The main cause of barefoot running injuries is landing with a heel strike instead of a forefoot strike. Many inexperienced barefoot runners were habitual shod heel strikers. Habitual shod-runners who attempt barefoot running with a heel strike will inevitably get injured.
Main Cause of Barefoot Running Injuries
Its becoming a fundamental law that humans evolved as barefoot distance runners and to reduce mechanical stress, our ancestors ran with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike.
Obviously, many inexperienced barefoot runners are misinformed about proper foot strike technique because I see the odd barefoot runner heel striking, and I shake my head.
The rationale behind barefoot running is to undo the damage caused by cushioned, stability running shoe and includes shifting away from heel striking to a more ‘natural’ and safer foot strike, the forefoot strike.
- a running shoe with a cushioned heel facilitates a heel strike running style, the most forceful style of running
- these shoes reduce normal foot functions and strength by inhibiting muscle activation, reflexes, and sensory input
There are conflicting results on the effect of barefoot running on modifying foot strike mechanics:
- the old assumption was that habitually shod heel strike runners would instantly adopt a forefoot strike landing while running barefoot for the first time
However, new evidence has put the brakes on this assumption thanks to a 2014 study in the Journal of Human Movement Science.
The researchers found that one-third of the habitual shod (shoe) runners who ran barefoot for the first time manifested a mixed landing pattern.
Therefore, running barefoot does not always guarantee an instant and complete transition from heel striking to forefoot striking.
Because there’s a good chance heel striking when barefoot running is a possibility, this may explain the spike in running-related injuries among amateur barefoot runners who were previously shod-heel strikers.
The reason habitual barefoot runners, including our ancestors, forefoot strike while running is to eliminate peak impacts of the ground reaction force, deceleration, and shock attenuation which are significantly higher in heel strike runners.
Since forefoot striking while running eliminates impact transients, forefoot striking may offer a way around the difficulty of running on harder surfaces without discomfort.
Likewise, forefoot striking while running barefoot may offer immunity from injury simply because it’s just you and the ground with no external variables such as the materials of a shoe that would otherwise contribute to injury.
- the best distance runners are forefoot strikers and include runners like Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele, and Mo Farah whereby Dibaba and Bekele ran barefoot while growing up and adopted a proper forefoot strike landing at an early age
The Take Home Message
Many amateur barefoot runners are misguided in the realm of barefoot running because the concept of running ‘natural’ overshadows the concept of proper foot strike mechanics.
Humanity would not be here if our ancestors ran barefoot on their heels because they would have suffered the same injuries shod-heel strike runners suffer today.
When you run barefoot, with having ran on your heels in shoes in the past, make the effort to modify your landing to a forefoot strike and hopefully, by avoiding heel strike, you will sidestep the common barefoot running-related injuries.
More From Run Forefoot:
Best books on learning the barefoot running technique.
Training tips from Alberta Salazar.
Best running shoes that feel barefoot.
Why landing on the outside of your foot is safer.
Main reason heel strike runners struggle with persistent injury.
Cheung, RT and Rainbow, MJ. Landing pattern and vertical loading rates during first attempt of barefoot running in habitual shod runners. Hum Mov Sci (2014); 34:120-7.
BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.