Barefoot running, or running in a minimalist shoe, has dramatically increased within the popular media over the past several years. However, one must first realize that barefoot running is not new with Abebe Bikila winning gold in the 1960 Olympic marathon whilst running barefoot. At the 1984 Olympic games Zola Budd set the world record for the 5000m and the first research study published was in 1987. Since then, multiple studies have been conducted to understand the potential alterations in biomechanics when running barefoot. However, it is important to note that to date, there is no research that either supports or refutes the injury preventative aspects of running barefoot that successful marketing campaigns and advertisements promote. There is only research to confirm that running barefoot is simply different than running shod. The purpose of this article will be to discuss these research studies and put the results in the context of making informed decisions about whether barefoot running, or running in a minimalist shoe, is right for you.
First, lets define a few concepts. Barefoot running results in a forefoot strike (landing on your toes) as opposed to a rearfoot (heel) strike typically seen when running in shoes. So there is a difference between barefoot running and a barefoot running style since you could, in fact, land on your forefoot whilst wearing a pair of regular or even minimalist running shoes. So I’ll frame the conversation around forefoot versus rearfoot landing patterns.
The research clearly shows that a forefoot strike results in decreased stride length, increased stride rate, decreased range of motion at the ankle, knee, and hips, and a more plantarflexed (toes pointed) ankle angle at ground contact. Moreover, in 2009 Kerrigan and colleagues reported a 54% decrease in hip joint loading and a 36% decrease in knee joint loading when running with a forefoot strike as compared to a rearfoot strike.
While these results appear impressive, and seem to point towards a forefoot strike causing less hip and knee loading, a closer inspection reveals that there is no clear answer as to whether a forefoot running style is injury preventative or causative. For example, by decreasing stride length, and increasing stride rate, more steps are taken per kilometer. For the average person running a marathon, this would result in 1280 more steps to finish the race but only 2 minutes less of foot contact time over a 3 hour and 20 minute period of time. The increased number of steps and increased repetitions of loading could be injury-causative. On the other hand, 36% to 54% less loading at the hip and knees for every step could be injury-preventative. To add to the confusion, based on mechanical properties of the Achilles tendon and considering that a forefoot strike pattern forces the heel downwards, each step results in 59% of the force needed to rupture the Achilles tendon. Wow … that could certainly be injury-causative!
As stated earlier, no studies have been conducted on whether injury rates or specific injuries are reduced when running barefoot or with a forefoot strike. Considering the complexity of running injuries, one must assume that changing footwear, or even eliminating shoes altogether, cannot eliminate the potential for musculoskeletal injuries. In fact, such rapid alterations in your running biomechanical pattern would actually place you at greater risk for injury. Considering that your mass does not substantially change whether barefoot or shod, the changes in biomechanical movement patterns will simply result in the impact force being redistributed elsewhere within the body. Thus, while barefoot running may result in a reduction of some injuries such as to the knee and hip, we will undoubtedly see an increase in other injuries, such as to the metatarsals, plantar fascia, and Achilles tendon. Future research will help answer these questions.
So if you’re thinking of buying some minimalist shoes, or going barefoot altogether, you should do so in a gradual manner and in consultation with a footwear specialist, coach, or a health professional.