The Neuroscience of Running – How the Brain Helps Us Run Better…..When We Are Barefoot

I’m going to give you the break-down on the neuroscience of running. The end-game in running is avoiding injury and unfortunately, we are ignorant when it comes to how injury-free running arises from the brain and it’s ability to tell us to land lighter based on the information received from the feet. This is why barefoot runners do better because optimal impact moderating behaviors and pressure and pain-sensitive nerve function are more likely found in these runners.

The Neuroscience of Running – How the Brain Helps Us Run Better…..When We Are Barefoot

Essentially, the body relies on the brain via proprioception in the feet to alter running gait in ways that optimize our defense mechanisms.

It is naive to believe that the standard running shoe does not qualify as one of the main causes of running-related injuries. The standard running shoe effects specific components of the brain, thereby inducing significant changes, at the reflexive level, in gait regulation.

Neuroscience of RunningResearch shows that the human sense of plantar tactile stimuli is enough to enable runners to run safer in pure minimalist shoes or barefoot than in cushioned footwear.

  • Nurse and Nigg (1998) showed that humans have an innate ability to detect and respond to external stimuli when barefoot and this heightened sense of proprioception aids in safer landing strategies during running.

Neurons that convey pressure and tactile thresholds from the plantar surface to areas of the brain have intimate connections with the most primitive parts of the human brain: the cerebellum and brain stem. These areas govern spinal reflexes that regulate gait acquisition during barefoot running.

Therefore, plantar tactile stimuli trigger subconscious mechanical responses before arriving at the brain’s outermost section –the ‘thinky-thinky’ parts of the brain aka the cerebrum, for conscious assessment.

What happens if this neurological feedback loop is blocked? Thick cushioned running shoes does just that and as a consequence, a great deal of unconscious processing of plantar pressure and tactile thresholds are lost during running.

  • Thick, cushioned running shoes causes sensory input to be indistinct or blurred, making it almost impossible to subconsciously evaluate dangerous variations in gait patterns during running.
  • The result, there is reduced data relayed from the proprioceptors to brain areas that elicit the perception of these variations.

Cushioned materials seem to influence, or disrupt movement behavior more than anything else and they also determine foot strike status: runners who wear cushioned running shoes typically heel strike.

Pure minimalist footwear or running barefoot, on the other hand, provokes both faster and stronger sensory impulses, leading to a more robust foot strike, a forefoot strike. Similarly, most habitual barefoot runners land forefooted and shod runners who ran barefoot consistently preferred a forefoot strike, suggesting that this tendency is adaptive, therefore primitive.

The Take Home Message

From a neuroscience perspective, the brain helps us avoid the wrong foot strike during running, thereby injury is prevented. Thus, there are distinct nerves that govern biomechanics.

Cushioned footwear interferes with the neural communications between the feet and brain, eliciting a distinctive heel strike landing pattern that is not seen in habitual barefoot runners. And, because minimalist and barefoot conditions elicit distinctive brain patterns of activity in response to plantar sensitivity and peak force during running, the researchers of the current study strongly recommended that neurological feedback should be incorporated into any model that attempts to explain gait patterns.

Ironically, cushioned running shoes facilitates heel strike, yet injury rates are alarmingly high in runners who heel strike; therefore, this argues against the utility of cushioned footwear as a protective device.

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Reference:

Nurse MA and Nigg BM. Quantifying a relationship between tactile and vibration sensitivity of the human foot with plantar pressure distributions during gait. Clin Biomech, 1999; 14(9):667-672.

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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