Foot Strike Patterns and Collision Forces in Habitually Barefoot Versus Shod Runners
Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, Daoud AI, D’Andrea S, Davis IS, Mang’Eni RO, Pitsiladis Y. Nature 2010; 463(7280):531-5.
Although millions of dollars are put into running shoe research, a time did exist when humans survived without the comfortable, lightweight, and ultimately, very expensive running shoes. In fact there was a time when we didn’t rely on shoes at all, even though our nomadic ancestors ran and walked hundreds of miles to hunt food and survive climate change. So how did they do it? A paper published last year by Lieberman et al., attempted to explore this topic. 

The authors evaluated running patterns in several groups of subjects: 1) habitually shod athletes from the USA; (2) athletes from the Rift Valley Province of Kenya who grew up barefoot, but now wear shoes (The Rift Valley is an area that has gained much notoriety for endurance running), (3) US runners who grew up shod but now habitually run barefoot or in minimal footwear, (4) younger Rift Valley athletes who have never worn shoes, and (5) a younger group of athletes from the Rift Valley who have been habitually shod most of their lives. The authors evaluated the foot strike pattern for these individuals during shod and barefoot running. When running barefoot, groups 2, 3 and 4, were primarily forefoot strikers. These groups were comprised of individuals who were not habitually shod, or who have trained to run barefoot. The other two groups, comprised of habitually shod runners, most often contacted the ground with a rear foot strike when running barefoot. It is suggested that this adaptation (striking the ground with the rearfoot first) has come about as a consequence of wearing shoes. This running pattern has the potential to cause a larger impact transient, which may potentially translate into greater joint loading rates and greater injury rate. Rearfoot striking while running barefoot resulted in the largest impact transient and this running pattern during barefoot running was fairly prevalent in the habitually shod runners.

The authors argue that individuals who are trained to run barefoot, or have only known running barefoot, may adopt a running style that our evolutionary ancestors may have favored. They also suggest that the high-heeled, cushioned footwear that is common among today’s distance runners may reduce proprioception and, in time, weaken the intrinsic muscles of the foot, leading to future injuries and pain. This study takes almost the opposite point of view compared to the results from the last post. The last post seemed to suggest that more was better, and orthotics were able to reduce the risk of injury. Although the authors of this paper make a strong case for the evolutionary basis of barefoot running, and touch on the fact that running barefoot with a forefoot strike pattern may potentially reduce injuries associated with large impact transients, I will be keeping my shoes on when I run around the streets of Philadelphia. I will take weak intrinsic foot muscles over shards of glass any day.
Written by Joseph Zeni, Jr PT PhD
Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Driban