Running Barefoot Leads to Reduced Conscious Effort During Forefoot Running

Running with reduced conscious effort on mechanics improves running efficiency. In other words, focusing your mind too much on mechanics while forefoot running will not only leave you frustrated, but slower too.

Many joggers intensively compute their mechanics while they run in attempt to avoid injury and seek better performance outcomes. However, running while consciously monitoring every mechanical aspect has proven to be exhausting and diminishes movement efficiency.

The bottom line is, the obvious effects of over-controlling mechanics during running results in a less efficient runner. This is however, not the case for habitual barefoot runners, and especially most Ethiopian runners.

Running Barefoot: Running with a Free Mind

Running barefoot allows forefoot running to operate more under reflexive neuromuscular control and less under conscious control.

Barefoot running is a fantastically useful tool to refine your forefoot running technique and allows it to happen ‘unconsciously’. How? The answer is proprioceptive feedback, which is maximized under barefoot conditions and informs the cerebellum in the brain on body position, joint sensations and limb motions.

In the beginning, running barefoot results in voluntary movements, such as a forefoot strike landing, that are repeated to ensure safe running and are stored in the cerebellum as central commands. This is all made possible by the proprioceptors of the plantar surface.

Overtime, proprioception allows movements to be performed without continuous reference to consciousness and therefore, thought processes are more simplified during running. This is how habitual barefoot runners, like most Ethiopian distance runners, end up running without thinking about how to run and allows substantially huge savings in energy. This is better than being overloaded with too much information on mechanics during, like most joggers.

Learning to Run Without Thinking

As mentioned earlier, many joggers focus too much on form to avoid injury. The majority of these runners also heel strike. Remember, the human body did not evolve to heel strike barefoot or in shoes!

Forefoot running on the other hand, is a by-product of running barefoot and is an adaptive strategy to avoid deformation and loading of the soft tissues.

The gist is, running shoes blocks the neural stimulation needed to optimize the natural forefoot strike landing and prevents the reflexive development of forefoot running mechanics we evolved for.

To become an efficient forefoot runner like most Ethiopian distance runners, believe it or not, you must learn to run with the unconscious awareness of your mechanics. This holds true for most elite distance runners as they tend to focus on breathing over mechanics.

  • The brain can only process one thought or idea at a time; therefore, the mind cannot focus on breathing and mechanics simultaneously. Its one or the other. Quite often, elite runners ‘zone out’ during a race.
Barefoot Inspired Sandals Great for Forefoot Strike
Barefoot-inspired running sandals are a great alternative to running barefoot.

Therefore, to zone out while you run, you need to habituate the proper forefoot running technique via running barefoot in small amounts each day.

If you are stubborn like most runners and despise going barefoot, at least try running in barefoot-like running shoes such as the Vibram Five Fingers, or Tarahumara Sandals. The prerequisite for effortless forefoot running is neural input that is provided only by wearing less on your feet.

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Lephart et al. The role of proprioception in the management and rehabilitation of athletic injury. Amer J Sports Med, 1997; 25(1):130-37.

Tyldesling B, Greve Ji Muscles, Nerves and Movement Kinesiology in Daily Living Boston, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1989, pp 268-284

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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