom this approach has helped. I’m VERY excited and happy for anyone who finds something that enhances their running. I’m glad you found YOUR answer. That is very different from advocating something that has very mixed ACTUAL results to the broad spectrum of runners. Keep it rolling!

  12. Todd says:

    I rarely get injured so I have no compelling reason to switch to barefoot running. I’m 40 and run on average one marathon a year. I’m extremely flat-footed and have never worn “motion control/stability” shoes. If I do feel pain, It’s been from too much too fast. OR when the shoes get old.

    Your feet might get old, but I think they last most people 70 years or so. At least they don’t get replaced. So they fix themselves and are stronger for next time. (I’m sure there’s a point there somewhere)

    You know what I’ve never read? A story about someone switch to running barefoot and then getting injuries. I assume it happens, but I’d like to see that point of view.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Todd,
      Yes there are many anecdotal accounts of injuries when switching to barefoot running. But, like those who swear by it… these people will swear at it. Experiment of one.. and be very cautious in doing so. Bottom line for me is if you aren’t having problems why would you ever change. It may work for some and won’t work for others.

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