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Some Barefoot Runners Tip Orthodoxy Back on Heels

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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barefoot running rear foot strike

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/sculpies

Barefoot, five-finger, super-minimal, zero-drop. Whatever joggers embrace as the approach-du-jour for improving form, most of these trends stem from one physiological principal: people who grow up running sans footwear—the way our ancestors did for hundreds of thousands of years—run by landing on their fore- or mid-foot.

A new study finds, however, that not all habitually barefoot runners today actually run that way. The research was published online January 9 in PLoS ONE.

One of the ideas behind barefoot and minimal-shoe running has been that by cutting out our super-cushy sneakers, we will land more gently on the mid- or fore-foot, thereby avoiding a jarringly hard heel strike. This rear-foot landing, along with extra force allowed by the cushion of modern running shoes, many have argued, might be to blame for a host of running-related injuries that tend to plague these fitness chasers.

But the initial research into barefoot runners focused on a particular group of unshod runners—the Kalenjin, of Kenya—who tended to land on their forefeet. The new research investigates running styles in another Kenyan group that also runs shoeless. “The Daasanach people grow up without shoes and continue to spend most of their lives barefoot,” Kevin Hatala, a graduate research in Hominid Paleobiology at George Washington University and co-author on the new paper, said in a prepared statement.

Nevertheless, these people, it seems, land farther back on the foot when they run.

“We were surprised to see that the majority of Daasanach people ran by landing on their heels first,” Hatala noted. “This contradicts the hypothesis that a forefoot strike characterizes the ‘typical’ running gait of habitually barefoot people.”

The researchers recruited 38 Daasanach adult volunteers (half of whom were female) and had them run down a hard-packed sand track that had a pressure-sensor pad placed midway down the length. Each runner ran across the pad at least three times at a comfortable, self-chosen “endurance” pace and at least three more times at a faster “sprint” pace.

At the endurance pace (three meters per second), 72 percent of landings measured were rear-foot strikes and just 4 percent of landings were on the forefoot. Only once runners accelerated to more than six meters per second did a majority of runners switch to mid-foot strikes. Few (14 percent) landed on their forefoot—even at this quicker pace.

The striking—so to speak—difference between the two groups might be explained, at least in part, by a host of factors. As Hatala and his colleagues point out in their study, the Kalenjin runners from some of the original barefoot running research were athletes and all put in more than 20 kilometers or running per week—more than did the Daasanach in the new study. So a fore- or mid-foot strike might have been necessary to protect the body from the impact of so much running.

Additionally, much of the Kalenjin running was done on hard surfaces, against which they would want to guard for hard landings—perhaps by focusing on the softer-landing forefoot.

And finally, in the original studies, the Kalenjin forefoot strikers also ran at a much faster pace (about five to six meters per second) than did the Daasanach when they tended to land on the rear of their feet (three meters per second). More recent observation, however, has found that the Kalenjin tend to keep up their forefoot striking even at slower paces.

The findings don’t necessarily mean that a goal of mid- or forefoot striking for recreational (shod or unshod) runners is misplaced—or that those looking for a more minimal or “natural” running form should opt for a rear-foot strike instead. The research simply shows that there appear to be more than one style of running for people who have grown up running without shoes.

“The challenge ahead is to identify the most important factors that influence how barefoot people run and the healthiest style for today’s runners,” Kevin Richmond, an anthropologist at George Washington and study co-author, said in a prepared statement.

The new findings might also help researchers who study the evolution of the human gait, in characterizing preferred running styles for activities regarded as important for our ancestors, such as persistence hunting or effective scavenging. “It is not clear which experimental sample, if either, represents a better ‘model’ for the distances and frequencies of running in early humans,” the authors noted in their paper.

In the meantime, the discovery that it might be possible to run for years with a heel-strike—even shoeless—adds another bump in the road to any quest for finding a one-size-fits-all running style.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Unksoldr 6:35 pm 01/9/2013

    After many miles and years in Nike’s, I switched to Five-fingers. I’ll never go back.

