Barefoot, Shoes, heelstrike, midfoot, forefoot. What’s right for me?

By kind permission of Andy Dubois

vibram shoesThere is a lot of discussion about the merits of barefoot vs. shoes, heel strike vs. forefoot/midfoot going on at the moment and it’s getting very confusing for many people to work out what is right for them. So with that in mind I’d like to separate the fact from the fiction for you and discuss some of the research out there in plain English so you can make an informed decision on what is best for you. Before we start talking about barefoot or not there is one thing I want you to remember when you read about various studies proving a certain claim.

Fact: No study or research is 100% true
Although many researchers claim to have proved something the reality doesn’t support this. There is very little that is 100% true.

For example a study may “prove” that running with a certain shoe (or barefoot) improves running economy. Therefore we should all wear this shoe because surely improving running economy means we can run the same speed with less effort and therefore run faster with the same effort.

What you have to realise is this study may have been conducted using treadmills. Running on a treadmill isn’t the same as running on the road or trail or track. The study may have only looked at a 12 week training period so there is no proof that after 6 months or 1 year the effect will still be noticeable. The study may have been conducted on elite runners so there is no proof the same result will occur for age group runners. The study may have been conducted on 25-40 year old men so will the same result hold for women or older men. The participants may have been running 40 miles a week so will runners who run 20 miles or 80 miles a week still see a benefit. Just because running efficiency has improved over a certain time on a treadmill doesn’t mean that race performance in a marathon will result

It is very difficult to design a study to prove anything except under certain conditions. Using the example above we could say that the study shows that runners with runners with a VO2max of 60-70, male, aged 25-40, running 40 miles per week using a certain shoe for a period of 12 weeks will see an improvement in running economy on a treadmill when running for 10 minutes at the fastest pace possible of on average 5%. That’s all it may prove.

That doesn’t mean we ignore it , we add it to all the other studies done and it gradually leads us to form an educated opinion on what may be the best type of training for runners.

With this in mind I have rated the following points as fact, fiction, fact? and fiction?. The question mark indicates there is still some debate going on or it is my opinion only.

So with that out of the way let’s look at what people are saying about the barefoot, heel striking fore foot debate.

Fact: We have evolved to run landing on our mid/fore foot depending on the pace.

If we believe the theory of human evolution then it follows that we are designed to run landing on our mid/fore foot. Assuming that running was a necessary activity for humans to do then if running heel first was more efficient then we would have evolved in a way that made more biomechanical sense to land heel first. The foot is designed to absorb the load of running whereas by landing on our heel the shock goes straight into the knees and lower back. There is no argument from anybody that when you run barefoot you will tend towards landing on your mid/fore foot. Shoes have only been around for 40 years so it is very unlikely that we have evolved to run landing heel first. However this only applies to running barefoot, what happens when we run with shoes on may be different.

Fact: Landing on our mid- fore foot places more stress on our calves and less stress on the knees.

Whether we run barefoot or with shoes there is no denying that landing on our mid/forefoot increases the load on our calf muscles and Achilles tendons. These muscles absorb the landing forces instead of the knees

Tip: If you start running barefoot or trying to land more on your forefoot you will need to slowly introduce this to avoid overloading the calf muscles.

Fact: Elite runners all land with their foot under their centre of gravity (i.e. hips)
There is some research that shows that 75% of elite runners land heel first (more on this later) but the thing all elite runners have in common is their foot placement is directly under their hips. Landing with your foot in front of your body applies a braking force with every step, placing more load on the whole body particularly the knees.

Fact: Shoes offer more support to the foot.
There is no argument that running shoes offer the foot more support. The argument is whether this is good for the foot or not.

Tip: If you move to a less supportive shoe or to barefoot, significantly reduce your mileage to give your foot muscles time to strengthen up and take over the load that the shoes were absorbing before.

Fiction: Running shoes decrease running injuries
There has been no study that proves running shoes decrease the risk of running injuries. In fact there have been several studies that say the opposite. This is not to say running shoes are the cause of injuries merely that the incidence of running injuries has been shown to be higher with people using more expensive running shoes.

Fiction: All runners should throw away their running shoes and start running barefoot.
The research suggests that running barefoot is the way we have evolved to run and that people who run this way have greater running efficiency and fewer injuries. However there is no proof of this yet. There is a big change on the demand on the body when you start running barefoot and unless you do this slowly to give yourself a chance to build up the necessary strength it is likely you’ll swap one set of injuries for another. Changing your running technique takes a long time and not many people are prepared to reduce their mileage for 3-12 months (or more) in order to give their bodies time to adjust.

