The science behind barefoot running

Humans have been running long distances for millions of years, well before the advent of the modern running shoe. In fact, it’s only in the past three decades that athletic companies have developed cushioned, supportive shoes for runners.

Recently, a movement of runners have gone back to their roots – forgoing shoes for running barefoot or with minimal footwear. Why the heck would they do that? Thanks to sports historian Michael Civille for posing this question, and we’ll take a look at the evidence here.

There is some evidence that barefoot running reduces the amount of force on the foot and knee joints. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, studies the biomechanics of barefoot running and how early humans survived by evolving the ability to travel long distances to hunt.

His work – which has been published twice in the journal Nature – has shown that experienced, barefoot runners tend to land in the front or middle of their feet, compared to runners with shoes, who tend to land on their heels. These forefoot and midfoot strikes do not generate the sudden, large impacts that occur with heel strikes. Therefore, barefoot people can run more easily on hard surfaces without discomfort from landing.

Lieberman, who runs barefoot once a week himself, is the first to admit there is no evidence on whether running barefoot causes fewer or more injuries than running with shoes.  (There is also no evidence that running shoes reduce injuries either.)

How about speed?

There is some evidence that barefoot running uses about five percent less energy because runners use the natural springs in their feet and calf muscles to store and release energy.  

But runners with forefoot or midfoot strikes don’t seem to be any faster than runners with heel strikes, according to a Japanese study.  In it, researchers took photographs of elite runners foot strike positions midway through a half-marathon. Seventy-five percent of the runners were landing on their heels, 24 percent landed at about near the arch of their shoe, and only four landed on their forefoot. And they weren’t the four fastest.

The take-home message?  The jury is still out on barefoot running. One thing is clear:  If you want to try barefoot running, start slowly. One thing all of the experts agree on is that the body does take some time to adjust.


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