Running Barefoot is Safe, Only if You Don’t Use Your Feet

Running barefoot is safe, only if you don’t use your feet aggressively with the ground. This includes avoid propelling your body forward with your toes as well as landing incorrectly on your forefoot. Now the title of the post makes sense!

Running Barefoot is Safe

Running Barefoot is Safe, Only if You Don’t Use Your Feet

When you are running without shoes, you want to land on your forefoot, but what is equally important is that you understand the roles of the feet in forefoot running.

The feet have 2 roles in forefoot running:

1. they are essentially platforms for maintaining postural stability while running.

2. they absorb impact to reduce jarring with the ground. This is why many forefoot strikers have a smooth, non-rigid gait.

Using your feet passively while barefoot running is the key to injury prevention. The feet have a more passive role in forefoot running than in heel strike running.

Heel strikers are more active with their feet because they pull the forefoot back to allow heel strike. After heel contact, the foot rolls on to the toes and the forefoot and toes push the body into flight. Many barefoot runners are former shod-heel strikers and unfortunately, retain heel strike mechanics (i.e. toe pushing) despite adopting a forefoot strike.

When running barefoot, the feet need to be used more passively to prevent metatarsal stress fractures and other foot injuries. The neuromotor strategy for heel striking instructs the feet to do most of the work, but this is how you break the habit of toe pushing:

If you pay close attention to the forefoot strike pattern in most elite distance runners, you will notice they land on the outside edge of the forefoot first, then the rest of the foot flattens to the ground. The video below really captures the movement path of the foot in a forefoot strike landing.

A proper forefoot strike, as shown in the video, follows a ball-of-the-foot to heel movement pattern, that is, initial contact is on the outer-side of the forefoot, then the heel lowers to the ground. Closely examine the interaction of the foot with the ground and you will notice the feet are not braking the system (as in heel striking), or propelling the body forward. Instead, the plantarflexed foot at touchdown produces a smoother landing, less incompliant foot-ground interaction.

Never Land First on the 1st and 2nd Metatarsal Heads

Many barefoot running beginners, including myself at one time, hyper-strain their toes too much, and land incorrectly under the second metatarsal head, which may cause fracture to the area.

how to run barefoot with a forefoot strike

To make your barefoot landings soft, do nothing with your foot other than aim for a flatter foot placement, landing just under the 5th toe, not under the big toe as abnormal plantar distribution may result.

The Take Home Message

The most fundamental aspects of running is where initial contact is made on the foot with the ground and where the center of pressure (COP) is first applied on the foot at foot strike -this determines the magnitude of the ground reaction force.

If the heel makes initial contact with the ground first, and therefore the COP begins at the heel,  you have now added a peak impact transient to the ground reaction force and this is what you must avoid.

You can run barefoot with a much flatter foot placement at foot strike, but always think about where your COP is initially applied on your foot. As long as the COP is away from the heel, and you feel comfortable, you’re doing great!

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References:

Lan-Yuen et al. Effect on plantar pressure distribution with wearing difference base size of high-heel shoes during walking and slow running.  Mech. Med. Biol. 2012, 12.

Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, Daoud AI, D’Andrea S,Davis IS, et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 2010;463:531 e 5.

Bretta Riches

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

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.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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