To most beginner barefoot runners, running barefoot on grass, or softer surfaces feels more comfortable than running on pavement. But the problem with running barefoot on soft surfaces is that it almost feels the same as running in cushioned running shoes in that it allows landing on the heel (i.e. heel strike) to feel comfortable. Even worse, you may be heel striking without even knowing it when you run barefooted on such surfaces.
Running Barefoot on Matted Surfaces May Provoke Heel Strike
The fact is, running barefoot (for a beginner) on a matted surface impairs leg kinematics in ways that are strikingly similar to running in cushioned running shoes.
Conventional wisdom holds that runners must wear heavily cushioned running shoes to run safely on the road. However, many experts believe running barefoot on asphalt is the best strategy to optimize leg kinematics.
Running barefoot fully optimizes proprioceptive feedback in the feet, allowing the central nervous system to initiate reflexes, such as modifying leg stiffness, to make landings comfortable, even on the hardest surfaces. However, to run barefoot on pavement safely, a forefoot strike landing must be utilized since it eliminates impact transients.
Hard vs Soft Surfaces
While running barefoot on grass, dirt trails, or on a beach is great also, the body does not seem to like running barefoot on a matted ‘unnatural’ surface such as EVA foam, or even gymnastic mats.
A study by Hein and Grau compared the kinematics in untrained barefoot runners who ran on an EVA foam surface and runners in minimalist footwear who ran on a tartan surface. All subjects in the study were heel strikers and maintained heel strike during barefoot running.
The researchers found that during stance, barefoot runners had slight forefoot torsion which caused an outward rotation of the heel, thereby rearfoot inversion was increased.
- the researchers suggested that the EVA foam cannot provide enough friction for a straight push-off phase
- likewise, the minimalist running group, also had high rearfoot inversion, had a straighter push-off phase
These results suggest the body may interact better with ‘natural’ surfaces when running barefoot, even when heel striking *cringe*. And, running on a cushioned matted surface is probably no different from running in heavily cushioned footwear, which may explain why heel striking was maintained in the barefoot running group.
In terms of an ideal surface to run on, the harder the surface, the more stable and a result, the body will perceive foot strike as more stable also.
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Hein T and Grau S. Can minimal running shoes iminate barefoot heel-toe running patterns? a comparison of lower leg kinematics. J Sport Health Sci, 2014; 3(2):67-73.
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.