Barefoot Running

Posted on by Ross Harris

Over recent years there has been growing interest in barefoot running using either minimalistic shoes or no shoes at all. To explain the surge in popularity, we must first look at the biomechanics of running, specifically the way in which the foot strikes the ground. In doing this we can identify three types of runner:

Rearfoot (Heel) Striking

Heel lands first, then the forefoot comes down.

Midfoot Striking

Heel and ball of foot land simultaneously.

Forefoot Striking

Ball of the foot lands first, then the heel comes down. This differs from sprinting, where the runner stays on the ball of the foot and the heel never comes down.

Why is running style important?

According to Lohman (2011) 75 – 90% of distance runners who wear shoes habitually heel strike, however, most barefoot runners tend to avoid landing on the heel (as it is extremely painful) and instead land with a forefoot or midfoot strike. Most forefoot and midfoot strikes do not generate the sudden, large impact forces (Impact Transient) that occur when you heel strike. The diagrams below show the forces generated through the foot during running. The first diagram shows heel striking when barefoot and the second diagram shows heel striking in a shoe. Diagram 3 shows forefoot striking.

Consequently, runners who forefoot or midfoot strike do not need shoes with highly cushioned heels to cope with these sudden, high transient forces that occur when you land on the ground. Therefore, barefoot and minimally shod people can run easily on hard surfaces without discomfort from landing. If impact transient forces contribute to some types of injury, then this style of running might have some benefits.

What does the research say?

There is no conclusive evidence that either proves or disproves the benefits of barefoot running. Despite all the work showing how impact forces and loading rates are reduced when barefoot, it remains to be proven that this leads to lower injury rates. There are plenty of plausible theories as to why barefoot running may reduce injury rates and improve performance, but the evidence will only come from long-term, prospective studies.

Is Barefoot running good for you?

The evidence so far suggests that barefoot running produces some potentially beneficial changes related to how running style is altered without shoes, however, there appears to be a large number of people who, when running barefoot, appear to have an increased risk of injury. This is especially in the early stages of barefoot running with people who either, continue to heel strike, or try to force a forefoot landing leading to huge strain on the calf muscle and Achilles tendons.

It’s important to recognize that some runners adapt very quickly to minimalist shoes or barefoot running and are able to throw away their shoes very quickly. At the other extreme, there are runners who will find it very difficult to make the transition from shoe to barefoot – if indeed they can make the change at all.

Although there is very little research at present, there are certainly some plausible theories to suggest why barefoot running may be beneficial for athletes. If you are thinking of changing to barefoot running, it is important to recognize that everyone will adapt at different rates, with the process often taking 3-6 months – if you push too hard to soon you will invariably end up getting injured. Is this lengthy adaptation period worth all the effort when the evidence is still inconclusive? That’s for you to decide!

If you are interested in learning more about barefoot running, Dr Irene Davis has posted an excellent video lecture on the subject.

One Response to Barefoot Running

James Brooks says: 05/09/2014 at 2:48 pm

I’d recommend getting some coaching if you’re going to try it. Bio-mechanically it’s better for you and you can improve performance if you’re running with proper form. I used the Barefoot Running NI coaches and I’m very pleased with the result. I train barefoot now and run races in my flats! Well worth looking in to!


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