Benefits of Barefooting Running

Barefooting running helps train you to better recognize your forefoot strike landing. But there is another benefit to running barefoot: it reduces stride length.
Barefooting

Benefit of Barefooting Running

For many shod heel strike runners, running without injury is challenging because among other things, heel strikers tend to have a long stride length which causes higher impact peaks of the vertical ground reaction force, and injury. Seemingly, the logical choice is to shorten stride length, but mechanically, heel strike running makes this modification challenging.

More Efficient Leg Swing

Barefoot running plays a central role in improving leg swing mechanics, especially in shod heel strike runners. However, the mechanical benefits of barefoot running seems to have faded, overshadowed by the odd study that likes to point out that barefoot running does not always prompt an automatic forefoot strike.

Nevertheless, Thompson et al. (2015) revived the fact that some of the most successful changes in leg swing mechanics occurs during barefoot running, not shod running.

The researchers wanted to see if barefoot running mechanics in shod heel strike runners differed from natural shod forefoot runners. As expected, barefoot running evoked a range of large-scale mechanical changes.

For example, the shod heel strike runners who switched to barefoot running exhibited more plantarflexion rather than dorsiflexion at touchdown and had an 8% reduction in stride length compared to the shod heel strike running condition. The barefoot runners also had a significant reduction in the impact peak magnitude of the vertical ground reaction force.

The natural shod forefoot runners also benefited from barefoot running as they showed a reduction in stride length as well.

Better Ground-Feel

Work by Lieberman et al. (2012) and Robbins and Gouw (1991) found a link between increased proprioceptive input at the mechanoreceptors in the plantar surface and reduced stride length in runners. Barefoot runners obviously have heightened proprioception compared with shod runners and this increased proprioception triggers a plantarflexed ankle over a dorsiflexed ankle at touchdown.

When the ankle is plantarflexed upon touchdown, the foot is in a favorable position to forefoot strike and a forefoot strike is the principle in reducing stride length compared to a heel strike landing.

Truly, the global concern is footwear. Many runners are unaware that cushioned heeled footwear poorly prepares them for running.

The Take Home Message

Heel strike runners who suffer injuries should start with the obvious stuff: run barefoot gradually, adopt a forefoot strike, but if you are not interested in going barefoot permanently, at least wear barefoot-inspired footwear.

All in all, the findings reinforce the fact that barefoot running provides the tools shod heel strike runners need to change their gait in positive ways. The findings also has given us a compelling idea about what conventional footwear has done to us and about the potential of barefoot running has for helping us solve shod-related gait problems.

To get started on running barefoot, here are some handy tips!


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References:

Lieberman DE. What we can learn about running form from barefoot running: an evolutionary medical perspective. Exerc Sport Sci Rev, 2012; 40:63-72.

Robbins SE and Gouw G. Athletic footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1991; 23:217-24.

Thompson et al. Kinematic and kinetic comparison of barefoot and shod running in mid/forefoot and rearfoot strike runners. Gait & Posture, 2015; 41:957-959.

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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