How Barefoot and Shod Running Effects the Proprioceptive System

The consistent theme that is emerging in the running community is that cushioned athletic footwear negatively affects the proprioceptive system in the feet, resulting in impairments in landing behavior judgment and control during running.

How Barefoot and Shod Running Affects Proprioceptive System
Barefoot running awakens unused proprioceptive connections, making these connections more ‘specialized’ at controlling better landing behavior during forefoot running.

How Barefoot and Shod Running Effects the Proprioceptive System

It’s no longer a secret that cushioned athletic footwear is strongly linked to running injury via faulty biomechanics. A more plausible cause of biomechanical disruption is that cushioned athletic footwear reduces proprioceptor population or connectivity in the feet, thereby altering impact moderating behavior.

How does athletic footwear do this?

Shoe cushioning reduces the proprioceptor’s computational bandwidth, potentially permitting a loss of proprioceptors. The proprioceptors integrate less information when a protective device is worn on the foot. In this case, the proprioceptors are under-active which may result in a series of molecular changes that reduce the number of proprioceptive connections in the feet, ankle and knee joint. How does this effect forefoot running ability? Previous studies indicate that the riskiest landing behaviors during running arise from compromised proprioception.

Barefoot Accelerates Proprioceptive Info

Under barefoot conditions, dramatic changes in proprioceptive signalling are taking place. If the incoming sensory input exceeds a certain electrical threshold, the firing rate of certain proprioceptors may initiate molecular changes that leads to a rapid expansion of proprioceptive connectivity and many biomechanical advances arise.

For example, habitual barefoot runners,  including Ethiopian elite distance runners who ran barefoot during youth, exhibit safer levels of loading and impact rates compared with shod runners who heel strike. This means that barefoot running strengthens perceptual awareness of foot strike, implying that sensory feedback processing and motor act coordination are enhanced due to greater proprioceptive connections.

Build-Up Propriocpetion by Going Bare More

Wearing less, or nothing at all, favors the growth of proprioceptors that intervene between the sensory stimulus and motor act coordination during running. The fact that habitual shod runners who switch to barefoot running run better with less injury, suggests that the proprioceptors are changeable, or plastic, allowing a newbie barefoot runner make enormous progress in landing behavior.

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Robbins SE and Hanna AM. Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1987; 19(2):148-156.

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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