Running Barefoot on Matted Surfaces May Provoke Heel Strike

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 a mat increase rearfoot inversion
Running barefoot with a heel strike on a matted surface unleashes other biomechanical pitfalls such as greater rearfoot inversion which may hurt the Achilles tendon.

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.

Barefoot running on the road safer than barefoot running on a matted surface
The body perceives foot strike as more stable when running barefoot on harder surfaces compared to matted surfaces.

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.

Avoid Running Barefoot on Softer Surfaces
Running barefoot on pavement is more likely to stimulate a forefoot strike landing because its simply more comfortable.

More From Run Forefoot:

Run forefoot, because you are faster than you think!


References:

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.

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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