Ethiopian Runners Are Better Due to Running Barefoot

Ethiopian runners might be better, not because of genetics, rather earlier adaptations to forefoot running on account of running barefoot.

Running barefoot during early stages of physical development optimizes a forefoot strike as well as muscle-tendon function and reflexive motor commands, which contribute to good running economy.

A recent study by Ishikawa et al. suggested that specific neuromuscular adaptations contribute to the economical, mechanical parameters in Ethiopian distance runners and these neuromuscular adaptations, acquired earlier in life,  gives Ethiopian runners a distinct advantage over habitually shod populations.

Not Genetically Gifted

Studies on the role of physiological and genetic factors in endurance capacity have failed to show any marked difference between Ethiopian athletic superstars and their Ethiopian counterparts. This is why the spotlight is now beaming on biomechanical factors.

Unlike us, many Ethiopian runners are surprisingly relaxed with their non-rigid, flowing stride. In fact, most Ethiopian runners are forefoot strikers, a running style where the legs operates similar to a ‘bow spring’.

Bornelli reported that the spring properties of the Achilles and the arch enhances mechanical efficiency. Similarly, experts believe a forefoot strike, not a heel strike,  compliments the spring behavior of the leg.

Nonetheless, adopting a forefoot strike pattern through barefoot running gives Ethiopian runners an economic advantage.

Getting a Head Start on Forefoot Running

There is a good chance that the earlier and longer you run barefoot, the better your forefoot strike mechanics and possibly running economy might be.

As mentioned briefly, most Ethiopian distance runners, including the great Haile Gebrselassie and Tirunesh Dibaba (shown below), grew up running long distances barefoot, and even trained in running camps barefoot.
Ethiopian runners better due to barefoot running

Over time, proprioception generates goal-directed movements related to posture and landing behaviour to lower body shock and discomfort when running barefoot.

Running barefoot during childhood and adolescence results in impact-moderating behavior that becomes hardwired to prevent painful landings when running.

In fact, impact moderating behavior related to running barefoot is most likely an ancient and reflexive pathway, retained by us today, as our ancestors ran barefoot over long distance also.

Running Barefoot Fundamental to Biomechanics

Sensory information dictates proper biomechanics. The tactile sensations from the plantar surface simultaneously zips through the spinal cord and into the brain’s somatosensory cortex which dictates proper running mechanics. This sensory information decides the correct forefoot strike placement as well as contact force when running.

Running barefoot gradually provokes anticipatory behaviour that influences movement intensity and joint flexion. Taken together, this is how the body learns to run safely over the ground when barefoot.

Less Time Injured, More Time Training

Evidently, Ethiopian distance runners typically suffer less injuries than non-African runners. Again, this is where sensory feedback comes in.

To run safely, the proper functioning of each level of the motor control in running relies heavily on sensory information.

Blocking sensory information with a shoe during running, results in poor tactile decisions and hinders the natural, reflexive motor commands to execute proper landings and postural adjustments.

The Take Home Message

It is very conceivable that Ethiopian runners are better because their biomechanics are better due to earlier adaptations of forefoot running via running barefoot. Makes sense.

From an early age, their body has cultived the ability to command the biomechanical parameters for safer running and to habituate the spring-like action of the leg. Hence why Ethiopian distance runners are so efficient.

The human body was evolutionarily designed to devise strategies to avoid painful impacts when running barefoot and watching Ethiopian runners run provides a glimpse into our evolutionary past of how humans are meant to run.

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Bear, MF., Conners, BW., and Paradiso, MA. 2006. Neuroscience: exploring the brain. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. New York, USA.

Borelli, GA. 1969. De Motu Animalium.Translated by P. Maqute, Springer-Verlag, New York, USA.

Ishikawa et al., 2013. Economical running strategy for East African distance runners. J Phys Fitness Sports Med, 2(3):361-63.

Robbins, SE and Gouw, GJ. 1991. Athletic footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 23(2):217-24.

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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