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Is barefoot running a con?

February 15, 2012
My new Saucony Fastwitch 4s

In case you haven’t seen it, there was an article in the New York Times about a small study of cross country runners, charting incidences of injury versus heel striking or fore-foot striking. You can read the article here. Naturally, this has been linked to endlessly within the running community online (and I’m just perpetuating that here) and people have started to link this to the barefoot movement.

So, first things first, the barefoot movement follows the principles that runners can gain benefits by running either without shoes or with minimalist shoes – most notably (and commercially successfully) the Vibram Five Fingers, which are like gloves for feet. There’s a common assumption that barefoot/minimalist running can help reduce the chances of injury, and naturally there’s a certain level of interest in injury reduction amongst runners.

Now, the key facts about the study in the New York Times article:

  • The study followed 52 runners from the Harvard Cross Country team
  • 36 of the 52 were heel strikers
  • 16 were forefoot strikers
  • Over the course of a year, the heel strikers were more likely to get injured (injured in the study’s definition being something serious enough to make the runner miss a training session)

However, the study didn’t monitor the type of shoe that the runners used. So, the forefoot- and heel-striking groups included a range of footwear, from cushioned to minimalist. What’s piqued runners’ interest is that this small study (note that it’s a very small group, and only one study, so it’s certainly not statistically significant) seems to endorse the fact that heel-strikers get injured more…

… and the implicit connection is that minimalist or barefoot running reinforces a mid-foot strike. Therefore, running barefoot reduces your chances of getting injured. You have to admit it has a certain tempting logic.

But then another small-sample study has been published, which concluded that barefoot runners (for the study, this was runners who had been running barefoot for four or more months) were 1.35 times as likely to get injured as runners wearing traditional running shoes. You can read the study itself here.

The basic facts of the study are as follows:

  • It was conducted over a period of 12 weeks and recorded the results of 45 runners
  • The runners were separated into shod (wearing conventional shoes), transitioning (fewer than four months in minimalist shoes) or barefoot (running for more than four months in minimalist shoes)

It’s not surprising that the transitioning group was prone to the most injuries – minimalist forces certain changes in gait, which puts more emphasis on the lower legs – but the higher rate of injury for barefoot runners goes contrary to popular expectations. As with the Harvard study, this is a small sample size and the results are yet to be replicated in a separate study, so both need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

So, assuming that the results from these studies are correct – or at least indicative – that means that the best way to reduce your risk of injury is to consciously adapt your running style rather than blame it on the tools of your trade (i.e. your shoes). Although barefoot running offers benefits (building up your lower leg strength gives you a stronger toe-off, which makes you faster), could those same benefits be gained through focusing on footfall? In which case, where does that leave the barefoot running revolution?

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