Regular Running Shoes Affect Tarahumara Indians Foot Strike

If you’ve read Born to Run, then you know who the Tarahumara Indians are. If you don’t, then this article will give you insight into this inspiring tribe of endurance runners….who run in sandals made of old, used car tire rubber. Because the Tarahuama’s wear thin, rubber sandals for running, most don’t heel strike, which is in contrast to many recreational runners who wear a regular running shoe and heel strike, and get lots of injuries.

A regular running shoe is defined as footwear with lots of cushioning, distinctly under the heel, which alters a foot strike pattern that was naturally acquired under minimalist or barefoot conditions. This means that runners go from forefoot striking (the natural, safer way to land), to heel striking in cushioned footwear. Moreover, regular running shoes progressively weakens the feet, especially the arch.

So, what happens when the Tarahumara Indians go from wearing their minimalist sandals to regular running shoes? A new study found that regular running shoes altered the natural foot strike and affected foot health in Tarahumara Indian endurance runners.

Why study the Tarahumara Indians for running?

Regular Running Shoes Affect Tarahumara Indians Foot Strike

Tarahumara Indian endurance runners wear ultra thin, flimsy sandals called huarache sandals which have no supportive features or cushioning.

Each year the Tarahumara Indians run in teams and cover 75 km while kicking and chasing a small wooden ball in these sandals. They also compete in ultra marathons (races greater than 50 km). The gist is, the Tarahumara Indian endurance runners are not wearing regular running shoes and they rarely get injured.

Tarahumara Indians foot strike in sandals
The Tarahumara Indians wear thin sandals when competing in ultra marathons and rarely injure. SOURCE: Lieberman, 2013. Harvard University.

Lieberman (2014) found that Tarahumara Indian endurance runners who habitually wore regular running shoes had different lower leg kinematics as compared with Tarahumara Indians who habitually wore huarache sandals.

  • Tarahumara Indian endurance runners who habitually wore huarache sandals were more likely to land with their ankles below their knee when running. Therefore, they did not over-stride when compared to the Tarahumara Indians who habitually wore regular running shoes.
  • Tarahumara Indians who habitually ran in regular running shoes had reduced arch strength

Lieberman’s findings forced the novel conclusion that regular running shoes cause over striding during running, and reduce arch strength. Lieberman’s data also jibes with other work showing that protective running shoes induce changes in foot strike and these changes correspond to heel strike running.

Nevertheless, regular running shoes are an interference to our foot strike, allowing for specific conditions that result in injury. For example, regular running shoes are full of protection, yet a heel strike runner produces higher peak forces and joint loading than a forefoot runner in barefoot running shoes. As a consequence, heel strike runners are more likely to suffer repetitive stress injury than forefoot runners.

Ultimately, the minimalist footwear worn by most Tarahumara Indian endurance runners serve as a gateway to a deeper understanding of how humans were designed to run without shoes.

If you want huarache inspired sandals for running or for building foot strength, check out Xero Shoes.

More From Run Forefoot:


Lieberman, DE. Strike type variation among Tarahumara Indians in minimalist sandals versus conventional running shoes. J Sport Health Sci, 2014; (3)2:86-94.

Nigg, BM and Wakeling, JM. Impact forces and muscle tuning: a new paradigm. Exerc Sports Sci Rev, 2001; 29(1):37-41.

Nigg, BM., Cole, GK., and Burggemann, GP. Impact forces during heel-toe running. J Appli Biomech, 1995; 11(4):407-432.

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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