Foot-strike pattern and runners: advantage Barefoot runners?!

Fortunately for runners and running coaches, research continues to emerge that examines the role of “foot-strike” pattern on running, and how running barefoot or in minimalist type shoes contribute to this foot strike pattern.  Three studies published at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 provide more insights.

First, in a study ahead of print by Delgado et al (MSSE, 2012), the researchers found that forefoot strike (FFS) landing may not provide the protection against ‘shock absorbtion’ that has been promoted in other studies.  They found that rearfoot striking (RFS) attenuated ground reaction forces better than forefoot strike running, at least in the lumbar spine.  In this study subjects were instructed to  run with a rearfoot strike pattern as well as a forefoot strike pattern. It is not clear by the abstract whether these runners were experienced as FFS or RFS runners.

A study that has recevied quite the buzz on the internet (Twitter, Social Media, News outlets) is the study by Hatala et al (2013) who found that habitual barefoot runners in a group of northern Kenyan runners and found that the majority of these barefoot runners actually ran with a heel-strike pattern. This is quite contrary to the studies by Leiberman et al and others who have documented that habitual barefoot runners are midfoot or forefoot strikers.  But in actuality, the Hatala et al study finds similar foot strike pattern in these Kenyan runners as the speed of running increases.  When running at a comfortable endurance pace, a RFS pattern seems to work for these runners. But as they increase their running speed, they adopt a MFS or FFS pattern of landing, similar to the findings by Leiberman and others.

Similarly, in a recent ahead of  print study by Kasmer et al (2012), foot-strike landing was highly dependent on speed.  They examined the landing pattern of nearly 2000 runners at the 8.1km mark of a local marathon.  They found that 94% (yes 94%) of all runners landed with a heel-strike landing pattern!  BUT, they also found that elite performers (i.e., those running the fastest), were more likely to run with a MFS or FFS pattern.  Hence, running speed, regardless of foot wear, dictated landing style.  Faster running appears to be associated with a MFS or FFS running pattern, although runners of all speeds successfully run with RFS pattern as well.

What are the implications for barefoot runners and those who have switched to minimalist running shoes?  For the barefoot runner, these studies really don’t have much of an impact as they do not support nor challenge the practice of barefoot running.  But for the minimalist shoe runner, one take home message is to consider that simply switching to a minimalist shoe does not  guarantee a FFS or MFS running style.  Even runners in minimalist type shoes were observed to run with a RFS pattern.  To transition to a MFS or FFS running style, similar to the barefoot runner, requires more than a shoe change. It requires a conscious change in leg movement (shorter stride, focusing on landing on the midfoot or forefoot, a bit more knee flexion, higher cadence, etc.).  I will address some strategies for adopting a “barefoot” running style in a forthcoming column.

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