Barefoot/Minimalism Running and Heel Striking

The widely held assumption is that heel striking is associated with the use of more traditional running shoes with padding under the heel and forefoot/midfoot striking is more associated with barefoot or minimal running shoes. The probable reason is the comfort of heel strike with a padded shoe and the somewhat discomfort associated with the use of no padding under the heel. Obviosuly you can forefoot/midfoot strike in a running shoe with a padded heel and we have all seen the occasional example of someone in a minimal shoe or no shoe heel striking. But, how common is it? Thanks to Peter Larsen, we now have some idea:

Comparison of foot strike patterns of barefoot and minimally shod runners in a recreational road race
Peter Larson
Journal of Sport and Health Science; In Press
Background
Previous studies of foot strike patterns of distance runners in road races have typically found that the overwhelming majority of shod runners initially contact the ground on the rearfoot. However, none of these studies has attempted to quantify foot strike patterns of barefoot or minimally shod runners. This study classifies foot strike patterns of barefoot and minimally shod runners in a recreational road race.
Methods
High-speed video footage was obtained of 169 barefoot and 42 minimally shod distance runners at the 2011 New York City Barefoot Run. Foot strike patterns were classified for each runner, and frequencies of forefoot, midfoot, and rearfoot striking were compared between the barefoot and minimally shod groups.
Results
A total of 59.2% of barefoot runners were forefoot strikers, 20.1% were midfoot strikers, and 20.7% were rearfoot strikers. For minimally shod runners, 33.3% were forefoot strikers, 19.1% were midfoot strikers, and 47.6% were rearfoot strikers. Foot strike distributions for barefoot and minimally shod runners were significantly different both from one another and from previously reported foot strike distributions of shod road racers.
Conclusion
Foot strike patterns differ between barefoot and minimally shod runners, with forefoot striking being more common, and rearfoot striking less common in the barefoot group.

What is in the above abstract is fairly clear and nothing in the full paper jumps out at me as being an issue with the methods and analysis. The conclusion to the study is clear:

The results of this study provide insight into the role of footwear in determining foot strike pattern. They indicate that the majority of barefoot runners tend to contact the ground on the midfoot or forefoot when running on an asphalt road. This contrasts with the typical rearfoot striking pattern observed in conventionally shod runners on hard surfaces. Results also show that a minimally cushioned running shoe may not perfectly simulate barefoot running, with frequency of midfoot and forefoot striking being approximately equal to rearfoot striking

The only surprise for me is that he found so many heel strikers in the barefoot (20.7%) and minimal groups (47.6%). That was way higher than I would have assumed. It also points to just transitioning to barefoot or minimalism does not mean that you adopt a midfoot/forefoot running technique which is what is often argued happens….and we all seen the propaganda that heel striking is the root of all evil. … go figure!

As always, I go where the evidence takes me until convinced otherwise and this study tells me a lot of barefoot/minimalism runners heel strike.

Larson, P. (2014). Comparison of foot strike patterns of barefoot and minimally shod runners in a recreational road race Journal of Sport and Health Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jshs.2014.03.003

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4 Responses to Barefoot/Minimalism Running and Heel Striking

  1. Kyle April 25, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

    At what point in the run was the footage taken?

    • Craig Payne April 25, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

      “Runners were videotaped about 350 m from the starting line”

  2. Martin April 27, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    It just goes to show that people need some help transitioning to barefoot running after a lifetime of walking with heeled shoes and running with cushioned soles. It is quite a change of gait to forefoot strike, with the foot landing under centre of gravity rather than heel landing in front. I know I needed a little coaching to make the full transition. It is probably also difficult to get away totally from heel strike when still using shoes/heels for walking generally.

  3. Simon November 4, 2015 at 3:12 pm #

    Been wading through this site, and find it absolutely fascinating. Bravo !

    For the past 10 years I have always clumped along on my heels for 2-3 months in my Xmas Asics, until my knees fell apart, and took the rest of the year off sulking.

    This year I fell into the ‘born to run’ trap and after 3 months transitioning appear to be able to run almost everyday without aches or injuries. Something I have never done, and it feels bloody great.

    I run exclusively on the forefoot, and made the transition in a pair of old converse (on the basis heel striking would hurt too much). Now i use my old asics but stick to ‘bent knee forefoot’. As i transitioned carefully, I happily manage 10k, 3 times a week, and its my hamstrings which ache before my calves.

    But, thinking about it carefully for me, the process of thinking and planning my movements has been the silver bullet to reducing knee pain and injury….. i may as well have been running on my hands…. the process of thinking about my movements, starting slowly, running gently, using shorter strides, is what has paid dividends. I may not be the fastest, but have gone from nothing to a happy 55 min 10k runner in 8 months.

    There are lots of different shaped runners, fortunately the human body gives us a number of options so we can run around any inherent damage/weakness. Find what works best for your physiology and simply enjoy the benefits of exercise. For me thats been losing 6 inches on my waist, snapping out of mid-life crisis depression and giving me back my self esteem.

    Please keep this blog going, please keep de-bunking the myths….. its the journey that counts and not the destination…. but the engineer inside me finds this entirely fascinating.

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