The bare truth about barefoot running

May 31, 2013 in Uncategorized

Maybe it is not what is on your feet, but how you run and where you run that makes the difference, writes Ranel Venter, a senior lecturer in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Sport Science. Read her guest post: 

Despite all the claims about the benefits of barefoot running, it has not yet been scientifically proven that barefoot running prevents injuries.

Many athletes are disappointed by their barefoot and minimalist-shoe running experiences. I have seen runners in training and during half marathons who are limping along in their minimalist shoes. You cannot assume that you can buy a pair of minimalist shoes and just continue with your running programme.


Pro-barefoot campaigners will tell you that you will touch the ground with a different part of your foot when you change from your usual running shoes to barefoot or minimalist shoes. This should then reduce the impact force you would experience.

However, this only happens straightaway with some runners, not all. Well-known author on barefoot running Daniel Lieberman found that 83% of habitual shod runners did not immediately change from rearfoot to midfoot or forefoot strike when they ran barefoot.

Many of the claims on barefoot and minimalist running come from studies looking only at the immediate changes between running in usual shoes and barefoot or minimalist shoes. Limited data exists on a transition process of minimalist shoe running.

The research

We wanted to determine what will happen if habitually shod distance runners gradually change from running in their usual shoes to running in minimalist shoes. Ten male endurance runners participated in a seven-week minimalist shoe training programme. Eleven other runners, acting as the control group, continued to run in their usual running shoes during the intervention period.

Kurt Schütte, a registered biokineticist and PhD candidate in Sport Science at SU, monitored the runners continuously with the use of the lower limb comfort index. Runners in the minimalist shoe reported significantly lower perceived comfort of the calf-Achilles over the entire intervention period. In previous studies it was reported that calf-Achilles injury is one of the most frequently reported adverse reactions to runners who attempt either barefoot or minimalist shoe training (Robillard, 2010; Sandler & Lee, 2010; Wallack & Saxton, 2011).

Schütte also found that most of the minimalist runners did not change their footstrike pattern from heelstrike to mid- or forefoot strike after the seven-week intervention programme. This could be because of the calf-Achilles discomfort they experienced when running with a mid- or forefoot strike. It could also be that the runners had an inability to sense the higher vertical loading rate even while they were in minimalist shoes. More than seven weeks might be required to transition and adapt to minimalist running.

Minimalist running could have various benefits. In our study, when retested after the training period, the calf circumferences of the runners in minimalist shoes had increased significantly, compared to the shod runners. There are some studies which show that barefoot and minimalist running might be more economical compared to shod running. Forefoot running could also improve pain and disability associated with chronic compartment syndrome.

From our research we conclude that a gradual approach is required to minimalist running. Runners might need a conscious focus on how they run. Gait retraining might be needed. Long downhill runs should be avoided initially.

2 responses to The bare truth about barefoot running

  1. Tnx – great article!

    In a nutshell – I tried some barefoot running after 2 pairs of different running shoes and some ‘orthotics’ couldn’t fix the most horrible knee pain. ‘Magically’ it all disappeared when I started to run barefoot :)

    However – a new (foot) pain made itself known after approx. 4 months, I was doing up to 12 km barefoot at that stage.

    Some amateur research revealed that it might be the prolonged impact on tar which created some new biomechanical issues in one’s feet. (Plantar F / posterior tibialis?)

    But can’t wait to start again soon! A bit more wiser now though.

  2. Sorry – wanted to add, I don’t think my foot strike pattern changed at all as well. I am still a ‘heavy’ heel striker. (93 kg’s)

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