The science of going barefoot

February 2, 2010 at 9:58 am 5 comments

I’ve written earlier on the science of barefoot running (see here and here), though a recent study out of Harvard is helping the mainstream media to finally usher the barefoot revolution. Here’s a roundup of news and notes from the past week about running without shoes:

From Nature:

Most shod runners today make initial contact with the ground heel-first (rear-foot striking, or RFS). Experienced barefoot runners, like the ones observed for this study, land on the ground in many ways depending on the conditions — sometimes RFS, but more often avoiding landing heel-first because it hurts owing to repetitive, high-impact forces (or transients). A more anterior landing on a flat foot (mid-foot striking, or MFS), or on the lateral ball of the foot (fore-foot striking, or FFS), has predictable, and some would say desirable, consequences for pedal biomechanics.

In FFS and some MFS, the foot’s centre of pressure necessarily starts more anterior at contact and then moves backward briefly before moving forward again for toeing-off. (Sprinters, whether shod or not, also run on their forefeet, but for different mechanical reasons.) Among other differences, FFS barefoot runners tend to take shorter strides and to run with greater vertical leg and ankle compliance (the lowering of the body’s centre of mass relative to the force of the impact). This serves to blunt the transient force and results in a less jarring, ‘smoother ride’. The elevated and cushioned heel of most modern running shoes is designed for comfort, stability and to attenuate the transient forces of heel-strike in RFS running that may be linked to some orthopaedic injuries.

These photos are of two Kalenjin runners from Kenya, a barefoot 12-year-old girl (left) and a boy of the same age in running shoes. Note the differences in foot angulation as the girl prepares for a forefoot touchdown and the boy prepares to land heel first.

ScienceNOW provides the details and explains the takeaway of the study:

Daniel Lieberman, a human evolutionary biologist at Harvard University–and an avid runner–decided to find out how humans managed to run comfortably before the invention of purpose-built footwear. He and colleagues looked at more than 200 shod and unshod runners in the United States and the Rift Valley Province of Kenya, which is known for its great endurance runners. The volunteers represented a spectrum of shoe experience, including adults who had grown up wearing shoes, those who had grown up running shoeless but who now wore shoes, and those who had never worn shoes at all. Lieberman’s team arranged a trial in which each group ran shod (either in ASICS GEL-Cumulus 10s or in their own shoes) and bare and measured their running gait and the impact on their bodies.

The researchers noticed a difference right away. Whereas shod runners tended to land on the heel of the foot, barefoot runners landed on the ball of the foot or with a flat foot. The unshod runners’ style causes more flex in the foot’s springlike arch, ankle, and knee and engages more foot and calf muscles, blunting the impact on the body and making for a more comfortable “ride.” As their feet collide with the ground–in this case, a running track–barefoot runners experience a shock of only 0.5 to 0.7 times their body weight, whereas shod heel strikers experience 1.5 to two times their body weight–a threefold to fourfold difference.

“I always assumed it was painful and crazy to run barefoot,” says a surprised Lieberman. Instead, the findings suggest that going barefoot can reduce the likelihood of pain and damage, because many running injuries, like shin splints and plantar fasciitis, are stress- and impact-induced.

From LiveScience:

While several studies have compared running barefoot to running with shoes, the current study, published this week in the journal Nature, is the first to include analyses of runners who have never worn modern footwear.

Lieberman notes that a recently published study on the topic showed no studies that demonstrate modern running shoes prevent injuries.

They examined the running styles of five different groups: athletes from the United States who always wear running shoes; athletes from the Rift Valley Province in Kenya who grew up running barefoot, but now don modern running shoes; U.S. runners who used to wear shoes, but now go barefoot; and runners from Kenya who either always wear shoes or have never worn shoes.

They saw that runners who were used to running in shoes most often strike the ground heel first, even when running barefoot. Those individuals who grew up running barefoot, or switched to running barefoot, usually landed with their toes first, a so-called “fore-foot strike.”

The barefoot runners, including those who grew up running sans shoes and those who had recently switched to barefoot, sometimes landed on their mid-foot as well, but they were much less likely to land on their heel.

TIME magazine asks, “Should you be running barefoot?”:

Because the human foot has relatively little padding on the heel, barefoot runners tread more lightly, landing on the outer part of the midfoot and then rolling inward. Cushiony running shoes, by contrast, encourage a stiff heel-to-toe stride that could lead to injury. In the December issue of a journal put out by the American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, researchers concluded that running in shoes exerts more stress on the knee, hip and ankle than does running barefoot or walking in high heels. “We evolved to run barefoot, and when we put shoes on, we’re taking away the function of the foot,” says Irene Davis, director of the University of Delaware Running Injury Clinic.

And NPR reports, simply, that “humans were born to run barefoot”:

People who switched from shoes to barefoot running eventually, without prompting, adopted the barefoot style.

“Turns out that the way in which barefoot runners run seems to store up more energy,” says anthropologist Dan Lieberman.

To understand how that works, I talked to anthropologist Brian Richmond at George Washington University. He points out that the human foot has an arch with ligaments inside that stretch and contract with every footfall.

“It allows the arch of the foot and the calf muscles to act as a better spring and to store up energy, and then give it back in the beginning of the next step,” Richmond says.

Think of a compressed mattress spring pushed down and then released. Richmond agrees with Lieberman that the front-first landing of barefoot running probably capitalizes on that spring mechanism more than heel-first landing — it gets more spring out of the spring. is a fantastic resource for those interested in minimal footwear, especially Vibram FiveFingers. Their review of the VFF KSO Trek has me saving my pennies.

UPDATE: Harvard University’s Skeletal Biology Lab has an entire website on the “biomechanics of foot strikes and applications to running barefoot or in minimal footwear,” including videos and training tips.


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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. justin  |  February 2, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Thank you kindly for the props! If you end up picking up some Treks and taking them for a spin, let me know what you think.

    • 2. Kailey  |  May 15, 2017 at 11:25 pm

      Dag nabbit good stuff you whraserpnpppeis!

    • 3. finanzierungsrechner immobilien  |  September 4, 2017 at 1:42 am

      Nathan we had the same problem. Everywhere we called was expensive and wanted us to use their minister – regardless of the fact that my parents are both ministers. They didn’t get it. They also wanted me to pay for the use of their musician, even though most of my close friends are musicians. We ended up going to Crossroads (tv station that has a pretty chapel in it) who wanted half of what most of the churches did and were thrilled we had our own minister and musicians. Keep looking, the right place will turn up!Good luck!

  • 4. The barefoot professor « playthink  |  March 13, 2010 at 8:13 am

    […] The science of going barefoot. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The science of going […]

  • 5. IT Leadership Skills  |  September 4, 2011 at 11:18 am

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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