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  2. 2. UlyssesGaetz 10:05 pm 01/9/2013

    uptil I looked at the bank draft which had said $6704, I didn’t believe that my neighbour had been trully receiving money part time from there labtop.. there aunts neighbour has done this for only about 17 months and by now cleared the morgage on their condo and bourt a top of the range Mercedes. go to,…. BIT40.ℂOℳ

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  3. 3. julianpenrod 1:13 am 01/10/2013

    Another case of an assertion confidently put forward by”science”, in a few years, is upended by another assertion, also offered as if there is no reason to believe it is anything but unequivocally authoritative. Basically, “science” doing the same thing as always. Carrying out “experiments” under specific conditions, in only certain manners, measured in particular ways, to force as previously decided upon “conclusion”. Then, after the money was made from conning the gullible with the initial fraud and the liars have parlayed their deceit into positions of prominence and ever more lucrative fraudulent “research”, the next crop of crooks is allowed in. So reminiscent of “earth shoes”. The shoes from the mid 1970′s built with a sole that was high at the toe and low at the heel. It was based on the “research” by an anthropologist” in the Amazon. They said that, when they examined native footprints in the muddy soil, the heel was always lower than the tow. They “concluded”, then, that natives were more comfortable with their toes higher than their heels. Carefully ignored, the idea that, when their feet landed heel first, the total weight, resting on the small surface, caused the footprint to dig deep, then, when the rest of their foot landed, and the weight was spread over a wider area, the penetration into the soil decreased. No “scientist” attacked “earth shoes”, however. You can’t trust a thing “science” says.

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  4. 4. tharriss 8:24 am 01/10/2013

    Wow Julianpenrod… what a sweeping judgement about science from such flimsy examples.

    If you can’t trust science, I hope you don’t live in the modern world… don’t drive a car, don’t use a computer or cell phone, don’t go to the doctor, because if you do those things, you are putting your trust in science.

    One of the reasons science is better and FAR more reliable than faith is its ability to self correct. The scientific method handles the natural failings of humanity (our ability to get things wrong) by continued cycles of review, hypothesis and experimentation that over time get closer and closer to more accurate answers.

    So sure, the best scientific thought in an area can be wrong, but at least you know that over time it will self correct. And if you have to bet on an option you don’t know the answer to, you are far better off betting on the scientifically arrived at answer than any other… even if it turns out wrong at least it was representative of the best thinking at the time and had the highest odds of being the correct answer.

    For every example you can find where scientific research said one thing, then later said something else, you’ll find (if you bother to look) many many more where it hit the nail on the head and world benefits enormously. And for the ones where it was wrong… you’ll find over time it corrects into the right answers.

    So scoff at science all you want, a few seconds looking openly at the real world shows why science works and faith/religion/dogma/gutfeelings don’t.

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  5. 5. patrickh74 1:08 pm 01/10/2013

    The problem wasn’t the science behind the information we were recieving, it was all human fallicy. We tend to rush to judgement, believe heresay, and distrust anything different (even if it would be to our benifit to trust). Humans suck. Science will eventually explain why.

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  6. 6. 3:13 pm 01/10/2013

    UlyssesGaetz is a spamming piece of extrement.

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  7. 7. julianpenrod 3:44 pm 01/10/2013

    tharriss, in their retort to me, reprises the same faults and errors so many others have in trying to counter my statements about “science”.
    Among the simplest, their trying to point out a supposed discontinuity between my being at best suspicious of “science” and using equipment like a computer or telephone. This is a very shallow argument. To say that cars, computers, telephones, GPS work is one thing, but to say they work the way “scientists” claim they work is something else! Not one of the defenders of “science” for example will be able to prove that electricity really is electrons moving through a wire and not tiny aliens carrying energy. Seeing this, many may explode with derision, but not one will be able to prove what is called “electricity” isn’t really tiny aliens. They canot p[rove that what “science” claims is true is true, they are content in their beliefs. And, since they are content, “science” doesn’t try, either. A rule of power politics in society, you never necessarily need everyone on your side, just enough people.
    Similarly for the issue about “science” always retracting previous claims. “Science” devotees insist on treating “science” always overwriting past claims with new ones as noble. All it does is assert repeatedly that whatever “science” says at any time can never be trusted, because it’s going to say something different a few years down the line. If religion had this pattern of always changing its mind, “science” would order religion outlawed! Fen phen, Vioxx, thalidomide, banned weapons systems in Iraq, all areas where “science” failed to tell the truth the first time. There is no reason to believe that whatever “science” assures is absolutely, unequivocally true won’t be changed tomorrow. With “science” devotees cheering “science’s” change in direction. Which means there’s no reason to trust anything “science” says.