Fiction:  We should ignore all this barefoot, landing on your forefoot talk
There is no doubt we have evolved to run landing on our mid/fore foot. By adding in some barefoot (or minimalist shoe) training you could benefit. The question is how much. The barefoot purists suggest you throw away your running shoes, drop your mileage to about 1 mile three times a week and slowly build back up. Many of us simply aren’t prepared to do this but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it totally. Incorporating some barefoot running as part of a warm up or adding 1 run per week barefoot and slowly building up the mileage is a good way to get some of the benefits of barefoot without dropping the mileage right down. Of course doing it this way the benefits will take longer to become apparent.

Fiction: Everyone can run barefoot.
It is my belief that not everyone is biomechanically able to run barefoot. In evolutionary terms those whose feet were in such a condition as to prevent them from running properly would have died from lack of food. However we haven’t had to run after our food for many years so some people will have feet that biomechanically won’t be able to handle running barefoot. If we didn’t put our feet in shoes from a young age the foot muscles may have developed as we aged but we can’t go back and have those years again. We are stuck with where we are at so my belief is there are some people that for whatever reason their feet are in such a condition that it would take many years of barefoot for them to adapt if at all. These people are better of wearing shoes. How do you know if you are one of these people? That is a difficult question and one that needs to be addressed on an individual basis as it depends on how much running you are doing, what your foot problems are and the strength and flexibility of the rest of your body.

Fact:  Landing on our mid- forefoot is a more efficient way to run.
If you watch Olympic level athletes on the track almost without exception they land on their forefoot regardless of distance. The situation gets a bit muddier when we start to look at distances longer than 10km. On study showed that 75% of elite half marathoners landed on their heel. This study is often quoted by the anti-barefoot camp as it “proves” that the majority of elite runners land heel first. Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. All the study proves is that 75% of elite runners land heel first at the 15km mark ( this is where the video analysis was set up) of a half marathon. What the study didn’t measure was which part of the foot absorbs the force of landing. As running shoes have a higher heel than forefoot it is possible that the heel did hit the ground first but the landing impact didn’t occur until the midfoot or forefoot hit the ground. Both sides have been debating this study for a while and until there is a study designed such that elite runners can run over a pressure pad under race conditions the argument will continue.

In the meantime it makes biomechanical sense to land midfoot-forefoot and anybody brought up without shoes runs in this way so it appears to be the way we were designed to run.

Tip: Increase your running cadence to 88-92 steps per minute. Doing this will shorten your stride length in front of you and teach you to land with your foot under your hips.

Fact: Running barefoot will teach me to run landing on my mid-fore foot.
One of the benefits of barefoot running is the change to a mid/fore foot running style. That’s not to say you can’t achieve this with running shoes, just that it happens almost automatically barefoot and requires conscious thought with running shoes.

Fact:  Running shoes increase torsion loads in the knees, hips and lower back compared with barefoot running.
A study measured the torsion ( twisting effects) placed on the knee and hip during running and found running shoes place more torsion on the knee and hip. This is an expected result as the foot absorbs a lot of the torsion effect of landing (as it is designed to do). If the foot is placed in a shoe then it takes away some of the movement of the foot meaning the torsion is transferred up the leg to knee and hip.

Fiction:  Highly supportive running shoes are the best shoes to get
Studies have shown that the more expensive the shoe the more likely you are to become injured. The theory is that the more supportive the shoe the less work the foot has to do. Since the foot is the first part of the body to hit the ground it sends a lot of signals to the brain to tell it what is happening. If the foot is encased in a supportive shoe then these signals are distorted so the information the brain uses to activate the rest of the legs muscles is faulty which leads to injuries. There are studies being undertaken to prove or deny this theory at the moment but it makes sense from a biomechanical point of view.

Fiction: The less supportive and more natural shoes are the best shoes to get.
A less supportive shoe like Vibram 5 fingers or the vivo barefoot terraplana shoes will offer no support for your feet placing them under a far greater load leading to potential calf problems unless mileage is dramatically reduced and you give your feet time to strengthen.

Although nothing has really been proven one way or the other there are some things we can base our decisions on.
Running with a heel strike appears to be the least optimal way to run. Research suggests that landing with the mid or forefoot is a more natural and more efficient way to run. Quickening your stride rate or running barefoot promote or more natural landing pattern.
If you want to run barefoot or with minimalist shoes ease into it very slowly or incorporate one or two very short runs per week into your training.