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  8. 8. TheRealDouglas 4:55 pm 01/10/2013

    “Physiological principal”? Let’s try “principle”. :)

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  9. 9. ruello 6:24 pm 01/10/2013

    Interesting. My 2 cents: I think (one of) the key explanation(s) is in the low weekly running average of these Daasanach people (“less than 20km per week”)… in fact I would dare to say the Daasancah are not runners, just walkers (and we know walking = heel strike). They would probably get injured much more frequently than the Kalenjin if they had to run significant distances… but then, they wouldn’t be heel-striking for long, right ? We should ask Ken Bob…

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  10. 10. GreenMind 12:50 pm 01/15/2013

    JulianPenrod, I think you may have a misleading idea of what science is. It is just a way of figuring things out. It lets anyone say anything based on what they have observed, and then other people look at it and see if that makes sense. And people go and get better observations, and do experiments to test out the ideas. The result is that people start with half-baked ideas that are not well-tested, and other people improve those ideas, and other people improve those, until you end up with some very well-tested conclusions.

    So considering your sensitivity to rapid changes in opinion about how things work, I suggest you stay away from science articles. They are filled with debates and arguments and incomplete research, and I can see how that would be upsetting if you just want to know what the answer is right now.

    As for aliens vs. electrons, most scientists have agreed that if you can’t test a hypothesis, it is not a useful hypothesis. If electricity is being carried by aliens, and the aliens act exactly like electrons, and there is no way to tell the difference, then there is no reason to even debate the question. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter which one it is, so you can just go ahead and believe that aliens carry the electricity.

    I for one am grateful that there are professional scientists whose job it is to challenge each other. I can assure you that outside of corporate research labs, academic scientists do not deliberately publish a poor hypothesis just so they can be paid to replace it with something better later, because someone else is likely to beat them to the punch. Their reputations and careers are based on intelligence, accuracy and integrity.

    On the other hand, in corporate labs sometimes scientists are paid to support the position of the company. For example scientists working for fossil fuel industries may deliberately come up with fake research denying global warming because they are paid to support the corporation, not maintain their integrity. So you have to be careful about the hidden agendas of people who are paid to produce a particular result.

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  11. 11. aluchko 6:49 pm 01/15/2013


    There is a beautiful quote by Issac Asimov on this matter “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

    Yesterday, was our understanding of barefoot running as good as we thought it was? Not quite. Yesterday, was our understanding of barefoot running better than it was 10 years ago? Hell ya.

    And not every researcher in the field was as certain as you seem to think they were. A few would be shocked by this result, a handful probably expected it, but most are surprised, but already had a lot of reservations because they hadn’t seen enough evidence. Either way all three groups wanted more evidence to understand better, they got more evidence, do understand better, and they’re looking for still more.

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  12. 12. leecris 12:20 am 01/16/2013

    I’d like to see studies of foot strike in more populations of people who habitually go without shoes. One population that would be of particular interest is the Tarahumara people of the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. They are famous for their long-distance running, including distances of 50 miles or more. I’d also like to see different methods of collecting data for studies of foot strike – because neither of the studies discussed observed the subjects going about their usual activities, which could have introduced an unacknowledged experimental bias in how the subjects ran under strictly controlled conditions. Perhaps a combination of accelerometers attached to the body and videography would be possible. It would not surprise me if more studies found even more variability among foot strike, associated with the culture and terrain in which barefoot running is done.

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  13. 13. edprochak 2:47 pm 01/16/2013


    Excellant reply to Jullian. BTW I really enjoy Isaac Asimov.

    As a runner who is trying barefoot running more over the last few years, I find I clearly switch to toe strike when barefoot because I can feel it both in my foot and in the increased strain in my calf. I have not gone long (>4miles) distances or run regularly barefoot however.

    But, Julian, the whole question of whether forefoot, midfoot, or heel strike is better is not even covered by this article. Al they did was add more data to the question: what style do daily barefoot runners use?
    And the answer seems to be: any style they want.


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  14. 14. edprochak 2:52 pm 01/16/2013

    One more comment to julianpenrod,

    I can run several experiments that can demonstrate electrons. What properties do these “aliens” have? Can you run ONE experiment that suggests the “aliens” exist?

    Lacking that, the rest of your arguement falls down.

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  15. 15. GreenMind 1:25 am 01/18/2013

    I used to run barefoot in gyms, but I got a nasty fungus on my feet. It made the sole hard and it cracked and bled. Gone now, due to antifungal creams, but it was not pleasant. Now I don’t run barefoot, but I do remove all the cushioning from my running shoes.

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  16. 16. bucketofsquid 4:50 pm 01/30/2013

    When I run, I run in boots. Other than identifying myself as kind of weird it doesn’t mean anything.

    It is unfortunate that Katherine Harmon does not moderate her blog post discussions.

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